No one cares where I am. My family gave up hope years ago. Lost soul that I am, this isn’t about me.
No, a much bigger family just shoved its black sheep in the closet. The World Congress of Families, brave defender of the ever-vulnerable Vladimir Putin, has put out a press release about its latest activities in Russia.
Pro-family leaders from ten countries met in Moscow (October 15-16) to plan World Congress of Families VIII, a celebration of the natural family, which will take place in Moscow, September 10-12, 2014. Members of the International Planning Committee for WCF VIII that attended the Moscow meeting included: Ignacio Arsuaga (HazteOir, Spain), Brian Brown (National Organization for Marriage, U.S.), Benjamin Bull (Alliance Defending Freedom, U.S.), Allan Carlson, Lawrence Jacobs and Don Feder (The Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society and World Congress of Families, U.S.), Silvio Dalla Valle (Association for the Defense of Christian Values, Italy), Shelly Locke (Power of Mothers, U.S.), Bob McKoskrie (Family First, New Zealand), Tom Minnery (Focus on The Family, U.S.) Justin Murff (Christian Broadcasting Network, U.S.), Austin Ruse (Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, U.S.), Steven Smoot (Family First Foundation, U.S.), Christopher Carmouche (GrassTopsUSA), Christine Vollmer (Latin American Alliance for the Family, Venezuela), Peter Westmore (Australian Family Association), Srdjan Nogo (Dveri, Serbia), Vincente Segu (Incluyendo Mexico), Fabrice Sorlin (France) and Jack Hanick (formerly with FOX News, U.S.). [I've added links for the convenience of anyone wondering who these people are.]
But one name is missing. Scott Lively, the Holocaust-rewriting, murder-promoting pastor who helped foist Uganda’s “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” upon the world, said on his own blog that he was in Russia for the same meeting. He even had pictures.
I am writing to you from Moscow (Russia, not Idaho) where I am on a one-week mission to bolster the Russian pro-family movement. … On the 15th and 16th I participated in the planning meeting for the World Congress of Families VIII, which will take place September 2014 here in Moscow. … We dealt with logistics on the 15th and then on the 16th we visited the conference facilities.
Why doesn’t the WCF mention Lively as one of their leading planners? Could it be that he’s a little too notorious even for them? They’re happy to name Serbia’s Dveri, a fascist organization. They proudly tout Fabrice Sorlin, a French authoritarian thug whose extremist group, Dies Irae, draws inspiration from the neo-Nazi, genocidal tract The Turner Diaries. But Lively alone is a bit beyond the pale.
Treating him this way is very un-Christian. The prodigal son in the Bible got a fatted calf, after all, which in the first century was at least the equivalent of a press release. Perhaps the WCF needs some public reminders of who their loving children really are.
There are other notable things about that list of planners. Look how Northern, how Western, how Americo-European it is. Only two representatives hail from the vast Catholic and Evangelical expanses of Latin America; nobody from Africa; and nobody from a majority-Muslim country. (By contrast, the WCF’s 2007 and 2009 organizing committees included a Pakistani group, and the former contained a Kenyan one.) Perhaps the language of demographic decline the WCF took up in recent years (with its overtones of white people must breed before the brown hordes overrun them) has yet to find an audience there.
Most striking, though, is how all these US ex-Cold Warriors met in Moscow like cardinals of the Church to organize what will basically be a large-scale worship service for the cult of Putin. It’ll be flush with Russian government support: “A special WCF Parliamentary Forum was discussed with Yelena Mizulina,” the chief sponsor of the “anti-propaganda” bill.
This Parliamentary Forum will be held at the Russian Duma on September 10, 2014. In support of this Parliamentary Forum, Luca Volonte and the Novae Terrae Foundation have pledged their sponsorship and support to help bring pro-family MP’s from Europe and around the world to Moscow for WCF 2014.
(A pity that Putin’s defense of traditional values couldn’t salvage his own marriage, recently undone by insidious Western decadence.)
To the WCF, Russia’s government is no ordinary dictatorship: it now stands in the vanguard of Christianity. They look forward to a Godly gathering “in the Kremlin, once the citadel of Soviet power, and in a rebuilt cathedral, on the site of one the communists destroyed during one of their anti-God crusades.”
In the Soviet-era, faith and family were special targets of communist hegemony and socialist persecution. World Congress of Families VIII in Moscow next year will represent the triumph of the natural family and faith over its great enemy of the 20th Century.
That’s the voice of Cold War victory, as well as cold-shower Victorianism. But Scott Lively’s analysis is both more imaginative and more precise — which perhaps is why they don’t put him in the press release. He knows that Focus on the Family, the National Organization for Marriage, and the rest aren’t there to celebrate their own successes but to acknowledge Russian sponsorship, Russian power. ”The Americans and the Soviets both won and both lost the Cold War,” Lively writes with admirable evenhandedness.
[T]he Americans broke the Soviet system through economic strategies and tactics. But before they collapsed, the Soviets poisoned the United States with Cultural Marxism, promoting moral degeneracy and family breakdown through so-called “progressive“ ideology. Today, post-Soviet Russia is re-emerging as a Christian nation, while the United States is becoming a “Gay Soviet Union.” What a strange turn of events.
The more they hang around with Putin, the more Brown and Lively and the other fellow travellers will learn the old, straight Soviet Union hasn’t vanished. Dissidents murdered, detainees tortured, demonstrators beaten and jailed: but a little bit of Gulag is a small price for keeping birth control away.
PS. The WCF is also furthering Russia’s interests in the near abroad, and taking its key fascists along. They write: “Prior to the Moscow meeting, [Aleksei] Komov [head of the WCF's Russian satellite group] and WCF Communications Director Don Feder, along with Srdjan Nogo of the Serbian group Dveri (WCF’s newest Partner) and French pro-marriage activist Fabrice Sorlin, were in Kiev, Ukraine for meetings with key leaders of Ukrainian parents rights groups and members of the Rada (parliament) and a press conference on strengthening the nation’s pro-family laws.” Perhaps Sorlin led some discussions of his favored text The Turner Diaries, which advocates using “chemical, biological, and radiological” weapons to exterminate the entire population of Asia. Once Ukraine’s pro-procreation laws are in place, this would furnish plenty of lebensraum.
There’s thunder out there, and not just on the Right, telling us the Cold War is back. Tensions between the US and Russia have ascended, over Edward Snowden and Syria. A new poll shows that a bare majority of Americans thinks of Russia as “non-friendly/enemy,” the first time it’s fallen so low in this century. And of course there are the gays. Will “divisions over sexual orientation” be “the new Berlin Wall”? Indeed, by sponsoring a resolution on “traditional values” at the UN Human Rights Council, Putin seems to be bidding for leadership of an unwieldy coalition of conservative countries — the Islamic bloc, sub-Saharan African states, right-wing Catholic regimes in Latin America – that has opposed women’s rights and sexual rights for more than fifteen years, usually without great-power support.
A lot of people, particularly pundits, need a Cold War. It lends focus to their energies and cohesion to their loathings, without calling on their minuscule reserves of courage like a hot one would. The years since 1989 have been a nostalgic and leaderless lurch from enemy to enemy, searching for one with size and staying power enough to infuse meaning into the vacant days: first, Saddam Hussein, then radical Islam, then Saddam Hussein again briefly, then back to radical Islam, with occasional forays into demonizing Serbia (too small to be powerful and frightening) and China (too non-white for same). Only in the last few years has Russia re-emerged as Old Reliable, perhaps dating from John McCain’s history-making 2008 cry: “Today we are all Georgians.” True, nobody remembers the Georgians now, but the principle’s the same. Today we are all Russian gays. Crowded, this back room.
I don’t think there will be a new Cold War – Russia is big, but it’s not what it used to be – and I don’t think homosexuality will be a Checkpoint Charlie, though the analogies are tempting. (Will the gays organize a Berlin airlift to ferry sex to their starved brethren under repressive rule? What about the Bay of Bears invasion?) But with Moscow emerging as a patron, the side that’s been fighting a culture war against women and against sexuality has a bit more weight in international arenas than before; maybe that will translate into more boldness at home as well. (Russia, however, is not prone to backing up its verbal support for homophobic governments by ladling on bilaterial aid. China, which is comparatively indifferent to sex, is the big funder.) Similarly, there’s no question that the Obama administration’s loud support of LGBT rights abroad – with an eye to domestic voters — has given a don’t-tread-on-me, militaristic tone to the way US gays approach international issues. The big dog is barking for progressivism and freedom, and we can puff our chests out and piss on lampposts to assert our pride. So as one blogger puts it,
25 years ago a lot of countries got away with a lot of antigay crap because we weren’t powerful enough to stop the bigotry and the hatred that led so many of us to attempt suicide. That doesn’t give Russia the right to keep abusing us today – as if they somehow missed out their chance to dehumanize us somehow, and now want a shot at it. We finally have the power to stand up to bullies and we will.
Barry Goldwater couldn’t have said it better.
All the same, if this Cold War is being waged over cultural values, we need to remember that the old Cold War was too. It was, in fact, the first real culture war, not just between two countries but between two ideologies – capitalism and Communism – each measuring success not merely in military terms but in changing lifeways and attracting populations by their blandishments. (Fascism employed propaganda to cement loyalty in peoples under its direct rule, but it was never a universalist ideology, too absorbed in national and racial myths to refashion itself for transnational audiences.)
What’s interesting is that the cultural alignments in the 40-year US vs. Russia showdown were very different from those today: in fact, about 180 degrees so.
These days, Russia claims to speak for countries that see themselves on the cultural defensive, fighting a rear-guard effort to preserve “traditional values” like family, religion, and cohesive community. Back then, it was the capitalist countries, and the US in its capacity as Head Capitalist, who sold themselves that way. The values rhetoric, the defense of patriarchy, the invocations of moral absolutes that are used against so many human rights movements today – all these are pretty much what the US was saying at home and abroad half a century ago.
When I was a small-town boy at the height of the old Cold War, every pulpit, politician, and TV screen seemed to warn that Communism was after us, the way we lived here and now. It would dissolve the family, destroy religion, crush morality, and abolish traditional community: all the things that small-town boys in Gambia or Belarus nowadays hear are the goals of homosexuality and feminism and Hillary Clinton. The visions were terrifying; the thought that some commissar out there had Radford, Virginia (pop. 10,000, an All-American City) in his sights was extraordinarily vivid. Moreover, even comic books spread the dire message – and for a six-year-old in 1968, comic books were way more reliable than members of Congress. The iconic images of threats to a way of life say more than all the speeches I could quote.
Treasure Chest, a Catholic-oriented comic, was widely distributed for years in secular schools as well. It featured a running series series on the Red threat, “This Godless Communism.” (Catholic leaders were heirs to a long history of anti-Communist agitation in the name of social values – and they were also, most likely, familiar with Fascist propaganda, like the poster up at top.) This one, from 1961, featured an introduction and cameo by J. Edgar Hoover. After the Communists take over the US, the first thing we learn is that they’re feminists.
We need “to be on our guard, to re-affirm the truths we once learned and now teach, to keep our children free from Communism.” But Communism targets the transmission of tradition. Even in places without tradition, like Canada.
The result of this treason, of course, is a school like this (the pedagogue looked, even if she didn’t exactly sound, like my first-grade teacher):
Here, in a 1948 comic about Soviet America, a son tells the secret police about Mom’s hidden “religious junk.” When they raid the home in consequence, disappointed Dad is alarmingly happy to hand Biff over to them as well: “You’ve got his soul — now take his body too.” I could see my father saying the same thing.
And, of course, all this flows from a cosmopolitan conspiracy against American morals and values. Even in 1948, the Catholic comics were decrying a “culture of death” — in this one, Communists boasted about their success in spreading it:
It’s easy, maybe cheap, to laugh. I always find that, to us in the US, our Cold War propaganda is funny in a way that other endeavors in the field (even the trumped-up, hysterical atrocity stories of the First World War) aren’t. Mainly the reason is that it’s less about them than about us. Precisely because it’s a culture war, and because we believed we were losing, the focus is incessantly on the “way of life” we’re supposed to be defending. More than almost any other propaganda, it serves up images of our imagined everyday happiness as the object of the enemy’s resentful demolition urges. But that way of life, airbrushed to absurdity then, seems utterly unreal now. It isn’t even menacing in its repressive gender roles, its airtight whiteness. You can’t take it seriously – it’s all camp, and you can recuperate it for a nostalgic chuckle as easily as Leave it to Beaver.
This distance we feel is partly due to what happened, throughout the capitalist West, since 1960. The vast economic growth of the postwar years, the Trentes Glorieuses, created fullblown consumer societies in western Europe and in parts of the US that had never seen them before. People could spend their way into niches where they could express dissident identities publicly and safely. Affluence relaxed social norms and helped women push for liberation from traditional roles. Economic power brought burgeoning demands for political rights. Leave it to Beaver was left behind, a relic. It grew harder and harder for the West to represent itself to itself as securely on the side of conservative social practices.
But the Cold War’s cultural as well as political battlefield shifted in the 60s and 70s, away from the capitalist heartland to the Third World. Increasingly, the conflict fought itself out in counterinsurgency campaigns and ideological struggles in all corners of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “Traditional values” became an export commodity, essential to Western propaganda and Western politics there.
US government experts explained the temptations of Communism in the developing world by “the personal uncertainty generated by the jarring social transitions from tradition to modernity.” The best way to ensure satisfactory citizens, and stable and dependable governments, was to entrust development to a trustworthy force – preferably, the military would preside over modernization in countries prepping for “take-off.” A stern dictatorship of generals would also make sure that free trade, marketization, and a capitalist economy left as much as possible of patriarchal, hierarchical morals and social relations intact. US propaganda tools and talents would be ready to assist. The US treated family and religion as universal values of conservatism, regardless of what particular God you worshipped or within what family form you beat your wife. The more they eroded in the homeland, the more vital they appeared in foreign policy. As President Eisenhower famously said, free government “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
The US’s pet dictatorships, from Lisbon to Saigon, all fostered bifurcated visions of the world: a rosy and pious traditional family at the center, requiring the exertion of appalling violence to protect it from corrosive horrors beyond. Jordán Bruno Genta, chief ideologue of military fascism in Argentina, urged the country to
Create a military state and a war policy to combat internal subversion; indoctrinate the military with a clear idea of its mission and with enthusiasm for this mission; mobilize the entire population for the counterrevolutionary war; free the nation from the power of international money; base everything in Christ, which means restore the natural hierarchies.
After the generals took power in Buenos Aires, school textbooks told kids that
for psychological and physical reasons, the male should be acknowledged as the authority … By her nature the woman represents kindness and love. Unless things are so, anarchy and dissatisfaction become a fact … To deny the father’s authority is to tear the family to pieces. The woman’s obedience to authority has a great educational influence on the family.
Abortion, free love, pornography, and divorce all exempified “the most recent Marxist strategy to conquer the West.” Propaganda, of course, had the police behind it; everything from feminism to Freudianism took on the look of leftist subversion. The regime murdered thousands who denied “the father’s authority,” or its own.
Similar propaganda sustained the Pinochet dictatorship in neighboring Chile.
This is a 1984 booklet on Marxism emitted by the junta. “Communism believes that the family has no reason to exist, so must be weakened to extinction.” The sad female on the right, dreaming of distraught infants, dreams in vain: “Woman is separated from family life, into work shifts in factories and militant political activity. It denies her duty as a mother and wife, and puts her children under the tutelage of the state.”
This was crude compared to other Pinochet productions. The Chilean dictatorship hewed to a comprehensive “cultural policy,” to promote “the defense, development and growth of the tradition and culture which is our own.” It also had excellent PR. It drew on the services not only of the CIA but of numerous American intellectuals and corporations who had the tyrant’s back. Its marketing emphasized continuity, stability, and belonging, with simple text and visuals and attractive typography. This 1979 promo is as warm and reassuring as an American ad for oatmeal.
“Chile’s glorious past is reborn with vigor in September” — the month of both Independence Day and the so-called Second Independence, when the thugs overthrew Allende. Family and continuity unite as cultural values, in a history represented by a list of safely right-wing national heroes. Then: “Chile Forever. All One.”
Those faux-kindly notes were struck in many places, even if fear was never far from the margins. Consider this collection of election posters for Italy’s Christian Democratic Party, which dominated the country for 50 years, and was a well-funded favorite of the CIA.
More overt are the oppositions in these posters from Thailand, which contrast misery and alienation in Communist China to traditional culture and the family.
“The Communist Party forcibly tears apart family members among the common people. The Kingdom of Thailand’s people live and work in peace and happiness.”
“The Communist Party fattens the public and deprives the private, not allowing the Chinese people enough property. The people of the Kingdom of Thailand live comfortably in abundance.” It’s like Norman Rockwell.
CIA propaganda invoked family and religion in counterinsurgency campaigns. A two-sided CIA leaflet from the Dominican Republic, invaded by the US in 1965, puts it succinctly:
The exact identity of the round object raining golden showers on the Virgin’s head remains, however, uncertain.
