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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Remembering the Queen Boat, fourteen years after

Defendants in the Queen Boat trial wait in court for the verdict to be read, November 14, 2011: photo by Norbert Schiller

Defendants in the Queen Boat trial wait in court for the verdict to be read, Cairo, November 14, 2011: photo by Norbert Schiller

The night of May 12, 2001 – fourteen years ago today – I worked in my office late. Back then I was program director for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a US-based NGO. Sometime after midnight an email snapped me out of drowsiness, from someone in Egypt who called himself “Horus.” The evening before, police had raided a dance club on a boat moored in the Nile. They’d arrested dozens of men whom they accused of being gay. The stranger’s roommate was among them. He was afraid they were being tortured. He sent messages to all the human rights organizations whose addresses he could find. In the end, I was the only one who answered him.

His real name was Maher Sabry, and he effectively broke that story to the world. Police arrested thirty people on the Queen Boat on May 11, 2001, and threw them into cells with a dozen others whom they’d seized on the streets in the preceding days. They concocted a scandalous case of conspiracy, perversion, blasphemy, with obscure political motives behind it. The trial dominated Egyptian headlines for months. All the men’s lives were ruined. In the next three years, police raided parties and private homes in search of “debauchery”; undercover cops entrapped victims over the Internet; judges sentenced hundreds or thousands more to jail.

Bridgebuilder: Major General Hatem Amin

Bridgebuilder: Major General Hatem Amin

Fourteen years have passed. Last week in Egypt, police in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh arrested a 26-year Jordanian citizen “wearing women’s clothes,” and charged the victim with “sexual perversion.” Al-Youm al-Sabbah, mouthpiece for the government’s ongoing moral panic, carried pictures, probably taken from her phone or laptop. The case went to prosecutors; it’s not clear whether she’ll be deported or sent to prison. Sharm el-Sheikh was where Generalissimo Sisi held his celebratory investment fair in March, to underwrite his brutalities with foreign money; perhaps, back then, the victim saw US Secretary of State John Kerry cruise by in a limousine. Major General Hatem Amin, head of the provincial security directorate, presided over the investigation. When Amin got his job in July 2014, he declared that one of his responsibilities (in addition to torturing alleged terrorists, which in Sinai goes without saying) would be to “finish the bridge of trust between citizens and police.” Trust is built over the bodies of the despised; this is a lesson from Sisi.

Egypt’s new rulers know how to commemorate an anniversary.

Photo of the arrested Jordanian citizen, from Youm7

Photo of the arrested Jordanian citizen, from Youm7

These banal numbers and blurred photos are about people’s lives. A 22-year-old who was arrested on the Queen Boat in 2001 told me what happened at the police station that night:

This officer who I think was a psycho came over to us. He started shouting abuse at all of us. He said to us, “I want the khawalat [faggots] to one side and the ordinary people to the other side. “ He was silent for a minute. “Of course, you don’t have any normal people, you’re all khawalat.”

Other officers came over and this officer called us out one by one. They looked us over. I was one of the first to be called out. I was well-dressed but he thought my clothes looked “girlish” though I was just wearing a tight T-shirt top, and a jacket, and pants with a little flower stitched on them, around the cuff. They all thought I was effeminate, all through this ordeal, so I was singled out for special attention. After that, he made me take my pants off to see what I was wearing underneath. … He told me, “Of course you are a khawal.” I said, of course not. And then he started beating me terribly. … He used fists and a hose. He beat me on my back with it. Over and over. I’ll never forget that.

This man, now my friend, eventually escaped to France. Another friend of mine, who lived in the provincial town of Tanta, told me how the police arrested more than eighty suspected khawalat in the city in 2002, after a gay man named Adel was murdered. They were all tortured to get information:

[One man] was hung up for four days without food or drink, by cuffs in the window … They tied [another man’s] hands and feet, and put him on a metal thing with two legs — a kind of metal sawhorse — and tied him so that he was hanging under it. He was blindfolded and naked. They attached wires to him and electroshocked him all night. They electroshocked his tongue. The next day they brought us in to him. He was lying on the floor in the office of the chief of detectives, where the torture happened. His tongue was swollen and hanging out of his mouth. I recognized his fingers and toes as they brought me in to him—there wasn’t much else I could recognize. I could barely understand him when he tried to talk. … An officer came in. He said, “Write down the names of all the khawalat you saw in Adel’s apartment in the last ten years.” He had shown him to us as a warning.

And here is the testimony of a young trans woman who talked to me last year. She and three friends were arrested in April 2014 in an apartment in Cairo, thirteen years minus a month after the Queen Boat:

The head policeman asked: “Do you have girls, weed, weapons in the apartment?” We said no. He said, “I am going to search this place.” … An informer [plainclothesman] said to the officer: “See how they look, they are all khawalat.” The officer said: “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people.”

They took us to the police station … They started hitting us in the face and kicking our legs, and touching us all over. The informers kept trying to pull my hair out. “Are these prostitutes?” the officer in charge said, and the other police said, “No, they are khawalat.”  He said, “In more than 24 years I have never seen khawalat so effeminate. Take off your clothes.” …

Another officer, when he was told we were khawalat, starting beating us violently … The officers began sexually abusing us, grabbing our breasts. One of the informers said, “If you don’t sleep with me, I’ll put you in detention with the other prisoners.” … A “nice” clerk came and said, “They are sick people and you shouldn’t hit them.” Then he started taking a video of us.

.التكرار يعلّم الحمار  Or, as they say elsewhere: plus ça change

Egypt's finest torturers: police on duty in Cairo. Photo from Al Ahram.

Egypt’s finest torturers: police on duty in Cairo. Photo from Al Ahram.

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Note: The testimonies from 2001-2002, along with many other stories, can be found in Human Rights Watch’s 2004 report, In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct.

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.

Fashion police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAO5f-KXIAAnRL4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s another point.

Remember Russia?

Elena Klimova

Elena Klimova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

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

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

New arrests of alleged trans and gay people in Cairo

Seven innocent Snow Whites: From Youm7, February 27

Seven victims: Still from Youm7 video, February 27

Some of us hoped the acquittal of victims in Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid would resonate longer than a few days or weeks; maybe prosecutors and police, humiliated by the implosion of a showpiece case, would back off from their pursuit of illusory “perversion.” But that would be unlike this government. General Sisi, dizzy with his own powers, takes each failure as an opportunity to fail better.

On February 27, Al-Youm al-Sabbah (or Youm7), mouthpiece of the state’s morals campaign, headlined the arrest of seven “transsexuals” (motahawiloon genseyan) the night before. The vice squad, “under the administration of Major General Magdy Moussa,” found them “forming a network for practicing debauchery [fugur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct] in Cairo.” Youm7 included video interviews with the victims, chained together in the police station. It blurred their faces — usually, it flaunts them. But a photo the news organ posted on Facebook showed two of them, up close and clearly. I won’t reprint it here. The two seemed very young (one person with a little knowledge of the case told me some of the victims might be minors, but I’ve also heard that isn’t true). One of them looked utterly terrified.

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa, from El Methaz

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa. Photo from Vetogate.com

Youm7 says that, according to Moussa, police followed the victims

through their web pages on social media, and have proof that they publish naked photos. He also confirmed that the administration has created fake webpages to follow up the activities of perverts [shawazz], which led them in recent days to organize meetings with them in a nightclub on Al-Haram [Pyramids] Road, where [they were told that] at the end of the evening they would be taken to apartments to participate in debauchery.

The truth seems different.

Haram Road: Photo by Marwan Abdelhamed

Haram Road in the Giza district of Cairo: Photo by Marwan Abdelrahman

Al-Haram Road is one of those points where the Cairo people live in confronts and copulates with the Cairo tourists see. A long strip of street stretched west toward the mauve haze where the old Egyptians believed the dead went, it carries the city’s smog out to lap at the haunches of the Pyramids. It’s a smear of lights and shabbiness like a cut-rate Vegas, full of seedy nightclubs patronized by Westerners taking a break from the ruins, and Gulf Arabs taking a what-happens-in-Egypt-stays-in-Egypt break from home. The American scholar Paul Amar has documented some three decades of political battles over the entertainment sites along the road.  Louche venues where foreigners and Egyptians mingle, they unnerve authorities by implicitly posing an alternative to a “national culture that is embodied most essentially in gender norms.” Between threats to bulldoze them, the government watches and polices the clubs and streets. (No wonder Major General Hassan Abbas, head of the vice squad’s “International Activities” division, also led the arrests — according to Youm7.) The El-Leil Casino is one of the area’s most venerable, and respectable, bars. It offers dinner and dancing, and a cabaret where some of Egypt’s best-known bellydancers perform.

The El-Leil

The El-Leil

The police grabbed the defendants there. One version I heard is that six were sitting at a table together. A transgender woman who was a police informer pointed them out to an undercover cop, who seized them. Although some of the victims may identify as trans, apparently not all do, and all were wearing men’s clothing. In the video, most of them deny that they knew each other before that night. The seventh defendant is a cisgender woman who was near their table. Reportedly she asked police what was going on, and they took her too. (Her interview on the Youm7 video seems to confirm this.)

If this is true, the Internet entrapment story may not be. Yet the police do seem intensely anxious about the Internet and how “perverts” use it. The video is salted with shots of trans women, seemingly from social-media pages. One defendant, dazed, suggests the cops interrogated him heavily about his online presence: “They took me while we were sitting and I don’t have any [Web] pages and I don’t know how to read or write.”

The story shows police increasingly bent on using the Internet — as trap or evidence — against anyone they suspect of being transgender or gay. Fears of prostitution (and its attendant exchanges across bodies, classes, borders) also simmer. The authorities say each of the victims “got paid about 3000 LE to practice debauchery” — about $400 US, the kind of price only a foreigner would pay.

Rogue journalist Mona Iraqi, of course, tried hard to exploit just such fears, latent but potent in an increasingly resentful, xenophobic country. In her last, self-justifying TV program on her bathhouse case, a month after the acquittal, she tried to “prove” the working-class hammam was a homosexual haven by citing English-language Google searches. And she still claimed that “sex trafficking” was going on there, mouthing the ominous syllables without a rag of evidence that any client had been exploited, or transported, or even aroused.

