John Aravosis published an article about Nikolai Alekseev’s latest Moscow protest on his blog today. It’s interesting how he excuses doing this. He objects to other media covering Alekseev (“I’ve noticed some top gay ‘news’ sites continuing to go to the anti-Semite Alexeyev for comment”) but not to himself covering Alekseev. He squares the circle by pretending that Alekseev wasn’t behind the demonstration (“it’s unfortunate that the protesters included in their group known anti-Semite, Nikolai Alexeyev“) when of course Alekseev didn’t simply happen along for the ride, he organized the whole thing. It’s all a bit like: I didn’t want to show you Britney Spears’ privates on my blog, people, it’s just that they walked right onto my computer screen.
The truth is, it’s much more sexy and clickworthy, from an American perspective, to run photos of Alekseev holding an catchy English-language sign (no Google Translate needed!) and getting chased by police, than photos of other Russians holding up Russian slogans about substantive things like the fate of Russia that only Russians care about. It would be nice if Aravosis would admit this — and admit there’s a symbiotic relation between the Alekseev lust for controversy and the Aravosis lust for blog hits. It would spare us all the denials.
Aravosis’ piece contains the following remarkable line:
When it comes down to it, no one would fraternize with a “human rights activist” who calls blacks the n-word, calls Latinos “wetbacks,” or calls gays “fags.” There’s no excuse for the tolerance some in our community, and some on the left generally, show when the victims of bigotry are Jewish.
One reason this is remarkable is that a couple of hours later, Aravosis was Tweeting:
I’m not even going to get into the question of whether it’s as OK for gay people to use the F-word (about non-Fs) as for black people to use the N-word. I don’t think the F-word is “like” the N-word, or homophobia is “like” racism, or so on. I just find this a curious coincidence.
Now, what Aravosis said on his blog about Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida, was this:
I was at my parents’ house last summer, watching the Republican convention … when I looked up at the TV to see who was speaking, saw some cherubic-faced yet-ageing man, and said to myself, “who’s that queen?” It was clear to me that whoever was at the dais must be gay …
That’s all the evidence. My own gaydar is sufficiently bad that I wouldn’t call somebody a “big fag,” in public, on its sole basis. Probably Aravosis’s gaydar is a precision instrument by contrast, capable of picking up distant quasars of queeniness, like the Hubble Telescope. I bet he was born with a super-keen eye for queens, that is, for men who aren’t quite manly. We’ve already seen this with Johnny Weir, whom he pegged instantaneously as one of those unreliable pseudo-guys bending like a fey reed in the wind. You might well ask, though: can this go too far? Should a human rights activist define his relationship to trans* people’s rights by asking what on earth he has “in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman”? Should a human rights activist call an effeminate man a “freak of nature“? Well, obviously it’s OK, because nobody says “sorry,” and we keep fraternizing.
But wait a minute. Another question.
What should John do about a “human rights activist” who says things like black people “are racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic” — “Why does everyone attack the Mormons, but they’ll never go after African-Americans?” What would you say about a “human rights activist” who calls the Koran “today’s Mein Kampf,” a book that “fatuously and ridiculously” claims to be a guide to “a Supreme Nincompoop called Allah”? Any thoughts on a “human rights activist” who claims Muslims “have not contributed to civilization in any way, in any field—political thought, science, music, architecture, nothing for century after century”? How would you respond to a “human rights activist” who alleges that a proposed Islamic cultural center in New York is actually a “monument to Muslim terrorism”? Is it OK for “human rights activists” to incite hate against whole communities? is John down with that? How about a a “human rights activist” who says that Arab immigration is leading to “a Europe where liberal institutions will be replaced with mosques and minarets, the glass of wine with a glass of camel milk, Speedos and miniskirts with jellabas and burkas, music with calls for prayer, and gay parades with public executions”? What would you do about a “human rights activist” who smears a whole people, those of Palestine, by saying their conflict with Israel is a choice
between civilization and barbarism; between freedom and oppression; between democracy and dictatorship; between human rights and violations of human rights; between those who treat gay people with respect and those who murder them, jail them, torture them, and dismember them; between those who treat women like equals and those who treat women like camels.
What would you say about a guy who uses that line about “a woman is equal to a camel” over, and over, and over, as if part of the fun is that he gets to insult women and Arabs at the same time?