The CIA also drew heavily on imagery and rhetoric of family in South Vietnam. One of its key propaganda contributions to the war was the Chieu Hoi or “Open Arms” program, a multimillion-dollar fiasco designed to persuade Viet Cong guerrillas to surrender in exchange for amnesty. Nostalgia for the families they’d left behind was the main selling point, but it played into larger themes of traditionalism and security.
We cry for the dead
We are bitter because the Communists
Have destroyed our families.
When will mothers and children be reunited?
The leaflet’s obverse is less sentimental, though, promising deserters
200 (piasters) per month for errands. 15 piasters for each member of the family who stays at the government center. …
Two pairs of shirts and pants or 1000 piasters.
During the Chimurenga against white rule in Rhodesia, the racist government predictably allocated gender roles in the most traditional ways when appealing to the white community:
Its attempts to propagandize among blacks, however, showed “native” families the way whites wanted to see them, as unappealingly impotent. Men were absent, women defenseless, a vision perhaps unlikely to entrance the intended audience. Meanwhile, Communist bearers of deviant sex ravaged traditional ways of life, as not only rapists but carriers of venereal disease:
You have to wonder if this talk of infectious “mad dogs” had any influence on the later language of Robert Mugabe.
Perhaps the oddest artifact is this comic book, Grenada: Rescued from Rape and Slavery. A CIA front (“Victims of International Communist Emissaries,” or VOICE) distributed it on the island after the US invaded in 1983. In true Treasure Chest style, it shows Bill and Anna, a nuclear couple with the requisite two kids, who fear what the Communists will do to the Grenadan family: “Oh, Bill, I’m so afraid — afraid for ourselves and for our children. With more Cubans coming in more of our children will be forced into brainwashing!” The problem is, unlike the Treasure Chest clan, they’re black. Black families in the US had been suffering “benign neglect” for generations, so why do these guys expect you to drop everything? Bill and Anna seem virtuous, monogamous, and not part of the drug trade, though, so the helicopters come: “Yes, Anna, thank God! And thank God for President Reagan and our freedom-loving neighbors!”
What we see now is a remarkable reversal of all this old-time religion. It’s now consumerism that plays the role once taken by godless Communism, threatening all traditional ways of life. America is the great Satan; Obama stands in for Khrushchev in the imaginary comic book of our time; and the effectively neutered and de-radicalized Third World (now along with Russia) stands up for the good old values. In fact Putin sounds like, and with his taste for boorish nationalism and unapologetic intervention often acts like, Eisenhower or Reagan. How the whirligig of time brings round his revenges!
There was always a contradiction in the ideologies of capitalism, though, between the social values it dresses itself in – so often traditional, meant to hold society in place and ready for productive labor during rapid change — and the social processes it furthers, so often transformative. Everything solid melts into air; but we’re not supposed to notice, are meant to carry on with our assigned roles as always, the work, the weddings, the funerals. Marx knew how this happens, but most of the moderns don’t.
America and Europe in the last few decades have thrown away the sheep’s clothing. They’re not interested in tradition anymore, because it isn’t useful to them. They’re on the side of social transformation, as long as it’s in their favor: as long as it’s compatible with economic advantage, with keeping capital mobile and the workforce in the rest of the world low-wage. Meanwhile, the previously pliable regimes it helped establish around the planet, from Ben Bella’s jailers to Yeltsin’s heirs, are seizing the banner of tradition, as a symbolic way of defending themselves against — among other things — capital flows and forces that see their borders as irrelevant and their economies as fields for exploitation.
What hasn’t changed in sixty years (though the players’ slogans and some of their identities have) is that it’s about power. Caught in the middle, much as before, are ragtag, straggling bands of communities and social movements who reject the fake ideologies of tradition and belonging. They want more freedom; but they don’t want to buy another prefab ideology of being “freed,” or fight on somebody else’s side to get it — whether the somebody is Brezhnev or Obama. Third World feminists in the ’70s and Third World LGBT folk today are in approximately the same place, ground between visions of liberation or salvation that are unreal and oversimplified and exclude them. It’s not a comic book world, and the answers will not come easy.
In early 2001, Oprah Winfrey made a famous appearance at Madison Square Garden, for “V-Day,” Eve Ensler’s enormous, $1000-a-ticket benefit for feminism. What happened is etched in many memories (there were cheaper seats, too), but I’ll let Ms. Magazine describe. Oprah performed “Under the Burqa,” a kind of inverted ”Over the Rainbow” about a foreign land:
a heart-wrenching, spine-tingling story written by Ensler to personify the daily terror and misery of women’s lives in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s harsh gender apartheid rule. Oprah Winfrey gave an “Oscar-winning” performance to the piece as she described women in Afghanistan crying out in pain with no one to hear or acknowledge their suffering, because in Afghanistan life for women under the brutal Taliban hardly exists. An Afghan woman wearing the all-inhibiting burqa appeared as vocal sounds of pain and agony filled Madison Square Garden.
The woman crept up behind Oprah over the stage. As the audience gasped over the misery-murmurs soundtrack, Oprah turned and lifted the burqa off her. Thundering cheers! The tableau of liberation was entrancing. It told us that freedom lay in the hands of Westerners to give; that we were the voices, the hands, the absent lives, of others; and that the gift would be easy, like Superwoman getting a phone-booth makeover – “the ‘hey presto’ transformation of suffering into strength with the flick of a hem,” as Noy Thrupkaew wrote. This was imperialism lite, no boots on the ground; all you needed was a celebrity and a portable article of clothing. Just over six months later we all would be at war, and while these lessons may not have been too useful for the travails ahead, they were remembered. Eleven days after the September 11 attacks, CNN aired a film on the burqa in Afghanistan; it became its most-watched documentary ever. Six weeks later, Laura Bush would assure the nation that “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” If the fight turned out longer and harder than expected, still the image and ideal remained, an emancipation embodied in omnipresent Oprah and hence impossible to escape, through all the ravages of Fallujah and Bagram and Abu Ghraib. One of the sponsoring organizations for victorious “V-Day” was a group called Equality Now.
Equality Now, founded in 1992, is a US organization fighting to diffuse worldwide the waning impulses of absolutist Western feminism from forty years ago. It campaigns for reproductive rights but, even more militantly, against pornography and prostitution. It’s also been exceptionally good at publicity, particularly by recruiting that kind of American celebrity who believes their fame is an anointing – that they can use it to liberate the tired, the poor, the war-torn, and also the wrongly dressed and inappropriately employed. Julia Stiles! Joss Wheedon! Glenn Close and Oprah! Equality Now is at it again this week, with a campaign aimed at the drab and unexciting UN; no institution is intrinsically unsexy, and already the publicity machine is starting to roll. There’s a campaign page at Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, headlined “Call to Arms”; there are the endorsements from the famous and the only-slightly-faded. The aim is to roll back more than a decade of progress at the UN, and around the world, in safeguarding sex workers’ health and safety.
The campaign stems from a year-old letter that Equality Now organized to Helen Clark, the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). As Prime Minister of New Zealand, Clark oversaw the law reform that decriminalized sex work in her country in 2003. FInding her unreceptive to their solicitations, Equality Now called for public protest. They want you to write to UNDP, UNAIDS, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and UN Women, but the gist is simple: Damn the evidence. Get me rewrite!
[We] express great concern about two recent reports on efforts to prevent HIV within the commercial sex industry: the Global Commission on HIV and the Law report HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health (“Global Commission Report”) released on 9 July 2012, and the UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS report Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific (“Asia Pacific Report”) released on 18 October 2012. … [W]e are deeply concerned with both reports’ incomplete and misleading information regarding the effects of decriminalizing prostitution and surrounding activities.
The two reports linked above are ground-breaking work. The former, by 14 distinguished jurists and experts including former Presidents of Botswana and Brazil, examines the role of the law in promoting or impeding effective responses to HIV/AIDS. The latter surveys 48 countries in the Asia / Pacific region, investigating how their legal regimes around sex work affect both health and human rights. Two aspects strike Equality Now as especially noxious.
ONE. The reports called on governments to “Decriminalise private and consensual adult sexual behaviours, including same-sex sexual acts and voluntary sex work” (Global Commission Report, p. 9). The Asia Pacific Report found that criminalization of “sex work or certain activities associated with sex work … increases vulnerability to HIV by fuelling stigma and discrimination, limiting access to HIV and sexual health services, condoms and harm reduction services, and adversely affecting the self esteem of sex workers and their ability to make informed choices about their health” (p. 1).
TWO. The reports called for a clear distinction, in policy, law, and public understanding, between sex work and sex trafficking, “which are not the same. The difference is that the former is consensual whereas the latter coercive.”
Criminal sanctions against human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of minors are essential—but the laws must clearly differentiate these activities from consensual adult sex work. (Global Commission Report, p. 29)
The Asia Pacific Report said laws that conflate “human trafficking and sex work and define sex work as ‘sexual exploitation’ contribute to vulnerability, generate stigma and create barriers to HIV service delivery”.
The unwillingness or inability of people to recognise that people can freely decide to engage in sex work means that sex workers are often automatically labelled as victims of trafficking when they are not. Often sex workers are portrayed as passive victims who need to be saved. Assuming that all sex workers are trafficked denies the autonomy and agency of people who sell sex. (pp. 3, 15)
“We respectfully request that you re-examine the findings and recommendations included in these two reports,” Equality Now writes in civil UN-ese, meaning: Retract these conclusions, or else.
Equality Now is an eradicationist organization. They believe all sex work is exploitation, and hence “trafficking.” They want prostitution eliminated. To this end they’re trying to press the so-called “Swedish model” on the UN; they claim it “addresses demand by decriminalizing the person in prostitution and criminalizing the buyers and pimps.” This sits rather strangely with the headline they chose for their campaign, above: “Keeping Prostitution Illegal.” In fact, though, that is what the “Swedish model” is about. It decriminalizes the “person in prostitution” about as much as traffic laws decriminalize the person in speeding car. The brothel raids and the stings on johns trawl up sex workers, not just clients, in their nets; police pick out and pick up sex workers, photograph them, stamp stigma on their lives; and there’s always a battery of other policies and punishments — loitering and solicitation laws, civil forfeiture, seizing cars and homes, even taking children — that can be used to drive women out of sex work. Melissa Giri Grant notes,
A 2012 examination of prostitution-related felonies in Chicago … revealed that of 1,266 convictions during the past four years, 97 percent of the charges were made against sex workers [as opposed to clients and others], with a 68 percent increase between 2008 and 2011. This is during the same years that [eradicationist activists] lobbied for the Illinois Safe Children Act, meant to end the arrest of who the bill describes as “prostituted persons” and to instead target “traffickers” and buyers through wiretaps and stings. Since the Act’s passage in 2010, only three buyers have been charged with a felony. These feminist-supported, headline-grabbing stunts subject young women to the humiliation of jail, legal procedures, and tracking through various law enforcement databases, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
The Global Commission report charges the Swedish model with “Victimising the ‘victim.’”
The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) has answered the claims Equality Now made in its letter; I won’t recap its arguments here, save to note that Equality Now repeatedly misrepresents and distorts the results of studies. (For example: Equality Now asserts a government report in New Zealand found “no great change” in sex workers’ access to health services, and use of safer sex, in the wake of of law reform. But the government report actually says something quite different — that effective, and sex-worker friendly, “HIV/AIDS prevention campaign that ran in the late 1980s” had already generated across-the-board improvements, hence the room for positive change was small. Meanwhile, a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Otago in Christchurch found that decriminalization had made sex workers more willing to choose and refuse clients, a right the reform law specifically guaranteed them — the numbers who felt they couldn’t do so fell from 63% in 1999 to only 38% in 2006. They were also readier to report abuses to police, and in general more empowered about the conditions of their work.)
I will make two points, though. One is that Equality Now cultivates a rhetoric of care built round the idea of “Listening to Survivors.” Listening is admirable; but in this case, it becomes an accusation against any and all opponents: those other people, the ones you’re listening to, aren’t real. Thus, one eradicationist cites a “survivor” approvingly:
To support decriminalising the sale of sex would be to support prostitution itself. … I believe if a prostitute or former prostitute wants to see prostitution legalised, it is because she is inured both to the wrong of it and to her own personal injury from it.
This is a moral rephrasing of the old Marxist claim of false consciousness: your class position, or in this case your sin, invalidates your voice and deafens my ears to your inauthentic pleas. Moreover, the audible “survivors” aren’t so audible in the end. They fade into placeholders for institutions that can, and will, speak on their behalf. The letter to Helen Clark bemoans that ”If the drafters of the reports – in particular the Asia Pacific Report – had consulted with a broader range of stakeholders, including anti-trafficking and women’s rights organizations as well as trafficking survivors” — well, everything would have been different. In essence this means: Do nothing till you hear from me. In fact, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law held seven regional dialogues and reviewed 680 written submissions in its work. The Asia Pacific report draws on extensive consultations with advocacy groups, including sex worker groups, in the countries it analyzed. Integrating usually-unheard voices into the conversation is likely to rouse acute institutional anxieties; but you really can’t just claim those voices were never there.
Listen to Carmen, fools. And now can we just pretend these “reports” you published never happened?
The second point is that, while Equality Now talks the talk of protecting the helpless against exploitation, its concerns flow from a different point where morality and politics, respectability and power, meet. Ninety-seven organizations signed the letter to Helen Clark; but while most of them seem dressed in the appealing-looking garments of sober feminism, quite a few are wearing a burqa underneath. For instance, Ruhama, a powerful Irish “anti-trafficking” group, sounds awfully progressive, opposing prostitution because it’s so “deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation.” Ruhama, though, is a front. Behind it lurk several Catholic religious orders which, for decades, imposed forced labor and virtual slavery on “fallen women” in the notorious Magdalene Laundries. Moral rigor and a quest to recover political authority drive its campaigning, not indignation at the gendered injustice its parent groups enforced for years.
There’s a history behind this power quest. Anthropologist Laura Agustin argues that the earnest focus on “prostitution” as a social problem in Britain’s 19th century came with the emergence of middle-class women as a group who needed occupations, purpose, and identities. “Social critics and philanthropists constructed an identity for ‘the poor’ in general, and ‘prostitutes’ in particular, which necessitated intervention, at the same period when the same critics, in need of and desiring employment, designated themselves as peculiarly suited to intervene.”
Philanthropy came to be seen as an appropriate sphere of paid employment for middle-class women, who designated themselves as those authorised to care for a group of working-class women they designated prostitutes. Both groups were engaged in the search for livelihoods and a degree of independence during the development of industrial capitalism. In the new ‘prostitution’ discourse, both figures, the victim and the rescuer, belonged to a new vision of society in which good conduct was linked to bourgeois, domestic marriage and family.
What Agustin doesn’t say [in this article, I mean; see in the comments, below, for references to places where she's drawn out the implications!] is that this vision of “intervention” paralleled other interventions in the larger, political sphere: imperialism, militarism, the projection of British might, the growth of a governing class of males whose identities were built on intruding in other countries and morally recuperating other peoples. Deviant within and barbarian abroad were matching objects of colonial improvement.
Elizabeth Bernstein has pursued these ideas in a contemporary frame. She argues that “antitrafficking activism,” as practiced by both feminists and their faith-based allies, “has been fueled by a shared commitment to carceral paradigms of social, and in particular gender, justice … and to militarized humanitarianism as the preeminent mode of engagement by the state.” You fight the enemies of your version of liberation, at home and abroad. You need the big guns on your side; feminism turns to the State. The battle requires the government to flex its muscles, through its police under the streetlights of Chicago as much as through the soldier boys in the alleys of Kabul. It’s no coincidence that Equality Now defines its demand for protests to the UN as a “call to arms.” It’s no coincidence that eradicationist Gloria Steinem, touring India and pressed to explain why she refused to dialogue with sex worker activists, fell back on a strange anti-Blitzkrieg rhetoric: “The truth seems to be that the invasion of the human body by another person – whether empowered by money or violence or authority — is de-humanising in itself. … [P]rostitution is the only [job] that by definition crosses boundary of our skin and invades our most central sense of self.” Does she mean all prostitution is rape, or all penetrative sex is? Shouldn’t we defend against an invasion by any means necessary — police, armies, the full panoply of power? Indeed, isn’t the best defense maybe just invading something ourselves?
It’s no coincidence, either, that both the war-cry against uncivilized and misogynistic Muslim peoples and the clamor to crack down on sex trafficking met in the receptive embrace of the Bush administration. Bush is gone, of course. But the powerful impulses are both still there. And their common feature, the guilty secret of their involuntary incursions, is still there too. The objects of rescue, the victims of intervention, don’t get to lift the veil of their own volition, or speak for themselves.
The niqab is back in the news these days. Banned in France and Belgium, it now faces prohibition in part of Switzerland. It’s a hot topic in Britain, where a Liberal Democrat minister called for a “national debate” on whether the State needed to “protect” women from veilish wiles. One right-wing British blogger drew an analogy I found illuminating, like a white phosphorus flare. It’s all, in the end, about State power, whether embodied in laws or bombs:
While the two situations are not directly analogous, there are, nonetheless, noteworthy similarities between the objections made to humanitarian military intervention in foreign countries and the objections made to state intervention in the matter of the niqab. Concomitant similarities can be observed in the arguments in favour, which speak to a common impulse.
