The Duggars: Sex and the police

Madonna of the multiplication tables: Michelle Duggar with her newborn 17th child in 2007, surrounded by her family

Lady Madonna: Michelle Duggar with her newborn 17th child in 2007, surrounded by her family

I knew nothing about the Duggars until two days ago; and, as Karl Kraus might say, now that I know all about them I feel much less well informed. Apparently in America you can become a tourist attraction just by giving birth on schedule. Michelle Duggar did it at year-and-a-half intervals for 27 years, like a fertile Old Faithful, and she parlayed it into her own TV show. The Duggars spawned 19 children; they monogrammed the kids, all their names beginning with “J” (for daddy Jim Bob, or maybe Jesus, or the life-inciting jism); Mom has spent 144 months pregnant, 12 years of her life; they go through 16 boxes of cereal, 7 gallons of milk, and 40 loads of laundry a week. This isn’t a family, it’s a factory. They don’t give love, they produce shareholder value. Learning about them is like leafing through Enron’s glossy annual reports before the fall. The facts and figures impress, but don’t inform; their accumulation teaches nothing. Now that I’m familiar with the Duggars, I’ve diminished rather than increased my useful knowledge about the world.

Love on the assembly line: Bible before breakfast at the Duggars' dining table

Love on the assembly line: Bible before breakfast at the Duggars’ dining table

A gossip magazine made me taste, in matters Duggar, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Last week In Touch reported that eldest son Josh Duggar “was named in a police report as the ‘alleged offender’ in an underage sexual abuse probe.” It’s been nonstop furor since. Josh, 27, was a rising right-winger, a lobbyist for the wildly homophobic Family Research Council. He takes after his hardshell Baptist parents. From their Arkansas home, mother Michelle did robocalls last year opposing a local anti-discrimination law, warning parents it would allow trans people — “males with past child predator convictions” — to “endanger their daughters or allow them to be traumatized by a man joining them in their private space.” The scandal and the hypocrisy practically mandate gays and their friends to gloat.

I have no patience for the Duggars’ homilies, or for their show, which I never watched. (Their channel pulled it from the air tonight, endangering those breakfast bills but possibly forcing them to earn an honest living.) It’s the schadenfreude I question — and fear. Is demanding Josh Duggar’s head a blow for liberation? Or is it surrender masquerading as a victory? Does it give an inadvertent imprimatur to the punitive laws and the punitive state that have spent decades making LGBT people their victims? In playing along with moral panic, is it ourselves we hurt?

There’s plenty of “gleeful, gotcha-style excitement,” as Mary Elizabeth Williams calls it, out there.

Screen shot 2015-05-22 at 11.34.33 PMAnd there were a lot of unfunny jokes displaying zero sympathy for the alleged victims.

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 10.00.58 AMBut what’s the truth? In Touch has now released the 2006 police report on Josh Duggar, their only evidence. It’s on their website, heavily redacted by the local constabulary. (They’ve blacked out not only names, but, weirdly, personal pronouns that are completely obvious from the context. It’s a pathetic attempt to make it seem police are protecting the Duggars’ privacy, when in fact they’re putting the ordeals of minors on display. In quoting, I’ve restored the missing pronouns in brackets where possible.)

The report is bureaucratic and boring, yet a wind of paranoia blows through it from the blanks and deletions, a window ajar on a menacing wilderness. A Victorian atmosphere of fear, silence, and suddenly forced speech cohabits with sunny split-level certainties, as though a Gothic novel had mated with The Brady Bunch. Start then with how the Duggars governed their brood. They were all homeschooled. The kids had limited contact with life outside – with what hardcore evangelicals call “the secular world.” All their curiosities and impulses had no object but each other. Sexual stimulation was an intense source of fear. The whole family had to wear “modest dress,” even in the swimming pool, as Mom Michelle explains:

[W]e felt like we needed to be covered from our neck to below our knees … [W]e don’t want to play peekaboo so that there’s a visual element that might defraud someone. For us the definition of the word defrauding is to stir up desires in someone else that cannot be righteously fulfilled.

Wholesome wear: Duggar girls model their undefrauding swimsuits

Swimsuit issue: Duggar girls model their wholesome, undefrauding swimwear

And amid this, in March 2002, one of the children told Daddy Jim Bob (as Jim Bob later told police) that Josh had been sneaking into a common bedroom and touching one of his sisters “on the breasts and vaginal area … this had occurred 4 or 5 times.” The victim herself only “remembered one time when [she] woke up and [Josh] was taking [her] blanket away, but [she] did not remember anything else.” This was definitely not righteous fulfillment. Jim Bob confronted Josh. At least two anguished family meetings followed, warning everyone about “inappropriate touching.” But in July of that year, Josh confessed to his father that he’d also touched the breasts of a girl from another family, while she was sleeping at their house, on the couch. “About 9 months later,” in March of 2003, according to Jim Bob, “there was another incident”; Josh touched one of the girls, who was sitting on his lap while he read to her. And, “sometime during this time frame,” while another daughter “was standing in the laundry room,” doing one of those 40 loads, Josh “had put [his] hand under [her] dress.”

Josh was born on March 3, 1988; this all happened when he was 14. The redactions in the report conceal how old the alleged victims were. From the details that slip through, I’d guess they ranged, when interviewed, from perhaps 10 to 16; since the police investigation happened over three years after the acts (I’ll get to that in a minute), that means they might – I stress this — have been 7 at the youngest, 13 at the oldest, at the time.

That’s a big gap. But it is also important to look at exactly what the police learned from these interviews. The children went one by one to the Springdale Children’s Safety Center, for an intimidatingly formal encounter with the cops. In each case, the report says, officers “started the interview by getting to know them”: by offering an anatomical diagram, perhaps a discomfiting icebreaker for a child.

Four of the Duggar daughters on the cover of their tie-in book

Fundamentalist fiction: Four of the Duggar daughters on the cover of their tie-in book

Start with the girl on the couch. She told police she remembered nothing except that she “half way” woke up and felt Josh “trying to take the blanket.” She “stated that [she] did not know what [Josh] had done until later,” when he “confessed that he had done some things wrong.” Josh “asked for forgiveness for touching [her] improperly” and for “having wrong motives.” The detective asked “if [she] had any worries, concerns, or if [she] was scared. [She] sad [sic] no.”

The girl guest in the Duggars’ house similarly had no memories of being touched. “It happened when [she] was asleep. … approximately three and a half to four years ago [her] parents got a phone call from Jim Bob and Michelle. [She] said they told [her] parents that they needed to talk … the Duggars came and apologized [to her. She] said that [they?] told [her] that [he] touched [her] while [she] was sleeping. [Josh] said it only happened one time.”

What the interviews do suggest is that after those family meetings, the whole clan was on sexual alert, especially though perhaps not exclusively where Josh was concerned. Police interviewed another daughter, whose story Daddy Jim Bob had apparently not mentioned to them. It’s not clear it shows abuse; it shows an atmosphere of intra-family suspicion where physical contact instantly received strict scrutiny. “Inv[estigator] Taylor asked if something happened. [She] said some thing happened a long time ago.” Josh “had touched [her] inappropriately … [She] said [he] felt bad about it.”

Inv. Taylor asked what happened to [her. She] said [she] did not remember much … [She] said she was walking through [?unknown] and [he] started scratching [her] back. [She] said her clothes were on, but [he] was scratching [her] back on [her] skin. [She] said [he] pulled her shirt up and touched [her]. [She] said [she?] felt bad about it and told their parents. [She] said [she] told them that he had touched her chest.

“He touched me inappropriately” sounds like repeating a parental warning. Specifics of the touch are vague, though. After pointing to breasts and vagina on an anatomical chart, “Inv. Taylor asked if anyone had ever asked [her] to touch them or make [her] do anything she did not want to do. [She] said no.”

Arkansas modernism: The great room of the Duggar's house

Fundamentalist modernism: The great room of the Duggars’ house

Another daughter described the reading incident. “it happened once when [Josh] was reading all the kids a book.” Seemingly all the children were in the room, and the girl was sitting on the arm of his chair. “ Josh “dropped the book and ran from the room.” Another sibling, it seems, “called their parents and told them what had happened.” Josh, the interviewee says, had

touched her on the skin … [she] was sitting down and had pulled [her] dress up because it had a hole in it. [She] said [she] had pants on under the dress and [he] pulled them down. [She] said [he] touched [her] private. [She] said it felt weird.

Inv. Taylor asked [her] to point to where [Josh] touched her on the anatomical drawing. [She] pointed to the buttocks and said it happened on the outside.