This fellow, who has a long record of defaming whole groups based on their race or religion or immigrant status or nationhood, is porn intellectual Michael Lucas, of course. And I haven’t heard a word of objection from John Aravosis about him — about the fact that he sets himself up as a leader in the anti-Russia campaigning, and gets to use the Advocate and Newsweek as platforms for his bile, and writes about “freedom” and “equality” as if he knows what the words means, and marches off to Queer Nation meetings to tell activists what to do. Any complaints that “the protesters included in their group known racist Michael Lucas”? None. Not from Aravosis, or Melanie Nathan, or most of the other people who feel or feign horror at Alekseev’s diatribes. Nathan even recommended Lucas’s opinions (“Michael Lucas wrote a very good article encapsulating the downfall of Nikolai Alekseev”), and Aravosis linked to him, without any hint that there might be a bit of irony about one open racist condemning another.
It’s all so inconsistent. I’m not entirely sure what Aravosis means by “the tolerance some in our community, and some on the left generally, show when the victims of bigotry are Jewish.” (Is there anybody relevant, except Peter Tatchell, who’s failed to voice loud anger over Alekseev’s attacks?) I do know, though, about the tolerance some show when the purveyors of bigotry are rich, and famous, and have influential friends, and draw the hungry attention of the cameras: and when the victims they vilify are powerless, marginal, despised. Alekseev, in his minor way, lived off that syndrome for a long time. I’m waiting for John Aravosis to notice the fact that Michael Lucas keeps doing it.
September 24 demonstration in Moscow against homophobia in schools, and official neglect of Russia’s school system
None of the Big News about gay Russia these days comes from Russia. Perhaps that’s a comfort – no news is good news; Nikolai Alekseev has been relatively quiet, and so has Putin; silence lies on Mirkwood. Still, it makes you wonder.
Yesterday there was a demonstration by Queer Nation, in New York City, at the Metropolitan Opera. That was noisy. Naturally I wasn’t there (I am in Egypt); it seems only marginally more confusing from here than it probably was for the attendees. Outside, protesters passed out rainbow pins and raised awareness about Russian oppression. Inside, four infiltrators jumped up as the orchestra launched Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin, and shouted – at diva Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev — “Anna, your silence is killing Russian gays! Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays!” I read mixed reports on whether the audience predominantly booed or cheered as the brave miscreants were led out.
This happened because the Met declined to dedicate the gala opening evening to Russian LGBT people. On the whole, I think it is lucky they did not. Russian LGBT people don’t have a crying need for an opera dedicated to them in a distant land right now. It might be nice, but it’s not a priority. (Do gay people need any more operas, period? The repertory closed a long time ago, like the gates of ijtihad, and we are left recycling all the old warhorses, memorizing Tosca note by note; but nobody seems too unhappy; the lack of novelty just simplifies things.) Absent the dedication, though, Queer Nation got to protest and make its own kind of music, and got excellent publicity as well. The Times gave them an article, and they made it into the Russian press, which is much more important. If it was one of those moments, common in activism, where everybody acts out their assigned roles with routine lassitude – the Met management defending l’art pour l’art, the protestors decrying the usual blood on someone’s hands – the same could be said of most any opera: you’d have to be an utter hick or cretin to be surprised when Tosca takes her jump, or Don Giovanni descends to hell. We are at an operatic moment now, when a huge surge of passion produces sound but so far little action. Everyone is emotional and nothing happens. How long can that go on?
One wrenching photo in a story about the protest struck me. It shows a member of the Russian diasporic LGBT group in New York –somebody I’d guess is showing way more courage than average in being there — holding up a sign:
We all know Pastor Niemoller’s moving message. Yet here it isn’t true. They didn’t come for the gays first. Putin came for the Chechens first (actually, Yeltsin did before him); for the journalists; for the odd oligarch and whistleblower; for the punk rock feminists and the environmentalists; for the protest marchers; and then, somewhere down the list, he came for the gays. Where were we when the truth-seekers were slaughtered, when Pussy Riot went to prison, or when Grozny burned? Would things be different now, if some of that emotion had been transmuted into actions back when the right-wing thugs were mainly killing black people; or when the “foreign agents” law was first bruited about; or when cops were beating up Muscovites in the street after a faked election? It’s true, there’s only so much energy to spend on anger, and it’s so hard to get anyone exercised when there’s no ready point of similarity, no common identity at stake, no way you can say There but for the disgrace of Lady Gaga go I. I can’t blame anyone for coming to the Russian issue late. I’m not asking for miracles of altruism. I am glad enough the gays care about other gays who aren’t findable on Grindr. Yet you can’t help wishing some of that passion could be passed around, could be extended in the kinds of leaps possible in dreams, to grasp a few connections with other causes. So much feeling, you think helplessly, and yet somehow such a drought of sympathy. So much emotion showered on other people, yet so little sign of imagining beyond oneself.