Opposition to a niqab ban is frequently undergirded by a suspicion of State power as irrational and indiscriminate as anti-War hostility to American power — in neither case is it conceded that power can be harnessed for benign, progressive or utilitarian ends. … The wisdom of intervention in either case may be disputed, but the motivating humanitarian impulse in both cases is the responsibility to protect and should be debated as such.
In other words, you must concede the principle that the State has an absolute right to intervene (“protect”) in either case; the only permitted argument is about the pros and cons of particular interventions. The females who choose to cover their faces, and the peoples who slave away in oppression while unable or unwilling to resist, are equally incapacitated children, whose very muteness demands a decision-making power located somewhere else. Confronted with a woman, “a proud Welsh and British citizen, a molecular geneticist by profession and an activist in my spare time,” who says, “I find the niqab liberating and dignifying; it gives me a sense of strength,” the man sees nothing but mind-forged manacles:
Coercion does not necessitate physical imprisonment, and religious authority exerts a particularly pernicious hold over those taught from birth to accept it without question.
The blogger elects to remain veiled in anonymity, so all I know is he’s one of the pro-war, Islam-fearing fans of the neocon website Harry’s Place, a type that’s done so much to damage British public life. In an interview with Norm Geras — co-author of the invading-things-is-fun Euston Manifesto — he declares that “I dislike any ostentatious displays of religious or political affiliation. Slogan-bearing badges and t-shirts, religiously observant haircuts, dress codes and iconography of any kind.” One senses further prohibitions down the pike. The sinister beauty of power is that it corrupts even before you have it; just the scent, the fantasy of it, intoxicates. And the same spirit that drives you to enthuse over stripping women of their veils, or herding them into Black Marias on a moonless evening, is the spirit that informs imperial dreams of imposing one-size Mao jackets on the unisex masses, toppling statues and towers, Rumsfelding it over subject peoples like a Roman titan. Your idealism? No vaccine against megalomanhood. Human rights activists are hardly immune to State-worship. The whiff of power deranges their brain cells no less than anybody’s.
And, as long as we’re talking about power: a colleague noticed something interesting over at the New School for Social Research. The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy is offering a practicum for students to do research, in a project for Equality Now. “This project would analyze the legalization of prostitution and formation of sex workers’ rights groups. … Equality Now seeks to better understand the movement to legalize prostitution and form sex workers’ rights groups in order to refute arguments for legalization and lobby for adoption of the Nordic Model instead.” The students will:
Examine the history of sex workers’ rights groups in the following countries and answer the questions below: Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, Senegal, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Nepal, India, Philippines and the United States (particularly in Nevada)
- What is the history of the formation of sex workers’ rights groups in these countries?
- Who are the groups, what are their funding sources, and where is the influence on their policies coming from (for example is a larger international NGO working with them)?
- Are the sex worker’s groups pushing for legalization in those countries where it is not already legalized? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)
- In those countries where it is not legalized, what are the local women’s rights groups in these countries saying about legalization? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)
“Please keep in mind that this is a confidential work product developed for Equality Now and not intended for distribution or publication.” OK, don’t put it on the website where a Google search can turn it up, then. Now, it’s obvious what this is: it’s what we call oppo research, trying to figure out what your foes (bad people “inured to the wrong” of prostitution) are doing. Many organizations dabble in this at one point or another, though they don’t usually call on students at a distinguished university to help. But this is where the power question comes in. I don’t like the tone of the questions — the funding sources, the suggestion of foreign influence. Most sex worker groups are poor and marginal. In countries where sex work “is not legalized,” the organizations’ very existence is often endangered. Even where sex work is at least partly legal, they’re still stigmatized as advocating immorality, and any number of contrived crimes from promoting public indecency to spreading pornography to running a brothel can provide excuses to shut them down, and even jail their members.
So what exactly is this information going to be used for? Has the professor (a good guy, I think, with a history of work on migration issues) who’s overseeing the practicum asked Equality Now? Has the New School put safeguards in place to make sure its students’ research will only be used for ethical purposes, and will not endanger the safety, human rights, or freedom of sex worker advocates and activists? The school is asking its students to monitor sex workers’ groups for an NGO that really doesn’t like them. And the school needs to be answerable for any consequences. The history of power politics around sex workers’ rights and freedoms is too acute and recent — and the possibility of even inadvertently endangering people is too strong — for an academic institution to pretend this is purely an academic question for very long.
NB. A comment (below) states that the Milano School is not part of the New School for Social Research but a parallel institution to it within the overall New School structure. Sorry for the confusion.
None of this will make sense.
You can’t make things make sense in Cairo these days. The curfew and the stir-craziness prevent it. If you speak Arabic, search for #اكتشافات_الحظر on Twitter; that’s “Curfew discoveries,” a new hashtag, for people to post all the things they’re learning from being housebound twelve-plus hours a day. Some discoveries indicate an observant, experimental mind: “The refrigerator shelf can fit up to 78 lemons, or 65 cucumbers stacked vertically, or 75 cucumbers stacked horizontally.” Or: “It takes six minutes and 40 seconds for the toilet tank to refill with water.” Other folk count the ceramic tiles on their kitchen floor, Tweet it, then re-count them. “Nobody can tickle himself” suggests, perhaps, a need to learn more about masturbation. But what can you make of “#CurfewDiscoveries: There are other people living in my house”?
A sort of Sartrean madness has possessed the citizens, a nausea born of nerves and boredom. Tonight I went downtown for the first time in almost two weeks. The curfew has been moved from 7PM till 9 PM; still, at 6:45 half the shops on Talaat Harb were shuttered, the streets dully dark, and only a fraction of the usual throngs scudded along the sidewalks. Yet it didn’t feel quiet; panic pressed on the crowd — not just in me — like a held breath. People’s eyes kept flicking back over their shoulders, to see who might be after them. The strictures are devastating the economy. Even doctors report they’re losing money: “their patients are too scared to be out on the streets.” But the military seems unworried by fiscal consequences. One man-in-the-street told the AP that ”The curfew is not for security reasons. It is purely to make people feel that the army is in charge, for psychological reasons.” And a website developer had his own analysis: General Sisi, the new Jefe Máximo, is “imposing the curfew to make us all sit at home and watch TV propaganda aimed to make us all love him and hate terrorists.”
The love is made of fear. Arrests continue, slowed to a dribble now that few real Ikhwan leaders remain at large. But the press keeps whipping up sectarian paranoia. Islamists horrifically burned churches ten days ago. Yet even tangible atrocities see the circle of guilt expanding. Yesterday’s headline in Al Ahram blared that the US Ambassador and the Muslim Brotherhood had joined ”politicians, journalists, and businessmen” in a “new plot” to destabilize the State. The story pointed to “some liberal parties” as conspirators. Plainly the military doubts the lasting loyalty of its erstwhile liberal allies. Time to send a warning: they could be next.
Video by a group of fresh-faced young Egyptians trying to expose media lies and challenge public gullibility: the refrain, Khaleek Mesadaq, also the group’s name, means “Go ahead! Believe!” H/t Arabist.net
Stories proliferate of attacks on Western journalists, no doubt because Western journalists write about them. These are terrible: two reporters shot and killed, two Canadian filmmakers imprisoned for nearly a fortnight now. Meanwhile, TV propaganda spews out endless stories about how CNN is in the paws of al-Qaeda. No one has bothered me even once, but I feel beleaguered just from everybody’s warnings.The other night, having overstayed the curfew, I had to walk across one of the bridges to get home, and on its empty asphalt expanse, with no way out except the Nile, I felt utterly exposed and doomed: caught between wall and barbed wire, like Richard Burton at the end of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. For me the city is cheap melodrama. For others, it’s turned tragic. So much of the hate targets the least protected strangers in the land, the refugees.
Between 250,000 and 300,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt since the civil war broke out. The myth now is that these refugees are all diehard militants for the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s support for the Syrian opposition had been one sticking point, perhaps fatal, in his relations with the generals. Barely two weeks before his ouster, he spoke to an Islamist anti-Assad rally, and seemed to urge Egyptians to build a private army and join the Syrian struggle if their own military would not take part. The idea of privatizing their preserve of violence enraged the officers. Some later told the press that Morsi was beyond rescue from that moment on. Revenge came almost immediately after he fell. The military government tightened visa terms for Syrians, barred them from attending schools, and made “security checks” compulsory. The media stoked fears — not just State airwaves but even the private ONTV network, once known as a citadel of liberalism. Tawfiq Okasha, a TV host and owner of the lunatic Fara’een channel (he’s sometimes called the Egyptian Glenn Beck), turned crazed marbled eyeballs on the camera and told Syrians, “We know where you live.” He gave them 48 hours to stop “backing the Ikhwan,” or their homes would burn.
The junta started arresting refugees, almost at random. They picked them out of microbuses at the checkpoints that have sprouted around Cairo. They seized them on the streets. They knocked on doors in the night:
On July 25, the night before Egyptians took to the streets to support military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s “war on terror,” Qasim, who fled from Dara’a in southern Syria in early March of this year, [was] detained by Egypt’s Homeland Security forces. Along with his elderly father, he was taken from their home in [the Cairo quarter of ] Mesekeen Uthman by a security officer wearing civilian clothes. Qasim’s yellow card, which guarantees protection by the U.N. Refugee Agency, did nothing to help him. Waiting for them below their dilapidated apartment tower were five security cars and a troop of Homeland Security officers.
No one knows how many Syrians are detained without charge. The UN High Commission on Refugees says 160, but this reflects only those about whom police have deigned to tell them. Since hardly more than a third of Syrians in Cairo are registered with the UNHCR (the office’s snail-like lassitude means there’s little advantage in formalizing one’s status), this is probably a fraction of a figure rising to the hundreds or thousands. They face deportation back to a murderous war.
Then there are the Palestinians. Immediately after Morsi’s overthrow, the junta issued an order: to prevent people with Palestinian identity papers from boarding planes to Egypt. In most cases, these were Gazans trying to return to their besieged enclave, which can only be entered from the Egyptian side. In some cases, they were residents of Egypt. Probably thousands were stranded abroad.
The media hawked the notion that Palestinians were “terrorist” adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. Electronic Intifada has collected moments from the fearfest. Three days after the coup, a well-travelled host on Al-Youm TV told about watching as an airline offloaded a stunned Palestinian passenger trying to get to Egypt. She felt warm, she said, because “the army and the police forces are wide awake and acting properly.” FIve days after the coup, a speaker on another channel claimed repeatedly that President Morsi was “of Palestinian origin.” Nine days after that, the “liberal” ONTV reported that Hamas had sent 3,000 fighters from Gaza into Egypt, to restore their man Morsi to power. Many Palestinians fear to leave their homes. Two days into the curfew, the Palestinian roommate of a friend of mine was thrown out by their landlord. The neighbors had complained at having a “terrorist” in the building.
There aren’t figures for how many Palestinian nationals now live in Egypt: hundreds of thousands, probably. They encapsulate much of the country’s modern history. When they came, in 1948 and then in waves over ensuing years, they first were hoisted onto the triumphal vehicle of Nasser’s Arab nationalism, promised a common identity as the culmination of a common struggle. Later, under Sadat and Mubarak, a narrower and US-funded Egyptian national identity excluded them — though it still exploited their cause whenever it needed the illusion of a larger, more invigorating purpose.
An hour or so north of Cairo, in the reedy dust of the Delta, is a settlement called Gezirat Fadel, or Fadel Island. It’s not a real island, just an enclave circled by a mud wall that secludes it imperfectly from history’s flow. Almost four thousand people live in poverty there, mostly descendants of one clan of Beersheba (Bir al-Saba’) Bedouins, Palestinian families who fled to Egypt in 1948. They had life easier before Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel in 1978. Before then, they shared the benefits of Nasser’s socialism equally with Egyptian citizens. After that, the President’s breach with the PLO meant they were relegated to foreigner status, and their rights to education, health care and other benefits similarly shrank. They have no amenities such as sewage systems. They settled in the village because it reminded them of the sprawling desert back at home; they’ve stayed because there is nowhere else to go. Theirs is the largest single community of Palestinians in rural Egypt. One official estimates, though, that 40,000 Palestinian nationals live scattered across that governorate alone.
I visited Gezirat Fadel briefly about ten years ago. I remember goats and garbage — scavenging plastic for recycling moors the residents loosely to the cash economy. I thought of it today because it reminded me of the history of Egypt as refuge, a place for strangers. That history has never been easy, but now xenophobia and lies make the refuge dangerous. Nobody in her right mind would flee to Egypt. I wonder what’s happening to the people on Fadel Island now. Has anybody noticed them?
I thought today also of Zeitoun, which is maybe halfway between Gezirat Fadel and the center of Cairo. I passed through Zeitoun one bored day this past spring. Once a village, it’s been sucked up, like a bird into a jet engine, by the metropolis. It’s a very Egyptian neighborhood, nothing distinctive except the Coptic church, a larger shrine than the shabby suburban mediocrity would seem to merit. In Christian legend, the Virgin Mary sheltered on its site, when the Holy Family fled to the Nile to escape Herod’s persecution. The flight into Egypt: one waystation in a history of refuge.
In 1968, though, Egypt turned its eyes toward Zeitoun. It was a year after the huge defeat of the Six Day War. FIghting and massive Israeli retaliation continued along the Suez Canal. Sectarian violence sprang up — Muslims burned a church in Luxor. Strange, then, that it was a Muslim garage mechanic in Zeitoun who first saw the apparition, a wavering band of light atop St. Mary’s Church, which he mistook for a woman about to jump to her death. A crowd gathered, and though the police tried to displace the suicide rumor with the story that it was a reflection from the streetlights, a certainty grew: the Virgin Mary had appeared above her shrine.
Mary is almost as important in Islam as in the several Christianities. (The Qur’an mentions her more often than the New Testament.) Over the next three years tens of thousands of people flocked to Zeitoun to see the apparition; Nasser himself showed up. And while the Coptic and later the Roman Catholic churches certified it as an official miracle, the glimmering light’s popularity crossed confessional divides. More Muslims than Christians made the pilgrimage. Even among Copts, the national scope of the celebration was transformative. One worshipper told Cynthia Nelson, an anthropologist:
The most beautiful thing to do is to go to Zeitoun and watch the people of all religions participating in Coptic prayers. Imagine, this is the first time in history the Copts could sing their hymns in the streets of Egypt among all the Muslims and shout aloud, “Umm el Mokhalass (Mother of the Savior).”
In 1973, Nelson wrote:
The Virgin was seen as a collective symbol for all Egyptians. … [she] symbolizes for the Egyptians – both Christian and Muslim alike — a succoring, protective mother, who has the power to banish chaos and restore the benign shape of the world. … [Thus] the apparition of the Virgin also symbolizes the conditions of modem pluralism in Egyptian society. By pluralism I mean a situation in which there is more than one worldview available to the members of society, a situation in which there is competition between worldviews.
Something lovely lingers about the Virgin’s appearance as unity in diversity. It reveals a deep capacity in society for finding ways to transcend difference, deeper than the daily violence. Still, it took a myth and miracle to do it. Turning that ecstasy back into reality is a harder matter.
If the Virgin really existed, though, she was no heavenly light. She was an ordinary woman, a Palestinian, one who herself migrated and became a stranger in Egypt. Today she would be persecuted on both sides of the border. Could she have looked like this girl, the child of Palestinians from Gezirat Fadel?
There’s a minor tradition in English literature of imagining the Madonna as a very normal woman burdened, and repelled, by the unwanted responsibility God gave her of tending to the world’s salvation. The Victorian Walter Pater saw this in Botticelli’s Madonnas. The painter, Pater says, shows us not extraordinary beings, but ordinary persons, “saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink.” Pater grows eloquent in projecting how those women feel, forced by history into an inhuman greatness from which their human self recoils. How can we bear the demands of others’ dreams? I want to quote him at length, because it is one of the most beautiful passages in English prose.
It is this which gives to his Madonnas their unique expression and charm. He has worked out in them a distinct and peculiar type, definite enough in his own mind, for he has painted it over and over again … Hardly any collection of note is without one of these circular pictures, into which the attendant angels depress their heads so naively. Perhaps you have sometimes wondered why those peevish-looking Madonnas, conformed to no acknowledged or obvious type of beauty, attract you more and more, and often come back to you when the Sistine Madonna and the Virgins of Fra Angelico are forgotten.