This incident seems weird indeed, not least because it happened in front of all the children. It’s not clear where he touched or how. But beneath the blurred details it’s reasonably clear that any “touching “Josh did by then, even under everyone’s eyes, could incite an indefinite but collective alarm.

Finally, there’s the girl in the laundry room.

Inv. Taylor asked if [she] knew why [she] was there for interview. [She] then started to cry. Inv. Taylor handed [her] a tissue. [She] said that [Josh] did something to [her] four years ago. [She] said [she] did not remember what [he] had done exactly. [She] said all [she] remembers is that [she] was on the washing machine and [he] picked [her] up and did something to [her]. … [She] said [she] did not remember what [he] had done. [She] said he had stuck [his] hand up [her] dress, but did not remember what [he] had done.

Her tears echo with me. But why was she crying? We don’t know. Was it because she was recalling a traumatic memory? Or did the trauma stem from being forced, in an institutional setting, to revisit for police an ambiguous incident that derived part of its meaning from family division, mistrust, and fear? Was the trauma in the event, the context, or the compelled retelling?

There are many things we don’t know about these stories, and many ways to read them. Something happened. Josh confessed at the time to “improper touching” and “wrong motives”; he “acted inexcusably,” he said in his ritual mea culpa this week. But how? He was never charged with any crime. (For more on why, see the Note at the end of this post.) I can only offer one subjective view.

Clearly Josh Duggar was a troubled child: an adolescent discovering his desires in repressive confines that gave them neither legitimacy nor outlet.The gamut of possible rubrics for his reported acts runs from odious to “merely” creepy. Why, though, is everybody sure the first recourse should have been criminal law and the police? There was no penetration, no intercourse, no incest, no violence, no force. There’s no clear sign that anybody suffered trauma, or any other harm. Most of the five girls remembered either nothing, or something too vague to be categorized, much less criminalized: a palimpsest of a seemingly minor experience and its subsequent panicked redescriptions. And even the number of his offensive actions remains indeterminable. Several of the later stories could be the product of a family environment already prone to moral paranoia about sexuality, and now perpetually on watch. We know too little to decide.

Photo depicts Josh Duggan at 27. Headline describes  Josh Duggan at 14. From Intouchweekly.com.

Photo depicts Josh Duggar at 27. Headline describes Josh Duggar at 14. From Intouchweekly.com.

The media are full of pictures of portly, 27 year-old Josh with the headline Child Molester. These deliberately obscure the fact that when it all happened, he was a child. Originally the “child molester” label meant menacing adults despoiling innocents. It’s only in recent years that we’ve come to believe that innocence is under threat from the innocents themselves.

And here, I think, the Duggar story melds with deep contemporary anxieties. Judith Levine has analyzed the rise, in American popular culture since the 1980s, of “a new ‘epidemic,’ the ‘sexualization’ of children; a new class of patient, ‘children with sexual behavior problems’; and a new category of sexual criminal perpetrator, ‘children who molest.’” Forms of sexual exploration that for decades or more, in a liberalizing society, had been unproblematic or normal for kids suddenly met a sharp punitive backlash. The very economic and social freedoms that many (middle-class) children enjoyed made parents fearful. “Experts” discovered danger in ever more private, domestic, and previously innocuous actions. Kids became the darkest threat to other kids.

As Roger Lancaster reveals in Sex Panic and the Punitive State, reports of child sex abuse in the US rose from 6,000 in 1976 to 350,000 twelve years later – a fifty-eight-fold increase. Was abuse exponentially growing? Were hundreds of thousands of survivors stepping forward? Or was the country in the grips of a panic, seeking sex and imagining abuse in gestures and conduct where they’d never been seen before?  Likely, the latter. The panic was also helpful to a Reagan-era state fortifying its police powers. The pedophile in the house, Lancaster writes, “circulates fear of crime beyond the inner city and into the outer suburb. He thus fosters security measures and watchfulness in places far removed from any crime scene. He anchors the culture of control firmly within the far-flung redoubts of the white heterosexual middle-class family.”

Panic is a wave of articles: Google NGram graph of references to

Panic is a wave of articles: Google NGram graph of references to “child sexual abuse” in books published 1940-2008

Creating the child pedophile proved a particularly potent trigger for fear. Levine cites a welter of stories:

In 1996, in Manchester, New Hampshire, a ten-year-old “touched [two girls] in a sexual manner” (he grabbed at them on the school playground) and was charged with two counts of rape. In New Jersey, a neurologically impaired twelve-year-old who groped his eight-year-old stepbrother in the bath was compelled to register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law, a mark that could stigmatize him for life. In 1999, the newspapers briefly bristled with reports of a “child sex ring” in York Haven, Pennsylvania, in which “children as young as 7 .. taught each other to have sex.” An eleven-year-old girl was convicted of rape.

A single mother in Long Island, New York, tracked me down in 1999 to ask for help for her thirteen-year-old son, Adam, who had been accused of sexually rubbing against his eleven-year-old sister (she had boasted of her sexual experience to her friends, who were urged by her to report him to a school counselor). Adam was arrested, handcuffed, threatened with prosecution on adult felony charges, then placed in a youth sex offenders’ program in an austere Catholic residence (he was Jewish), where he was paroled after a year on the condition that he undergo at least another year of outpatient treatment.

A grandmother told Levine how a sex-offender institution kept her 11-year-old grandson locked up, despite pleas to release him. His refusal to confess, they said, showed he was “in denial.” After four years of incarceration for demanding what he was too young to call due process, the child killed himself.

Of course children can be violent; they can abuse and rape. And abusive sex within families is real. Accusations of incest have racked families I’m close to, even related to; I know how traumatic both the stories and the consequences can be. But Duggar was not accused of incest or violence or rape: only, and ambiguously, of fondling other children. Maybe we’ll learn something – some new story, from some new victim – that limns a conclusive horror. Till then, though, we need to ask the LGBT people piling on his case why they think he should be treated as the worst kind of criminal danger – and why the brand of “sex offender,” based on stories from his fourteenth year that led to neither charges nor conviction, should irrevocably make him a pariah a decade after the fact.

It’s clear what Duggar’s critics want to see: jail time, or worse.

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 10.07.21 AMPresumed innocent? Forget it. Delusionary activists confuse the police report with a court conviction; without even a criminal charge, Duggar’s guilt is “confirmed.”

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 9.57.08 AMEven supporting the guy merits prison:

So did his defenders

And Dan Savage weighs in:

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 2.51.52 AM

Just pause there. Savage wants Child Protection Services to descend with their full panoply of powers on the parents twelve years after – not on the alleged abuser, who’s grown up and doesn’t even live in the house. (Of course, police already interviewed almost half the children without parents present.) Presumably he wants the law, after inflicting its own brand of trauma on the kids, to ship them all to foster homes. Savage endorses the principle behind sex offender registries, with a vengeance: that “sex crime” accusations deprive you permanently of your civil rights, along with everyone around you. A teenage misdeed marks you for life, and your blood relations. This is a new stage in Savage’s transition from self-proclaimed “sex radical” to exponent of middle-class paranoia at its most unthinking. He takes what authorities do to gay men as a model; he just wants it done to everybody else.

The premise here is that the parents led a “cover-up.” And the basis is that when Daddy Jim Bob first heard his son might have fondled his sister – an act she didn’t remember – he should have summoned the police immediately. Here the underlying fear becomes clear: when children have problems and sex is involved, it’s a criminal matter first and above all. The law’s the best and only remedy for troubled children; the overwhelming danger they present demands the most draconian intervention. It’s all quite odd. Plenty of liberal Americans admit that our cops are racist torturers, our prisons are overpacked, our courts are warped and broken, the system runs on retributive fantasies – until they come up against a crime involving sex. Then those courts are paradigms of fairness, those brutal police our best friends; then it’s lock them up and throw away the key! And they seem almost triply eager to entrust human lives to the corrupt and unscrupulous system when the accused is a fourteen year-old child.

Crime control, as Lancaster writes, has become “the ‘pivot of governance’” in America; and sex is central to it. The specter of sexual predation dominates American culture, more dangerous than almost any other threats – economic disaster, political disempowerment, even the violent crimes we used to fear. Only terrorism rivals it. It’s a mythic, not material, peril. Innocence, Lancaster says – “a euphemism for child sexlessness” – has become the “new watchword, apparently more valued than children themselves. And offences against this childhood innocence have become a crime capable of inflaming opinion, inciting juries, and inspiring rash actions.” It’s natural that these invisible wrongs become the place par excellence where the police recover their respectability, the law its utility, the state its power. What we don’t notice is how our secular fear of sex replicates the Duggars’ religious strictures.