Mona Iraqi’s latest broadcast about the bathhouse raid, February 4

Yet the only bit of good news I can point to is that Mona Iraqi failed. Egypt keeps sinking deeper into authoritarian paralysis, but at least her discrediting continues; and she’s had a terrible month. In mid-February, while she was trying to pursue some sort of story on a private school, the headmaster– apparently made suspicious by her reputation — called the police and had her arrested for filming on the grounds without permission. Tarek el-Awady, a defense lawyer from the bathhouse case who has doggedly pursued her since, gleefully released the police report to the press. And a week after that, el-Awady’s complaint against her for libelling the bathhouse defendants bore fruit. Prosecutors charged Iraqi and the owner of the host TV station, Tarek Nour, with bringing false accusations against their victims. They’ll stand trial beginning April 5.

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Don’t rejoice yet, though. In addition to the problems with Egypt’s repressive law on libel (it’s a criminal as well as civil offense, incurring up to one year in prison) there’s something funny here. A scent of political scheming always hung round the bathhouse case. The fact that Iraqi’s boss Tarek Nour faces trial as well adds to the intangible suspicion. Nour is not just a broadcaster. He’s the “emperor of ads,” the immensely rich owner and founder of Tarek Nour Communications, one of the first and largest private advertising agencies in the Middle East. (His TV channel is a handy side business; he buys the ads he makes.) A slavish camp follower of the military-industrial establishment, Nour was Mubarak’s favorite media maven, doing the dictator’s ads for the one (farcially) contested election he ever permitted, as well as for the presidential campaign of Mubarak stooge Ahmed Shafik in 2012. Then he ran Sisi’s advertising for both the January 2014 referendum on a new constitution, and the presidential race later that year. So close was he to the Generalissimo that a rumor even spread last year that Sisi’s reclusive wife was Nour’s sister — apparently not true.

So why is he on trial in this comparatively trivial case? Just maybe, the tycoon disappointed the tyrant du jour. Since there was no imaginable way Sisi could lose either vote, Nour’s main job was to gin up enough enthusiasm for a legitimacy-lending turnout: and he failed. In the constitutional referendum, Nour publicly promised a 60% turnout; in fact, it was under 40%. And the presidential ballot so humiliated Sisi with its low attendance that he was obliged to keep the polls open an extra day, so that a seemly quantity of voters could be bought, bullied, or resurrected from the dead. I doubt Nour will ever serve a day in jail, but it’s just conceivable the collapse of the bathhouse case gave Sisi an excuse to remind him that poor performance carries consequences.

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

I stress: I have no idea whether that’s true. But the diversion the speculation provides, absent any real knowledge of what’s going on, itself indicates how a certain kind of authoritarianism works. Egypt today is obsessed by secrets. (Mona Iraqi’s program, after all, is called “The Hidden.”) Everybody’s searching out obscure motives, untold tales; even private life, in a surveillance state, is spectacle. Intimacies, unblurred photos, inward lives, the contents of keepsake chests and password-protected pages, are rooted up and splayed for everyone to see. But in the process everything — justice, politics, private experience — turns into entertainment, a soap opera of conspiracy stories. I’m as easily distracted as anyone. And under the show the mechanisms of power tick on undisturbed: even more deeply buried, hidden.

While we were calling people last night trying to find out what happened on Haram Road, an Arab satellite channel droned in my living room, rerunning Running Man. It’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the Reagan era, about a dystopian world that forces convicted criminals to fight to the death in a huge, televised, wildly popular game show. (The Hunger Games stole the idea.) Those days, nobody had dreamed of reality TV. We laughed when the evil game show host barked into the phone, “Get me the Justice Department — the Entertainment Division!” That was then. I’m in Cairo now. The joke’s here.

The open road; Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, from Fatakat.com

The open road: Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, at Fatakat.com

On death threats, trolls, and truth

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Violent transgender activists cooking up a juicy free speech stew

The center has shifted in the debate over last week’s Observer letter. What was once an argument about grave human rights abuses against trans people and sex workers has now become an argument about grave abuses against Peter Tatchell, mostly between him and him. I had no intention of writing another word on this; but then I read Peter’s self-defense. It’s headlined “Peter Tatchell: Twitter mob who vowed to kill me over transgender letter have it all wrong.”

Screen shot 2015-02-23 at 5.22.20 AMThis was strange. I’ve heard warnings of “killer trans people” from Turkish police trying to justify torture; never from a human rights activist before. So I spent a few hours searching on Twitter for Tweets containing Peter’s name plus any of a thesaurus of threats (“murder,” “kill,” “beat,” “stab,” etc.). I also searched for a variety of Anglo-Saxon terms of abuse.

First finding: this “Twitter storm” was maybe not so stormy. Peter laments that “I received 4,000 to 5,000 mostly hostile comments” on Twitter, “from Saturday [February 14] to Monday [February 16].” An advanced search on Twitter uncovers all the Tweets sent to and from @PeterTatchell during February 14 – 17 (that’s one extra day). By my count — my eyes are misty– there were only 2621, of which 174 were Peter’s own. Many of the rest had nothing to do with the Observer letter. Perhaps 2000 did, over the four days.

Second finding: this “Twitter mob” was no mob. So far as I see, Peter got one Tweet that contained threatening language; it’s the one he’s cited and retweeted everywhere.

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 5.37.35 AMThat Tweet is disturbing. I’d support Peter if he reported it to the police. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a clear threat — it’s riffing abusively off Peter’s use of the “MURDER of trans people” and his implication that trans activists didn’t care enough about their own, an assertion that infuriated many. The Tweeter seems to be a nasty kid (a self-described “Marxoteen”). Somebody else advised Peter:Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.50.19 AMWhat’s also important is that this Tweet was a complete outlier. I saw no other message that could be taken as threatening (nor has Tatchell cited any). (Again, all Tweets to and from Peter during the period are here; I encourage others to analyze them in detail.) Some Tweets tried to start a dialogue, some tried to explain why others were angry, some were critical, some raised questions of identity no doubt destined to discomfit Peter, but most were civil and none were menacing. These were typical:

Tatchell trans tweets 1

Only a few Tweets used language I might find abusive:

ab Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.29.11 AM

It’s disconcerting to find several hundred Tweets clogging your notifications, but volume isn’t the same thing as violence or abuse. I generally agree with trans activist Sarah Brown, who wrote Peter:

sb Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.55.33 AMI also feel for the trans member of the Green Party who wrote:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.31.46 AMThere was no trans “Twitter mob” threatening to kill Tatchell. What is clear is that Peter turned to the media to create the belief that there was. And mainly he went to the right-wing media, because they loathe trans people anyway. On Monday Milo Yiannopoulos at the far-right website Breitbart Tweeted:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 10.42.15 AM

(A commenter below notes that Yiannopolous was one of the wannabe-jock jerks who last year fanned up Gamergate and its misogynistic, anti-feminist vitriol. He wrote “column after column slamming feminists” and “sociopathic” women gamers — making him an odd partner for Tatchell, but a productive place to seek support.)  Later that day Breitbart published its article claiming Tatchell was being “persecuted” by the “vocal, and vicious,” “increasingly shrill and intolerant transgender lobby.” On Thursday Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator upped the transphobia, warning that the “grandfather of gay rights” was under assault from “vicious, narcissistic cowards,” “self-styled queers and gender-benders” who “went berserk,” a “petulant mob of moaners … hurling abuse.” And of course O’Neill, like Peter, said they were ungrateful. Tatchell’s

risk-taking and street-fighting over 40-odd years helped to secure their liberation, to create a society in which they could live and speak freely. And how do they repay him? By tweeting their fantasises [sic] about him being murdered for being a ‘fucking parasite’.

That’s characteristic of Tatchell: when a person or group offends his amour-propre, he turns to the media to make them sorry. Using a single Tweet to discredit trans activists in general, however, shreds the claim to be an “ally.” Instead, Tatchell consciously strengthened gendered prejudices against trans people as hysterical, shrill, and dangerous. Sara Ahmed, in a thoughtful post last week that I’ve cited earlier, predicted exactly what he did:

Those who are oppressed – who have to struggle to exist often by virtue of being a member of a group – are often judged as the oppressors. …  The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. … These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti­racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. …

Of course people protested against this letter. It is deeply offensive in so many ways. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But this will happen quickly …: those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.

And of course the opponents of trans people’s identities and rights took their cue:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 12.07.58 PMI’ve gotten a small but significant number of threats in my life. I’ve been a public voice on LGBT rights in a variety of places where the rights and their claimaints were violently despised — Romania in the early 90s, for instance, or Egypt now; threats go with the territory. Much more comparable to this kerfluffle was the flurry of opposing e-mails I got about a post on sex work a while back. Some of these raised important questions, most were no more angry than your average letter to the editor, a very few were abusive, and one — which stood out — said I should be “disemboweled”: “I want you to die in agony feeling the blood run down your thighs the way it runs between the thighs of a woman who has been raped by 27 johns in a single night …” There’s a certain kind of pseudo-human rights talk that imaginatively colonizes the experience of victimhood, like mystics meditating on the wounds of Christ. It’s distasteful, particularly when it’s used to tag you as a supposed abuser. But I didn’t assume this was representative of all sex work opponents, or radical feminists, or feminists in general, or people with Earthlink accounts, or Vermonters, or any other group identity I could have extracted from the e-mail. Now I see: I don’t dramatize myself enough. I should have run to the press with an op-ed saying, “I forgive the radical feminists who want to disembowel me.” I do forgive radical feminists who want to disembowel me. I just don’t think there are any.

One more thing. That phrase “fucking parasite” turned up amid my search results in one other place. A week before this controversy started, Tatchell Tweeted a complaint about why Muslims weren’t protesting the right things (not unlike his lament that trans people were ignoring murders of trans people). A Muslim woman responded to him. A nasty troll — prone to obscenity, misogyny, and racist browbeating — then intervened in Tatchell’s defense with a slew of Islamophobic messages. Tatchell was copied on all these; but he didn’t raise a keystroke on the woman’s behalf, neither to demur nor or to reproach the racist. He stayed indifferently silent, even at the culmination, when the guy shouted she was a “fucking parasite cunt”:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 7.45.50 AMI guess it all depends on who’s being abused.

NOTE: I’ve updated this post twice since it was published: once, to add information about a Breitbart editor to which I was directed by a commenter; and a second time to include, and explain, a link to the Twitter search results.