At first, contrasting them with those, you may have thought that there was something in them mean or abject even, for the abstract lines of the face have little nobleness, and the colour is wan. For with Botticelli she too, though she holds in her hands the “Desire of all nations,” is one of those who are neither for Jehovah nor for His enemies; and her choice is on her face. The white light on it is cast up hard and cheerless from below, as when snow lies upon the ground, and the children look up with surprise at the strange whiteness of the ceiling. Her trouble is in the very caress of the mysterious child, whose gaze is always far from her, and who has already that sweet look of devotion which men have never been able altogether to love, and which still makes the born saint an object almost of suspicion to his earthly brethren. Once, indeed, he guides her hand to transcribe in a book the words of her exaltation, the Ave, and the Magnificat, and the Gaude Maria, and the young angels, glad to rouse her for a moment from her dejection, are eager to hold the inkhorn and to support the book. But the pen almost drops from her hand, and the high cold words have no meaning for her, and her true children are those others, among whom, in her rude home, the intolerable honour came to her, with that look of wistful inquiry on their irregular faces which you see in startled animals – gipsy children, such as those who, in Apennine villages, still hold out their long brown arms to beg of you, but on Sundays become enfants du choeur, with their thick black hair nicely combed, and fair white linen on their sunburnt throats.
William Butler Yeats read Pater, and wrote a poem, “The Mother of God,” about the fear the Virgin feels, as history and responsibility irradiate her body.
The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.
Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?
What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
Maybe we can barely bear the stranger, and can hardly survive the moment when his presence is real to us, when it enters into our blood and bones and makes the heart halt in recognition. Maybe we have to imagine a saint or virgin, someone better than we could ever be, who can live the generosity we would like to feel but cannot stand to know.
But all of us are ordinary people. There is no saint to save us. There is no heavenly light to absolve us. And this is no myth. The strangers are Syrians and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims. While the propaganda blares, the truth happens. They are here, and now.
Cairo lurched to life Sunday, looking ghastly, like Dick Cheney rising up cadaverous and pale each time the Secret Service shocks his heart back into beating. Shop shutters creaked up, taxis raced rabbity and skittish on the underpopulated streets, clouds of auto exhaust mushroomed skyward in the heat.
The Muslim Brotherhood called for two demonstrations against the military regime, but cancelled them at the last minute. We went to Maadi, past the planned destination of one march. An armored personnel carrier, gun rampant, blocked the gates of the Supreme Constitutional Court building, a stone monstrosity patterned vaguely on Abu Simbel. They guarded what everybody knows is empty as a raided tomb: There’s no constitution inside.
Early in the morning, troops raided hundreds of homes across the country, arresting Brotherhood members. So one aspect of the Mubarak years is back: the knock on the door. By evening, the government affirmed that its security forces killed at least 36 prisoners in its custody. The official line was that “terrorists” attacked a detainee convoy near Abu Zaabal, north of Cairo, and the victims died in the shoot-out. Anonymous authorities told the press, though, that one truckful of prisoners had managed to capture a guard. The victims suffocated when other guards fired massive rounds of tear gas into the crammed, barred van.
The corpses are collected in a makeshift morgue at Abu Zaabal. For an insight into the country now, Google “Egypt” and “makeshift morgue”: over 80,000 results. Can’t this be turned to account? Perhaps it’s an opportunity for the architectural profession, always both servant and reflection of Egypt’s national ideologies. Hundreds of unemployed architects drift wistfully round disused construction sites as the economy erodes, and like the rest of the proverbial Arab Street, they could easily defect to Extremism and Terror. Rather than just shooting them, which is tempting, why not set them to work building prefab makeshift morgues, for transport to massacre sites as needed? A variety of styles could be drawn upon to suit the victims (neo-Pharaonic for Nasserists, the International Style for secular liberals, Moorish revival for Islamists). Who would want to repose like this –
– when this could be the placid scene of their forensic dissection, a quiet haven for the State to decide and then dissemble the responsibility for their death?
But that’s for the future. Today the Cabinet contemplates a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. General Sisi (who remarked that “We are cautious about every drop of Egyptian blood”) told the Brotherhood in a press conference yesterday that “There is room for all.” Apparently the morgues are not yet full.
Generalissimo-worship goes on. Sawt el-Umma, one of the most reliable anti-Brotherhood papers, published the photo at top on its cover yesterday: “Egypt is all Sisi.”
That picture illuminates on so many levels. First about Sisi, who sells himself as an Egyptian Everyman. Something about him allows everybody to read exactly what they want into that round bland visage, so average in every way except the sinister Ray-Bans. When Morsi made him Minister of Defense, rumor fingered him (so, probably, did Morsi) as the Muslim Brotherhood’s man in the military. Now, those ties betrayed, he stresses his US education, his Western connections. But mostly his odd counter-charisma (he’s been known to reduce audiences to tears with vapid patriotic arias) consists in being Chance the Gardener, sublimely like everybody else and a repository of what they want to hear. We will fight terrorists, but there is room for everybody. Calm will come, we just need to kill your enemies first. At an hour of division, when people are being written (or shot) out of the body politic like lepers, here he is with a new, comforting definition of citizenship. You’re a true Egyptian, everybody can be Egyptian, as long as you are simply me.
And it illuminates citizenship. Cairo is not a city of citizens. Citizenship is intimately tied to anomie, the loss or gradual eschewal of traditional ties – village, tribe, family – - that leaves one isolated yet free, lonely but autonomous, one’s identity up for one’s own shaping in collaboration with an abstract polis, an imagined community that sets the borders to your dreams. You derive meaning from the nation when other meanings wither; you become a member of the State when there is not much else to be a member of. We are not governed by our parents but the City, Pericles told Athenians: “Fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws.” This has never been Cairo, where nobody fears the laws and magistrates – prevailing attitudes go from active contempt to anarchic disregard – but many feel devout reliance on old hierarchies and loyalties, habits and genealogies, traditional patterns of life.
Each neighborhood is its own world, composed not of abstract Egyptians but of daughters, cousins, fathers, clients, patrons, protectors. In shaabi (popular) Cairo, Asef Bayat writes, people turn to “local leaders (kibar, shaykhs, Friday prayer leaders), problem solvers, and even local bullies” when facing life’s dilemmas, rather than to the recourses of modernity, the law and the NGOs. This is the charm and terror of Third World cities, by which I mean contemporary cities from Lagos and Jakarta to large parts of London and New York. They are not “modern.” They are in-between. The rapid changes of migration and uprooting don’t transform residents into citizens, but mean they carry their traditional worlds with them into exile, on their backs. The beauty of this urban life comes from the tension between the microcosms it encompasses. You live in a village in a city of 18 million. Each day you leave it for a time, to pass into a modernity that is sometimes promiscuously fascinating, sometimes fearful, sometimes arid and unbreathable, sometimes just confusing. Those are the times when you go downtown, to visit the Mugamma or meet the Man. Then you return to your quarters, which make up the rest of the city, where nobody is a citizen and certainly nobody is Sisi, where a different and entangled definition of the self prevails.
In violence or crisis, the city breaks up. Whatever reliance on the State most people felt slips away, like a frail undergarment irrelevant when armor is needed. Each neighborhood starts sealing itself off. Patrols guard the perimeters; alleys become borders. Modernity starts shriveling up like a dying spider. Its rites and pleasures, the evenings in the downtown café, the casual conversations, the days of consorting with strangers, wither. The pretense of equalities, the promise of a wider belonging, is inaccessible now.
It’s nice enough for the regime for a while – they want people terrified. In the end, though, the military are always modernizers. They want a state full of citizens, visible and submissive, regimented in orderly lines – just like the picture says. Come out of hiding; come out, wherever you are! (Already yesterday, Sisi banned the “popular security committees,” struggling to bring the neighborhoods back under police control.) The cafes and conversations of course will have to go. But something even bigger will replace them. Bathed in the warm and public light of State surveillance, a shared and happy fate awaits you: You can be Sisi!
The thing is, and it’s not widely recognized: The Muslim Brotherhood were modernizers too. They also had no use for traditional loyalties, local hierarchies, closed ways of life. They wanted people out in the open, detached from their older ties, only ranged and regimented not by State power but under the august aegis of Islam. Their diehard supporters were and are middle-class professionals trained in secular expertise — doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers — who felt ill-used and under-salaried by a government indifferent to their skills. They hoped that religion’s promise of equality would bring more material fruits than the blandishments of socialism and structural adjustment. The Ikhwan was impatient with the lifeways of Cairo’s poorer neighborhoods and shaabi quarters, except as recipients of charity, expected to drag their denizens out to vote in return. Those places lacked the streamlined purity the Islamists demanded of a reformed and purpose-driven life. The Brothers are Puritan modernists and architects, building a kind of Bauhaus of the soul. The junta and its Western apologists try to present the battle as between modern, secular rationalists with heavy weaponry, and sinister Islamist adherents of superannuated tradition trying to “turn back the clock.” But it’s not. It’s a battle between two modernities to seize State power. The local and particular, the diverse and unexpected, will all get crowded out.
Sawt el-Umma is not very smart. They stole the template for their cover from an American TV show, pasting Sisi’s pictures on. Twitter quickly caught on:
So many ironies, I lose count. Of course, the more Sisi imagines an Egypt where everyone is the same, the more he produces a multiplication of neuroses: not nearly as nice as those of Larry David ensconced in Beverly Hills, though. They’ll be paranoid fears, malevolent and murderous. Those who don’t want to be Sisi will be (just like the people who didn’t want to be the Brotherhood’s ideal Muslims) un-Egyptian, non-citizens, lepers. The regime sounds more and more Big Brother-like in identifying its enemies. The “Egypt Fights Terrorism” banner that permanently glimmers in the corner of State TV’s screens insinuates itself in people’s dreams.
Crowds fed on State propaganda have attacked both Egyptian and foreign correspondents in recent days. An Egyptian-American reporter Tweeted yesterday that, at Ramsis Square, a “cop urged men around me to beat me up. ‘She is an American!’” And so the State Information Service issued a bizarre set of guidelines to foreign journalists on covering the unrest in approved fashion. “Egypt is feeling severe bitterness towards some Western media coverage that is biased to the Muslim Brotherhood,” it complained. “Some media sources are still falling short of describing the events of June 30 as an expression of a popular will.” And “Several media sources are seeking to focus on Western political stances that are adopting an approach different from the Egyptian one.” Thus, in the new Orwellian environment, Minitrue sets the message of the day. Even non-Egyptians need to be Sisi.
In a village up near Abu Zaabal, where security forces slaughtered their prisoners yesterday, there is a secret place hardly any Egyptian knows about: a leper colony. Claudia Wiens photographed it beautifully back in 2009, when about 750 patients were still confined there, with several thousand cured lepers, unable or unwilling to return home, in surrounding areas. There is, as she shows, a loveliness to their life and their community so far from public knowledge, even if the medieval fear that kept them segregated there is hideous. I was thinking of them yesterday as the news of the prison convoy deaths came in: after I’d watched Sisi, and the foreign minister Nabil Fahmy, oleaginously defend all the bloodshed on TV. “Egypt Fights Terrorism” stayed unmoving over the talking heads. Egypt is making more lepers. In Abu Zaabal, they are counting the corpses from yesterday’s killings, and disputes over the numbers already drown out the question of how, and why, they died.
We took a walk after the first massacre. This was August 14, Wednesday, and they had clamped a curfew down on the stunned city. It was midnight, when the streets are usually still teeming, but they were deserted in Agouza, where I live; we were the only people walking along the Nile corniche, and only two or three cars rushed past us, speeding off on urgent and incomprehensible errands. We plodded up Shari’a Wezarat el Zeraa, trying to get to the Mostafa Mahmoud mosque, where Twitter said that clashes were still going on. The shops were all shuttered, but there was smashed glass everywhere. By the dark entrance of every building a couple of men sat dourly, delegated by the residents to protect the place. They had no resources but their unprepossessing presence. At almost every block an impromptu barricade, half-hearted as a semicolon, interrupted the street: cinderblocks scattered to stop cars, steel bars from a construction site. Suddenly there came a rush of thirty or more men running toward us. FIve or six were brandishing revolvers, and one had a Kalashnikov. They passed and ignored us as if they or we were ghosts. A small crowd was pillaging an On the Run (an upscale food shop attached to a gas station), and they wanted to join in. It was impossible to say which side they were on; politics was suspended; one of them shouted “Morsi is President!” but that might have been a feint to blame the looting on the Brotherhood. A kid went by clutching a computer monitor with both arms. We picked up a copy of a glossy business magazine (for investors in Egypt: Dear Guest) in the dust. The men in front of the buildings didn’t move.
Further up the street, young men drifted along in cloudlike bands, bantering stridently but nervously. They wielded boards, sticks, broomhandles. The air almost smelled of testosterone, and you felt a lit match could start an explosion. At Arab League Boulevard, the great wide slash cut through the city, there were more barricades; somebody’d ripped up the steel benches that tried to make the desiccated median strip a park, and strewn them across the asphalt. The tattoo of gunshots recurred not far off to the left, where the mosque was, like somebody drumming his fingers on a sheet of steel. We didn’t go there. Two armored personnel carriers stood at the eastern end of the avenue, ceremonial like the lions on the Qasr el-Nil bridge, guarding nothing. When we got home I bolted the door and only then I heard my heart pounding, louder than the gunfire. The city felt dead, deader than I’d ever seen it, but not dead enough to satisfy itself. It seemed to me its own inhabitants had decided to murder it, and would beat it to death if it moved.
For six weeks I couldn’t write about Egypt, and now I still can’t. I felt that, being here, I ought to express something. More and more happens and there is less and less to say. The latest round of “revolution” started, on June 30, with a great explosion of undifferentiated joy. I filmed Midan Tahrir, filled by ecstatic millions, as if it were a carnival.
There was a people’s party but none of what revolutions are supposed to bring, people’s power. The middle-class revolutionaries of Tamarod who’d started the uprising were happy to hand power to the killers. They gave it to the army like waiters passing a dish: they couldn’t have been more pliant servants. What do you expect the men with guns to do, but kill?
They started promptly, and it’s still going on. Wednesday, more than 600 died. On Friday the toll was more than 170. The numbers finally became an embarrassment; yesterday the Health Ministry, which had been adding up the totals, announced the figures will now be vetted by the Cabinet itself, to ensure conformity with the prevailing lies. But if the government doesn’t like the tabulations, it wants the murders themselves seen widely, pour encourager les autres.
August 16: The army fires on protesters in Ismailia
It kills in broad daylight, in public squares. It lets the Brotherhood practice violence in public too, burning churches with no interference. Killing is a spectacle. It educates as well as entertains. You can barely move around the city now — Friday, fighting closed most of the Nile crossings – but it doesn’t matter, you can get your fill of death, there’s home delivery. Yesterday I stood on the Nile corniche in the midday heat, and watched people being shot on the May 15 bridge, 500 meters from my house. They looked small and jerky, like puppets. Bridges used to connect; now they lead nowhere, you can corner people there, there’s no way out. Downtown, on the October 6 overpass, they jumped 10 meters to the concrete below, to escape the bullets. No exit.
Someone said on Twitter — I can’t find the exact words – that the army’s learning that when you shoot on a crowd it doesn’t go away. It breaks into smaller crowds. It flees into side streets and alleys, it keeps resisting. That’s what happened Wednesday and has been happening since. The Brotherhood has not gone, will not go away; its support only disperses like mercury as the survivors do, to reform in smaller fascicles. It’s also what’s happening to Egypt, though fewer notice. The country is fragmenting, segmented by barricades, each neighborhood shrivelling into itself, patrolled by feral kids with cudgels. Cairo is breaking up. You can’t look at a street now without calculating how it would do as a defensive perimeter.
The humour, the cuisine, the rites, the taste,
The pattern of the City, are erased.
Reports come in from Upper Egypt; tale-bearers carry stories from villages like fruits to market: stories of violence spread.
There aren’t any innocents. The Muslim Brotherhood dispatched gangs of strongmen to beat and abuse peaceful anti-Morsi demonstrators outside the Presidential Palace last November. At the protest camp at Rabaa, there was evidence that some Brotherhood opponents who strayed in were tortured brutally — Amnesty reported that “eight bodies have arrived at the morgue in Cairo bearing signs of torture. At least five of these were found near areas where pro-Morsi sit-ins were being held.”
And yesterday, Morsi supporters burned at least a dozen churches across Egypt. At least as many more have been set to the torch since June 30. But these represent neither entirely spontaneous retaliation against Christians, nor a sinister Muslim Brotherhood master plan. For the most part, they reflect sectarian tensions festering for a long time, worsened by the alternating neglect and provocations of successive governments: Mubarak, the previous military junta, Morsi. In the climate of the army’s assaults, these were almost destined to be unleashed. They were entirely predictable, in other words. If the military (whose hands still drip blood from the 2011 Maspero massacre of Copts) had wanted to protect Christians, they could have deployed to defend churches in advance of their own onslaught on the Brotherhood in Cairo. Sisi’s regime relaxed in indifferent inaction, and now mourns in hypocrisy; they did nothing to protect places of worship. They wanted the violence to swell.