Two other things I noticed, then. First, there was a demonstration in Moscow too yesterday – even if nobody in New York paid much attention. You can demonstrate in Moscow: the LGBT and democracy movements in Russia may be in retreat but are not silent or submissive. This is important to understand, since the tendency now is to paint them as pure victims who can’t say anything for themselves. That’s wrong.
The September 24 demonstration was against homophobia in schools, which has come to the fore with the passage of the anti-propaganda law and also with two well-publicized recent firings of teachers who were also LGBT activists. (A Krasnodar university also fired an arts professor for supporting Pussy Riot.) It was sponsored by a teacher’s union, the Interregional Union of Education – the “mainstream” participation helped it get official approval – but co-organized by LGBT groups and activists, including Igor Iasine. It’s interesting how the message differed from its New York counterpart. There were signs saying ”Homophobic Law encourages bullying at schools,” but also “Homophobia is a tool to cover up budget cuts, school closures, and teachers’ lay-offs.” There was an effort to tie the law and homophobic harassment to the regime’s economic crisis, which has led to projected slashes in social spending — there’s a $30 billion revenue shortfall, and Putin said at a meeting with Vladivostok students last weekend that he’ll “have to be realistic and trim our intended expenditures. … What can we do?”
A socialist group co-sponsoring the rally urged teachers to “explain to colleagues, parents and students how a lack of scientific information on homosexuality jeopardizes children.” But it also urged them to spread ”materials that explain the link between homophobic bullying with reduced funding for education.” They called for “a mass movement with a base in the trade unions against the government’s homophobia,” but also for a “fight for free crisis centers and support lines for LGBT teenagers from the [State] budget, and a decent education.” In other words, there was a consistent effort to make the rally a meeting point for different movements and demands, and to draw the connections between state-promoted homophobia and the Putin government’s ability to hurt people’s lives and livelihoods without democratic consent.
Several dozen activists picketed under the statue of Friedrich Engels near the Kropotkin metro station in central Moscow. (For context, that’s more turnout than nearly every Moscow Pride.) Zhenya Belyakov, a participant, described it on Facebook:
The picket, attended by circa 40 LGBT activists and allies, was officially sanctioned although police at first did not realize that ”protest against illegal discharges of teachers” can be organized by the LGBTs. After short negotiations, police let the picket go on.
The highlight of that day was, of course, some 20 ultra-right thugs and some religious fanatics who, for some strange reason, always want to hang out with ”faggots.” Police pretended they did not see the eggs thrown at us, but despite that the whole picket was rather peaceful and went for a bit more than an hour.
When leaving the picket, our group was accompanied by some policemen (not to mention journalists, who always want to see some action) and some excited right-wingers, one of whom managed to hit one of our activists. Both the attacker and the victim were detained, and, as of now, both are released without any charges. The right-wingers tried to follow us in the metro, but, thanks to incredibly complicated metro system in Moscow, we shook them off very soon.
Police objected at first to the mention of “homophobia” on placards, but gave in after argument. The picket was publicized in advance on the website of Garry Kasparov (one of the main opposition leaders). It got sympathetic coverage in the mainstream press and on civil-society websites, and sent a message, at a minimum, that LGBT issues are Russian and not just foreign issues, and are part of the pro-democracy movement. This stands in contrast with Nikolai Alekseev’s declaration — repeated for years, and implicitly accepted by the many Westerners who attended his events — that “LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia and GayRussia as well as Moscow Pride will always stay as purely non-political groups.”
The second thing I noticed was an open letter posted by my friend Viacheslav Revin, a Russian LGBT activist who is now in the United States; he’s protesting a decision by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to preserve a “sister city” relationship with his home town, Nizhny Novgorod. I have always wondered about these “twinned towns” linkages, which in the US burgeoned as a Cold War gesture to “cultural exchange.” Like most such gestures, they put a comfortable veneer on basically commercial and political ends, and political injustice should be a reasonable basis for terminating them. But let Slava speak for himself:
Dear Mr. Nutter.