Help, I’m being persecuted: Hypocrisy and free speech

Trans

Trans activists in Mexico City protesting violence against LGBT people and sex workers, August 13, 2011. Photo: Alfredo Estrella for AFP

In long years of human rights work, I’ve seen plenty of hatred inculcated and discrimination enforced; but I can’t think of anyone more fitting the profile of les damnés de la terre than trans people and sex workers. Bearers of those identities (of course they often intersect) risk arrest almost daily across nine-tenths of the globe; police, if they don’t throw them in prison, can shake them down or rape them with impunity; on streets or in private places violence menaces their bodies constantly; the media mocks them, mutes them, fetishizes them, but mostly vilifies them; stigma, chasing them through life, bars them from jobs or homes or education; they die because health care systems ignore their needs; they die because people slaughter them. Why? Why are they hiding their lights under a bushel? For in fact, trans folk and sex workers are probably the most powerful people on the planet. They submit pliantly to these indignities in modesty or masochism, like Clark Kent letting bullies rough him up in front of Lois Lane; but with one flex of their superstrength they could blow us all to smithereens. Professors at world-famous universities, columnists in major newspapers, politicians, novelists, heads of NGOs all cower at the wrath of the raging sex worker with her scything fingernails, and tremble like skittish jellyfish at the earthquake clack of a trans woman’s heel. It just shows: things aren’t always what they seem.

This, I’ve learned from the hoopla over a recent letter to the UK Observer: “We cannot allow censorship and silencing.” Signed by dozens of those professors, columnists, and leaders, it says that sex workers (whom it calls “the sex industry”) and trans people (Beatrix Campbell, the screed’s lead author, has termed them “transgender vigilantes”) are behind “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed ‘transphobic’ or ‘whorephobic.’” They scheme “to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists.”

These tactics [are] illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying. We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.

What’s most horrifying is: some trans people and sex workers answered. They pointed out that the people behind the letter have their own history of silencing sex workers and trans people. (Just one example: Campbell herself proposes that the UK’s National Union of Students should remove trans women – who practice “cultural conservatism and anatomical violence” — from its women’s sections and services. She’s outraged that the Union’s “solidarity does not extend to women who feel unsettled by the presence of people who used to be men in women-only spaces and services.”) Saying back-at-you like that, of course, censors and silences even more. These vigilantes prove the point! Some of the letter’s signatories had to endure the monstrous indignity of people Tweeting at them. Two days after the letter appeared, the right-wing media giant Breitbart bore the headline:

The face of victimhood

The face of victimhood

Persecuted, mind you. Never mind trans people imprisoned or sex workers raped: This is what a victim looks like. The evidence? Tatchell (whom Breitbart called “an unlikely conservative hero … with his views on extremist Islam”) “received ‘100s of hate mails’” for signing the letter. That’s how the worst regimes, Egypt and North Korea and Iran, abuse their most obstreperous dissidents to break them: They send them e-mails. I’m sure Peter Tatchell tried to withstand the torture, but everybody cracks. Lest anyone think Breitbart was exaggerating these brutalities, Tatchell himself tweeted his agreement:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 4.21.06 PMTatchell says he is a human rights activist, so he must know what persecution is. Now the UN has to amend its international treaties, to ban torture, inhuman treatment, and spamming.

Cyberbullying is real. Yes, some people’s careers or livelihoods have been damaged by Twitter storms. But none of this letter’s signatories have suffered in the slightest. Tweets have not yet forced Peter Tatchell’s employer, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, to dismiss Peter Tatchell. Not everyone lets insults feed their self-pity. (I’ve faced online vitriol too. Last year, for instance, I helped organize a Twitter campaign to support Amnesty International’s emerging stance on sex work; a whirlwind of radical-feminist Tweets called me a “pimp.” I was annoyed. I wasn’t “persecuted.”) Most Tweets I’ve seen in this brouhaha were questions or criticisms, not “bullying.” Yet one trans person got attacked for “verbal violence” just for posting this:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 8.07.27 PM

As someone else tweeted to Tatchell:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 6.16.08 PM

As Sara Ahmed explained in an excellent rumination on the controversy,

The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. … These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti­racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. … We need to hear the constant stream of anti­trans statements as a “chip, chip, chip” that has violent wearing effects. Any feminism that participates in this chipping away is not a feminism worthy of that name.

Of course people protested against this letter. It is deeply offensive in so many ways. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But … those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.

"All transmisogyny in feminism is a patriarchal tendency." Brazilian street poster: Photo from madmaria.org/ ?p=198

“All transmisogyny in feminism is a patriarchal tendency.” Brazilian street poster: Photo from madmaria.org/ ?p=198

Is anything about the Observer letter true? Is “free speech” under threat? The letter cited exactly four alleged cases where “transgender vigilantes” and the “sex industry” shut down speech.

FIRST: The most ambiguous incident is “The fate of Kate Smurthwaite’s comedy show, cancelled by Goldsmith’s College in London last month.” Smurthwaite, a stand-up comic, is also a sex-work eradicationist; she thinks prostitution should be wiped out. What happened to her Goldsmith’s gig is in no way clear. Smurthwaite says it was stopped by pro-sex-work feminists (or, as she prefers it, pimps and punters). But — I get this from her own blog — she has only one bit of evidence anybody opposed her: a message she saw on the Web, from a feminist student at another university, suggesting a picket. (It proposed a protest, not canceling the show. The moniker’s blacked out by me.)

Evidence adduced by Kate Smurthwaite of threats against her show

Evidence adduced by Kate Smurthwaite of threats against her show

In fact, the University’s student Feminist Society had voted 70-30 to co-host her show. There were no threats. The head of the Comedy Society, the student group that was her main sponsor, writes that “One [Feminist Society] member suggested a counter event for those who didn’t want to see Kate. This member assured me it wouldn’t be a picket, but just a different gathering at a different venue.” The dire warnings of disaster came solely from Smurthwaite herself (she “let the organisers know that I thought there was a risk of a protest or of people coming along to the show with the specific aim of disrupting it or arguing with me”). Meanwhile, nobody was buying tickets. The Comedy Society president says, “we were planning to go ahead with the gig until Kate told me 24 hours before that there was likely to be a picket … I couldn’t verify this. Up to this point we had only sold 8 tickets so I decided to pull the plug.” It’s hard to avoid suspicion that Smurthwaite, faced with an underselling show, avoided that embarrassment by arranging her own cancellation. She certainly got free publicity galore, tweeting:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 4.18.57 PM

Rupert Myers writes for the Telegraph (in an article quite sympathetic to other censorship claims):

A comedy society was going to hold an event, it received tepid response, and it decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle … “No platform” is a dangerous approach to controversial ideas … but this incident was more like “no interest.”

Smurthwaite: Bet you I have more fingers than I do audience members

Smurthwaite: I bet I have more fingers than I do audience members

SECOND: The letter says, “Last month, there were calls for the Cambridge Union to withdraw a speaking invitation to Germaine Greer.” Greer, a writer I’ve found alternately inspiring and infuriating, has strong opinions against trans women: “ghastly parodies,” she’s called them. She regards them as gay men (never mind who they might be attracted to); she’s campaigned to get a trans woman ousted from a Cambridge University women’s fellowship for not being female; she allegedly has refused to contribute to anthologies or appear on platforms if certain trans people are represented. Nobody wrote open letters about that. 

Greer back then: I like men too, as long as they're cis and safe and don't steal my clothes

Greer back then: I like men too, as long as they’re safely cis and don’t borrow my clothes

This time, the Cambridge Union Society invited her; in a special snub, they scheduled her speech at the same time as a regular drinks event held for the Union’s LGBT+ group. Students asked the Union to rescind the invitation; they declined. The LGBT+ group then set up a counter-event “to celebrate and discuss the history of trans feminism, and think through how feminism can be made more trans-inclusive.” That sounds like just the kind of “democratic political exchange” the letter signatories claim they want. At Greer’s own talk, according to the Cambridge student newspaper, ”there were few signs of protest except for a few LGBT+ representatives handing out leaflets at the door.” Greer had her platform, and urged an end to surgeries and medical treatments for trans people during transition — she denounced them as “unethical.” No one got silenced or censored here.

THIRD: Most absurdly: The letter says “the Green party came under pressure to repudiate the philosophy lecturer Rupert Read after he questioned the arguments put forward by some trans­ activists.” (What Read wrote, and later apologized for, was that trans women are “a sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman.”). This is duplicitous. Trans activists didn’t react because Read’s a philosopher, but because he is a Green Party candidate for Parliament; they pressed the Greens to take a stand. As a politician, Read’s thoughts have implications. How would he and the Green Party vote on revising the UK’s inadequate Gender Recognition Act, for instance? Are political parties exempt from saying what they believe? When a Republican running for the US Senate alleged that women survivors of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant, feminists across the country demanded the Republican Party declare whether it agreed. Now the feminists behind the Observer letter are saying that was an assault on poor Todd Akin’s freedom. This is political insanity.

Candidate Rupert Read: If you feel a surge coming on, please go only to the bathroom of your birth gender

Candidate Rupert Read: If you feel a surge coming on, please go only to the bathroom of your birth gender

FOURTH: Oh, yes, “The feminist activist and writer Julie Bindel has been ‘no­platformed’ by the National Union of Students for several years.” Bear with me. One must draw breath before dealing with Julie Bindel; I’ll go there in a moment.

But consider the facts: trying to establish an evil sexworker-trans axis against free speech, Campbell and Tatchell and the rest found virtually nothing. The basis for the letter is BS. What is true is the level of sheer self-contradictory hypocrisy in their claims.

There are ample examples of this hypocrisy, but I’ll just focus on a few. One of the letter’s signatories (gay novelist Paul Burston) and one person it’s about (Julie Bindel) were among 12 gay activists who wrote a statement in 2011 that was a prime case of “no-platforming.” They demanded the East London Mosque “stop allowing its premises to be used to promote gayhate campaigns” by banning a list of speakers they helpfully provided. Peter Tatchell wasn’t party to that statement but had long campaigned against the East London Mosque. In a separate article the next day, he complained the mosque “never apologised for hosting homophobic hate preachers and have never given any assurances that they will not host them again,” though Tatchell had “publicly demanded that they do so.”

This is far severer “censorship” than those elusive proto-protests against Kate Smurthwaite that roused Tatchell’s and Campbell’s ire. These statements didn’t call for cancelling shows or lectures at a university, events where a diverse audience might take offense; they intruded on places of worship, sites particular to a community, institutions in no way obligated to represent opposing points of view. This is the kind of thing you can only advocate about Islam, because in the UK it’s known to be a public menace, requiring vigilant surveillance. Feminists complain, rightly, at the Catholic Church’s militance against reproductive rights; but imagine the uproar if they insisted that it ban all anti-abortion priests from its altars. With Islam, it’s open season.