The army has unbolted the cage and violence is loose. To the extent they plan, that’s their plan. The excess of force in the incursion on the Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo was neither error nor overreaction; it was deliberate. (One sickly amusing thing has been to watch US neoconservatives and Likudnik flacks applaud the Egyptian indifference to “proportionality,” which they rightly see as modeled on Israel’s policy of murderously massive retaliation. Egypt’s nationalists have won the ally they least like.) It’s not so much that Sisi hopes to send a message that resistance is futile. He wants the Brotherhood to resist. The military knows that each murder makes a martyr; each burned Church gouges a new rift in communal relations; a descent into the mindless war of all against all is just their desire. The more the country divides, the more he destabilizes it, the more Sisi will be enthroned as an icon of fraudulent unity. He’s no narcissist; he doesn’t need to delude himself he’s loved. He wants citizens turning to him not in adulation but in desperation. Fear is the best propaganda.
There are no innocents, but there are the guilty. It’s not just those who planned the assault, but those who excused repression, encouraged it, exalted it, continue to applaud it. For weeks after June 30, my Facebook and Twitter feed were full of “liberals” mouthing the government line that the Brotherhood were “terrorists” and deserved what they got. If demonstrators died, the blame lay with them or the Ikhwan leaders who “sacrificed” them — because after all they should have expected the army to massacre them. It ran from the famous (whose names are worth preserving) –
–to the obscure (I conceal them; they may already be ashamed):
Yesterday, when over a hundred Brotherhood supporters died, an Ikhwan announcement of a “Week of Departure” to demand Sisi’s resignation led to secular stand-up comedy:
Rhetoric of eradication has permeated “liberal” discussions of the Brotherhood for weeks now. Liberals suggest, in one version or another: Exterminate all the brutes. The State feeds this with the overblown language of “terrorism,” stolen from the worst excesses of the Bush administration. Not just official media but the progressive channel ONTV demonize Islamists and repeat that “terrorists” are amok, offering open-ended excuses for government terror.
Mohamed El Baradei, the “liberal” hero, finally resigned from the puppet government to protest the Wednesday killings. But he’d called for a coup for months before the generals took over, and after it happened, he justified it to the West with his peculiar brand of counter-prescience: “The military intervention was necessary, precisely so as to avoid a bloody confrontation.” On Wednesday, the National Salvation Front he helped found — supposedly the coalition of “liberal” forces in the country — issued a repellent statement while men and women were dying in Rabaa.
Today, Egypt lifted her head high, announcing to the world her victory … [T]he firm leadership of the armed forces and the collective will of the people demanded the dispersal of the sit-in at the hands of the security forces. The leaders of this group that exploits the innocent – women and children! – for their own protection are now fleeing from the fortifications that they built over the past six weeks and trying to conceal their escape from what they call “sit-ins” at the squares. The Egyptian people will disperse these gatherings themselves before the security forces. … The NSF salutes the police and military forces, and bows its head in tribute and respect for the great people.
Those liberals’ spittle shines the junta’s boots.
I love Egypt, in my outsider’s way; I love Cairo, its sarcasm, its busyness, its laziness, the crowds hurrying past ahawi where people smoke and sip coffee for hours undisturbed. Even these days, traces of that survive. In Agouza, if you weave at 2 AM through neighborhoods where all the lights are down, past barricades of fallen branches, you’ll stumble on a street of cafes resolutely open despite the curfew, shisha-smokers playing backgammon, watching the shootings on TV. But these are phantasmagoric, fragments of a broken city. They’re little shards, glinting after you shatter a globe of glass. The iridescence has nothing to do with what used to be.
What do I do these days? I sit at home. My house is a refuge of sorts for six or seven Egyptian friends. We shop before the curfew, we cook elaborate meals. Yesterday I watched a butcher cut a chicken’s neck for our dinner; “A clean death,” I thought. Yeats runs idly through my head.
Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say? That country round
None dared admit, if such a thought were his,
Incendiary or bigot could be found
To burn that stump on the Acropolis,
Or break in bits the famous ivories
Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.
And in the last few days I tried to write on Russia. There were crimes there, but they were far away, unlike the gunfire you could occasionally hear. The subject seemed so almost-calm that I felt like the narrator at the end of Borges’ ”Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: sitting in a quiet hotel as his world dissolved, revising for his own imperfect pleasure a translation of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, in the style of Quevedo.
It’s good to go beyond oneself. The world is so full of borders that moral value accrues simply to those moments when thought exerts itself to cross them. In that sense, the worldwide fury against Russia is moving. No cynicism is proof against seeing people experience sympathy for others they do not know.
This is especially true among LGBT people, whose broader solidarities have been troubled and, for all those grating choruses of”We are family!”, pretty rare. “Sexuality poorly repressed merely unsettles some families,” Karl Kraus wrote. “Well repressed, it unsettles the whole world.” But how often does anybody let themselves feel that world-shaking force of resistance? In an article on Russia, Eric Sasson says “the worldwide LGBT rights movement” has “proven to be one of the savviest political and cultural movements in history.” That’s nice flattery, thank you, but the kind in which you can’t possibly see yourself. What he dubs the “movement” is a tiny minority of hunchbacked, monastically dour activists thwarted in their aspirations and alienated from the dancing masses for whom they claim to speak. Any such stunted revolutionary must straighten his back and take a purring pleasure when folks actually show they care about the larger world. And any time the denizens of Sidetrack or some other megabar consider the politics behind their pleasures should occasion some rejoicing.
I want to go to Sidetracks and drink a certified non-human-rights-abusing Sex on the Beach
There is no “worldwide LGBT movement,” at least if by “movement” you mean something that’s genuinely mass-based and political, that has its own decision-making structures, and that moves. You could say, though, that we’re seeing a worldwide LGBT public sphere emerge. There’s now a common space on social media — even if a virtual one — where queers can carry their concerns and argue them out. In that diverse agora, all kinds of things can happen: many ad hoc movements, hardly embracing the planet but transcending plenty of boundaries, can flourish. That’s no small development.
This makes it all the more important, though, to keep a critical eye on that space’s shortcomings and inequalities.
It’s clear that it’s not yet an adequate arena for coming up with common strategies. For one thing, the sphere and the technologies that power it may be new, but it’s hardly broken free of more archaic prejudices and motives. You can’t help noticing there’s agitation and panic over what happens in some countries, and not over others. Old geopolitical enmities seem to matter as much as present-day facts in determining which. We carry the whole burden of our fears and fantasies into debate.
Thus it’s easy to gin up outrage over legislation in Uganda –which a few decades back was a byword in the West for how rebellious the Third World was, and which a sizeable percentage of Americans and Britons of a certain age probably think is still run by Idi Amin. It’s much harder to get anyone to notice a similar bill in Nigeria, though that one has been hanging over its potential victims’ heads for even longer. But then, no post-colonial Nigerian leader ever forced a contingent of white British citizens to cart him on their shoulders.
It’s easy to rouse anger over mere rumors of abuses in Iran –which is, after all, a favorite foe since 1979, and more recently a bête noire for Israel as well as the rest of us (even though the Likudniks once loved to snog the mullahs in a halcyon, more romantic time). There was never such intensity of feeling over documented arrests and torture and deaths in Egypt.
Meanwhile, Poland, under its previous right-wing government, prohibited Prides, looked away from skinhead violence, and flirted with bans on speech similar to the Russian one. But anger in the West never spread in the same way over the Poles as over Putin, and isn’t this partly because of how much larger and longer Russia loomed in the Cold War imagination? Even the panic about Moscow’s “anti-propaganda” legislation has coincided eerily with a revival of those Paleolithic, pre-Gorbachev tensions, after the decision to give shelter to Edward Snowden.
This is far from saying that people should hesitate to campaign against the Russian bill, or the Ugandan one, both intolerable violations of human rights. It’s simply to say that a modicum both of self-examination, and of looking at the larger picture, benefits activism — among other ways by lending it a larger political perspective. Context is good; and if it’s the enemy of urgency, sometimes false urgency is our enemy. The problem is, instead, that those caught up in the moment’s frenzy treat that context as a hallucinatory distraction. The problem is that such intense and atavistic emotions often drive these mobilizations that people resist discussing what’s realistically possible, or how to adjust ends or methods to get anything done. We end up seeming to stagger in delirium toward an unseen, unknown goal.
With Uganda, Western LGBT activists were lucky in a lot of ways. The government was concerned about its reputation, addicted to US support, and just open enough that a working domestic civil society could even dictate terms to its international supporters. Western activists could have a real impact, both by showing solidarity with a Ugandan movement that was vocal on its own, and by prodding their own governments to quiet action. As a result, the odious bill hasn’t passed, and with luck and some sustained pressure never may. Iran shows the opposite extreme. It’s hard to get its government to budge on anything. The “pro-gay” vigils and protests that sprang up in the US and UK seven years ago simply convinced the Iranian regime that this was a foreigner’s and not a domestic issue. They also convinced it that this didn’t involve shared rights like privacy or freedom from arbitrary arrest, but only a “minority identity” which — Ahmadinejad was right in this — didn’t exist in most Iranians’ minds. It’s anybody’s guess, at this point, where on the spectrum of success the Russia campaigns will fall.
Moreover, the spaces where these truncated and emotional discussions about strategy happen are still riven by bias: unequally accessible, far more attuned to some voices than to others. The people most affected find it hardest to get heard.
Why are celebrities, not Russians, the ones we’re listening to in figuring out what to do about Russia? Why are people taking their cues from Lady Gaga, George Takei, Dan Savage, Harvey Fierstein, Stephen Fry? Some of these people are smart; Fierstein and Fry, whom I adore as actor/writers, are especially savvy. But they’re not experts on Russia, or on gays in Russia, or really on anything helpful. (As for Dan Savage: he blogged back in 2002, as Bush and Blair plotted their mass-murdering imperial adventure, “Say “YES” to War on Iraq.” He’s apologized, but I see no reason to listen to him on other international interventions until he does a really comprehensive penance, perhaps by rimming a few gay Iraqi refugees on top of the Space Needle.)
The blind faith that celebrities know more about anything than us, because we know more about them than anything, is a pathology of modern life. But it’s a particularly pronounced sickness among the gays, perhaps because the long experience of the closet breeds an unthinking fascination with publicity and fame. I certainly see the use of strategically-placed stars to draw attention to crises. There’s a reason the United Nations seduced Angelina Jolie, in the intervals between child-choosing junkets, into being a “Good Will Ambassador.” But they recruited her to publicize what the UN is doing; they don’t let her decide what the UN should do. Only in GayWorld do we so religiously believe that a looney Madonna ripoff, or the ex-pilot of an imaginary intergalactic vehicle, has unique wisdom ex officio; that those paparazzo flashbulbs bursting round them are effusions of inner illumination; that they possess insights into Russian politics completely inaccessible to Russians themselves.
There are now at least two statements signed by Russian human rights activists, urging what to do about Putin’s law. And Russians have been talking strategy in public fora for months now. The most depressing thing is that none of the Western celebrities pontificating about Russia have bothered to mention anything Russians recommend. Not Fierstein, not Fry, not even Dustin Lance Black, who is usually relatively aware. (Dan Savage was a partial exception – he alluded only to a letter signed by LGBT Russians living in the United States, while condemning the ones living in Russia to continued invisibility.) This is disgusting. It’s shameful. It means that probably nine-tenths of those demonstrating and dumping vodka have no idea that, in this situation, Russians have strategic opinions, are not helpless victims, can speak for themselves. It encourages the worst fantasies of Western white-saviorism.
One result is a parody of intelligent analysis like Time’s recent contribution to Russia news. Their take on the anti-propaganda law is entirely about brave Dutch rainbow missionaries who fell into its clutches while trying to rescue gay Russians from ignorance about Amsterdam’s bars. One of the heroic Hollanders, Time tells us, offered Russian activists
a seminar comparing and contrasting equality in the Netherlands and Russia. … Though bullying is still rampant in the Netherlands, the LGBT movement there is past its adolescence. In April 2001, the Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage. But in Russia, the gay-rights movement is in its infancy.
Putin couldn’t ask for a better justification for the law. This bullshit tells the oppressors exactly what they want to hear.
The other result is that, with no ballast from some sense of what Russian activists think feasible, people’s appeals fly off in all sorts of directions. I can’t even count how many petitions are running riot on the web, each directed at somebody different, demanding something else. Move the Olympics! Boycott the Olympics! Hold the Olympics but protect the athletes! Screw the athletes, let them get arrested! Protest at Sochi! Write to the White House! Boycott Stoli! No, make Stoli give more money to the gays! … and on and on. The most ridiculous, and that’s saying a lot, comes from Wayne Besen, who has a one-man LGBT group called Truth Wins Out. He launched an opportunistic petition aimed at MSNBC, that doyen of brutal homophobic regimes, demanding they name Rachel Maddow their “special human rights correspondent” during the Sochi Games. This has nothing to do with helping Russians. Voting for celebrity journalists is maybe the least likely path for our limited energies to create meaningful change. But it’s a great way for Besen to flatter Maddow into inviting him back on her show. Last time I checked, 10,000 had signed.
Now, let’s be clear: Russian activists don’t have a consensus on what international colleagues should do. The two statements now circulating show the divide. There’s a letter from 33 activists (posted on the website of the revived Queer Nation in New York). It’s brief; it says
We appreciate and support all attempts to let the Russian authorities know that homophobic and inhumane laws will not go unnoticed and that Vladimir Putin’s regime will not get away with antigay violence. We speak out in favor of boycotting Russian goods and companies and the Olympic Games in Sochi.
Then there’s a statement from the Russian LGBT Network, specifically opposing a boycott of the Winter Games.
We believe that calls for the spectators to boycott Sochi, for the Olympians to retreat from competition, and for governments, companies, and national Olympic committees to withdraw from the event risk to transform the powerful potential of the Games in[to] a less powerful gesture that would prevent the rest of the world from joining LGBT people, their families and allies in Russia in solidarity. …
We hope for the support of national organizations in making sure that the athletes publicly take a stance against violence toward LGBT people and stand strong for LGBT equality; that the national houses fill the gap of the banned Pride House and support LGBT athletes, staff, spectators and their allies on their grounds; that sponsors follow through with their policies and visualize their commitment to justice and observance of human rights in regards LGBT people at the Games…
When there’s a divide among domestic activists, international supporters must stop and think things through. You’re going to have to take a side sooner or later (even inaction is a decision), but you need to figure out the different priorities put forward, and the reasons behind them. The fact that there’s a conflict, though, is not an excuse to do whatever you want without thinking things through at all.
I have Russian friends on either side here. To generalize: Many pro-boycott signatories strike me as experienced at political advocacy and tied to the human rights community. Meanwhile, the anti-boycott Russian LGBT Network speaks with the voice of activism within LGBT communities. The first statement, I think, comes more from considering what could budge the notoriously impervious Putin government; the second, more from thinking about the safety and political viability of LGBT communities.
You can’t reconcile the two recommendations: either you boycott things, or you don’t. You can try to negotiate between the concerns they represent: between having maximum effect on the Russian regime, and protecting LGBT people from backlash and isolation.
What follows are seven thoughts on how to do this. They are purely my own, but I hope they can provoke some debate.
ONE. Protest has a goal, and it’s in Russia, not London or New York. “International solidarity” actions tend to fade into the fake activism of catharsis. The aims you strive for affect others, not yourself; and those Others are too often abstract rather than known. On both grounds, it’s easy to lose sight of concrete ends while flooded with moral superiority, all passion spent. You hear this whenever people talk about “raising awareness” as a purpose in itself — as though, having been on the evening news, they’ve done enough. You can raise a million people’s awareness, but unless you plan to do something with it, it’s a waste of time.
What matters? Actions that will have move the Russian government toward change. Pressuring the IOC is fine if the IOC can then apply pressure on Putin, not just to protect its own brood of tender athletes, but to reform his human rights record. Pressuring a private company is pointless unless there’s reason to think that company can actually influence the regime. You need to keep your eyes on the prize.
If you do keep your eyes there, it’s possible to imagine different campaigns, apparently at cross-purposes, working toward the same end. There’s a case that calling for a Sochi boycott can give Putin’s government some shivers, even if it doesn’t succeed, by casting a pall over his limelight moment. It probably won’t succeed, though. Demanding Olympic boycotts is a political strategy going back almost 40 years. But only three went anywhere: the 1976 boycott of Montreal by (mainly) African countries, over the Games’ lax enforcement of anti-South Africa sanctions; the 1980 boycott of Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and the tit-for-tat Soviet-bloc boycott of Los Angeles. And only the first had anything to do with human rights, rather than Cold War retaliation. The present calls may “raise awareness” if enough people pay attention. But they must mesh with a Plan B assuming the boycott doesn’t happen, to channel that awareness into ongoing pressure. The boycott campaign can be just the first stage of a project to embarrass Putin’s government at Sochi — and beyond.
Such calibration of strategies, though, requires Western activists to talk to one another about what they want and how to get there. All the clashing rhetoric lately conceals the fact there hasn’t been much communication between people making different demands.