As a citizen of Nizhny Novgorod, a gay man, a LGBT activist, who was forced to flee the city and Russia due to my fear of persecution by the police for my activities against stigmatization and discrimination against LGBT community, I was deeply saddened to find out that you declined to break the sister city relationship between Philadelphia and Nizhny Novgorod.
I respectfully disagree with your position on this issue: by maintaining this relationship you do a disservice to the people of Russia and Nizhny Novgorod. Mayoral elections were canceled in my city. The power was usurped by thieves and scoundrels who can’t even maintain the storm sewer system, which causes the flooding of the streets every time it rains. Recently, the funds for snowplow equipment were embezzled and the city streets were not cleaned the entire winter. Do you think the culprits were found and held responsible? NO! Our parks are destroyed; our landmarks are taken down without any permission, often under the cover of the night, so the activists don’t even have a chance to protest against these atrocities. Our police have turned into a tool of repression, threatening and beating up those who try to exercise their civil rights. Many people have become victims of this persecution. People are beaten up right in the police precincts.
I myself was forced to flee because the chief of the anti-extremism department openly threatened on Twitter “to deal” with me. Why? Because I am an openly gay man, because I am HIV-positive, because I try to be a responsible citizen. And because I published an open petition, signed by several hundreds of people, asking Putin to put an end to his activities.
I ask you to stop supporting these scoundrels and to not participate in legitimizing of these criminals.
On behalf of the citizens of Nizhny Novgorod, I respectfully request that you reconsider your decision and hope you will come to the only possible and truly just conclusion: to break the sister city relationship with Nizhny Novgorod.
By doing this, you will show support to the people of Russia and will say a resolute NO to the criminals who usurped the power in my city.
Best regards, Viacheslav Revin.
What I appreciate is that Revin, again, makes the connections between the oppression of LGBT people and other oppressions; between a particular injustice and the way Russia is governed. Perhaps there’s something to learn here.
But I misspoke when I said that Nikolai Alekseev has been silent. He held a protest today outside the Moscow HQ of the Sochi Olympics, and he got himself arrested (for the fourteenth time in his career, which the pages of Gay City News will undoubtedly soon inflate into the four hundredth). There are many things I find odd about Alekseev, but one is that after weeks proclaiming that foreigners have nothing to do with Russia’s LGBT movement, and that Russians will now do it all for themselves, he was carrying an English-language sign today.
Also one notices that on Twitter he’s mostly been exulting about the foreign, not Russian press coverage (in fairness: complaining in one case, because the article didn’t give him enough credit):
Yesterday morning I got a message from a friend: “Do check Jamie Kirchick’s Twitter feed.” I sighed and hesitated till lunch. This kind of thing never bodes any good; it’s like Pandora’s inner voice saying, Think outside the box. Check I did, though, and there it was: your two favorite gay pundits conjoined in 140 characters, Jamie and Michael Lucas both. Oh, joy. Jamie has a longstanding partiality for Lucas, the porn impresario with a second career as political commentator. Back when the New Republic was right-wing, and Kirchick was Martin Peretz’s last addition to a whole seraglio of protégés, he published a long, admiring article on Lucas there. Lucas was, he said, “a fervent supporter of Israel and a harsh, often offensive, critic of the Muslim world,” not a criticism since Jamie thinks the Muslim world deserves it. (What do you call someone who writes a puff piece for a porn star? A fluffer?) He still thinks of Lucas as one of his favorite, well, propagandists: Lucas’s new essay weighs in on the fracas over Johnny Weir: predictably, another attack piece on the hapless skater. I am already losing interest in this business, but really, this one was revelatory. Lucas at last made it all clear.
Russians love Johnny Weir. He’s their kind of gay: Liberace of the ice. He’s the “fabulous” gay, the mascot, the gay who knows his place and stays in it. … The Russians don’t mind token flamers like Weir; what scares them are everyday people who happen to be gay. They’re scared of homosexuality becoming normal, not staying outrageous like Weir. That’s what the “gay propaganda” law is all about.
You see now. The real problem for Lucas, Kirchick, and the rest isn’t what Weir said. It’s that he’s a fag and a fem and reflects on us badly before the Rooskies. Lucas even heaps the ultimate American insult on him/her. The little nancy weakling didn’t know how to play football — he let the real men bully him in school:
The Russians love Weir, so Weir loves the Russians. He’s like a sad high-school figure: the cheerleader for the same team of jocks that would beat him up if he weren’t also doing their homework for them.
Has anyone told Lucas that bullying fagboys is no longer considered a good thing?