I challenge anybody to say, if they were Josh’s parent, the first allegation would have led them to call the police. Daddy Jim Bob alerted the rest of the family, in what seems to have been a effort to protect them. Apparently he immediately contacted the parents of the one alleged victim outside the family – appropriately: that is, he put the choice of whether or not to summon the police in their hands. All this is not a “cover-up,” though it does reflect a reluctance to send his son to prison. Where his response failed conspicuously was in finding a therapeutic solution. Jim Bob consulted his church elders, he claims; mistrusting secular programs, he sent Josh to “a Christian program in Little Rock which they felt more comfortable with.” He doesn’t seem to have considered therapy for his daughters. And the program, if it existed (the details are vague) was probably awful. If the boy derived any benefit – the accusations did stop after he turned 15 – it may have been simply from leaving home for a slightly less hothouse environment.

Reportedly, the Duggars’ homeschooling courses used materials from Bill Gothard, a Christian pseudo-educational guru whose model curricula include discussions of sexual abuse like this:

CFoory8UkAAh7mK(There’s a whole website, recoveringgrace.org, devoted to people damaged by Gothard’s teaching materials; and this page offers more insight into how his minions view abuse.) If that’s true, it suggests any therapeutic response to Josh’s deeds that the Duggars endorsed might have only have added to the problem.

But paranoia about sex is not exclusive to Christian-right therapy. Neither is the replacement of rehabilitation by stigma, shame, and blame. Levine writes how, in respected programs for supposed child offenders,

the distinction between punishment and treatment is becoming more difficult to discern. A great deal of what passes for sex-offender treatment (such as an increasing number of “emotional growth” and other behavior-modification programs for misbehaving and violent youths) has been challenged as dubiously therapeutic and even abusive in itself. Moreover, unlike kids whose sentences are meted out by the juvenile justice system, those who become entangled in the mechanisms of “cure” are denied the legal protections afforded even adult perpetrators of the most heinous crimes.

One program she visited, she says, was “surely not the worst”:

But it was typical of youth sex-offender “therapy” today: steeped in conservative sexual values, behaviorist in approach, and employing classic good cop-bad cop manipulations by staff. … the practice was anything but consensual, and the rights of both children and parents were all but disregarded. The minute a child touched his neighbor’s penis or buttocks, he had been assumed devoid of moral faculties; there was simply no debating whether what he did was wrong. A patient received no due process: as long as he protested his innocence, he was “in denial” (the psychotherapeutic equivalent of “in contempt”) and could be dropped from the program that was a prerequisite of reunification with his family. Or worse: His treatment, unlike a jail sentence, could go on for years, during which he relinquished his own and his friends’ rights to privacy. Anything he said could be reported to the authorities, and in many programs he was required to furnish the names of everyone he’d had sex with.

Is this child abuse? What’s certain is that it shares with the Duggars’ ideology a deep, disabling fear of sex. The fear is turned in different directions, but it’s equally overpowering. And it’s kids who suffer.

The next generation; Duggar daughter describes her delivery to People magazine, while Rock Hudson looks on in alarm

The next generation; Duggar daughter describes childbirth to People magazine last month, while Rock Hudson watches, unimpressed

The other aspect of the cover-up charge is that the Duggars kept this from the press. Presumably the fact they’re on TV created obligations to their inquiring audience; their kids’ juvenile offenses became fair game like any other minor star’s misdeeds. Even hypocrites and homophobes, however, have a right to privacy. In fact, the way this case became public followed a typical, invasive trajectory for juvenile sex cases: through gossip and suburban ressentiment. In 2006, an outraged 61-year-old neighbor e-mailed Oprah before the Duggars were due to appear on her show. Her missive seemed spurred more by jealousy than concern (“THEY ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM TO BE … JIM BOB LIES TO HIS CHURCH AND HIS FRIENDS TO MAKE HIM LOOK GOOD”). Oprah’s company passed the message to Arkansas authorities. The investigation ended without charge, but local rumors about Josh continued to swirl; that prompted In Touch to file a Freedom of Information request for his police records.

There is no rational excuse for releasing these records to a gossip magazine. However, as protections for accused juveniles in the justice system have eroded, so has respect for their privacy. A 1996 survey of “Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States” by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention noted stoically that

Until recently, State laws and judicial norms were established with the understanding that the preservation of the privacy of juveniles adjudicated in the juvenile court is a critical component of the youth’s rehabilitation. Today, however, in the face of increasing public concerns over juvenile crime and violence, government agencies, school officials, the public, and victims are seeking more information about juvenile offenders.

In this case, of course, the alleged “offender” wasn’t even formally accused. There were no charges, and the case never reached a court. An Arkansas judge yesterday intervened and ordered the police record destroyed: too late to protect the privacy of any of the juveniles involved.

Back in the days: The Brady Bunch, reaching less than one-third the Duggar family dimensions

Back in the days: The Brady Bunch, reaching less than one-third the Duggar family dimensions

I’ve no interest in defending the Duggars. Their ideology repels me, and their sexual anxieties are likely to demolish all their children’s lives. But neither are they a unique, deplorable freak show, detached from the pattern of American life. Their program lured a cult following among Evangelicals, but its bizarrely distended family dynamics had a wider appeal. For decades now, American audiences have been drawn to shows depicting super-sized families: The Partridge Family (five kids), The Cosby Show (ditto), The Brady Bunch (six), Seventh Heaven, Eight is Enough, John and Kate Plus 8, plus movies like Cheaper by the Dozen and many more. 19 and Counting was by the far the biggest, but its grotesqueries suggest what the fascination is about. For the Duggars, the family isn’t just a consumption unit, the way we’ve all been trained to feel. It’s a place of production, a factory of souls. Real work is done there, and that’s how it justifies its value in a fallen world. I remember what Joan Didion wrote, visiting the industrial barons’ palaces in Newport:

The very houses are men’s houses, factories, undermined by tunnels and service railways … Somewhere in the bowels of “The Elms” is a a coal bin twice the size of Julia Berwind’s bedroom. The mechanics of such houses take precedence over all desires or inclinations; neither for great passions nor for morning whims can the factory be shut down, can production – of luncheons, of masked balls, of marrons glacés – be slowed.

There are no marrons glacés in Duggardom, but the apple dumplings carry the same idea. Everybody produced, in Duggardom. Most of the toil was exploited and underpaid, 19th-century style; the kids got 3 cents per chore. Jim Bob calculated that “all the family members combined have worked approximately 39,000 total hours building their new house” – a figure that Qatar could envy, and that helps explain how the Duggars remained so proudly debt-free. Sex, too, was chained to the wheel of labor. The “Quiverfull” version of Christian Patriarchy to which they subscribed was all about maximizing reproduction; it turned women’s wombs into production sites for manufacturing little Christians – lots of them. The Duggars harnessed desire to the assembly line. Of course this Fordist vision of the family couldn’t last; desire escaped its bonds, disastrously. But you see their appeal; they gave an answer to anomic Americans wondering why the family should survive at all.

“Family” is, of course, a word to conjure with in gay life now, as marriage equality advances. And needless to say it doesn’t mean to us what it does to the Duggars. Our socially accepted intimacies aren’t production sites but proofs, a visible demonstration that we belong. Ours is the family as spectacle. It’s where you show the world you’re respectable, as good as them.

A family meant to be watched has to be kept in line, though. Opinion, gossip, the prurient side of publicity are enforcers of conformity. They punish the recalcitrant, the outliers. (It’s no coincidence that some of the most prominent gay men in America today – Michelangelo Signorile, Michael Musto, Perez Hilton – started as or still are gossip columnists.) But beyond chastisement by headline lie more brutal forms of power. Families in the US are zones of correction. They’re less and less private, more and more subject to surveillance, more and more ruthlessly criminalized when they go wrong. The law forces “deviant” famlies to conform. And childhood is no refuge from the law. To the contrary: get ‘em while they’re young. The US has more of its youth in jails and prisons than any other country in the world.

Chart-2When gay activists rage against the Duggars and demand draconian punishments for childhood fondling, they aren’t just taking revenge for the hate the Duggars aimed at them. There’s schadenfraude, but there’s something more. Everyone should, of course, have deep concern for Josh Duggar’s alleged victims. That doesn’t require relying on the prison-industrial complex to right the wrongs. The gays are putting themselves on the side of power as it works in the US today: on the side of the jailers, the side of privacy invaded, on the side of moral panic and against its victims.