It also requires talking with, not just about, Russians, to get their views. Among the most vocal Western campaigners, there’s little evidence of regular dialogue with Russian groups, still less that they take strategic advice. Queer Nation in New York has that letter from Russian activists on its website, but mainly treats it as a weapon to be brandished against other campaigners with different priorities. (Indeed, when the Latvian LGBT group Mozaika objected to their assault on Stolichnaya, which is bottled in Latvia and gives Latvians jobs, Queer Nation responded by telling the Latvians, in effect, that New Yorkers know better about the region than they do.)
TWO. Learn about the context. The human rights crisis is way larger than one law. More’s at stake in Russia — much more — than LGBT issues and the “anti-propaganda” law. There are two reasons for Western LGBT activists to stress this. One is moral: it’s the truth. Many Russians are suffering, and even the new repression against gay people grows out of older patterns. The other is pragmatic. This is the best way to protect LGBT Russians against a backlash over the campaign.
Manifold rights violations have burgeoned under Putin — even overlooking the fraudulent elections, or the torture and mass murder in Chechnya. A few others:
- Suppression of free expression. This year, Reporters Without Borders placed Russia 148th out of 179 countries on its World Press Freedom Index. Since his 2011 re-election, Putin has enacted repressive new laws and policies to restrict access to information. Almost unnoticed in the West, the anti-gay-propaganda bill has a twin: a law that would create “a registry (or ‘blacklist’) of any online materials containing illegal information relevant to children.” That’s any information the State doesn’t like, not just the gay stuff. Meanwhile, most major media are under state control, and bureaucrats bully independent outlets into self-censorship. Attacks on journalists, including murder, are common — and rarely investigated or solved. At least 56 have been killed since 1992. In 2012 alone, “two journalists were killed and 33 were physically attacked in connection with their work.”
- Persecution of whistleblowers. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky died in prison after being beaten and denied medical care. He’d been jailed for an attempt to expose interlocking corruption among business magnates and state officials. His death pointed not just to torture in detention, but to the increasing paranoia of a secretive state (a point where the US is ill-poised to offer criticism, given its pursuit of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden). Recently, new amendments to the criminal code have expanded the definition of “state secret” as well as “treason.” The latter now means transmitting a “secret” not only to a foreign government but to an “international organization or its representatives.” (Obama would love this.)
- Attacks on freedom of assembly. Moscow Pride is hardly the only gathering authorities have banned or broken up under the Putin regime. After the demonstrations against his rule in 2011-2012, Putin pushed through new restrictions on legitimate protest. The two-year sentence meted out to members of the punk band Pussy Riot in 2012 shows the fate of loud dissent. Amnesty reported this year that ”Peaceful protests across Russia, including gatherings of small groups of people who presented no public threat or inconvenience, [are] routinely dispersed by police, often with excessive force. The authorities regarded every such event, however peaceful and insignificant in number, as unlawful unless expressly sanctioned, although gatherings of pro-government or pro-Orthodox Church activists were often allowed to proceed uninterrupted even without authorization.”
- Racism and xenophobia. Recent skinhead targeting of LGBT people originated in a long barrage of attacks against immigrants, guest workers, and non-ethnic Russians (and the more traditional object, Jews). Human Rights First estimates racist violence “claimed as many as many as 470 lives since 2004.” The government condemned these attacks in the past and prosecuted them sporadically, but the Putin administration’s rhetoric against “terrrorist” Others, including Muslims, promoted hate. Just this week, “police and migration officials mounted raids at markets across Moscow, in factories … in the city’s subway system and on the streets. At last count nearly 1,500 foreigners had been detained … That number included 586 people, most of them Vietnamese, who were being held in a temporary tent camp more appropriate for a war zone or the scene of a natural disaster than the center of a capital city.”
- Destroying civil society. After his faked re-election in 2011, Putin’s parliament began enacting laws to prevent Russian NGOs from functioning. The worst, passed in November 2012 but almost forgotten in the furor over the anti-gay bill, requires groups receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” subjecting them to stigma and constant official oversight. Within days of the law’s passage, the premises of two of the best-known Russian human rights groups, Memorial and For Human Rights, were defaced with graffiti and banners saying “Here Lives a Foreign Agent.” As of June 2013, Human RIghts Watch could identify 62 organizations severely harassed under the law. Prosecutors told the New York Times they had targeted 215 groups. Two LGBT organizations, including Side by Side, a St. Petersburg cultural festival, were among the earliest ones taken to court under this law.
The last instance makes crystal clear that Putin doesn’t need the “gay propaganda” law to shut down LGBT civil society. Nor, as I’ve stressed, would scrapping that law end skinhead violence against LGBT people, or ensure them free assembly, or guarantee they can express themselves without fear. Getting rid of the propaganda ban is one important step, but one of many. Protecting the human rights of LGBT Russians means fighting for the human rights of all Russians.
LGBT activists in Russia rightly fear that the more Western protests focus on gay concerns and ignore other vital issues, the more they’ll be punished in retaliation. If you don’t want to harm the LGBT communities you’re trying to defend, look at the big picture. Stress connections. Talk about all fronts of Russia’s human rights struggle.
THREE. Get ready for the long haul. This won’t be easy. No LGBT campaign of the last decade — not gay marriage, not getting Betty White on Saturday Night Live — can equal the difficulty of changing Vladimir Putin’s mind. And changing the corrupt system that rules Russia would, will, be even harder. LGBT activists in Russia know years of struggle lie ahead. If you really want to support them — if you want to help them tackle the interlocking rights abuses and systems of oppression — don’t expect quick victories. Don’t give up. And don’t return to regular programming if and when one bad law goes down, forgetting the many repressions that remain.
FOUR. Foreigners to the rear, please. God in heaven, I’m begging you, enough of this:
“A British tweeter has unveiled his pink Union Jack in Moscow’s Red Square, outside the Kremlin, to defy Russia’s anti-gay laws. In response to a tweet by LGBT activist and political campaigner, Peter Tatchell, Mathew Benham attached his photo with the words ‘our little gesture’ … Tatchell had nothing but praise for the activist, applauding his efforts for managing to surpass the Russian officials.” Victory! Let the word go forth from Minsk to Pinsk: pink is the new Red! Putin, you’re punk’d!
This kind of stunt activism by tourists, à la Tatchell, is usually naïve but harmless. But in Russia, where xenophobia is rife, and where the law specifically targets groups and movements that can be deemed “foreign agents,” pinning a UK flag on LGBT rights can only hurt Russians. It’s the wrong thing to do.
Why do Russians identity LGBT issues with foreign influence? A least a little derives from the disastrous way the first attempts to hold Pride in Moscow were handled. I was there in 2006 and 2007; non-Russians swarmed the events. The day before Pride in 2006, at a meeting tasked to decide whether to proceed with the march in face of multiplying threats of violence, more than 100 people crowded the room, all but a dozen of us aliens. I suggested politely that we all leave and let the few, overwhelmed Russians decide an issue that disproportionately affected them. The proposal enraged some prominent guests.
Most ominously, the Prides were played for foreign press and foreign cameras, who wanted to film foreign celebrities being telegenically bruised. How Russia media and Russian audiences saw things could matter less. They spread an impression that the whole issue was the hobbyhorse of a few well-photographed tourists with time on their hands.
It’s too late to unmake that impression completely, but at least you shouldn’t add to it. An embargo on flag-bearing foreigners in Red Square would only be a start. Maybe we also need to voice a bit less indignation over the prospect of our sexy visiting athletes getting arrested at the Games, and more over what might happen to Russians themselves.
More than that, though: Russian voices must be heard. The fact that the Russian law targets “propaganda” gives extra impetus to the idea that silenced Russians don’t need supporters, but ventriloquists — that we must “use our voices to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” Nonsense. Russians are not cowards (the grandparents of these gays survived Stalin) and, law or no law, they can speak for themselves perfectly well. It strikes me that the Western protest organizers are very good at using Facebook and Twitter to promote their own proclamations — but somehow haven’t figured out how to give space to others. Why not Skype in Russian activists at meetings, rallies, press conferences? Why not retweet what Russians are saying? Why not lend your Facebook pages to Russian movement leaders, to share their opinions?
FIVE. Drop the comparisons. Is Russia South Africa? Yes.
South Africa had institutionalized racism through the discriminatory laws enacted by Parliament which became known as Apartheid. Well now Russia has institutionalized homophobia through discriminatory and prejudicial laws enacted by its Parliament … I think that that a boycott must be called and the United States, and all concerned about homophobia and LGBTI equality should refuse to set foot on Russian soil to participate in any sport whatsoever. … And then what about the matter of principal? [sic]
That’s by Melanie Nathan, who as a white South African living in the US unquestionably has a proprietary claim to apartheid-as-metaphor. (It’s odd, though, that a single law in Russia justifies the comparison in her view, whereas if you use the simile for the whole battery of laws, regulations, and policing that Israel deploys against West Bank Palestinians — denying them political rights and free movement, enforcing segregation, seizing land, destroying homes — she finds it ”anti-Semitic.”)
But wait: Russia’s worse. Is it … Nazi Germany? Well, guess.
Consider the stain on the Five Rings that occurred when the 1936 Berlin Olympics proceeded under the exultant aegis of a tyrant who had passed into law, two years earlier, an act which singled out for special persecution a minority whose only crime was the accident of their birth. In his case he banned Jews from academic tenure or public office, he made sure that the police turned a blind eye to any beatings, thefts or humiliations afflicted on them, he burned and banned books … The Olympic movement at that time paid precisely no attention to this evil and proceeded with the notorious Berlin Olympiad, which provided a stage for a gleeful Führer … Putin is eerily repeating this insane crime, only this time against LGBT Russians.
I think the first sentence has something to do with Tolkien. Didn’t an exultant aegis swoop down and save Frodo from Mount Doom?
These analogies don’t aid in understanding what’s happening in Russia. They prevent it. A law attacking freedom of speech isn’t the same as a sweeping denial of citizenship. (Nor did a minority of invading Russian heterosexuals colonize the East European plain and rob the gay majority of its land.) And Putin has not passed the Nuremberg Laws. Even amid the current manic carnival of emotion, the writers should flinch in embarrassment from the implications of what they’re saying. Will Putin launch a new blitzkrieg against Poland so its gays can be carted off to extermination? Don’t go there — but unfortunately these guys do. Hitler’s Olympics “gave him confidence,” Stephen Fry warns, and of course we don’t want to make Putin cocky, because “what [Hitler] did with that confidence we all know.” Another writer’s even clearer about the coming storm:
In 1935—as in 2013—the International Olympics Committee was keen to pretend that sporting events could wash a clearly politicized setting of its politics, or wipe a dirty city clean. … In this Faustian bargain, Hitler hid the most obvious signs of what would later become his Final Solution. … And then, once the international community had left, Hitler and his willing minions invaded neighboring countries and incinerated every fucking Jew, queer, or dissenter they could get their hands on.
Alex Gabriel argues that this death talk makes us feel good about ourselves. “Fry’s recourse to anti-Nazism enlists [Great Britain] in helping ‘save’ sexual minorities in Russia, as Britain loves to remember it saved European Jews, replaying on memorial loop its empire’s one moment of apparent heroism.” That’s a grotesque comment on our moral self-image.
The Holocaust against the European Jews was a genocide that slaughtered millions. (I’m not sure why I feel the need to say this, except that some of these folks talk so casually it’s as though Hitler didn’t kill people, just film Schindler’s List.) Comparing some other serious human rights abuse to the extermination of a people doesn’t make the former more urgent, it makes it trivial. For some strange reason, a lot of gay (not so many L or B or T) intellectuals over the years have taken the Holocaust as a standard by which the undoubtedly awful persecutions inflicted on dissident sexualities over the years can, and should, be measured. (Gore Vidal, Larry Kramer, ACT UP, many more.) Maybe it’s because silence didn’t just enshroud the latter persecutions — silencing was part of them. To identify with the most condemned and public atrocity of modern times promises that some of the dignity of visibility can be regained. It doesn’t work that way, though.
The extreme talk is getting out of control. A new slogan’s all over the Internet, based on the unconfirmed stories that skinheads have killed young gays: “YOU SPILL GAY BLOOD WE SPILL RUSSIAN VODKA.” The quid doesn’t quite fit the quo; vodka’s not equivalent to blood – even in Russia, where the latter may well be 40% composed of the former. But you can easily imagine the menacing sentence spun around, spoken by the skinheads themselves: “YOU SPILL RUSSIAN VODKA, WE SPILL GAY BLOOD.” The lunatic register of revenge would be the same. Any time we start mimicking the mad rhetoric of neo-Nazis, we’re on the wrong road.
SIX. Chuck the Tchaikovsky talk. I don’t like Tchaikovsky that much, but even if I did, I would be tired of you people talking about him. Western activists hold him up incessantly as proof positive that Russian culture contained and was shaped by queers. O Kremlin hypocrites, attacking your very heritage! ”Tchaikovsky. Genius. Gay. Outlawed” was a sign at one New York protest. ”All Out Tells St. Petersburg Governor Not To Tarnish Tchaikovsky’s Legacy With Anti-Gay Bill,” a headline reads (they even handed him a video set to the camp chords of Swan Lake). Has anybody heard of a Russian musician, or writer, or artist other than Tchaikovsky? Didn’t I see Tolstoy the other night at Sidetrack?
No homophobe was ever persuaded by these appeals to Great Gays in Your History. In my experience people hate few things more than having folks who know nothing about their culture explain it to them. (Imagine a Russian telling you that Obama has betrayed the rich heritage of Negro obsequiousness in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) Moreover, the diehard supporters of the “gay propaganda” bill, if they listen to classical music at all, most likely hate Tchaikovsky. They’d see him as the effete creature of cosmopolitan St. Petersburg who turned away from healthy Russian tonalities toward Western decadence. In his one unequivocally patriotic piece of music, the 1812 Overture, he even dared to insinuate the heathen Marseillaise, which is like finding a dead rat in your blini. If these people think about high culture at all, they’re the heirs of nineteenth-century Slavophilia: ultranationalism in art. They’d listen not to the Nutcracker but to the narodnik notes churned out by The Five (true, one of that circle’s members, Mussorgsky, drank himself to death in unrequited passion for young men, but there’s one poison mushroom in every Russian dish, right?). And probably even that would be too highfalutin. As Putin’s own deputy culture minister said last spring, “Who needs Tchaikovsky?”
What’s interesting is that Western LGBT advocates describing Russia instinctively treat “culture” as their friend: a reserve of enlightened values and liberal tolerance, regrettably sidelined by the uncultivated thugs who happen to rule the country now. They would never blame the new legislation on Russian ”culture” or “tradition,” though in fact those are exactly the terms that Russian right-wingers use to justify it. Contrast how these activists talk about Africa. There “culture” is the enemy, a monolithic blob of primitive practices that no enlightened idea can penetrate without either missionaries or soldiers to escort it. (When the US President travelled to three diverse countries at different corners of the continent this summer, a headline read, “Obama to Visit Homophobic Culture.”) Newspapers doing the obligatory stories on homophobia in Africa hardly ever bother to mention politics or politicians; they come and go, but the magma of tradition remains.
Yet all this measures the degree to which Russia, despite those decades of enforced Cold War enmity, remains like us in our minds: a country of white people and European values. Out of racial solidarity comes an affinity transcending historical difference. In fact, talking about “culture” can’t tackle a political problem; it’s a bankrupt strategy. Appeals to “Russian culture” won’t help us change a single Russian mind, any more than condemning “African culture” has changed a single African one. They only show that we’re still unable to disentangle our advocacy from our darker fantasies.
SEVEN. Think gas pump, not Stoli dump. Boycotts are such an easy form of activism, except for the ones that work. It’s looks so simple just to sit back and not buy things! Of course, once you actually start to figure out where your target’s vulnerable and how to exploit that, things change. When facts enter, the work gets hard.
The campaign to punish Putin by abjuring Stolichnaya impresses me as one of those extremely easy boycotts that nobody thought through first. The point isn’t so much that the vodka’s actually bottled in Latvia — a fact that has only prodded boycotters into Jesuitical arguments over what it means for a vodka to be “Russian.” (Note to campaigners: when the dispute sinks to this level, you’ve lost.) The point is that the brand is owned by a private company, not the State. As several people have noted, the boycotters assume that Russia is like the US, where corporations tell the government what to do. But in Russia’s crony capitalism, most private companies bow and tremble before government clerks, begging to hang onto the last shreds of their independence. Putin’s State has been trying to wrest back control of Stolichnaya for some while; arguably the boycott, if it actually weakens the owners, will only speed the takeover. I have zero sympathy with the corporation or its “support” for gay rights in the US — read: its bribes to LGBT institutions in order to keep the community profitably soused. But vodka dumps in San Francisco are unlikely to make Putin tremble.
For a decade now, no international pressure has been able to make Putin tremble. As long as the West was slavishly dependent on the country’s vast natural gas and oil resources, the President could pretty much do as he liked. Russian politics run “on conventional oil and gas,” the Economist says, and ”Vladimir Putin is in essence the CEO of Russian Energy Inc.” Recently, Russia’s fuel exports have been declining, and with them the profit machine. Why not exploit this weakness? Why dump vodka, when Russia’s engines run on more precious liquids?