I’ve never much approved of mocking Lucas for being a porn star with Tom Friedman pretensions. Tom Friedman is a Tom Friedman with porn star pretensions; what’s wrong with the other way around? (Just click the link, please.) Porn stars’ opinions are no less valid than those of sex workers, pop singers, or Human Rights Watch directors, each with their own realms of undoubted expertise. Lucas is perfectly free to write op-eds. The problem is, the op in them is a stinking mass of racist tripe. He can’t open his computer without something loathsome crawling out. It’s not just Arabs and Muslims, whom he hates and vilifies at every opportunity. It’s not just his despicable attempt to shut down all discussion of Palestine at the New York LGBT Center, where his partner was a major donor. He goes after every group at one point or another. Black people “are racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic,” he told Michael Musto, adding “Why does everyone attack the Mormons, but they’ll never go after African-Americans?” Show the man a need, and he’ll fill it.
But this latest insult is revelatory because it displays the common ground under Lucas’s various racist obsessions. His contention about Russia is pretty much absurd. Years ago I heard the great trans* activist Stephen Whittle remark that 90% of so-called homophobic violence is really gender-based violence. It isn’t about what you do in bed but what you look like, punishing men who aren’t masculine enough or women who aren’t feminine enough. That this is relevant to Russia is sufficiently proven by the sadistic “Occupy” videos now all over the Web: a bunch of worked-out macho Nazi wannabees abuse and brutalize people invariably presented to the cameras as flaming, weak, effeminate, and pathetic. Obviously Lucas has never seen these. Or, if he did, maybe he got the wrong message. Spiritually, he’s on the side of the abusers. Buried in Lucas’s op-ed is his admiration for the bullies, the “team of jocks,” the top guns, the fuckers who dominate the fuckees. (Lucas once boasted to Michael Musto that he’s never ever been a bottom, onscreen or off.) Lucas’ own peculiar brand of nationalism – his homonationalism, his Queer Nationism, his defense of his gay tribe against imaginary black or Muslim or Arab enemies – has a lot in common with Russian nationalism (and many others) as a cult of mastery and conquest. It just has the foes transposed. Even while calling Russia “the putrid country of my birth,” Lucas admires Russian chauvinism at its most murderous. Jamie describes it:
While he originally disagreed with Russia’s brutal policies toward Chechnya, he now believes that America could learn something from Vladimir Putin. “The American Army can’t take Fallujah?“ Lucas asks me, incredulous. “Level it!“
Tied to his gay patriotism is Lucas’s other nationalism. A few years ago, while Lucas was fiercely protecting the Promised Land from a handful of pro-Palestinian activists at the LGBT Center, an Israeli friend wrote me that “The man doesn’t really love Israel because he’s Jewish. He loves it because it’s a country where even the bottoms look like tops.” I doubt this is true of Lucas, but it’s at least partly true of Israel. There, sculpting both by mandatory military service and by an ethos of strength produces a kind of body (personal as well politic) that can take masculinity to new heights. This in turn makes Israel a huge erotic fetish for a lot of people beyond its borders, particularly the gays. Some while back, in a post devoted to Dan Littauer’s fake news site GayMiddleEast.com, I tacked on a still from one of Lucas’s films: Israeli guys striding like impossibly virile Venuses from the half-shell. Every day that post still gets 100 or so hits, from searches for “men of Israel.” It’s like catnip.
Lucas sells that fetish (he offers guided tours of gay Israel starting at $2755), but he also buys into it. It’s not just the bodies that turn him on, it’s the beliefs behind them. The dominant version of masculinity in Israel, writes Oma Sasson-Levy, is ”identified with the masculinity of the Jewish combat soldier and is perceived as the emblem of good citizenship.” The militarized version of Israeli manhood seduces because it promises access to power. It’s tailor-made for Lucas’s preoccupations.