Who's in there? The East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre, Whitechapel

Who’s in there? The East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre, Whitechapel

Their rationale for this remarkable demand was the same one the Observer letter mocks when trans people use it: These speakers make us feel unsafe. They opportunistically exploited a moral panic over an alleged burst of homophobic violence in East London, coupled with the trial of a Muslim man for putting up stickers that read “Gay Free Zone.” (Bindel and Burston dubbed his solitary stickering a “homophobic hate campaign.”) The excellent blogger How Upsetting noted that “Homophobic crime has decreased in Hackney.”

And before anyone tells you that this means nothing because it’s a huge figure nonetheless, the 47 homophobic crimes the MET reports to April 2011 in Hackney compares with 317 racist and religious hate crimes, 130 rapes and 5900 cases of “violence against the person.”

No evidence suggested a link between hate crimes, stickers, and the East London Mosque — which had condemned both. The writers virtually admitted banning the speakers would have no effect: “It is doubtful that many gaybashers are regular mosque attendees.” And many of the “hate preachers” were accused on flimsy pretexts. Tatchell’s article condemned one preacher, Uthman Lateef, as “virulently homophobic.” The joint statement gave more detail on Lateef,

who even hosted a gala dinner to highlight the Mosque’s supposed commitment to combatting homophobia earlier this year [but] is on record as saying to students at nearby Queen Mary University of London in 2007: “We don’t accept homosexuality… we hate it because Allah hates it”.

Read that again. Four years ago, he said “We don’t accept homosexuality”; but this year, he hosted an anti-homophobia event to make amends. Yet that’s not enough; he’s marked for life, and we’re going to get him banned not just from universities, but in his own community. Try doing that to Germaine Greer! This is “illiberal bullying” far beyond anything Tatchell and Burston piously decried in the Observer. Except here, Tatchell and Burston are doing it.

Hate preaching, I: Uthman Lateef

Hate preaching, I: Uthman Lateef

This censoriousness is ubiquitous in the UK, with nary an open letter against it. Earlier in 2011, for instance, Tatchell tried to no-platform “Muslim fundamentalist preachers who advocate the criminalisation of homosexuality”: “The Ibis Hotel group,” which was hosting a  Muslim conference, “should not facilitate speakers who promote homophobic discrimination and violence. They should cancel this booking.” The charge of “promoting violence” is elastic. After all, Uthman Lateef’s alleged statement “We don’t accept homosexuality” hardly incites anything specific. Even preachers who endorse the shari’a punishment of death for proven male homosexual acts (very unlikely to be enacted in the UK) are not exactly urging violence on the streets. But you have to wonder. That call is barbarous — but should only homosexuals be exempt from execution? Are we gays so special? Isn’t the death penalty always a barbarous human rights abuse? Shouldn’t Tatchell, a human rights activist, demand all death penalty supporters be barred from speaking, anywhere? That would ban Priti Patel, David Cameron’s Treasury Minister, who wants to bring back hanging. (OK, she’s brown, go ahead and ban her.) It would ban all the other Tory MPs who tabled a bill to the same end. It would ban almost every visiting US politician, from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton. Tatchell and Burston should get busy writing the open letter that calls for no-platforming these people, so that Burston and Tatchell can then write the open letter that opposes it.

Hate preachers. Top: English Defense League demo against the East London Mosque (photo: Jess Hurd/Reportdigital.co.uk). Bottom: English Defense League march in Telford, August 2011 (photo: MirrorImage/Demotix)

Hate preaching, II. Top: The fascist English Defence League protests the East London Mosque (photo: Jess Hurd/Reportdigital.co.uk). Bottom: English Defence League march in Telford, August 2011 (photo: MirrorImage/Demotix)

Then there’s Tatchell’s own record. Peter dislikes criticism. (He calls it “smears.”) In fact, he thinks criticizing him is censorship. (“The real censorship is by my critics. Some of them are posting entirely false allegations, often on closed lists that do not allow me to post my side of the story.”) When people criticize him, he tries to shut them up by threatening to sue. English libel law, which until revised in 2013 put the full burden of proof on the defendant and was among the most repressive in the world, handed him a potent weapon. In 2009, he threatened to sue a small feminist press (the aptly named Raw Nerve Books) that had published one of the UK’s first anthologies on race and queerness. An article in the book, by three academics of color, criticized Tatchell’s connections with the Islamophobic right. Tatchell forced the press to withdraw the whole anthology. Humiliatingly, he compelled them to publish a pages-long “Apology and Correction to Peter Tatchell,” written by Peter Tatchell, that praised Peter Tatchell’s career in wildly adulatory terms: a weirdly narcissistic exhibition. (It’s now only available on his own site, since the press is out of business.) “A really amazing book is being censored,” another academic wrote: “Meanwhile the authors’ reputations are themselves besmirched.”

All that was left: From the old Raw Nerve Books website

All that was left: From the old Raw Nerve Books website

The same year, Tatchell went after me. He threatened to sue Routledge, which had published a peer-reviewed and factual article I wrote, critiquing claims he made about Iran. (The article is here.) Then in early 2010, I stupidly sent an email to a third party in which I wrote, offhand, that “Tatchell makes up his own facts when the existing ones don’t suit.” (That’s a paraphrase; here in Cairo I don’t have the text in front of me. It’s also the truth.) The recipient inadvertently forwarded these unwise words to Peter. Tatchell leapt on them, and, since I’d sent the offending missive from a work address, threatened to sue Human RIghts Watch. HRW was eventually constrained to sign an apology which Tatchell couched in the most sweeping terms possible, a decision to which I reluctantly assented to keep their UK work free from his legal harassment. Tatchell then used that apology to force Routledge to concede, and pulp not just the article but the entire volume in which it had appeared.

Nor did it stop there. In 2011 I forwarded to an LGBT e-mail listserve, without comment, two blog posts by other people — both mainly about the Middle East but containing critiques of Tatchell’s work. (The e-mail’s here.) The next day, one “Patrick Lyster-Todd, Lieutenant Commander Royal Navy,” who was also “the acting General Manager for the Peter Tatchell Foundation,” wrote to the Dean of Harvard Law School, where I was a Visiting Fellow, with a veiled threat of libel action unless I were fired. Legal threats against smart lawyers are ill-advised, and the school told him (I’m paraphrasing here too) to bugger off. In 2013, Peter wrote to a friend of Hillel Neuer, a pro-Likud propagandist some of whose misrepresentations of Egyptian human rights activists I had detailed. Tatchell urged Neuer to take “legal action” against me. (This time the e-mail was inadvertently forwarded to me. Be careful with those keyboards, people.) Tatchell has an odd fixation on me, which is a personal issue. His use of a draconian libel law to shut down speech is not. He now hypocritically claims (in Twitterese) “I defend precious human right of free speech, except 4 violent incites.” But that’s not true. He defends precious human right when it is good 4 him. Criticize, & he will make u sorry 4 it.

There are standards. See?

1) It’s utterly wrong if trans or sex worker activists no-platform speakers with transphobic or eradicationist opinions.

2) It’s absolutely right if gay activists no-platform speakers with homophobic opinions.

3) It’s wonderful if one particular gay activist uses the law against anybody criticizing his opinions.

Sex wars: Anonymous stencil

Sex wars: Anonymous stencil

But let’s face it, these are only local hypocrisies. The great dishonesty is claiming you’re being “silenced,” while trans and sex worker activists have mostly been the ones repression stifles and gags. This history stretches back to the sex wars in feminism that raged from the 1970s. When Barnard College held a famous, feminist sexualities conference in 1982, other feminists — fulminating at open discussions of porn and sex work — charged it was a coven of child pornography, in a furious push to shut it down. Trans researcher Natacha Kennedy wrote this week:

The so-called “feminists” who wish to initiate a debate about my existence have glossed over the nature and history of this “debate.” This is a debate that has raged since the early 1970s and which quickly became violent. …  [Feminist theorist] Janice Raymond publish[ed] a book in which she suggested that people like myself should be “morally mandated out of existence.” She also helped the Reagan government to withhold gender reassignment healthcare from trans people.

[T]hose transphobic “feminists” who wish to debate my existence are a group that has a long and sordid history of silencing and intimidating trans people. Indeed I invariably attract quite extreme personal abuse online whenever I write something to counter what these transphobic “feminists” have written. They provide no counter-argument, no engagement with the issues I raise, just abuse and occasionally threats. And I count myself lucky, others have been threatened with legal letters from solicitors trying to shut them up, some have had letters written to their employers, trying to get them sacked, in one instance a transphobic “feminist” even tried to intervene in someone’s medical treatment.

Cathy Brennan, a US lawyer, viciously harasses trans women through her website, Gender Identity Watch: in one case, she posted online the court docket information of a person trying to change her legal gender, and urged others to lobby the judge to deny her. Another, even more sadistic radical-feminist site “monitors” and outs trans youth, regularly posting names and photos of “who is transitioning.”  Maybe these are marginal; maybe not. Their acts are more terrifying to their targets than anything Kate Smurthwaite underwent. Why isn’t Bea Campbell cooking up an open letter?

And sex workers? The harassment they face is endless. Opponents accuse anti-criminalization campaigners of trafficking, or dub them a “pimp lobby.”

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 2.51.25 AM

This month anti-sex work groups in the UK published a “Guide for Journalists Reporting on the Prostitution and Trafficking of Women,” written by (there you go again!) Julie Bindel. The book aims to discourage journalists from talking to or trusting sex worker activists: “How to identify the pro-prostitution lobby.” A recalcitrant reporter at a Stop Porn Culture conference last year wrote that “radical feminist Julie Bindel’s presentation on ‘the politics of the sex industry'” was “a succession of tabloid-style personal attacks on pro-sex industry activists, academics, escorts, and performers, complete with photos seemingly lifted without permission from their social-media profiles.” It’s a two-pronged media strategy: first, make sex workers invisible; if that fails, out them. Either way, you shut them up.

The whole point of the Observer letter is to bury these facts and this history. This controversy has been less about speech than about forgetting. I”m not sure anything can be learned from such an episode of erasures. But as I mulled on it, four thoughts flickered though.

First: Free speech is easy in principle and complicated in practice. It’s an absolute ideal (an ideology, I’d say, if the word weren’t so weighted): something people hold up and value and use to judge acts and situations. But everybody knows that absolute free speech — a cacophonic babel where everyone talks at once and everybody’s heard — doesn’t exist. (Twitter pretends to be that, hence some folks’ passion for it. But the point is precisely that with everyone on Twitter talking, most don’t get heard at all. And just try Tweeting if you live in Egypt and earn two dollars a day.)