The Russian economy is slowing down. Growth has gone from 7% a year in the heady mid-2000s, to under 4% in 2012, to only 1.6% in the first quarter of 2013. One word explains a lot of the slippage: shale. The “revolution” in shale oil and gas may not be “changing the geopolitical and economic map of the world,” as its boosters bray. But new (environmentally disastrous) ways of extracting fuel from recalcitrant soil have turned the US from a dependent energy importer to a power source, in fact the world’s largest producer of natural gas. And they’ve given formerly Russia-addicted buyers new energy sellers to choose from.
Fuel exports run the Russian economy. A few facts:
- Russia is the most oil-dependent of the world’s 10 largest economies;
- Oil and gas account for more than half of federal government revenues;
- They make up nearly 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP);
- They account for 50% – 60% of Russia’s exports;
- Nearly 50% of Russian energy production is for export.
Lots of the exports run through three giant corporations: the State-run duo Gazprom and Rosneft, and the crony-controlled Lukoil. (The oil industry was imperfectly privatized under Yeltsin, though it’s heading back into Putin’s hands, but natural gas remained mainly under State management). Gazprom’s activities alone make up 8% of Russia’s GDP.
But oil and gas flowing from the US have shaken Russia’s market position — and its political power. It’s been forced to make unprecedented concessions to its consumers. In Asia, where Beijing claims even larger shale reserves than the US, “Russia has had to agree to the majority of China’s demands in recent purchase negotiations of crude oil and natural gas.” In Europe, it’s even worse. The Economist explains,
The shale revolution is changing the balance of power between the Russian bear and its European customers. In the past Russia was so confident of its producer power that it felt able to bully clients: it cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in both 2006 and 2009 during contract negotiations. But America’s shale-driven transformation … is pushing down the price of gas on the world market. Supplies of Middle Eastern liquefied gas that America no longer wants are now being offered to Europeans. This week a consortium was chosen to pipe gas from Azerbaijan to western Europe, further reducing dependence on Russian supplies. Europeans are finding they have bargaining power: Bulgaria recently negotiated a 20% price cut in its new ten-year contract with Russia.
Putin’s pals at Gazprom are especially suffering. The company draws 40% of its revenues from sales to Europe, and those are no longer pliant customers. Russia’s share of Europe’s natural gas purchases dropped from 45% to 31.8 % between 2003 and 2010; with some ups and downs, it’s still dropping. As a result Gazprom’s value fell from $369 billion in 2008 to less than $77 billion this June. “Russia is shooting itself in the foot,” Lithuania’s president recently remarked.
I’m not particularly thrilled about LGBT rights drawing advantage from the despicable practice of fracking; but let’s face it, there’s a window of opportunity here.
LGBT activists in Europe have a particularly ripe chance to press for change. Now is the time to demand their governments buy less Russian gas and oil. There’s a pragmatic reason: energy diversification is good. There’s a moral reason: Russia’s whole human rights record — not just its oppression of LGBT people. You can protest, demonstrate, make the case. You can hurt Putin in his bulging wallet, which is also the padded seat of his political power. (Germans, Italians: look at the chart above! Repression fires your stoves. Here’s the website of Gazprom’s German branch: and here is the page of “Gazprom Sport Germania,” its football-sponsoring PR side, an Olympic-sized irony just calling out for a nice demo.)
US activists’ options are more complicated. We don’t import so many Russian hydrocarbons. But look: Lukoil has moved into the US market. They bought Getty Oil some while ago; they own a bunch of former Mobil gas stations in the Northeast, including dozens scattered across New Jersey, right under Queer Nation’s nose. (Those stations created a local furor last year for price-gouging, by the way.) Here, too, is a sitting target: a chance to hit Putin in his petro-power, where it just might really hurt.
Russia now is a story told in pictures, still and moving. Everybody knows about Putin’s anti-gay law, because it’s been at the top of the news, gay and straight, for two weeks running; and if you’ve been following this even slightly, you’ve seen images like these — of homophobes brutally abusing Russian queers.
But what do they mean? Clips and snapshots keep cropping up on Western blogs. Here’s a ”horrific video showing Russian thugs have started entrapping gay men and boys,” posted by John Aravosis, with 85,000 hits on YouTube. Yet how can you evaluate it if nobody bothers to say where the hell they got it? Nor do most of the reposters have any qualms about showing the full faces of the people in these videos and photos: apparently once they’ve been outed and humiliated in Russia, they’re fair game in the rest of the world. (“While I am loathe to expose this young man any further, but [sic] this must be shown,” Melanie Nathan blogs while hawking one video. No, it mustn’t.) There’s a panicked compulsion to give us more and more pictures to consume, partly because they drive up Web traffic, partly because they lend an urgency that makes mere explanations seem distracting. But you can’t make sense of it unless you can say, not just see, something about what’s going on.
Pictures are problems. Photos pretend to tell us truths — a photograph “seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects,” wrote Susan Sontag — but, of course, they’re limited in what they tell. A photograph, or even a YouTube fragment of film, lacks context, is pulled free from the background that would give it meaning. You could argue (I’m sure someone has) that photographs of violence have an especially insidious appeal because all photographs are made in violence. Atrocity photos simply express the essence of the form: a few moments ripped from the seamless substance of the world, propped up in lopped and amputated isolation. You can use them, abuse them, put them in new contexts where they say and mean something completely different.
Russia is, as it happens, used to having its story told in images. Orthodoxy pioneered the use of icons for narrating religion to illiterate masses. To many Russian faithful still, these pictures don’t just show the sacred, they are it: a second, visual Gospel, sharing the authority and infallibility of the first. All those modern propaganda posters and imposing Red Square pageants draw on the same tradition: that seeing induces believing.
But we’re talking politics, not religion. And a picture must never be left to speak for itself. It’s not that hard to trace some of the stories behind these images. Due diligence requires it. At the very least, it can show Western activists how repression in Putin’s Russia goes far beyond a single “anti-gay law.” Moreover, you can learn much from the international economy of images in which these pictures circulate.
For example: the photograph at top comes from the page of Mikhail Solovyov, a neo-Nazi in the small, remote Urals city of Kamensk. (More on Kamensk soon.) It’s gone round the world; it’s become symbolic. Last week, a march against Putin’s law in Sweden saw the photo restaged as a tableau vivant, with a bear and a leather queen playing the abusive skinheads. (Isn’t this a peculiar way of protesting violence? I’ve been to countless demonstrations on Darfur, but never saw street theater enacting the invasion of the janjaweed.) How do I know that? Because a picture of the demo made its way back to Kamensk, and Mikhail Solovyov. He put it on his page too: with the caption,
Following the “advanced” West, you first recognize LGBT marriage, then pedophilia [as a] normal sexual orientation. … Pictured, representatives of foreign LGBT organizations protesting against catching pedophiles.
So where did all these pictures start?
Maxim Martsinkevich is probably the place to begin. Nothing about the 29-year-old would-be architect’s page at VK, Russia’s answer to Facebook, suggests a particularly distinctive skinhead. He goes by his nickname, “Tesak,” variously translated “machete,” “cleaver,” or — my favorite — “slasher.” He likes steroids, protein shakes, pointless displays of masculinity (three videos show him having a tooth pulled minus anesthetic), and Adolf Hitler. Yet he’s quite innovative as Nazis go. Early in the Putin years, he was the driving force behind Format18, a violent group that called itself the “armed wing” of Russia’s National Socialist party.
Format18 regularly assaulted immigrants and dark people. Its creativity lay in deciding that visibility — movie cameras coupled with social media — was not its enemy, but its friend. It filmed the attacks, turning them into imitation music videos that went viral on YouTube and VK. Google “Format18″ and “funny” and you’ll figure out why: their savage sense of humor. “Lol, I love those videos,” one European neo-Nazi says. “It’s funny when they beat people up then burn their passports.” Some of the videos showed murders.
You might say Slasher dealt in iconography, that Russian tradition of showing, not telling. Made visible, the violence spread terror among the people Format18 wanted scared; made consumable, it helped Format18 recruit. Many Russians had loathed foreigners and especially Southerners at least since the Chechen wars. (There’s ample evidence that Putin sealed his 2000 election victory by having the ex-KGB carry out apartment-building bombings that slaughtered hundreds of Russians — then blaming them on Chechen “terrorists.”) Format18′s videos changed killing foreigners from drab fascist duty into something sexy.
Slasher even became a minor star in Putin’s mainstream media, soundbiting his way onto talk shows. Then disaster struck. Starting in 2008, he was convicted twice for “inciting ethnic hatred”: once for breaking up a debate between democracy activists, and once for a video supposedly showing a Kazakh being hanged and dismembered. (The latter turned out to be staged with actors, though it was rumored to re-enact a real killing.) Format18 fell apart while he was in prison. Slasher’s popularity still smoldered, though. When he was freed in 2011, a video celebrating his release immediately became one of the most-watched YouTube offerings in Russia.
Slasher’s second act really got going sometime in 2012, though. His new idea was to apply Format18′s social-media methods to hunting down sexual perversion. His conceit was that Russia swarmed with chickenhawks chasing young men in impunity; he started gathering skinheads into a movement to combat them, called “Occupy Pedophilia.” The project’s genius lay in the potential drama. Most foreigners, after all, don’t or can’t hide their origin. But someone accused of pedophilia has every incentive to avoid exposure. Hence the titillation of humiliation, of violated privacy, topped off the violence. Reality TV replaced music videos as a model. Slasher seems to draw direct inspiration, in fact, from Dateline NBC‘s deranged To Catch a Predator series. He tries the same tactics: lure “pedophiles” with online ads allegedly placed by kids, then shame them with candid cameras. Except, unlike Dateline‘s wordy hosts, Slasher doesn’t waste time moralizing. He gets straight to the beatings.
Unaware Westerners call Putin a “czar” and focus on the letter of legislation, but this ignores the peculiarly lawless character of his rule. Police persecute dissidents, journalists, and businessmen who don’t pay and play along; meanwhile, many laws go unenforced, much actual crime unpunished. Slasher’s vigilantism thus is a ready route to popularity. And he can carry on his own obviously criminal campaign in the full light of YouTube with little tangible threat of prosecution.
But it’s worth stressing: the passionate, extralegal revulsion against “pedophiles” that Slasher exploits is not just a Russian emotion. The mania’s international. If Slasher donned mufti and put the skinhead clothes in mothballs, he’d have plenty of fans in the US or UK. At one American website, you can cast a ballot: “Should pedophiles and serial rapists be killed?” 86% vote yes; 14% no. That law-and-order Pasionaria Sarah Palin called for lynching child abuser Jerry Sandusky instead of trying him: “Hang him from the highest tree, I’ll bring the rope.” In Britain in 2000, News of the World, Rupert Murdoch’s now-sunken flagship, launched a campaign of “naming and shaming” sex offenders who had already served their time in prison. It
led to lynch-mob attacks, firebombings and rioting in at least 11 communities, with vigilantes in some cases attacking people who looked like the men pictured or who had been incorrectly identified as past offenders. In one town, the home of a pediatrician was attacked when anti-pedophile campaigners got their spelling confused.
Slasher, who probably thinks “pediatrician” is what you call a Jewish pedophile, would have been proud.
To be sure, there are specifically Russian inflections to Slasher’s popularity. “Protecting children” has taken on acute political meaning: exaggerated anxieties about Russia’s falling birthrate translate into fears that the national future is in danger. Putin’s state-promoted homophobia feeds on that. And Occupy Pedophilia is explicit in its homophobia. They have no evident interest in men who seek girls for sex. (One member told a reporter, “Why should we catch girls who have sex for money? That’s normal for me. A pedophile is a different kind of person.”) For them, male homosexuality and preying on children are pretty much the same thing.
In Kamensk, the online news source Lenta.ru interviewed Occupy Pedophilia members. “Homosexuals are almost sacred in this country,” one leader complained. ”We are against pedophiles, but we also do not like homosexuals. I don’t know why homosexuals protect pedophiles.” He added:
Some representatives of homosexuals came to my home recently … They said we mock people. They asked why we hate them. They said they feel oppressed. It just happened that they both somehow jumped into the garbage cans.
“If you see two young men walking down the street and holding hands, what would you do?” the reporter asks. The answer: “Interrogation. And then it all depends on them.”
That slippage between gays and predators is a common enough prejudice, in Russia as elsewhere. On the other hand, when Western activists redefine the men simply as “gay” victims, they should be aware they’re just reinforcing a widespread Russian belief that gays are identical to pedophiles. They need to note the nuance and stress the difference, not just confirm the belief.
Occupy Pedophilia has taken off. Its website claims groups in 21 cities. A Russian journalist counted 359 Occupy Pedophilia groups on VK; one of those pages has 75,000 followers. Most of the videos circulating in the West that show “gays” being beaten are from Occupy Pedophilia’s sites. (This page has almost 400 clips from around the country.) I’m not going to embed the full videos here, because I’m not going to show the men’s faces. Slasher’s own films are less violent than some of his provincial acolytes’. He strips victims, interrogates them, humiliates them. Other groups douse the victims with urine, or force them to drink it. This month, a police raid on the Occupy Pedophilia HQ in Sverdlovsk found “20 knives and sharpeners … 5 brass knuckles, 3 shuriken (Ninja throwing stars), nunchaku [Japanese chain sticks], a self-defense weapon ‘Blow,‘ 12 rounds of ammunition of various calibers and labels, as well as a wooden handle attached to a weighted chain, a metal hook with a chain, a metal hedgehog, 2 scythes, axes, wooden bats, and pepper spray.”
Several things should be emphasized. The entrapped men are of varying ages — from early 20s to 50s or 60s. Most were apparently lured by ads that promised teenage youths.
But there’s no evidence that most of them would be “pedophiles” under Russian law, or that, answering the ad aside, they’ve done anything wrong. The Occupy goons don’t care about the legal age of consent, which is 16 in Russia. Homosexuals “say a 16-year-old boy is already an adult, and can’t be corrupted,” a Kamensk skinhead complained to Lenta.ru. Reminded this is the law, “he shrugged.”
Indeed, sometimes Occupy Pedophilia doesn’t bother with the ads and the bait: they just pick up guys they think are gay on the street. One victim, Evgeny, told Rosbalt News that he went for an excursion with a girl “who’s dating a guy from ‘Occupy Pedophilia.’ … Based on others’ opinions, he decided I was gay, and it’s terrible that his girlfriend is talking to me.” At a bus stop,
Suddenly the guy attacked me. Hit my face and kicked my body… When I started bleeding from the nose, he stopped. I tried to get away to a safe distance, where a couple with a child were sitting. They lent a handkerchief but refused to help. After 10 minutes, three men approached. They began to ask me obscene questions and take pictures with their phones. … “When did you become gay? Do you have anal and oral sex?” They told passers-by that I was gay and would become a pedophile in the future. Some people got in conversations with them and even laughed. Next two of them tried to shove me into a car. They said they want to interview me … A woman waiting for a bus shouted she’d call the police. Hearing this … they jumped into the car [without me] and drove away.
Any hit TV series spawns a spinoff. Slasher’s violent reality show already has one. It’s called “Occupy Gerontophilia.”
Things get especially vicious here. “Philip Doenitz” founded Occupy Gerontophilia. That’s a pseudonym for Philip Razinsky, a fresh-faced Moscow student and Slasher groupie. He renamed himself after HItler’s successor: perhaps that’s how he sees himself next to Slasher, who probably should watch his back. At one point, Slasher used him as bait in entrapping older “pedophiles.” Then Philip branched out on his own.
Instead of hunting hawks, Occupy Gerontophilia chases the chickens. Doenitz assembled gangs of homophobic teenagers; they try to entrap other young guys into meetings with imaginary older ones, sometimes with the promise of money. A blogger explains,
Caught through social networks, 12-16 year-olds are invited to meet, then beaten and forced to talk to their about their homosexuality. Then it’s all laid out in VK groups, with the slogan “Do repost — break his life.” The teen is terrorized by sending out these videos to his friends, acquaintances and parents.
Occupy Gerontophilia is smaller than its anti-pedophile model: a reporter found only 14 VK groups, against over 300 for Occupy Pedophilia. VK keeps closing these down, much more often than it does Slasher’s direct progeny. In early July, a video Doenitz’s followers took in the town of Tambov provoked a surge of indignation. Local news recounts that ”On a dating site [the Occupy members] posed as a 23-year-old man and met a 12-year old schoolboy. They promised him money for the meeting; during all this, services of a sexual nature were not discussed. The child agreed and went.” Instead they bullied him in a 15-minute video, taunting him for homosexuality and prostitution. Police opened an investigation against the abusers; the video has been removed from the web. The newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets followed up on the 12-year-old’s fate:
He now refuses to go out or socialize with friends. But sadly, he doesn’t have many friends. Teenagers are cruel; the majority turned away from the humiliated boy. He will likely be removed from the school where he was studying before. … His mother even thinks about moving to a remote province, where there is no Internet and no one will know her son.