There are plenty of reminders out there of how rumor and panic coupled with police power can destroy people, Just last week, a Texas appeals court finally overturned the convictions of Dan and Fran Keller. The couple were victims of the Satanic ritual-abuse panic of the 1980s, a witchhunt that saw hundreds jailed on charges ranging from ludicrous to insane. Terrified parents and eager police induced children at the Kellers’ day care center to tell stories of “videotaped orgies, of murder and dismemberment by chainsaw, of cats and dogs tortured and killed, of shark-filled swimming pools and a mutilated gorilla in Zilker Park, of corpses dug up and desecrated … of blood-soaked satanic rituals and of day flights to Mexico, where soldiers molested them before they were flown back to Austin in time to be picked up by their parents from the Kellers’ day care.” In 1992, they were sentenced to 48 years in prison. They served 21. They were finally freed in 2013, when the only physical evidence against them collapsed: an emergency room doctor untrained in pediatric forensics recanted, admitting that the signs of sexual abuse he’d supposedly seen on a girl’s body were actually normal variations. Voiding their convictions, the appeals court still refused to find them innocent. The Kellers, now in their 70s, remain under a permanent stain.

Fran and Dan Keller embrace outside the Travis County Jail on the day they were freed, December 2013. Photo by Debbie Nathan, who worked in their defense for years.

Fran and Dan Keller embrace outside the Travis County Jail on the day they were freed, December 2013. Photo by Debbie Nathan, who worked in their defense for years.

And there are cautionary stories that, for gays, should hit closer to home. Who remembers the boys of Boise? In 1955, in Idaho’s capital. police arrested three respected citizens for having sex with teenage boys. Local media seized the story to trumpet a threat to all the city’s children. “Crush the monster,” the Idaho Statesman warned. It went national: Time magazine claimed that a “widespread homosexual underground” had “preyed on hundreds of teen-age boys for the past decade.” Police hauled 1500 men in for questioning over the ensuing weeks. 16 eventually faced charges of “lewd conduct” or “infamous crimes against nature”; courts convicted all but one. Most got sentences from five years to life in prison. No children were protected; lives were ruined.

Then there’s Arkansas, the Duggars’ home. Three teenagers — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin, 16, 17, and 18 respectively — were charged in 1993 with the rape and ritual murder of three 8-year-old boys. Suspicion started because they listened to heavy metal music. They were queer, outcast, unmanly kids, the Devil’s brood. Media and churches wove a story of Satanic ritual abuse around the killings. In five to ten hours of intense interrogation, police pressured Misskelley into confessing and fingering the others. After their inevitable conviction, Lancaster writes, “New DNA evidence … established that the teens were not present at the crime scene. Forensic analysis concludes that the grisly dismemberments were the post-mortem work of wild animals, not ritual abusers.” In 2011, they won their freedom: the Arkansas Supreme Court refused to overturn their convictions, but resentenced them to time served. They had spent eighteen years in prison, with Echols on death row.

I’m sure the Duggars endorsed the kids’ ordeal; Satan is real for them. That’s not the point. Gays need to remember how panics work. When proof and privacy, doubt and due process disappear, it’s the deviant, weird, and unwanted who suffer most. Falling for the blandishments of power, you forget the people like you it hurt.

Promo for MIchael Signorile's radio show on the Duggan scandal. Ecstatic gays seem to be dancing in the background.

Promo for Mike Signorile’s May 2015 radio show on the Duggar scandal. Ecstatic gays seem to be dancing in the background.

Note. Why did the Springdale police not press charges against Josh Duggar in 2006? The police report peters out with a detective writing that he “had not been able to locate an offence inside of the statute of limitations of three years.” In the last week, this roused Twitter outrage that the statute of limitations was so low:

Screen shot 2015-05-24 at 2.43.13 AMIt’s more complicated. In Touch, breaking the story, claimed that “The charge being pursued while Josh was a minor was sexual assault in the fourth degree,” according to “multiple sources who have seen the police report and are familiar with the case.” Other media parroted this. But it’s wrong. The police report says differently: the most serious charge it lists is sexual assault in the second degree. Under Arkansas Code § 5.14.103 paragraph 6 (available through LexisNexis), that applies if “ Being less than eighteen (18) years old, the person engages in sexual contact with a person not the person’s spouse who is less than fourteen (14) years old.” (Arkansas Code § 5­.14­.101 defines “sexual contact” as “any act of sexual gratification involving the touching, directly or through clothing, of the sex organs, buttocks, or anus of a person or the breast of a female.”) In that form, second-degree sexual assault is a Class D felony, meaning it should have a statute of limitations of three years. There’s a catch, though: Arkansas Code § 5.1.109 stipulates that second-degree sexual assault has no statute of limitations “if the victim was a minor at the time of the offense.”

If I’m reading this right, then, the police were wrong about the statute of limitations. It’s possible they just didn’t know the law. Sex law in Arkansas, as in most places, is a confusing mess: a baroque welter of legal classifications imposed on impulsive acts. There’s another possibility, though. It should have been clear to any police officer, looking at the evidence from their interviews – the edifice of stray touches and forgetfulness — that this was a very flimsy case to bring to trial. Of course, in many sex-crime cases, evidence hardly matters; rumor is enough to prosecute. It’s possible, though, that they used the statute of limitations excuse to avoid admitting that what they’d found simply couldn’t sustain a high-profile prosecution.

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Fundraiser for Paper Bird: Keep us flying!

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

Why I am not Charlie

imagesThere is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday. Some people published some cartoons, and some other people killed them for it.  Words and pictures can be beautiful or vile, pleasing or enraging, inspiring or offensive; but they exist on a different plane from physical violence, whether you want to call that plane spirit or imagination or culture, and to meet them with violence is an offense against the spirit and imagination and culture that distinguish humans. Nothing mitigates this monstrosity. There will be time to analyze why the killers did it, time to parse their backgrounds, their ideologies, their beliefs, time for sociologists and psychologists to add to understanding. There will be explanations, and the explanations will be important, but explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Words don’t kill, they must not be met by killing, and they will not make the killers’ culpability go away.

To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not the same as to become them. This is true on the simplest level: I cannot occupy someone else’s selfhood, share someone else’s death. This is also true on a moral level: I cannot appropriate the dangers they faced or the suffering they underwent, I cannot colonize their experience, and it is arrogant to make out that I can. It wouldn’t be necessary to say this, except the flood of hashtags and avatars and social-media posturing proclaiming #JeSuisCharlie overwhelms distinctions and elides the point. “We must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day,” the New Yorker pontificates. What the hell does that mean? In real life, solidarity takes many forms, almost all of them hard. This kind of low-cost, risk-free, E-Z solidarity is only possible in a social-media age, where you can strike a pose and somebody sees it on their timeline for 15 seconds and then they move on and it’s forgotten except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave you. Solidarity is hard because it isn’t about imaginary identifications, it’s about struggling across the canyon of not being someone else: it’s about recognizing, for instance, that somebody died because they were different from you, in what they did or believed or were or wore, not because they were the same. If people who are feeling concrete loss or abstract shock or indignation take comfort in proclaiming a oneness that seems to fill the void, then it serves an emotional end. But these Cartesian credos on Facebook and Twitter — I am Charlie, therefore I am — shouldn’t be mistaken for political acts.

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo:  Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo: Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Erasing differences that actually exist seems to be the purpose here: and it’s perhaps appropriate to the Charlie cartoons, which drew their force from a considered contempt for people with the temerity to be different. For the last 36 hours, everybody’s been quoting Voltaire. The same line is all over my several timelines:

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

“Those 21 words circling the globe speak louder than gunfire and represent every pen being wielded by an outstretched arm,” an Australian news site says. (Never mind that Voltaire never wrote them; one of his biographers did.) But most people who mouth them don’t mean them. Instead, they’re subtly altering the Voltairean clarion cry: the message today is, I have to agree with what you say, in order to defend it. Why else the insistence that condemning the killings isn’t enough? No: we all have to endorse the cartoons, and not just that, but republish them ourselves. Thus Index on Censorship, a journal that used to oppose censorship but now is in the business of telling people what they can and cannot say, called for all newspapers to reprint the drawings: “We believe that only through solidarity – in showing that we truly defend all those who exercise their right to speak freely – can we defeat those who would use violence to silence free speech.” But is repeating you the same as defending you? And is it really “solidarity” when, instead of engaging across our differences, I just mindlessly parrot what you say?

But no, if you don’t copy the cartoons, you’re colluding with the killers, you’re a coward. Thus the right-wing Daily Caller posted a list of craven media minions of jihad who oppose free speech by not doing as they’re ordered. Punish these censors, till they say what we tell them to!

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.34.32 AMIf you don’t agree with what Charlie Hebdo said, the terrorists win.

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.22.15 AMYou’re not just kowtowing to terrorists with your silence. According to Tarek Fatah, a Canadian columnist with an evident fascist streak, silence is terrorism.