As for Kirchick, respectability has been his concern for years. He wants to find presentable gays who will make the tribe look good, and kick out the losers who give a bad image. The latter include traitors like Chelsea Manning, cowards like war opponents or other lefties, freaks like most feminists, and combo platters like me. “The whole purpose of the gay rights movement has been to convince heterosexual Americans that gay people are just like them,” Kirchick insists. What he can’t stand, ever, anywhere, is this: Jamie’s ceaseless demands that we be nice and normal remind me, helplessly, of the most hilarious passage from that great comedy, Finnegans Wake — where the narrator evaluates the respectability of a slew of sordid Dublin lodging-houses:
Fair home overcrowded, tidy but very little furniture, respectable; open hallway pungent of Baltic dishes, bangs kept woman’s head against wall thereby disturbing neighbours, case one of peculiar hopelessness, most respectable; nightsoil has to be removed through snoring household, eccentric naval officer not quite steady enjoys weekly churchwarden and laugh while reading foreign pictorials on clumpstump before door, known as the trap, widow rheumatic, haunted, condemned and execrated, of dubious respectability; reformed philanthropist whenever feasible takes advantage of unfortunates against dilapidating ashpits, serious student is eating his last dinners, floor dangerous for unaccompanied old clergymen, thoroughly respectable; many uncut pious books in evidence, nearest watertap two hundred yards’ run away, fowl and bottled gooseberry frequently on table, man has not had boots off for twelve months, infant being taught to hammer flat piano, outwardly respectable; sometimes hears from titled connection, one foot of dust between banister and cracked wall, wife cleans stools, eminently respectable …
I think the next-to-last one is Jamie. The “pious books” are the giveaway.
Given Kirchick’s passion for respectability, it’s a bit odd he should care so poignantly for Lucas, the porn magnate and former sex worker. One likely reason is the latter’s propensity for calling everybody anti-Semitic, with a sweep only slightly less comprehensive than Jamie’s own. They share the same enemies. Kirchick’s distaste for Muslims brings him to embrace Bruce Bawer, the obsessive, secular Savonarola who helped inspire mass-murderer Anders Breivik. Lucas’s similar loathing leads him straight into the arms of unabashed crank Pamela Geller. (“Gays should join the anti-Islamic movement,” he told her. They haven’t already?)
But more basically, respectability for Kirchick, like power for Lucas, is a matter of being the right kind of man. Strength is part of it; so is soldiering. Most famously, back in the days of Don’t Ask etc., Jamie urged the US military to create a segregated gay brigade, to “put the lie to the charge that gays are effeminate and weak.”
But the most satisfying aspect of this policy would be its effect on our Islamist enemies, who not so long ago were burying gays alive … What humiliation, what shame these barbarians would endure if after every successful terrorist assassination accomplished by the Leonard Matlovich Brigade, U.S. Central Command issued a press release announcing that yet another Taliban fighter bit the dust at the hands of warrior homosexuals!
This could easily be a Michael Lucas Production.
Both Lucas and Kirchick lead vivid fantasy lives. Lucas does so by definition: porn is all about fantasy. It’s also all scenarios reiterated, though, and climaxes endlessly redone: in Freudian terms, the melancholy of repetition. Some of this melancholy seems to hang about Michael Lucas, who more and more relies on involuntarily campy excess to emphasize a masculinity that can’t quite prove itself: showing himself surrounded by adoring soldiers like some weird inflatable Mussolini doll. Jamie, meanwhile, dreamed of gay glory but didn’t battle for it; he advertised his imaginary brigade, but never volunteered. Yet as middle age has its way with him – a sad transmutation my own plump features testify to all too well – he’s settling into an eerie resemblance to that historical incarnation of la patrie and l’etat, the last King of France.
The cult of masculinity is always dreamlike. But it has real consequences. Below the surface it’s built on despising and excluding. And so are the passions and ideologies that draw on it for strength, from frat-boy loyalty to football thuggery to patriotic fervor. There’s hate buried in the foundations, like a time bomb or a sacrificed body. Somebody’s nightmare sustains the dream, somebody has suffer to keep the ideal of manhood going; and in this case you demonize the feminine, the effeminate, the ladyboy or Liberace. They all become traitors to the cause, Stepin Fetchits.
There’s seems to be a bit of ¿Quién es más macho? in the air around this Russia campaigning. I’m not saying Kirchick and Lucas are typical — thank God, they’re not. But there’s John Aravosis, who launched the nastier attacks on Weir, that “freak of nature.” Redoubtable fellow, but with a rep for not being very friendly to trans* people or the issue of gender. (“What [do] I as a gay man have in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman”?) There’s Dan Savage, who kickstarted the whole boycott-Stoli thing. He too has voiced some serious discomfort in the past with a man who doesn’t like manhood, who “get[s] his dick cut off” — and he’s been glitterbombed as a result.