According to the Russian LGBT blog AntiDogma, in another July video Doenitz is seen blackmailing one of his victims, promising to release him and suppress the footage they’re filming if he gives one of his abusers a blow job. “I understand you don’t want it, but this is the only option or the movie hits the Internet. Your friends will see it 100%, and your parents.” He tells the child that sucking the guy won’t hurt: “One time only, shallow, a little bit.” This video too is mercifully gone from Doenitz’s VK page.
If Dateline offered inspiration to Slasher’s scams, Doenitz’s abuses are pure kid-on-kid bullying — but with a brutal, militaristic edge. Interviewed by Moskovskij Komsomolets, Doenitz defended his videos. Better that a child’s life “be broken in this way, than that he grow up gay, and continue to engage in prostitution for money. I care about their future. But a quiet life? They’re just not going to have it.” He added that, as outrage over his methods grows, he’s getting tougher.
I’ve decided to apply the methods of urine therapy with regard to juvenile gays — simply pour urine on them at the meeting. I will lead the conversation, too, in a more rigid form. The level of aggression at the present time will increase significantly.
In the provincial city of Lipetsk, Oleg, an Occupy Gerontophilia member, explained to another journalist that “I do not want to live in a society where they tell me that homosexuality is the norm. And if a teenager is selling himself for money, where’s the guarantee that after a few years he won’t start to seduce children?” Oleg says his group has “50 like-minded people, but I think there will be more soon.”
Among the questions all this raises, some stand out.
a) What’s the relationship between skinhead violence and Putin’s State? Through the first decade of Putin’s rule, neo-Nazis were usually found, if uneasily, among the opposition. Putin used them to divide his opponents — many democrats wouldn’t be seen at the same demo with them — but distrusted them. The 3 1/2 year sentence meted out to Slasher for staging a Kazakh’s mock-murder was indicative: where possible, Putin wanted their violence kept under control.
When the current Occupy antics go too far in rousing outrage, the authorities will step in with at least token threats of prosecution. (In Sverdlovsk oblast, Occupy Pedophilia is under investigation by the Ministry of the Interior’s Center for Combating Extremism; most Russians would be surprised there is such a thing.) But since the 2011 protests against his rigged re-election — the most serious challenge to his rule in over a decade — Putin has lurched rightward in calculated fashion. He hopes to peel off ultra-nationalists from the anti-Putin coalition, where they’ve been perhaps the most reliable street presence. His current nationalist, natalist, morally conservative language (and legislation) is part of the plan.
In this sense, Slasher et. al. are playing Putin’s game, rousing public anger against imaginary enemies — and, by their vigilantism, whipping up demand for an ever-stronger State to step in. The very fact that they’ve dubbed their moral-minority movements “Occupy” is telling. “Occupy” was a totemic term among the 2011-2012 anti-Putin demonstrators, as for many democracy activists around the world. By co-opting it for trivial moral policing, Slasher depoliticizes the word, and helps channel those revolutionary energies toward private ends. He makes deviance the issue, not democracy. Most ultra-rightists in Russia still loathe Putin. But whether or not Slasher realizes it, he’s acting out Putin’s strategy.
b) Are the abuses a recent thing, a product of Putin’s new law? You’d think so, to read the gay blogosphere, which only just heard about them. Most Western gay commentators haven’t followed anything in Russia for the last ten years except the highly public, counterproductive efforts to stage Gay Pride in Moscow — a fiasco that has run at cross-purposes to other Russian LGBT activists’ patient efforts at building communities. So naturally, all these stories surprise them, and get lumped together with the panic over Putin’s law.
Melanie Nathan blogs that “since the introduction of new homophobic laws in Russia, the violence against gays has increased.” But there’s no evidence for this. It’s language that creates an atmosphere of urgent crisis (“the terror is so rife at this time, that it is equally criminal for us to be silent”), in which something — anything – must be done (“To my way of thinking it should be all or nothing“). It negates the fact that the repression in Russia has been going on for a long time and has deep roots. Occupy Pedophilia is at least a year old, and many of the videos cited as evidence of abuses now actually go back months. The Occupy Gerontophilia film that Nathan points to, as proof of “new terror unfold[ing] before our eyes” in August, shows snow on the ground.
It’s quite plausible that the Occupy twins, Pedo and Geronto, have fed on the anti-homosexual rhetoric of Putin’s party. They certainly will feed on the political restrictions and stigma that the new legislation will create. Easy to fight enemies who can’t talk back! But it’s equally plausible that they’ve been nourished by the same general environment – of demonizing difference, marginalizing minorities, doling out rights like sweets to the deserving — that powered Putin’s legislation in the first place.
The anti-propaganda bill is odious, and must be scrapped. But repealing it will not make Slasher go away, or ensure gay men’s and children’s safety, or guarantee the civil liberties of LGBT people or anybody else in Russia. The problems are more profound than a single law. They involve the regime’s use of violence and murder against opponents, its stigmatizing and scapegoating of convenient Others, its suppression of civil society across the board. The current publicity is a chance to engage Western activists with Russian issues over the long haul; letting them rest content with short-term answers is a catastrophic failure. To tell Western gays that they need only pressure Putin about a single issue, then sit back satisfied if their demands are met, is to offer all the Slashers carte blanche for a future career of abuse.
c) Is this just a gay issue? No. Slasher and other neo-Nazis were attacking — and murdering — guest workers, immigrants, and other foreigners, along with dark-looking Russians and Muslims of all sorts, for years before Occupy Pedophilia started. That’s still their first priority. Even the Occupy Pedophilia thugs are never happier than when a gay-seeming “Uzbek waiter” or Korean student falls into their hands.
No Russian LGBT activist would fail to see the link between homophobic violence and this history of racism (possibly excepting Nikolai Alekseev, who’s flirted with racist extremists at various points in his career). It’s irresponsible for Western LGBT activists to ignore it. When they complain of “terrorism” against gays, and don’t admit that immigrants and ethnic minorities have faced the same terror for decades, they’re not just wrong: they hurt their own cause. “We should not be silent when a country is being oppressive to our friends,” Duncan Osborne of New York’s Gay City News said in promoting a Russia boycott. Are gays the West’s only friends? Are ethnic Uzbeks, Koreans, or Chechens strangers or, worse, enemies? To foster that impression is morally intolerable.
d) Are they killing gays? There have been horrible homophobic murders — most recently a 23-year-old in Volgograd, killed by two acquaintances in May when he told them he was gay. But for some of the stories circulating now, there’s no evidence.
The latest account comes from Kamensk (again). In mid-July, Mikhail Solovyov of the Occupy Pedophilia group posted a video showing an entrapped “Uzbek” being questioned: a “pedophile, who worked as a waiter in a restaurant,” and “came to visit a 14-year-old teenager.” There were also photos of him (like the one at top) abused and humiliated: stripped, smeared with red paint, forced to hold a dildo, painted blue and doused in piss. These were picked up by Valentin Degterev, a doctor living in Kamensk, on his blog, and went around the world.
On August 1, Degterev announced that the Uzbek had died of his injuries. No one has been able to confirm this, and a number of things don’t quite make sense. For one, this news came more than two weeks after the first pictures of the “interrogation” appeared. For another, the images circulating show the victim being degraded, but don’t suggest life-threatening injuries. Degterev is a passionate, even heroic anti-Fascist who follows the local neo-Nazis obsessively: but I can’t vouch for his reliability on this without independent verification. Still, the story mushroomed on the Internet in grossly distorted form. In the UK, both Pink News (which called the killing a “claim”) and Gay Star News (which reported it as gospel) turned the “murder victim” into a “gay teen” for sensation’s sake — despite the obvious fact that he was, from the pictures, in his twenties at minimum.
Earlier stories of deaths in Kamensk had failed to check out. In April, Occupy Pedophilia entrapped a 19-year-old, Alex Bulygin, to meet a fake 16-year-old. They “interrogated” him, beat him, and forced him to drink urine. In June, the group gloatingly claimed on their VK page that he had hanged himself in shame, which they presented as an “exemplary” encouragement to their members. Yet a Lenta.ru reporter, visiting Kamensk in July, learned that Bulygin was alive.
Occupy Pedophilia Kamensk is, however, renowned for its toughness even among the movement’s reprobates. As one journalist writes, it “operates much more harshly than other branches.” Allusions to death haunt its doings. At a July 1 rally in support of Putin’s anti-propaganda law, in the nearby town of Bogdanovich, the okkupatsi carried banners saying “50% of gays are pedophiles,” and a coffin. They titled a clip of the march “Bulygin’s funeral.”
If the Kamensk group hasn’t killed anybody yet, they stand a good chance of doing so in future. The weapons cache I mentioned, found at their lair in nearby Sverdlovsk, is telling. Their videos seem more violent than others in the Occupy Pedophilia movement, too — at least judging from those on the page of movement activist Lev Vychurov (whose permanent status is “I HATE YOU ALL”). They force foam in victims’ anuses (as in the video above, titled “Anal Watchman”). They make them swallow urine, which they call the “magic elixir.” In one film, “Loser on the Run,” a man is electroshocked, sprayed with what seems to be urine in his eyes, beaten both indoors and outdoors, and kicked in the head. And here I’ll break my own strictures and show part of his face — because the face says more than all my words ever could:
The world and the Internet are now full of passionate proposals for doing something about Russia: boycotts, protests, shows of solidarity from the sincere to the specious. I don’t know what to add. But I’d suggest pressuring VK.com to act vigorously to remove pages from its site that portray abuses or promote criminal acts. (The company’s financial history is shady, but information on its ownership structure can be found here.) That would at least slow the ceaseless circulation of these images of violence, which (to paraphrase words that Jorge Luis Borges once attributed to an imaginary heretic) multiply the most abominable aspects of humankind.
“Human mapping”? This has something to do with DNA, right? You plot out all those genomes, and pretty soon you can rebuild Einstein from some vitamin pills and a teaspoon of battery fluid. Before you put that primeval soup on the stove, though, be aware the phrase means other things. In Afghanistan, “‘human maps‘ help fight Taliban”:
”I’m 105 years old,” said Bismiullah, an old man stopped by a patrol in southern Afghanistan as part of military efforts to map the population in the battle against the Taliban. …
Troops in the region and across Afghanistan are gathering photographs, fingerprints and employment details as well as canvassing opinions from local residents to find out what they want for the war-racked province. The goal is to strengthen relations between pro-government forces and the local population.
But the information gathered can also help troops catch Taliban fighters, for example by matching fingerprints on home-made bombs or guns.
Formally known as human terrain mapping, the process is a key strand of the strategy to build better ties between pro-government forces and local people as the war enters arguably its most important year.
Yes, fingerprinting centenarians is a great way to win hearts and minds! As with most counter-insurgency efforts, however, those organs are less important than controlling musculature and movement. In Vietnam or Malaysia, the imperial powers isolated populations in “strategic hamlets” to keep them away from rebel forces. Now you use information and the associated technologies to identify people, fix loyalties and locations, survey where people go. “The guerrilla must swim in the people as the fish swims in the sea,” Mao said, more or less. The old idea was to drain the water and leave the fish exposed and flopping. Now, you tag it with an electronic beeper, and later set a drone after it. Politics as animal control!
We don’t have guerillas here in the United States, but you can never be too careful. That, at least, is the argument behind the New York Police Department’s recently revealed, hugely controversial surveillance plan to keep tabs on Muslims. The Associated Press’s reporting on this in the last few months has unveiled an enormous domestic intelligence program, arguably the most insidious since the COINTELPRO probes honeycombed the Left back in the 1960s. There were “mosque crawlers” sent to infiltrate places of worship; there were spies on student groups at jihadist caravanserais like Yale; there was “human mapping” of “communities of interest” and “Locations of Concern.” A “Location of Concern,” so the cops’ secret papers say, is a
–Localized center of activity for a particular ethnic group.
–Location that persons of concern may be attracted to.
–Location that individuals may frequent to search for ethnic companionship.
–Location that individuals may find co-conspirators for illegal actions.
Or: a “Popular hangout or meeting location for a particular ethnic group that provides a forum for listening to neighborhood gossip or otherwise provide an overall feel for the community.” Just watch these terrorists:
And there are literal maps:
In addition to Egyptians, Afghanis, and Nigerians in teeming Newark, the NYPD also mapped out Brazilians and Portuguese. Each fado may conceal a fatwa, if you play it backwards. The flame of the churrascaria burns in the eyes of the martyrs.
Plenty of people have condemned New York’s spy system since the story broke, but the Obama administration has been quiet. Today, though, we learned that US government money went to pay for the local secret-police work:
The money is part of a little-known grant intended to help law enforcement fight drug crimes. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush and Obama administrations have provided $135 million to the New York and New Jersey region through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, known as HIDTA….
The White House HIDTA grant program was established at the height of the drug war to help police fight drug gangs and unravel supply routes. It has provided about $2.3 billion to local authorities in the past decade.
The War on Drugs morphed, like a late-model Terminator, into the War on Terror. “After the terror attacks, law enforcement was allowed to use some of that money to fight terrorism.” We don’t know exactly how much is some: “NYPD intelligence operations receive scant oversight in New York. Congress, which approves the money for the program, is not provided with a detailed breakdown of activities.” $1.3 million of the money, though, went to buy cars that “have been used to photograph mosques and record the license plates of worshippers.”
In addition … the White House money pays for part of the office space the intelligence division shares with other agencies in Manhattan. When police compiled lists of Muslims who took new, Americanized names, they kept those records on HIDTA computer servers. That was ongoing as recently as October, city officials said.
Many NYPD intelligence officers, including those that conducted surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods, had HIDTA email addresses. Briefing documents for Kelly, the police commissioner, were compiled on HIDTA computers. Those documents described what police informants were hearing inside mosques and which academic conferences Muslim scholars attended.
When police wanted to pay a confidential informant, they were told to sign onto the HIDTA website to file the paperwork…
The truth is that governance in the US has been slipping fully into the modes and mindset of a security state for a long time. The government sees large parts of its population not as citizens or constituencies, but as potential objects of a counterinsurgency campaign.
The security state no longer legitimates itself by safeguarding the general welfare. Neoliberalized and mortgaged up to its testicles, it’s given up on that. It defines itself by its ability to defend the borders: to provide military triumphs, a sufficient if never unquestionable sense of safety, and some colorful, invigorating rah-rah . Since there is a limit to how often threats from outside can be conjured or concocted, it eventually turns to other enemies, internal, intestinal. Its purpose becomes defending part of the population against another part.
The War on Drugs, far from being a placid predecessor of the Terror Games, was a perfect template. It identified marked, ethnically defined groups within the citizenry as Communities of Interest (and don’t think I mean the white suburbanites who recharged the coke market in the ’80s). It mapped out Locations of Concern, and helped resegregate the Interestees in them. It charted a new geography. It plotted out the ties of import and exchange that linked Concernful places inside the boundaries — in inner cities, in shuttered crack houses, in the muling guts of migrant women — to strategic Concerns and enemies abroad, from Colombia to Kandahar. The internal crisis became a cause for external action. We devastated Panama, or seized the poppy fields of Afghanistan, because invisible tendrils tied them to our own neighborhoods. The sense of mysterious linkage made for menace, but out of it we recuperated the knowledge that we were different, and better. (Steven Soderbergh’s weird, fantasy movie Traffic, about the drug trade, makes the myths explicit: he filmed the Mexico scenes on old, yellow stock, as if foreign air were made of different chemicals and, once immersed in it, you start swimming through molasses.) War at home and war abroad cooperated. Other nations’ sovereignties surrender to our impotence over what happens within our own. Most recently, the US presided over a massacre in Jamaica: local police and military killed dozens of civilians in order to capture a single drug lord who had offended against the Americans. What we ask of our allies in South America or the Caribbean is that they become slightly less chaotic versions of Waziristan.
This means, too, that the Wars on Drugs and on Terror amount in essence to a single War: the big one, on the Poor. Mike Davis wrote a decade ago about the coming urban landscapes where states will control unemployed and disenfranchised masses of migrants with force. That’s what you’ve got in Brazil. What the US pushed Jamaica’s government to do, Dilma Roussef did at her own discretion (with, to be sure, the added push of cleaning up Rio for the coming Olympics): she called in the military to invade and clean up the favelas.
The NYPD, I’m afraid, is onto something. It’s true that the closest thing to a terror attack on the city in the last decade was foiled, not by their millions in surveillance money, but by a T-shirt vendor who noticed an oddly smoking car in Times Square. But for Mayor Bloomberg, this only means we have to enlist the entire T-shirt vending community as permanent informers. Faced with the fact that “The NYPD routinely monitored the websites, blogs and forums of Muslim student associations at colleges including Yale, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania,” he answered: “If going on websites and looking for information is not what Yale stands for, I don’t know.” We need an enemy, and if a sophomore blogger is what we’re stuck with, run with what you got. The watching cameras multiply. This is our new world, where all the wars are civil wars.