Screen shot 2015-01-08 at 11.46.59 PMOf course, any Muslim in the West would know that being called “our enemy” is a direct threat; you’ve drawn the go-to-GItmo card. But consider: This idiot thinks he is defending free speech. How? By telling people exactly what they have to say, and menacing the holdouts with treason. The Ministry of Truth has a new office in Toronto.

There’s a perfectly good reason not to republish the cartoons that has nothing to do with cowardice or caution. I refuse to post them because I think they’re racist and offensive. I can support your right to publish something, and still condemn what you publish. I can defend what you say, and still say it’s wrong — isn’t that the point of the quote (that wasn’t) from Voltaire? I can hold that governments shouldn’t imprison Holocaust deniers, but that doesn’t oblige me to deny the Holocaust myself.

It’s true, as Salman Rushdie says, that “Nobody has the right to not be offended.” You should not get to invoke the law to censor or shut down speech just because it insults you or strikes at your pet convictions. You certainly don’t get to kill because you heard something you don’t like. Yet, manhandled by these moments of mass outrage, this truism also morphs into a different kind of claim: That nobody has the right to be offended at all.

I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do. Yet this means rejecting the only authorized reaction to the atrocity. Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party. But Islam is there for us, it unites us against Islam. Only cowards or traitors turn down membership in the Charlie club.The demand to join, endorse, agree is all about crowding us into a herd where no one is permitted to cavil or condemn: an indifferent mob, where differing from one another is Thoughtcrime, while indifference to the pain of others beyond the pale is compulsory.

We’ve heard a lot about satire in the last couple of days. We’ve heard that satire shouldn’t cause offense because it’s a weapon of the weak: “Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain.” And we’ve heard that if the satire aims at everybody, those forays into racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism can be excused away. Charlie Hebdo “has been a continual celebration of the freedom to make fun of everyone and everything….it practiced a freewheeling, dyspeptic satire without clear ideological lines.” Of course, satire that attacks any and all targets is by definition not just targeting the top of the food chain. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges,” Anatole France wrote; satire that wounds both the powerful and the weak does so with different effect. Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless.

Funny little man: Contemporary caricature of Kierkegaard

Funny little man: Contemporary Danish cartoon of Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, the greatest satirist of his century, famously recounted his dream: “I was rapt into the Seventh Heaven. There sat all the gods assembled.” They granted him one wish: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughter on my side.” Kierkegaard knew what he meant: Children used to laugh and throw stones at him on Copenhagen streets, for his gangling gait and monkey torso. His table-turning fantasy is the truth about satire. It’s an exercise in power. It claims superiority, it aspires to win, and hence it always looms over the weak, in judgment. If it attacks the powerful, that’s because there is appetite underneath its asperity: it wants what they have. As Adorno wrote: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof. Historically, therefore, satire has for thousands of years, up to Voltaire’s age, preferred to side with the stronger party which could be relied on: with authority.” Irony, he added, “never entirely divested itself of its authoritarian inheritance, its unrebellious malice.”

Satire allies with the self-evident, the Idées reçues, the armory of the strong. It puts itself on the team of the juggernaut future against the endangered past, the successful opinion over the superseded one. Satire has always fed on distaste for minorities, marginal peoples, traditional or fading ways of life. Adorno said: “All satire is blind to the forces liberated by decay.”

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Charlie Hebdo, the New Yorker now claims, “followed in the tradition of Voltaire.” Voltaire stands as the god of satire; any godless Frenchman with a bon mot is measured against him. Everyone remembers his diatribes against the power of the Catholic Church: Écrasez l’InfâmeBut what’s often conveniently omitted amid the adulation of his wit is how Voltaire loathed a powerless religion, the outsiders of his own era, the “medieval,” “barbaric” immigrant minority that afflicted Europe: the Jews.

Voltaire’s anti-Semitism was comprehensive. In its contempt for the putatively “primitive,” it anticipates much that is said about Muslims in Europe and the US today. “The Jews never were natural philosophers, nor geometricians, nor astronomers,” Voltaire declared. That would do head Islamophobe Richard Dawkins proud:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 3.01.25 AM

The Jews, Voltaire wrote, are “only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” When some American right-wing yahoo calls Muslims “goatfuckers,” you might think he’s reciting old Appalachian invective. In fact, he’s repeating Voltaire’s jokes about the Jews. “You assert that your mothers had no commerce with he-goats, nor your fathers with she-goats,” Voltaire demanded of them. “But pray, gentlemen, why are you the only people upon earth whose laws have forbidden such commerce? Would any legislator ever have thought of promulgating this extraordinary law if the offence had not been common?”

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you're circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you’re circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

Nobody wishes Voltaire had been killed for his slanders. If some indignant Jew or Muslim (he didn’t care for the “Mohammedans” much either) had murdered him mid-career, the whole world would lament the abomination. In his most Judeophobic passages, I can take pleasure in his scalpel phrasing — though even 250 years after, some might find this hard. Still, liking the style doesn’t mean I swallow the message. #JeSuisPasVoltaire. Most of the man’s admirers avoid or veil his anti-Semitism. They know that while his contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope, it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community. Satire can sometimes liberate us, but it is not immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds. It shouldn’t douse our critical capacities; calling something “satire” doesn’t exempt it from judgment. The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister. Last year a former Charlie Hebdo writer, accusing the editors of indulging racism, warned that “The conviction of being a superior being, empowered to look down on ordinary mortals from on high, is the surest way to sabotage your own intellectual defenses.”

Of course, Voltaire didn’t realize that his Jewish victims were weak or powerless. Already, in the 18th century, he saw them as tentacles of a financial conspiracy; his propensity for overspending and getting hopelessly in debt to Jewish moneylenders did a great deal to shape his anti-Semitism. In the same way, Charlie Hebdo and its like never treated Muslim immigrants as individuals, but as agents of some larger force. They weren’t strivers doing the best they could in an unfriendly country, but shorthand for mass religious ignorance, or tribal terrorist fanaticism, or obscene oil wealth. Satire subsumes the human person in an inhuman generalization. The Muslim isn’t just a Muslim, but a symbol of Islam.

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

This is where political Islamists and Islamophobes unite. They cling to agglutinative ideologies; they melt people into a mass; they erase individuals’ attributes and aspirations under a totalizing vision of what identity means. A Muslim is his religion. You can hold every Muslim responsible for what any Muslim does. (And one Danish cartoonist makes all Danes guilty.) So all Muslims have to post #JeSuisCharlie obsessively as penance, or apologize for what all the other billion are up to. Yesterday Aamer Rahman, an Australian comic and social critic, tweeted:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.08.33 AM

A few hours later he had to add:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.07.58 AM

This insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of #JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. The antagonists are fake but they’re entangled, inevitable. The language hardens. Geert Wilders, the racist right-wing leader in the Netherlands, said the shootings mean it’s time to “de-Islamize our country.” Nigel Farage, his counterpart in the UK, called Muslims a “fifth column, holding our passports, that hate us.” Juan Cole writes that the Charlie Hebdo attack was “a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public” — at “sharpening the contradictions.” The knives are sharpening too, on both sides.

We lose our ability to imagine political solutions when we stop thinking critically, when we let emotional identifications sweep us into factitious substitutes for solidarity and action. We lose our ability to respond to atrocity when we start seeing people not as individuals, but as symbols. Changing avatars on social media is a pathetic distraction from changing realities in society. To combat violence you must look unflinchingly at the concrete inequities and practices that breed it. You won’t stop it with acts of self-styled courage on your computer screen that neither risk nor alter anything. To protect expression that’s endangered you have to engage with the substance of what was said, not deny it. That means attempting dialogue with those who peacefully condemn or disagree, not trying to shame them into silence. Nothing is quick, nothing is easy. No solidarity is secure. I support free speech. I oppose all censors. I abhor the killingsI mourn the dead. I am not Charlie.

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Egypt’s “gay wedding” furor: A ship of fools

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

In Egypt any man can harass, brutalize, and rape a woman. It happens all the time. The State will ignore it for as long as possible; the media will say she asked for it. Just try a harmless expression of mutual, consensual desire, though. They’ll hound you to within an inch of your life.