There are always limitations, some necessary (climate-change denialists or creation scientists should not be attended to in University departments) and some unjust (why should a gigabyte of WiFi cost a day’s food?). We negotiate what “free speech” means in specific situations. We decide what limit we’ll contest, who we’ll pay attention to, who gets a lecture slot, who sits on a panel. And when we decide, others should be able to argue back. These negotiations always involve power. Power (“privilege” is the trendy term) is also never absolute. There are different kinds, and race, gender, knowledges, class all shape it differently. Everyone has power in some ways and spaces, and people who have a lot can always point to times and places where they have less (or more). It’s absurd to suppose that Germaine Greer has as much power as David Cameron. But it’s ridiculous to pretend that a few students protesting Germaine Greer have as much power as Germaine Greer. It’s demeaning to posit that academics and politicians and NGO heads are helpless victims in the face of street sex workers or trans women whom police freely abuse. It’s insulting to claim “persecution” because you got too many Tweets from people who actually know what persecution is.

freedom-of-speech-megaphone2Second: Universities are separate and special places for producing truth: unique sites where we negotiate what free speech means. They are not places of “democratic political exchange,” and they never have been (though there may be democratic spaces within them, the freest usually being ones students establish). People in universities spend much of their time and energy deciding who should get to speak, sometimes fine-tuning fairer procedures for decision. Then sometimes other people protest their decisions. These aren’t Platonic paradises where the free-speech ideal effortlessly becomes flesh.

Bernard Lewis as drawn by the Spectator (UK). Turks may notice the resemblance to Suleyman Demirel.

Bernard Lewis as drawn by the Spectator (UK). Turks may notice the resemblance to Süleyman Demirel.

Most obviously, faculties constantly decide what can be taught or not. No decent university will hire someone to spread creation science or Holocaust denial. The second offends a lot of people, the first probably doesn’t rouse real ire except among dinosaurs, but that’s not the criterion. Those opinions won’t get class time because they’re not true. Yet the decision about what’s true does involve power, and there are steady struggles over it. Vast Turkish massacres of Armenians during the First World War — the word “genocide” hadn’t been coined yet — are well-documented. Yet many scholars still minimize or ignore them. Bernard Lewis, the immensely powerful Middle East scholar much beloved of neoconservatives, is a genocide denier. There are probably Armenian right-wingers who would say this discrepancy is because the Jews have power and the Armenians don’t, but they’d be wrong. The problem is, rather, that the Turkish government has power and uses its weight to cover up the killings, while most European states that murdered Jews have, imperfectly, come to terms with their guilt. Many foreign historians working on Turkey succumbed to unsubtle pressure to steer clear of the genocide, because their access to institutions and archives was at stake. All this is shifting  — partly because US conservatives are far less fond of Turkey; but also because Armenian activists have pushed, pressured, and sometimes protested to get their stories (and their ancestors’ stories) heard. Truth comes from negotiating such contests; it doesn’t descend immaculate from on high. Bernard Lewis is almost 100 now, and no one wants to trouble an old man, but if in his heyday Armenian groups had promised to shout him down in public till he changed his claims, I would have applauded. That would have been an opening of debate, not a closure.

Child refugees from massacres by Turkish troops: Photo from the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in the Republic of Armenia

Child refugees from massacres by Turkish troops: Photo from the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in the Republic of Armenia

Then there’s the part of the university not under the faculties’ direct control. Student union “no platform” policies are much fought over. Several things should be clarified. These are policies of student unions, not the university administration. Students vote on them. They identify certain groups or even people whom the union won’t admit to its platforms. Their origins lie in a long tradition of working-class struggles against fascism (UK student unions are unions, after all). The National Union of Students no-platforms the English Defence League and the British National Party, but also several Muslim groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir. Its LGBT section has voted to no-platform Julie Bindel.

Anti-fascist demonstrators at Cambridge University protest outside a speech by French rightist Marine Le Pen, February 2013. Photo by  Justin Tallis/AFP

Anti-fascist demonstrators at Cambridge University protest outside a speech by French rightist Marine Le Pen, February 2013. Photo by Justin Tallis/AFP

No one — even among the advocates behind the Observer letter — seems to mind no-platforming fascists. Commentators are confused, though, over why fascists can be banned. Sarah Ditum, in an article defending Julie Bindel, claimed no-platform “was traditionally about rejecting the rhetoric of violence.” But surely the objection to fascism was less that it was violent than that it was fascism: racist, exclusionary. (Hizb ut-Tahrir is barred even though it has vowed a commitment to non-violence, and nobody on the right complained about that.)

Nick Cohen similarly contends that only ideas that “incite violence” should ever be no-platformed, anywhere. Yet – as the East London furor shows – very few who think this are willing to stick to any consistent or legal definition of “incitement”: that is, encouraging particular acts against particular people. Somebody saying “I don’t like you” is incitement enough in their minds. After all, Julie BIndel believes pornography, all pornography, incites (or is) violence. They use the incitement argument not as a heuristic tool, to winnow “good” speech from “bad” speech, but as an emotive spur, to whip up fear and anger against speech they don’t like.

In other words, hypocrisy once again riddles these arguments: No-platforming for thee, but not for me. But let’s admit two things. First, these student bans aren’t “censorship.” As trans activist Sarah Brown writes, “No platforming sounds terribly serious. In reality, it basically means, ‘we won’t invite this person to our stuff, and we won’t appear on the same platform as them.'” Having no platform at the student union doesn’t mean having no platform at all. There are other platforms in the university; there are platforms outside. Everyone has the right to seek a platform from which to speak; that doesn’t mean an absolute right to any platform in particular.

For student groups, no-platforming resolutions are a way of putting some opinions under the shadow of disapproval. I find no-platform distasteful, like most symbolic gestures. It gives people the warm feeling of fighting something, with little effort or impact at all. I think it should stop. But to confuse it with state suppression of opinion, with Iran or North Korea, is to lose all proportion.

Music to my fears: London protest against Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, over his political support for Vladimir Putin, November 2013

Music to my fears: London protest against Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, over his political support for Vladimir Putin, November 2013

Then: in our societies, groups censure or ostracise some opinions all the time. A great victory was won, in many places in the last 50 years, through the valor and vigilance of many movements. Some racist ideas became socially and politically unacceptable: not banned (though their expression is in some countries) but met with such disapproval as to disqualify you from public life. When a US politician shouts a racist slur, his career is over. Now there’s a steady struggle to bring other kinds of prejudice under the same penumbra. And gays and lesbians are at the fore, protesting and reviling. It’s like no-platforming, only played not in student unions but on larger fields. Getting the CEO of Mozilla fired because he fought gay marriage takes away a platform way bigger than Julie Bindel’s wildest dreams. Gay activists in the US, the UK, and elsewhere have militantly patrolled the limits of acceptable language and opinion. To tell trans people and sex workers that they can’t similarly fight back is, from this perspective, like saying gay rights are a settled issue, whereas their rights must stay open to debate. It’s the gays pulling up the drawbridge behind them. You’re surprised folks get angry?

I’m sometimes uneasy, even appalled about these wildfire campaigns (a clicktivist drive to fire a CEO is a diversion from fighting poverty or inequality), but they’re not “censorship.” Free speech is a struggle. Voices left inaudible (the powerless on one hand, the just-plain-wrong on another) are in constant contention with the ones behind the megaphones, to make themselves heard.

Much of the horror over who gives a lecture and who doesn’t draws on a fantasy version of how speech works. You’d think each of Earth’s six billion residents was guaranteed a speaking slot at Oxford each semester, and if one loses it, it’s censorship. It’s not. Each time a speaker is invited somewhere, it’s because somebody decided not to invite someone else. Usually these zero-sum contests are settled behind closed doors. But when a decision becomes public, the public can contest it. No university can hear all voices; the more discussion about which ones it will accomodate, the better. These arguments make that discussion open. They aren’t how free speech is suppressed. Often, they’re how it happens.

censorshipThird: What is censorship? The Observer letter leaves me hopelessly confused. Is it when you’re not invited to speak? When no one shows up when you speak? When someone protests your speaking? When somebody complains?

Censorship is none of these. Censorship is suppressing speech, usually by punitive or repressive force, with the intent to eliminate it altogether. People need to get their definitions straight. When a government closes a newspaper, jails a journalist, or passes an anti-pornography law, that’s censorship. When a person employs a draconian state law to threaten or silence speech, that’s censorship. (Peter Tatchell, with his exploitation of a grim libel law, is a censor.) If TV networks conspire to ban some opinion from the airwaves altogether, that’s censorship. Violence can be censorship. But protesting a program or demanding it be dropped is not censorship. Neither is picketing a lecture, or writing to a political party, or not being allowed on an e-mail listserve. You’re not being censored if you lose a platform and can find another: if the Guardian won’t publish you and the Independent will. The proliferating pseudo-dictionaries make it impossible to muster indignation against real censors.

Sex workers protest against violence, Vancouver, Canada, 1984

Sex workers protest against violence, Vancouver, Canada, 1984

Fourth. The one thing everybody in this controversy says is: they want more speech. Being human, they mostly don’t mean it. They want speech from those on their side, that’s all. But this does foreground the question of how we foster and further speech: how any of us, from polemicists to outside observers, can work so as to ensure that voices often relegated to silence are heard.

There is no easy answer, but I should say the beginning is: listen. And here I return to Tatchell, because what he’s written is instructive. Peter was hurt and indignant that trans people criticized him, because, as he kept saying, he’s fought for them for years. He’s right; he has. But as I keep saying to Peter — it’s one of the reasons he doesn’t like me — it’s not enough, and sometimes it’s not right, to fight for people. You have to be an ally, not a leader; to fight with them (at times, in all senses of the phrase); and you have to listen.

One reason trans people got angry at Peter in this twitter storm is that his reactions to criticism were infuriating. He patronized trans activists, accusing them of not caring about their own:

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 1.00.10 PM

He accused trans people of ingratitude:

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 1.06.26 PM

Many responded by asking what an ally is.

NOT AN ALLY

It all culminated with Tatchell claiming that he was simply a better trans activist than trans activists.

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 1.02.50 PM

One demands gratitude not from equals, but from dependents. Tatchell might want to read yet another open letter: from Hannah Arendt to the French poet Jules Romains, after he claimed — at the height of Hitler’s war, in 1941 — that he had defended the Jews and they were ungrateful. (My thanks to Rahul Rao for pointing to this letter in this context, in his fine book Third World Protest.) Arendt reminded Romains that the Jews’ struggle was not just an adjunct to his own.