I mistrust the point when any of our movements start indulging macho anger as a driving force, a motive influence. I mistrust the moment any of them start using manhood as a criterion for membership, as though questioning the received, repressive value of manhood weren’t (despite all Jamie’s sanctimonious lies) the point of lesbian, and gay, and bisexual, and trans* activism at its best, from the start. I don’t care whether you like Johnny Weir or not — I’m not a figure-skating fan, and frankly I barely knew about him before last week. But you can argue with him without implying he’s a traitor to the meaning of being a man. Michael Lucas is a notorious racist. Now, though, he also shows how he speaks the taunting language of schoolyard bullies, mimics the poses of uniformed abusers. When it comes to imitating the oppressor, that’s more dangerously Stepin Fetchit-like than anything else I’ve heard lately.
Oh, yes, and one more question. Lucas ends his op-ed with this odd comment:
The boycott movement … will not harm athletes or Russian workers, because the boycott movement will almost certainly make little real impact. It is a moral gesture, and a media strategy. Its real point is to keep the Russian LGBT crisis in the news, and to keep people talking about it.
Come again? Sorry, but this wasn’t what they were saying at the outset. “Will almost certainly make little real impact”? What happened to “Boycotts helped end Apartheid, spurred the Civil Rights Movement, and curbed potential atrocities”? What happened to “Boycott Russian vodka until persecution of gays and their allies ends”? What happened to “It’s time for us to put our foot down and say we will not be the scapegoat of the world any longer”? And what happened to “heroic images of gay bars who are fighting back”?
Again, I don’t know who Lucas thinks he speaks for. I know there is way more sophisticated thinking than his out there. But it’ll be hard to keep up momentum for a boycott if a really loud celebrity tries to sell it by promising it’s just a macho gesture, and it won’t help. It’s fine, I guess, to acknowledge that the goal all along was to get people’s attention. But what if those people say: OK, you’ve got our attention. Now what are you going to do with it? What’s the plan?
Fellow gays, I want to discuss a subject which, in my opinion, towers in importance above all others. It is the subject of international homophobia.
At the start, let me make clear that no special credit is due those of us who are making an all-out fight against this force — a force which seeks to destroy all the honesty and decency that every gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender person has been taught at his mother’s knee. It is a task which we are obligated to perform. It is one of the tasks for which we were brought into this world. If we fail to use all the powers of mind and body, then I am sure our mothers, wherever they are tonight, may well sorrow for the day of our birth.
We must be sure that those who seek to lead us today are equally dedicated. We cannot survive on half loyalties any more than we can find the facts of homophobia with half truths.
Wise words! They’re as inspiring now as the day they were first spoken. That day was June 2, 1950, and the speaker was that famous gay campaigner Joseph McCarthy, a patriotic fighter and good-looking Irish lug equally at home under the Capitol dome and in the anal cavities of Roy Cohn. At least, so they say. I’ve changed a few words in Tailgunner Joe’s oration, just to bring it up to date for the era of Queer Nation. But the basic idea still resonates for us, as our great sexuality stands at a moral crossroads, caught between Us and Them, hope and fear, the dark burden of the past and the shining promise of the future, which just like tomorrow is always a day away. Right?
There’s no room for half-loyalties. Consider the sad Alger Hiss of the homos, Johnny Weir. Weir, an Olympic figure skater, is not just openly gay but flaming. Even so, it may be necessary to burn him at the stake. In an interview yesterday with Keith Olbermann, Weir – dressed, with typical traitorous élan, in a vintage Red Army uniform – said he doesn’t think boycotting the Olympics is the best protest of Putin’s anti-gay laws.
While many people can sit on their couch at home and say Oh, we shouldn’t go to Russia … staying away is something I think is the worst possible thing we can do. … Even if we stay away, Russia will still put on an Olympics, they will win all of the medals and it will be even more of a propaganda machine for Russia. What we need to do is be there, to be strong and to be united. We have to show Putin who we are, what we’re about.
If you aren’t for us, you’re against us. John Aravosis promptly lit into the skater: “Johnny Weir is living proof that you can be de jure progay, and de facto antigay, at the same time.”
Weir has been somewhat – how shall I say? – unhelpful in terms of his lack of support for the international effort to help the gay and trans communities in Russia. Weir seems to be letting his Olympian side take precedence over his gay side.