Let’s start with the video. It came out of nowhere, but by Saturday morning it was everywhere. That day — it was August 30 — I spent with some young, impeccably liberal Egyptians. They kept staring with stunned fixation at their smartphones, repeatedly hitting “play,” watching it go viral, wondering what was going to happen to the men.  The YouTube comments could have told you what was coming: “They’re outside of prisons; they should worship God within them,” one outraged viewer wrote. That night I met with some of the men in the clip. One of them kept breaking uncontrollably into tears. They were trying to report the invasion of privacy, get YouTube to take it down. No use: By next day, it was on the website of Youm7 — the tabloid that’s been carrying on a homophobic campaign for months — and on TV. You think you are just a private person, contained in the fences of your skin; then suddenly you find you’ve escaped yourself, become a common spectacle and possession, a fetish cupped in the palms of everybody’s hands. No doubt this is why politicians and movie stars are so vacuous, stripped of self; but imagine sitting in ordinary obscurity and abruptly discovering you’re now an infinitely duplicable, circulating flash of light. “Mirrors and copulation are both abominable,” Borges wrote — it was one of the aphorisms of his invented world of Tlon — “because they multiply mankind.” But that was before the Internet.

Yesterday, some of those accused of being in the video went on trial. They face years in prison. The whole fiasco reminds many Egyptians of another moral panic that crushed innumerable lives: the Queen Boat show trial of 52 men, back in 2001.

I won’t link to the video here; the men have been exposed enough. It lasts little more than a minute; it shows some kind of party on one of the boats that cruise the Cairo Nile. (You can buy a ride individually or rent the felucca for a group.) The cameraphone tilts and pans past some celebrating people; there’s a cake, and two seem to exchange rings. When it went viral, it was instantly dubbed “Egypt’s First Gay Wedding.”

4549887301409591956-الفنان محمد صبحي

Mohamed Sobhi attempts to keep gay marriage from spreading to him

Some of the men I talked to asserted the whole thing was a joke. One of the alleged grooms called the popular talk-show of Tamer Amin to say as much — that he had a girlfriend and was just “playing around with rings.” If it was a marriage between men, then in a sense it was intrinsically unserious, since the law doesn’t recognize that. Nor does the law punish playing at marriage. The furor kept mounting though. Amin, on his show, called for retribution. (Tamer Amin is eager to anathematize people he thinks are gay, but equally happy to excuse rape. When a Cairo University student was sexually assaulted earlier this year, Amin told viewers that “She was dressed like a prostitute … The sexually repressed boys couldn’t control themselves … I blame her for dressing like this, and her parents for letting her leave the house in that dress.”)  Mohamed Sobhi, an actor notorious for his paranoid rants against Jews, demanded the State “respond’ to the “the spread of the phenomenon of gay marriage.”

And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the dictator’s most feared opposition, berated the regime that overthrew it, for going soft on perversion. A former MP for the Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party warned that “For the first time in Egypt, we hear of gay marriage. The coup leaders embrace the Western agenda of demolition and decay of religion, and Egypt is converted into a brothel.” She added that the “authority of the coup” lay behind the wedding.

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

The supposed ceremony thus became a political crime. The State took up the challenge: it started arresting people. Last Wednesday, September 3, police picked up at least 13 people in the streets around Ramsis Station, and interrogated them about the video. The next night, they seized an unknown number as they were leaving a club downtown — I’ve heard figures as high as 26. Most were released, but somebody pointed an incriminating finger. On Saturday, the media announced that men from the film had been arrested, by police directed by Major General Magdy Moussa. (The exact number is still not clear. Most news reports say seven people were arrested; Al-Mogaz says two more are being sought; Youm7 claims ten are involved, and even after a confused hearing Tuesday, where the lawyers were denied access to court papers, it’s impossible to verify a figure.) [NOTE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has now confirmed eight defendants have been arrested.] Youm7 showed grainy video of people being hauled to jail. The full names of nine victims, some presumably still at large, appeared in the press.

Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

We will hurt you when we find you: Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

The charges against the men aren’t clear, but they reportedly included incitement to “debuachery” (fugur, the legal term in Egyptian law for homosexual acts), and “publication of indecent photographs.” The images showed “the purpose was the celebration of attachment to one another, in scenes deemed shameful to the maximum degree.” Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, personally intervened in the case to show its seriousness, ordering quick action. Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority conducted anal examinations on the arrested men — an intrusive, abusive, torturous and medically worthless procedure. They found no evidence of homosexual conduct. That didn’t stop a court, on September 9, from ordering the men jailed for another 15 days so the furor can continue.

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medica Authority, who said the "bride" had turned out "normal"

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medical Authority, who said the “bride” had turned out “normal”

I spoke to one of the men trawled up in the police nets last Wednesday night: picked up at 3:30 AM on a street near Ramsis Station. This is his story:

I was standing with a friend — he had tight jeans, that was probably why they thought we were gay. Suddenly a policeman came out of nowhere and grabbed us. We were thrown into a microbus nearby. I tried to scream and the policemen told us to shut up. There were about 13 of us crammed in there, all picked up in various places.

In the past, Cairo police often looked for gays by riding in a microbus with an informer, who pointed out victims passing in the street. Almost a third of the Queen Boat defendants were arrested that way (not on the boat!) This time, the microbus took them to the Mugamma, the huge Stalinist building in Tahrir Square, a symbol of State bureaucracy. There police broke the men into groups for interrogation. One man “scampered off by a different door” — possibly he was the informer.

Soldiers in front of the Mugamma in Midan Tahrir, January 2011, by Joseph Hill

The Mugamma looms above Tahrir Square, guarded by soldiers, during the Egyptian revolution, January 2011: by Joseph Hill

My group was me, my friend, and another man I didn’t know. We were taken up to the 12th floor, the “Adab” [morals] division.
At first the police were very aggressive with us. They beat us with sticks, and called us many names. Then the boss came in to question us.

The boss was very civil. He said for months they had been arresting gays as a way of stopping the spread of AIDS, because these men were having sex without condoms.

This is false. So far as we know, no evidence that anyone transmitted HIV through barebacking has been presented in any cases so far. The manipulation of public-health rhetoric is a bit strange coming from a government that claims it can cure AIDS by turning it into sausages.

But now, he said, there is this video. He said we have a new president, and Sisi is determined not to let this kind of thing happen, and will not let the Muslim Brotherhood get any benefit from it. I told him I didn’t know anything about the people in the video. All the same, they took our phones and made backups of all the information on them.

We were kept there for six hours, till after 10 AM. After the boss left the other policemen came back and made fun of us, calling us female names and asking if we were carrying condoms. My friend and I were set free; they held on to the third guy who was with us, because they said there was a theft charge against him. I don’t know what happened to the others.

The information on the phones — particularly if passwords were stored on them — could help the police open the victims’ Facebook and other social-media accounts. Plenty more could be rounded up that way.

Don't blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

Don’t blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

This whole uproar raises several issues. First: why now? The men I spoke to told me the video was made last October. One theory, seized on by the press, is that someone released it now to get revenge on a participant. It’s not implausible, though, that the authorities somehow obtained it earlier, and have been waiting for the moment when it might prove useful. There is plenty to distract people from in Egypt these days. Rolling power outages afflict the country; September 4 was promptly dubbed “Black Thursday” because the blackouts were so severe. Meanwhile, no sooner did Sisi win his rigged Presidential election than he announced massive cuts to fuel subsidies, pushing up prices for many basic goods. In such straitened circumstances, the spectre of “gay marriage” has long-proven value as a distraction. In Morocco in 2007, a YouTube video allegedly showing such a ceremony provoked riots — and jail terms for participants — in the town of Ksar el Kbir. In Kenya in 2010, similar stories stirred up vigilante violence in Mombasa. In Egypt itself, the first, sensational press reports in the famous Queen Boat case said a same-sex wedding was taking place on the raided vessel; some months before that, the press had pounced on unproven rumors of a marriage in the Delta town of Zagazig. “Gay marriage” has become a perfect encapsulation of cultural powerlessness before the imperial West.

Second, of course, the video leaked amid a months-long campaign of arrests and vilification of people accused of homosexual conduct or of dissident gender expression. Transgender people in particular have been rounded up in clubs and on the streets, and seized in private homes. These arrests continue. In early August, police arrested a woman and two men in Rehab City, a gated community on Cairo’s outskirts, and charged the latter with homosexual conduct. I’m reliably told the cops stopped one of the men at a checkpoint, on his motorcycle; finding him suspicious, they went to his home, and found the conclusive evidence — condoms. (So much for the officers’ concern for public health.) Later that month, “security forces” arrested ten people in what they called a “prostitution ring” in Giza, in western Cairo. They included, it seems, a trans woman, whose photo was singled out to appear in El-Watan. (Only the eyes were imperfectly blacked out; obscuring the face was done by me.)