You complain in fact very loudly and articulately about the ingratitude of Jews for whom you have done so much…..

What concerns us Jews in all this and what makes us blush again for the hundredth time is our despairing question: Is our alternative truly only between malevolent enemies and condescending friends? Are genuine allies nowhere to be found, allies who understand, not out of either sympathy or bribery, that we were merely the first European nation on whom ‘Hitler declared war? That in this war our freedom and our honor hang in the balance no less than the freedom and honor of the nation to which Jules Romains belongs? And that condescending gestures like the arrogant demand for gratitude from a protector cuts deeper than the open hostility of antisemites?

I want also to think about that BBC radio debate with Bindel.

Tatchell’s proud of the broadcast — he Tweeted about it repeatedly to critics. Hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine in 2007, It featured Bindel arguing that “sex change surgery” should be banned as “unnecessary mutilation.” Four respondents answered her: two well-known trans advocates — Stephen Whittle, a world-renowned expert on gender identity and the law, and Michelle Bridgman, a psychotherapist; Kevan Whylie, a clinician and expert on gender reassignment therapies; and Tatchell.

Censored? Julie Bindel: Photo by Elena Heatherwick for the Guardian

Censor me? Julie Bindel: Photo by Elena Heatherwick for the Guardian

At the end, the audience was polled, and Bindel’s perspective lost. But what remains of the debate? A recording formerly at the BBC’s site is gone. Two main accounts survive online: Bindel’s and Tatchell’s. (The two, despite their differences, are friends). Bindel wrote in the Guardian:

It was one of the most challenging and stimulating debates I have taken part in. Not because the panel or the audience conceded much to my arguments, but because I was given a platform for my opinions … I was outvoted at the end of the debate, but I felt I had done my job. All I intended to do was to ask the questions, “Are we right to support sex change surgery, and is it right to apply a surgical solution to what I believe is a psychological problem?

She quotes none of her respondents. Meanwhile, Tatchell’s account is on his website. He quotes Bindel generously, and himself at even more length. Although he refers to the other participants in passing, including the two trans advocates, he mentions nothing that they said. As far as he’s concerned, it’s entirely a debate between himself and Bindel. He headlines his version: “Transsexualism – Bindel condemns, Tatchell defends.”

There you have it. First, that’s why I feel no sorrow when students no-platform Bindel. She has no lack of platforms; anyone who has the Guardian and the Royal Society of Medicine will never lack a platform. Second: who actually won? Maybe Tatchell, in his mind, but for trans people it may be more ambiguous; he buries them in that comma between “Bindel condemns, Tatchell defends.” Their lives were at issue, but he renders their voices irrelevant, lost. Supporting people starts with hearing them: otherwise, the helping hand can become an occupying force. The storm about “silencing” and “censorship” shouldn’t whirl that lesson to oblivion.

Vanesa Ledesma, a transgender sex worker and activist, tortured to death in Cordoba, Argentina in February 2000. The painting by Tom Block is based on photographs of her mutilated corpse.

Vanesa Ledesma, a transgender sex worker and activist, tortured to death by police in Cordoba, Argentina in February 2000. The painting by Tom Block is based on photographs of her mutilated corpse.

UPDATE only for those too obsessed by this issue to sleep:  Peter Tatchell now says he has “proof” that Kate Smurthwaite was banned from Goldsmith’s.

Screen shot 2015-02-19 at 9.41.02 PM

He doesn’t. This all revolves around what Smurthwaite says on her own blog, which is confused to start with. But here’s the gist.

Smurthwaite posts just a snippet of an online chat with a member of Goldsmith’s Comedy Society, as follows. She doesn’t post the whole chat so we have no idea where this conversation went, but let’s assume this is the best evidence she’s got.

From Kate Smurthwaite's blog

From Kate Smurthwaite’s blog

Now. Here is the safe-space policy of the Student Union at Goldsmith’s. And here’s what it says:

Racism, homophobia, biphobia, sexism, transphobia, disablism or prejudice based on age, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, gender presentation, language ability, immigration status or religious affiliation is unacceptable and will be challenged.

Well, that’s pretty sweeping, except it doesn’t mean anything. There’s a huge gap between saying something’s “unacceptable” and saying it “will be challenged.” There are neither penalties nor enforcement mechanisms, so evidently these kinds of speech are discouraged, not banned, but neither is there any real obligation to “challenge.” (“We refer to our ‘Safe Space Policy’ as a concept, not as a physical document,” the physical document says.)  What’s clear in context is that the main target is things that students say to each other — offhand slurs, for instance. The idea is mainly to get students to be nice to each other. You couldn’t really use this to ban any speaker’s speech: just to ensure they get “challenged,” which could mean anything..

This is a terribly written document (sorry, “concept”). It doesn’t offer a basis for suppressing speech; it offers no guidance, period. I hope no other school has anything like it. Still, the exchange above isn’t sinister censorship. It’s comedy. You can see the poor fellow has no idea what the policy is (it neither “kinda” says you “can’t say” things nor mentions sex work). Smurthwaite immediately leaps to the conclusion that it’s a “pro-pimp” Bible, because it’s basically a blank on which she can write her prejudices, hatreds, fears. I have to say that if were a comedy society honcho, and a comic started claiming I wanted a “pro-pimp event,” I might assume this wouldn’t be a funny evening, and pull the plug.

The other bit of evidence seems to be this:

Goldsmiths4

Let’s repeat: The person who told him there would be pickets outside the show was Smurthwaite herself, as she admits. And this was entirely based on a Twitter conversation between two persons that she saw online. Nobody was threatening to close her down, nobody was threatening violence. The threats, by Smurthwaite’s own account, came from Smurthwaite.

I still find the most plausible assumption to be that Smurthwaite inflated the “protests” because she didn’t want to perform with no audience; torpedoed her own gig; and has been milking the publicity. It’s also possible that the Comedy Society just decided she was a pain in the whatever, and looked for any excuse to cancel.  If the Comedy Society didn’t want to pay for security, that’s its decision. But let’s also note that there is a right to peaceful protest, as Tatchell admits:

Screen shot 2015-02-19 at 9.57.10 PMOr does he mean: “Protest anti-trans feminists unless the host organization might get cold feet”? And if he means that, exactly whose free speech is under threat here?

One of Mona Iraqi’s victims tries to burn himself to death

Shameless I: Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad of Cairo's morals police -- responsible for numerous arrests in the crackdown -- appears on Mona Iraqi's program, February 4

Shameless I: Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad of Cairo’s morals police — responsible for numerous arrests in Egypt’s brutal crackdown — appears on Mona Iraqi’s program, February 4

One of the 26 men arrested, tortured, and ultimately acquitted in the December 7 raid on a Cairo bathhouse has reportedly tried to burn himself to death. El-Watan newspaper claims to have spoken to him yesterday in hospital. “I work in a restaurant in the Shobra district,” he told them. “I’m harassed constantly in my workplace by the words of the people and the looks in their eyes.” He said that since his acquittal his fearful family controlled his movements and tried to keep from leaving the house, that one of his brothers insisted on accompanying him everywhere he went, and that he had “no freedom.” Eight days ago, he set himself on fire.

“I am very tired,” he said. He has been confined in one of Cairo’s largest public hospitals since his suicide attempt, and he complained of neglect and mistreatment. Tarek el-Awady, one of the defense lawyers who is now pressing a lawsuit against journalist Mona Iraqi, said the man’s sufferings were due to “the narrowness of the society’s point of view.”

Shameless II: Mona Iraqi’s self-justificatory fourth broadcast about her bathhouse raid, February 4

Mona Iraqi, who led and filmed the bathhouse raid and spent weeks vilifying the “den of perversion” on her popular TV program El Mostakhbai (“The Hidden”) will not be repentant. After the acquittal, there were reports she’d be fired. Instead, on February 4, she returned to the attack on air, blasting her critics, insinuating they were foreign agents. She reiterated nonsensically that her raid was all about “sex trafficking,” or preventing AIDS; at the same time, with serene inconsistency, she pointed to “evidence” — from Google searches — that the bathhouse was a gay hangout, undercutting her repeated claim that homosexuality had not been at issue. Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad, the vice squad officer who planned the raid with her, also appeared on-air, talking about his “secret, extended investigation” of the bathhouse. The acquittal should have humiliated Hashad — the court clearly accepted the defense contention that he fabricated evidence. But he’s not disgraced, he’s an official talking head on morals. Egypt’s police stand by their woman and their man.

The episode aired only two or three days before Iraqi’s and Hashad’s victim tried to kill himself.

In Egypt today as in the region, self-immolation summons ghosts. Even with the country now clouded in official amnesia (last month the government cancelled any commemoration of the fourth anniversary of Egypt’s democratic revolution) no one can expunge the memory of how the Arab Spring began. On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself, in a desperate protest against bureaucrats who had confiscated his wares and his livelihood. He died three weeks later. By then his solitary act had ignited the Tunisian revolution. Four days after his death, the dictator Ben Ali fled.

In Egypt, in January 2011, in the eleven days between the downfall of Tunisia’s regime and the outbreak of mass protests against Mubarak, at least five men set their bodies on fire in despairing homage to Bouazizi: two did so near the Parliament building. All these were acts of faith. The beacons of agony illumined the anguish of a people. They were also last-ditch expressions of a physical, personal and individual resistance, the lone body defying the state and its repressive engines. The fragile flesh recovered power in annihilation, in its refusal to obey; death was its freedom, and made it incandescent. Skin and bone were the last refuges of integrity against the system. Their consummation was its negation.

"Hommage a Mohamed Bouazizi," installation, 2012. Photo: www.efferlecebe.fr

Effer Lecébé, Hommage à Mohamed Bouazizi, installation, Centre d’art contemporain, Paris, 2011. Photo: http://www.efferlecebe.fr

The old regime in Egypt is back, and it has put a sanbenito of surveillance over everybody’s body. The small act of this man whose full name I don’t even know was not just despair. It affirms the survival and the continuity of resistance. He wasn’t weak, he was courageous, and I’m too weak to comprehend it. This morning I read some lines by the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. They’re all I can say: trying, and failing, to translate a material bravery that abjures expression into the spectral inadequacy of words.

One day, I will be what I want to be.
One day, I will be a bird, and will snatch my being out of my nothingness.

The more my wings burn, the more I near my truth and arise from the ashes.
I am the dreamer’s speech, having forsaken body and soul
to continue my first journey to what set me on fire and vanished:
The meaning.

— Mahmoud Darwish, “Mural,” trans. Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché’

Photograph of the bathhouse raid, December 7, 2014, posted by Mona Iraqi on her Facebook page that night. She stands at the right, filming.

Photograph of the bathhouse raid, December 7, 2014, posted by Mona Iraqi on her Facebook page that night. She stands at the right, filming.

 

Egypt’s Atrocity Investments Fair (Part one: The British connection)

Malouka Aldlouah in court; photo from Al Youm Al Sabbah (Youm 7), January 31, 2015. I tried to blur the face; Youm 7 didn't.

Malouka Aldlouah in court; photo from Al Youm Al Sabbah (Youm7), January 31, 2015. I tried to blur her face; Youm7 didn’t.

Look at two photographs. Above is Malouka Aldlouah, a 25-year-old transgender woman, in a cold courtroom. On January 31, a judge sentenced her and a friend, Aida, to six years in prison. Their crime was “debauchery,” homosexual conduct; police entrapped them in an apartment they shared. Below is Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a journalist, activist, and mother. On January 24, she tried to place flowers in Tahrir Square in memory of the Egyptian revolution’s martyrs. Police shot her. She died in a comrade’s arms.

Those photographs illuminate what it’s like in Egypt today, homes and streets patrolled equally ruthlessly, private and public life endangered. A police state shaped these women’s narratives, but the pictures tell very different stories: contempt and shame weigh unequally on them. I blurred one face and not the other, and that has to do with stigma, but also with the division between life and death. Sometimes I feel the only Egyptians who can show their faces without fear these days are the dead, who have already paid for it.

24open_cairo-master675On March 13-15, General Sisi’s regime will host an Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el Sheikh. This is a massive event, Sisi’s bid to pump foreign money into an immiserated country. To the extent the government has an economic strategy, this is it. The state hypes it furiously, and its docile press slavishly whips up hope. The meeting “is a ‘once in a life time’ opportunity to rapidly enter the ’emerging’ Egyptian market” (why those air quotes?); the “success of the summit will lead to an economic boom for Egypt, as it aims to improve the standard of living for Egyptians.” They’ve invited 3500 investors, no, 6000, from 120 countries. 1000 Saudis alone are eagerly awaited. They’re begging Russia and Germany and France to send businessmen. “30 different investment projects” will be up for grabs at the meeting, worth $20 billion — no, $15 billion (that’s down suspiciously from 42 projects heralded a few weeks ago). The government’s even lowering the currency against the dollar; it will drop 12% by the time the summit opens, making Egypt an even more fabulous bargain basement, a louche low-rent laundry for loose cash.

Roughing it: Brave Western investors at the Grand Hotel, Sharm el-Sheikh, try to locate Egypt's economic future on the horizon

Neither out far nor in deep: Brave Western investors at the Grand Hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh try to locate Egypt’s economic future on the horizon

I want to know: Who among the businessmen, and bankers, and diplomats at the Sharm summit will demand answers about Egypt’s deteriorating human rights situation? 

Sisi’s government has had a hard time attracting attendees, postponing the gathering repeatedly to bushbeat for joiners; the problem is that Egypt looks less than stable as an investment opportunity. If the poolside potentates at Sharm el-Sheikh want to see instability firsthand, it’s near — too near. Two hundred miles north of Sinai’s Red Sea beaches, a vast rebellion rages. Attacks by the ISIS-affiliated “State of Sinai” (Wilayat Sina) killed 30 to 50 soldiers on January 29 alone. The rights crisis feeds the resistance. State torture and repression, Amr Khalifa argues, are “making a dark scenario an explosive one”:

an elevation of the language of guns, APC’s and unmanned drones over that of reasoned discourse with the local population. It is a problem central to the Al-Sisi regime: the world viewed in a dual prism, either black or white, and in his universe, Sinai residents are terrorists till proven otherwise.

But Sisi’s guests can look out on wider landscapes of atrocity.

  • Police have slaughtered over 1500 protesters since the 2013 coup. A draconian law passed last year criminalizes all peaceful demonstrations. Democracy activists like Yara Sallam and Sanaa Seif are serving long prison sentences merely for protesting the protest law.
  • Human rights activists can receive life in prison for taking funds from abroad.
  • More than 25,000 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters languish in concentration camps. Hundreds who have gone before courts face the death penalty.
  • Police hunt down other dissident identities, from accused atheists to alleged gay and transgender people. Well over 100 people convicted for the “habitual practice of debauchery” since October 2013 still sit in prison, targets for savage vilification in the pro-Sisi media. Police brutalize almost all those arrested on charges of homosexual conduct; most suffer anal tests at the hands of state forensic doctors, an invasive form of torture.
Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a Cairo bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Why should companies care? Nobody really believes you can coax corporations into pious solicitude for human beings as such, above and beyond their status as workers, consumers, or raw materials for Soylent Green. There’s enlightened self-interest, though:

  • The corporate brand — symbol of “a company’s integrity, values and, most importantly, intentions” — looks less appealing if it’s dripping blood.
  • Torture and repression won’t create political stability. Mubarak spent thirty years savagely suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists; it only made them more popular, and his government less secure. How can Sisi’s persecutions succeed? He’s alienated large segments of youth and the educated; what happens when the anger at his depredations explodes?
  • International firms doing business in Egypt all have LGBT employees. Many are bound by anti-discrimination policies on sexual orientation or gender identity. How can they defend their workers’ basic safety if they don’t combat state persecution?
Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman is shocked, do you hear me, shocked that human rights violations happen

Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman is shocked, do you hear me, shocked that human rights violations happen

But foreign investment promotes political openness. Right? No. The summit has become a pretext for making Egypt even less transparent. For the crony capitalists surrounding Sisi, easing investment means eviscerating public oversight. Last April, in a move touted as creating a benign climate for foreign money, puppet interim president Adly Mansour revised the Investment Law. He barred anyone from mounting legal challenges to state contracts except for the government itself and the investor. Rejected bidders and civil society lost any legal recourse. And he made this retroactive, cancelling some 20 standing lawsuits against corrupt or dubious state deals, most filed during the brief democratic spring after Mubarak’s overthrow.

Third-party lawsuits, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), were “one of the only avenues” for the public to learn about corruption. “The level of accountability that exists is being taken away, reducing what potential for oversight there is,” a researcher for the group said. The Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights condemned the new “unconstitutional law that revokes the right of a citizen to appeal and entrenches the corrupt contracts through retroactive application”:

This law allows for corrupt practices to negate the rulings of Egyptian courts which had originally uncovered corruption in a number of privatisation and land sale schemes … The law has shut the door on local courts entirely, which threatens increased corruption and criminal activity that will threaten the Egyptian economy.

4183135945

Lifestyles of the rich and shameless: Fortunes amassed by Mubarak-era figures. Only the numbers for Mubarak himself are in dollars, the rest in Egyptian pounds (roughly 7 LE = $1 US at the time). Based on 2011 estimates by the US-based group Global Financial Integrity (GFI).

Egypt’s energy industry — the government’s sale of oil and gas to foreign corporations — had long bred illegality. An EIPR report found that “poor negotiation and corruption cost Egypt US$10 billion in lost [energy] revenue between 2005 and 2011″ — more than twice the country’s annual health budget.

A culture of secrecy, and a lack of accountability and public debate created the conditions that allowed these contracts to be signed. Although state entities … were mandated to negotiate in the interests of the Egyptian people, secrecy created ample room for graft and kickbacks, and allowed well-connected businessmen to manipulate contracts for their own benefit.

Now secrecy is back, bigtime. Foreign investors rewarded Sisi for the new law by easing the country’s credit rating (a spurious move given that Egypt’s securities remained “among the least liquid in the Middle East”). But the law’s main beneficiary is Egypt’s government itself, which can carry on pocketing illegal spoils. Corporations exulting in the short-term pleasures of buying public goods without public scrutiny are now locked into the costs of kickbacks and corruption. Sisi pushed the law through by decree, without a shred of democratic process: Egypt’s democratically-elected parliament had long since been dissolved. By propping up a self-destructive system that flouts accountability and insults public opinion, corporations render their own investments unsafe.

Most Egyptian human rights activists, and most Egyptian LGBT people, want foreign investment in the economy. In that sense, they want the summit to succeed. But they want investment that will help workers, the public, the poor, not just incestuous covens of cronies. They want state resources fairly priced and sold, not handed out like gift bags of swag. They want investors to support a stable and democratic Egypt, not a dictatorship tottering like an upended pyramid. So let’s look at some of the attendees at the conference. What are they going to say about human rights?

Sir Martin Sorrell in WPP's London offices, with small brown people behind him

Sir Martin Sorrell in WPP’s London offices, with small brown people behind him. Photo: Martin Argles, Guardian

1) WPP. One prominent summit speaker will be Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and CEO of the UK-based WPP Group. WPP, a media and public relations giant, is the world’s largest advertising firm. The name stands for Wire and Plastic Products; they started out making shopping carts. That’s fitting; Sorrell’s main skill is shopping. A former Saatchi & Saatchi executive, he bought the small, Wernham-Hoggesque firm in the 80s purely as a platform for buying other things. He leveraged that to purchase J. Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam and then everything else in the PR field. He is, as the Financial Times says, “advertising’s biggest dealmaker.”

Small and square-jawed, Sorrell looks as though Napoleon had stumbled onto the set of Mad Men. (He once sued a former employee for calling him the “mad dwarf.”) Like Napoleon, he has a history with Egypt.

On January 28, 2011, as the Egyptian revolution broke out, Vodafone Egypt joined the country’s other phone and Internet firms in shutting down service completely. Gagging the opposition’s voices failed, but drew thunderous international condemnation. On February 4, Sorrell published an op-ed defending Vodafone in The Times. Vodafone was only following orders, he wrote; it didn’t have the luxury of opening its communications pipelines to all opinions, the way international firms like Google and Twitter could. The latter offered too much freedom. By censoring more, they could help brother corporations. “They must understand that with incredible power comes incredible responsibility … You are responsible for the information that flows through” your networks. Sorrell didn’t disclose that Vodafone Egypt was a WPP client.

No signal: Cartoon by Carlos Latuff, February 2011

No signal: Cartoon by Carlos Latuff, February 2011

A few months later, a WPP subsidiary produced an ad for Vodafone Egypt that showed “Egyptians connecting with each other, feeling empowered, and joining the protests that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime. While the video makes no claims for [Vodafone] starting the revolution, it drops broad hints as it tries to ride on its coattails, that it played some role.” The ad caused outrage among Egyptians still furious at the shutdown. Vodafone was forced to pull it.