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

But it’s not just alleged gays and trans people who are victims of the atmosphere of repression. The police presence in downtown Cairo is formidable now. Just under three weeks ago ago, cops raided a host of sidewalk cafes, forcing them to shutter because they had tables on, well, the sidewalk. (I recall when Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved similarly against street life in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, Western conservatives condemned it as creeping Islamic totalitarianism. When Sisi does it, nobody bothers.) The next day, they cracked down on street vendors. Grim, barred trucks from Central Security palisaded the avenues, filling up with hapless men whose crime was hawking scarves and jeans in the passageways off Qasr el-Nil. There is a general campaign of social control going on, and a general rehabilitation of the reputation — and power — of the police. Homosexuality is simply another convenient bogeyman. Its particular convenience, though, is that it unites several things Sisi despises: “Western” influence (as in those marriages), abnormal gender roles, and the youth culture and revolutionary decadence symbolized by the downtown world. Attacking “debauchery” allows him to set the State firmly against all those debilitating forces.

Third: the fact that the latest arrests came after criticism by the Muslim Brotherhood shows where Sisi senses his greatest vulnerabilities. Having overthrown the conservatives, he needs to prove his moral credentials. It’s significant that no comparable wave of repression happened under the Brotherhood itself: they had no credentials to prove. (It’s also significant that this panic has burgeoned during the week the government sentenced several Brotherhood leaders to decades in prison.) Sisi’s Minister of Religious Endowments — who more or less controls all the country’s official mosques — explained the official line elegantly to the media last week. Every Egyptian should reject “all anomalies” such as homosexuality, “because in the end they only serve the forces of extremism and terrorism, which claim to be the protectors of religion and morality.”

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gomaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gumaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Finally, what all this produces is fear, comprehensive and immobilizing. No one can guess what will come next, how far the crackdown will go. There are vague stories the State has planned a massive trial of alleged homosexuals for later this month, or next month; no one knows whether this mini-Queen-Boat is enough for them. Cairo Scene, a English webzine for the privileged party set, has claimed the police are already arresting gay men over Grindr; no one has been able to confirm a single case, but the rumor only adds to the terror. My sensible colleagues are pruning their phone lists, taking down photos from Facebook, and waiting — waiting for what, nobody can tell. Even I have drawn up a list, for friends, of things to do if I’m arrested; when insouciant I behave that way, you know something is wrong. A full-fledged moral panic is spreading in Egypt. It even has a song — by an Egyptian band, proclaiming that something must be done to stop the she-men with skinny jeans:

The panic infects political discourse, turning everything to triviality. The contrast between the indifference accorded real and terrible stories of violence against women, and the seriousness with which a mock wedding is reviled, remains ominous. The men on the boat may have been careless or presumptuous, but the whole country increasingly resembles a ship of fools. The absurdity isn’t innocuous, though. The point of moral panics is that they can always find new victims.

 

Iran bans online chats between men and women: True? Or false?

I'm gonna wash that man right offa your screen. Or not.

I’m gonna wash that man right off of your screen. Or not.

This started four days ago, cropping up all over Twitter in that mushroomy fashion, as if it had rained. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, had used “his own website” to issue a fatwa barring men and women from chatting together online, “given the immorality that often applies to this.” The story got retweeted by real human rights activists, like Suzanne Nossel, head of the PEN American Center:
nossel fatwa copyAnd by fake ones, like Ben Weinthal, paid to propagandize for an Iran war by the so-called Foundation for Defense of Democracies:
weinthal fatwa copy Robert Spencer, the highly profit-making one-man Islamophobic road show, seized on it:
spencer fatwa copy And for some reason, the story seems to have been a big hit in Indonesia, where perhaps it allowed believers in a notoriously syncretic Islam to laugh at those crazy Iranians:
indonesia chatting iran copyHere’s my question, though: Is this true? Because there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it is.

First off, some definitions are in order. For many Americans and Europeans, “fatwa” carries implications of draconian bloodthirstiness, largely because the only one they’ve heard of was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death decree against Salman Rushdie in 1988. In fact, a fatwa can be about anything. It means any interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence issued by a qualified scholar, usually in response to a believer’s question. Twelver Shi’ism — the branch of Shi’ism that derives legitimacy from a line of twelve imams who succeeded the Prophet, and is the prevailing faith in Iran — has a much more defined and rigorous clerical hierarchy than almost any other strain of Islam. Even the highest clerics are kept on their toes answering regular questions from their lay followers, in part because just this busywork vindicates their scholarly relevance. You can compare this to Roman Catholicism, which similarly has survived for centuries owing to its intense pastoral involvement in its believers’ lives, and the authoritarian structure underpinning that engagement. The Internet age only encourages all this. Almost any major cleric has a website with a Q & A section, a running Dear Abby column advising the faithful on the do-and-don’t minutiae of their daily lives. The subjects run from Banking, holidays for, and Inheritance, cognatic cousins and, to Secretions, bodily, disposal of, and Weddings, music at. And everything in between.

Ayatollah Khameini has two websites: one in his capacity as Supreme Leader (www.leader.ir) and another (farsi.khamenei.ir), which I hesitate to call “personal” — it carries no suggestion of a private life — centering rather more on his religious and cultural activities; it might resemble a campaign website, if the man ever had to run for anything. Each contains its own section of fatawa. I spent two nights online with an Iranian friend, going over these websites in some detail, concentrating on the main, Farsi pages but with some attention to the English sections as well. We found nothing resembling the fatwa against men and women chatting. An Iran expert who had searched for it as well confirmed her inability to find it. As several people have observed, there is no legal ban on men and women conversing face-to-face in Iran; long-distance chats seem comparatively antiseptic.

I’m not saying for a certainty the fatwa isn’t there — the websites are ill-organized, and we didn’t visit absolutely every crevice. But if anyone has seen the fatwa with their own eyes, I’d like to hear about it, because I don’t see any trace that it ever existed. So far, it sounds like a fraud.

(That Khameini or his subordinates posted it, then took it down in embarrassment after it hit the news, is unlikely. The Islamic Republic is resistant to embarrassment. If the second-highest execution rate in the world — probably the highest per capita — doesn’t bring a tinge of shame to its cheeks, nothing would.)

Where did this story come from?

Its origins should have been enough to raise scepticism from the start — at least, to make journalists turn to Khameini’s actual websites to try to find the text, as I did. So far as I can see, it comes from two sources, each with a reputation for misrepresentation and bias. The first, apparently, was the website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The NCRI is a political mouthpiece for the Mojahedin e-Khalq (MeK, the People’s Mojahedin), an exile organization with the attributes of a cult that demands absolute loyalty from its members, enforces allegiance to its semi-deified leaders, and stands accused of extensive human rights abuses. The MeK and NCRI have long specialized in disseminating sensational fictions about Iran that capture public attention and create a propaganda storm. In 2005, the NCRI played a major role in spreading unsubstantiated rumors of “gay executions” in Iran to a gullible Peter Tatchell and others. They’ve been a recurrent source of alarmist rumor about Iran’s nuclear program, serving sometimes as a proxy and puppet for both the US and Israel to get their own versions out — but, as Patrick Cockburn writes about the “strange, highly disciplined, cult-like organisation,”

The problem with the US-Iranian proxy war is that neither side quite controls their own proxies to the degree the other side imagines. It is all very well working through surrogates to retain deniability, but these have their own interests and may, in addition, be incompetent, corrupt or simply crazed.

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed Rudy Giuliani engages in horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed shill Rudy Giuliani engages in crazed horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

The NCRI published an article about the alleged fatwa on its website on January 7 — the posted time is 13:45. (The NCRI’s website is apparently hosted in Michigan, in the US, but its clock seems to be set to the time of the NCRI’s Paris headquarters.)

Next to come, it seems, was Al Arabiya, the giant Saudi news channel, which posted a story about the alleged fatwa on its English site at an unlisted time on January 7, and on its Arabic site at 21:02 GMT (that would be about eight hours and fifteen minutes after the NCRI story, if all the times are correct). It doesn’t mention the NCRI version, but my guess is that’s its source.

Creeping shari'a, on all fours: "Sex Jihad," from Frontpagemag.com

Creeping shari’a, on all fours: “Sex Jihad,” from Frontpagemag.com

Al Arabiya has its own reliability problems. Members of the Saudi royal family launched jt in 2004 to compete with Qatari-owned Al Jazeera for the hearts and minds of the Arab audience. Despite all the petro-funding it’s had only limited success — it comes in second to Al Jazeera even among Saudi viewers — but it’s becoming to the American right wing what the earnest Jimmy Olsens of Qatar are to certain US lefties: a convenient confirmer of prejudices. The insecure Saudi regime is deeply nervous about both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran; their fears reinforce the US neocons’ own. Al Arabiya, for instance, bore partial responsibility for a trumped-up story in 2012 that Egypt’s Brotherhood planned to legalize necrophilia. It also helped spread viral tales this summer that the Brotherhood was sponsoring “sexual jihad” in both Tunisia and Egypt: recruiting young women to provide erotic encouragement to warriors in Syria or even in the streets of Cairo. These stories were almost wholly imaginary. But they still circulate on extremist American websites like Frontpagemag.com.