Making deals takes not just money but friends, powerful ones. (“WPP’s fastest growing client segment is still governmental,” Sorrell declared in a lecture on “nation branding,” where he praised China and Singapore as “so effective in managing their global brands.”) Friendly WPP’s Egypt business has thus been, though small, burgeoning — a “growth market,” it says. Naturally Sorrell hopes to foster his friendship with Sisi by supporting his summit.

This will hurt you more than it hurts me: Tony Blair offers his services to Sisi's government in performing forensic anal exams

This will hurt you more than it hurts me: Tony Blair offers his services to Sisi’s government in performing forensic anal examinations

Sorrell is also a friend to Tony Blair, who got him his knighthood, and that’s a further link to Egypt. Since July 2014, Blair has been advising Sisi on “economic reforms,” in a task force put together by the Egyptian regime’s main patrons, the United Arab Emirates. Drumming up support for the summit has been part of Blair’s mandate. Blair makes no money out of Egypt, his spokesperson claims, but that’s a technicality. The UAE are the paymasters in this intricate arrangement, and Blair already gets millions of pounds in consulting fees from that country’s sovereign wealth fund.

As one former close personal associate of Blair’s puts it, “a bargain has been struck” that “combines both an existential battle against Islamism and mouth-watering business opportunities in return for the kind of persuasive advocacy he provided George Bush over Iraq.”

Meanwhile, Blair’s onetime counsellor Peter Mandelson is also a friend of Martin Sorrell: WPP provided the starting money for Mandelson’s international consulting firm. “From WPP’s point of view the Mandelson connection gives it a degree of access to people in high places although some of Peter’s friends tend to be Russian oligarchs and financiers occupying the more exotic shores of capitalism.” Egypt is such a shore; Mandelson landed there long ago. He echoed Sorrell during the eighteen days of Egypt’s revolution, stepping up to defend Mubarak’s family kleptocracy. On February 1, 2011, Mandelson wrote to the Financial Times, claiming Gamal Mubarak “has been the leading voice in favour of change within the government and the ruling party,” and demanding a “peaceful transition” that would leave Gamal in place. Four years later Gamal is free, and his counterrevolutionary friends are back in charge. Mandelson’s powers of “access” can click in.

Blair and Mandelson in happier times: Peter primps himself while Tony plays hard-to-get

Blair and Mandelson in happier times: Peter primps himself while Tony plays hard-to-get

In other words, human rights don’t have much to do with WPP’s record in Egypt. But this sits uneasily with the firm’s Code of Business Conduct. That document declares, “We will consider the potential for clients or work to damage the Group’s reputation prior to taking them on. This includes reputational damage from association with clients that participate in activities that contribute to the abuse of human rights.” It has clauses dealing with LGBT people: not just protections against discrimination, but a promise to

give appropriate consideration to the impact of our work on minority segments of the population, whether that minority be by race, religion, national origin, colour, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age or disability.

How will WPP defend its LGBT employees in Sisi’s Egypt from arrest? How do its promises fit with uncritical support for a regime that jails and tortures anyone accused of being gay or transgender?

Sorrell has a rep as a global thinker, possibly overblown. In mid-2008, as economies crumbled like damp sandcastles, he opined, “I am still not sure there will be a recession in the US and I definitely don’t think worldwide.” The next year WPP’s revenues fell 16%, and the firm took it out on the 14,000 employees it laid off. So much for prognostication. But if people look up to him for wisdom, let him put it to good use. Let him speak up about Sisi’s abuses against LGBT Egyptians and others. It’s his responsibility.

Can I help you? Martin Sorrell also displays his potential prowess at forensic anal exams

Can I help you? Martin Sorrell also displays his potential prowess at forensic anal exams

2) British Petroleum. Another featured summit speaker is Bob Dudley, chief executive of BP.  

Egypt is big business for BP. The corporation is the country’s largest oil and gas producer, in partnership with the state-run Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation; it’s responsible for 15% of the nation’s oil production. It gets there by having cordial relations with the state, which sells off oil and gas concessions to foreign corporations. In 2008 and 2010, for instance, BP bagged control of exploration in large blocks of the Mediterranean Sea.

BP concessions northwest of the Nile Delta as of 2010, from http://www.2b1stconsulting.com/

BP concessions northwest of the Nile Delta as of 2010, from http://www.2b1stconsulting.com/

It got two more blocks for onshore and offshore gas exploration (3 and 8 on the map) in a 2013 round of bidding:

Map from Littlegatepublishing.com

Map of exploration blocks up for bidding in 2013, from http://Littlegatepublishing.com/

With all these concessions, you might think BP could actually provide Egypt with energy. You’d be wrong. Shortages and blackouts have spread. Meanwhile, BP’s contracts favor the corporation heavily, at the expense of Egypt’s state and people. With one of its offshore blocks, for instance, “BP managed to negotiate a vast share of the concession profits, above the 50-50 ratio customary to most petroleum agreements, citing the complexities and depth of extraction in that particular patch of the Mediterranean Sea.”

“I’ve analyzed oil and gas contracts from Uganda, Kazakhstan and Congo, and I’ve never seen a country ripped off this badly,” said one researcher. “The Egyptian people are paying for elite corruption with blackouts, black-market fuel and a collapsing economy.” The new investment law will make it almost impossible for Egyptians to contest such concessions — giving BP one more reason for gratitude to Sisi.

There are other reasons. The activist group Platform London told this story in mid-2013:

We recently visited a small Egyptian town that fought off plans by giant BP to build a gas terminal on its land as part of an $11 billion project. Idku lies just east of Alexandria, where the Nile Delta meets the Mediterranean. We met a number of local activists, farmers and fisherfolk, who explained that Idku’s land and water has for years suffered from pollution by both nearby sewage canals and the existing BG/Rashpetco’s LNG [liquid natural gas] export plant. …

BP, having drilled for oil in the deep waters of the North Alexandria block, wanted to build yet another new gas plant on Idku’s beach. … But the community was tired of their sea being polluted by large corporations.

Empowered by the Egyptian revolution, Idku’s citizens rebelled. They launched months of street protests and social media campaigns, among them “a symbolic funeral procession and a sit-in occupation at BP’s proposed construction site in late 2011.” In 2013 BP gave in and suspended the project.

“Idku: An Egyptian town beat the odds and stopped BP.” Video produced by Egypt’s Mosireen Collective.

London Platform described all this only nine days before the coup that carried Sisi to power. Within months, the new regime passed a draconian new protest law making demonstrations impossible. By mid-2014, with the way cleared, BP announced expanded work at its existing gas plant in Idku. Bob Dudley visited Cairo to promise new investment in Egyptian gas production. Details stayed secret, but the state simultaneously agreed to pay higher prices for its own energy resources extracted by foreign concession-holders: “to fulfil a pledge to provide more attractive terms to foreign firms.” As for the investment money, Platform wrote, “the oil and gas industry is incredibly capital-intensive; the billions will go to foreign oil service companies and imported equipment and technology. Few jobs will be created, and most will be temporary – the benefits for the Egyptian people are debatable.”

This activity now prohibited by law: Protest march in Idku, with a banner reading, "No to BP. For Our Sakes." Photo by Platform.

This activity now prohibited by law: Protest march in Idku, with a banner reading, “No to BP. For Our Sakes.” Photo by Platform.

BP, then, has done pretty well off the Sisi government’s repressive measures. Yet the firm claims to attend to human rights issues. BP’s own Code of Conduct says: “We seek to conduct our business in a manner that respects the human rights and dignity of people. Each of us can play a role in the elimination of human rights abuses such as child labour, human trafficking and forced labour.” There’s even an action point: “Report any human rights abuse in our operations or in those of our business partners.” True, the document seems short of binding: “Our Code reflects a principles-based approach, where rules are not stated explicitly.” You may also notice that it is available in eight languages including Azerbaijani, but not in Arabic.

You can read our Code of Conduct whether you're from Porto Alegre or Oporto. But if you're from Cairo, خلاص .

You can read our Code of Conduct whether you’re from Porto Alegre or Oporto. But if you’re from Cairo, خلاص .

Sexual orientation is of high concern to BP, at least in some languages. There’s a history behind this. Its longtime chief, Lord John Browne, resigned under a cloud in 2007 after perjuring himself to deny a same-sex lover. Browne has since transformed himself into a gay-rights martyr. In fact, as was widely noted at the time, his exit owed at least as much to the safety and environmental disasters that plagued his tenure, all traceable to his merger-fueled mania for cost-cutting. One of his legacies, though — in addition to the despoiled Louisiana coast, a catastrophe for which his successor took the fall — is a non-discrimination policy protecting LGBT employees.

Screen shot 2015-02-03 at 3.52.25 AM“Our goal is to create an environment of inclusion and acceptance,” BP’s Code of Conduct says. (Their website illustrates that laudable ambition with this frightening picture, showing a brown woman with crazed eyes who has apparently fought her way in front of a sad white man.) “We seek to treat all employees equally, irrespective of gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.” Achieving this in Egypt might require speaking up to the government about something other than concessionary profits. Then there’s this gem:

BP encourages and supports a number of business resource groups (BRGs). BRGs are employee-networks, set up by employees for employees. The groups come together voluntarily with the goal of enhancing the success of BP’s D&I objectives by helping to foster, develop and retain diverse talent in BP.

Among these is a “BP Pride group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.” Creating such a group in Egypt would earn you nine years in prison, by my estimates (three for practicing “debauchery,” three for inciting others to “debauchery,” and three for publicizing an invitation to “debauchery”). Will BP complain?

Lord Browne, one critic says, nearly destroyed BP with “the conflict between how he actually managed the company and the public principles he claimed were the essence of BP’s corporate character.” The corporation can’t afford another conflict when Sisi starts arresting its staff. If BP cares about human rights and its LGBT employees, it should speak out at Sharm.

I don't need to use my finger: BP's Bob Dudley offers his own forensic services

I don’t need to use my finger: BP’s Bob Dudley offers Egypt his own forensic services

Both these core supporters of Sisi’s summit are British-based firms. Six weeks from now they’ll be center stage in Sharm el-Sheikh. They don’t need to flatter power to get their profits, which are secure; they do need to show whether their principles are just glossy print and verbiage. Get started.

Pumping is permissible. Humping isn't: Banner for the Economic Development Conference

Pumping is permissible. Humping isn’t: Banner for the Economic Development Conference