In other words, you’ve got two culprits with a record of making things up. By the evening of January 7, the right-wing Jerusalem Post carried the story, in a short piece by Ariel Ben Solomon, citing Al Arabiya. This outlet is one of the loudest drummers, in Israel or outside, for war against Iran. Ben Solomon serves as “Middle East Correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, covering regional developments and Israeli Arab issues” —  at the PostIsraeli Arab issues a) can’t be covered by Israeli Arabs b) because they’re “Middle East,” that is foreign, issues.  Thank you, Avigdor Liberman. This past autumn, snooping down those “regional developments,” Ben Solomon bought into mistranslated initial reports that Kuwait’s proposed gender-identity screening was a “ban on homosexuals”; that suggests the limits of his Arabic research capacity. The Jerusalem Post was probably the story’s conduit to US and UK media.

Later on January 7, the story made Fox News (without attribution to other media sources), which means hitting the big time: “The latest religious edict from Iran’s supreme leader takes aim at the Islamic Republic’s lonely hearts.” By the next day it was on Breitbart.comthat guardian of truth and the American way: “This latest fatwa from Khamenei makes clear that Rouhani is merely the smiling theater mask of a stern, forever frowning dictatorship guided exclusively by Khamenei’s hand.” Breitbart at least suggested they had checked somewhere and failed to find the fatwa: 

The Supreme Leader often answers questions from the public on his website, Khamenei.ir, though the English-language side of the site currently has no new announcements.

Thus we learn that Breitbart a) has no access to any Farsi speakers anywhere in the world; b) won’t be deterred from publishing by the total lack of evidence. What a surprise. 

Only Time ever expressed some doubts about the invisible fatwa, asking “Did Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, just ban online chatting between unrelated men and women?”

Both the Jerusalem Post and the exiled opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran website — not exactly unbiased sources on Iranian affairs — say he has.  …  But a religious ruling does not an official ban make. Fatwas, or religious opinions disseminated by clerics, are not binding. So while Khamenei might discourage his followers from online chatting, for fear that it might lead to flirtation, or worse, he is not likely to order Iran’s religious police to start patrolling chat rooms and looking over texter’s [sic] shoulders.

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor's picture

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor’s picture

Three points stand out about all of this.

1) Prove it. As I say: maybe there is a Khameini anti-chat fatwa lurking out there. I can’t be positive there isn’t, and indeed I’d be happy to know this isn’t all a viral fantasy. But the burden is on the people who wrote and Tweeted about it, to prove it. Nobody except Time seems even to have tried seriously checking on the fatwa‘s existence before clicking “publish.” Surely it’s time for them to start looking.

2) If the fatwa exists, there are more important things. Really. Time raises the interesting question whether such a mandate would even be enforceable. The answer is perhaps a little more complicated than they suggest. When the Islamic Republic of Iran decided thirty years ago to embody its law in a criminal code, it took a step radically at odds with the history of Islamic jurisprudence, which is cumulative, common-law-like, and ill-disposed to codification. A settled, finalized corpus of law is a different beast to the traditional compilation of interpretations; it can no longer be altered simply by the opinions of a scholar. The parliamentary decision and the court ruling displaced the fatwa as the fount of legislation. (Asghar Shirazi has addressed these dilemmas brilliantly in his superb work on Iran’s constitution.)

Offsetting this, Ayatollah Khomeini carried enormous prestige both as a recognized scholar and a revolutionary politician. Khomeini’s personal fatwas had a charisma that could to some extent supersede the criminal code. However, Ayatollah Khameini, plucked from the middle ranks of the clerisy to serve as Supreme Leader, has no such mojo, and his fatwas are correspondingly less final. This is not to say Iran is a rule-of-law government these days, a Rechtsstaat; it’s not. Anything Khameini writes carries some weight. That doesn’t mean it’s legally enforceable, though, as opposed to just advice to the perplexed.

Khameini also issues fatawa on masturbation (in case you were wondering, it’s bad, but pardonable if done with medical approval), but even the feared basij have not made a priority of hunting down wankers. If he did put out a fatwa about chat, it would matter whether it appeared on his Supreme Leader website, or his less official oneIt would matter whether instructions to the religious police accompanied it — and there’s absolutely no indication of any such thing. Even if the fatwa exists, absent something turning it into a legal order, it’s simply moral exhortation. And how broad can its public impact be if it’s so hard to track down?

The real problem: Iran's proposed "National Internet." ©  Kavehadel

The real problem: Iran’s proposed “National Internet.” © Kavehadel

I don’t think the fatwa’s real, in which case you have to ask: why invent imaginary offenses for a government that’s committed ample real ones? Why spin fantasies about hijabi women dragged from Internet cafes when the execution rate keeps rising? It seems just a convenient propaganda gesture for the moment, to keep up pressure on Iran while other news stories are in abeyance. But even if the fatwa‘s real, why focus on it? There are plenty of other things as repressive on Khameini’s websites: for instance, his opinions on what might constitute pornography (look out for, but don’t look at, photos of Western women in fashion magazines), or the rules for satellite dishes.

Instead of decrying a purely notional ban on intersex chatting, why not talk about the irregular but intrusive restrictions Iran actually imposes on Internet users? Why not criticize how messaging and information-sharing services like WeChat, Viber, and Instagram have all been blocked by hardliners in recent weeks — apparently against the objections of Hassan Rouhani’s ministry of culture? And if you want to hone in on sexual privacy, how about the police raid on a party organized by “Satanic” homosexuals in Kermanshah last October, when the basij arrested and prosecuted some 80 men? In the West, there’s been at least as much Twitter and mainstream media attention to this chat-centered non-story as to that documented, brutally abusive incident.

3) We like victims, don’t we? Here’s the thing. If you want to talk about the truth, as opposed to easy news stories, it’s complicated. Complicated because you have to recognize that people — the people you want to imagine as helpless victims waiting breathless on your intervention — have capacity and street smarts, and are more than victims, and fight back.

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

If you want to deal with Iran’s Internet restrictions, you have to come to terms with the fact that Iranians still use the Internet, including the banned websites, and find all kinds of creative ways to get information in and out. We wouldn’t even know about the scope of the Internet filtering if folks weren’t poking and prodding out ways around it. If you want to address the Kermanshah case and the abuses against LGBT people, you have to face the fact not just that there was a crackdown, but that there was and is a community, which exists in a complicated dialectic between visibility and concealment, and felt sufficiently sure of itself  to hold a party. Life isn’t just the unremitting pressure of repression; it’s myriad daily acts of solidarity and resistance. People carve out spaces where, against the odds, they try to feel safe and celebrate their safety; sometimes these turn profoundly unsafe; that doesn’t mean their solidarities dissipate or their connections shatter, but rather that they’ll keep looking for new places to connect and struggle. The community of “gay” and “trans” people wasn’t broken in Kermanshah. In fact, it did a remarkably effective job of documenting the arrests and getting news to the outside world, ensuring that the accused had help, and staying linked and alert after the disaster. There are other parties going on, elsewhere in Iran.

This is not a popular tale to tell, particularly among the right-wing pseudo-press — Fox and Breitbart, the Daily Mail and the Foundation for Defusing Democracies — who picked up the chat narrative. Which is why they won’t tell it. They’d rather see Iranians as either uranium-grubbing monsters bent on global domination, or helpless victims of totalitarian power too incapacitated even to get their hands on a pair of jeans. Hearing about others’ agency annoys us, because it deflates our own dreams of sovereign, saving, all-encompassing power.

But that imagined power, our power, is repressive too. What counts is how resistance confronts repressive authority; and you can’t arbitrarily lop off either side of that story. Underneath the fatwas, the facts — and people’s everyday dreams and acts — persist. Underneath the paving stones, the beach.

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

UPDATE: On the existing, labyrinthine filtering-and-banning Internet policies in Iran, as well as how Iranians get around them, here is a fascinating piece by Ali Reza Eshraghi.

Puppet regime: A few more notes on Egypt and paranoia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

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

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

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

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

 Ahmed Spider takes on the Puppet Plot

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

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

torture abla fahita copy

Yeah. Or:

Bc-NPbTIQAAFcr2

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

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

I have three small points to add.

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

Apparently tyrannical shari'a law actually encourages women judges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

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

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

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

robertson kids copyYou know, priorities.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The warped reality therapy of Jeffrey Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bachmann copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeddah Prison, Cell 18: Entrapped in Saudi Arabia

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

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

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

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

Here is his story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I found myself in the police station.

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was so happy that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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