Two sides? People with an extra side need it amputated, fast. They can’t be trusted. Is this guy some kind of closet Communist? I’d guess the author really doesn’t like Johnny Weir personally, which is understandable, given that the kid is not only disloyal but, as Aravosis tweeted today, “a bit caricaturish.” His post is called “Nothing Good Can Come from Johnny Weir,” but if you judge from the URL — these tend to fossilize headings from early drafts — the title used to include something about a “freak of nature.” (The URL is http://americablog.com/2013/09/freak-nature-johnny-weir.html) Oddly enough, that’s the kind of slur Johnny Weir has heard from homophobes throughout his career. ““We should make him pass a gender test!” “He should compete with the women!” a couple of Canadian sportscasters chortled on air during the 2012 Olympics. In the past, many people saw Weir as courageous for standing up against this shit. But that was before the fey little deviationist veered from the Central Committee’s line.
Then someone named Scott Wooledge stepped in — he has a business called Memeographs, which as you’d guess produces memes, those funny internet pictures that make you seem cool and original when you post them on Facebook along with 1,537,648 other individualists. Here’s today’s viral sensation:
Queer quisling? Really? I have a dark confession. I, too, have a Soviet military uniform. You could buy them for a few forints in Budapest when I moved there in 1989; Russian soldiers were peeling them off and selling them right and left to scrape up spending money. For years, in the former Warsaw Pact, they were prized as ironic objects whose appropriation (for costume parties, not Party Congresses) mocked the onetime occupiers. This is a lot like the kind of thing gays used to call “camp.” Johnny Weir is campy, an attitude that tends to sit poorly with political correctness. But these days, camp is for quislings. I wonder if the language here might be getting a bit over the top. This thought control, these charges of treason seem a little … Stalinist, somehow. Maybe Soviet attire would fit Scott Wooledge even better than Johnny Weir.
But all this is nothing as against the righteous ire of John Becker, at the Bilerico Project, who practically dismembers Weir’s comments syllable by syllable, The incompetent little ice queen can’t do anything right. Weir, for instance, had the effrontery to describe himself as “an Olympian, first and foremost, before a gay man, before a white man, I am an Olympian. That’s what I worked for from age twelve.” That is not just disloyalty, it’s thoughtcrime. Wise up, traitor skaterboy, remember who you are! Becker explains it to him:
Note to Johnny: while you’re certainly entitled to view yourself as an Olympian “before a gay man,” that’s simply not true, biologically and chronologically speaking. You may have been training for the Olympics since you were twelve — and believe me, I have incredible respect for the training you and other athletes put yourselves through — but you were born gay. Sexual orientation is intrinsic to a person’s humanity; being an Olympian is not. So whether or not you place your gayness ahead of your Olympic identity, you were a gay person long before you set foot on the ice for the very first time.
Not only does this little ingrate not understand his own essential, primordial, primary biological being: he disses marriage. Weir made the mistake of saying that “the Western countries that support gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender unions” should unite at Sochi. Becker goes ballistic:
Ummmm, Johnny, it’s 2013, not 1983. LGBT people don’t have unions, we have marriages. … Those terms may have been acceptable in the 1980s, but they sure as hell aren’t now. If you’re going to be working the talk show circuit, you owe it to your community to update your vocabulary.
Wait a minute.
You owe it to your community to use the M-word? I feel my own inner traitor coming out. But what if you don’t want to marry, or call your relationship a marriage — because, say, you believe along with generations of feminists that it’s a repressive institution sodden with the unpaid sweat of patriarchy, and no liberating model for your loves? Weir, as it happens, has married his Russian partner. But are we all bound to obey and imitate, in word and deed?
Here’s where I leave the party. With all due respect to Becker, I invite him to fuck the hell off, and stop telling me how to define my intimacies or live my life. I haven’t been a human rights activist for a quarter century so that some small-minded blogger could straitjacket me in a new regime of canons, conformities, and exclusions. For his information, my relationship is not a marriage, nor is it any kind of regular, sell-out union. It’s a radical Trotskyist union with militant anarchist tendencies, wild as the Wobblies or the old Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo. I’m going to stick to my principles, and I’m not going to play Brad-and-Janet just because John Becker orders me to. And If John Becker doesn’t like how I think of my own life, too fucking bad.
The abuse of Weir today was weird, an explosion of macho paranoia. But the rage and vitriol, completely out of proportion to what Weir said, suggest that something’s getting way, way out of hand. The demand that gayness trump any other identity or interest because you’re BORN THAT WAY, that’s ALL YOU ARE; the contradictory search for bad gays who don’t have any right to the name; the talk of treachery, the policing of word choice as well as opinion, the smearing of some gays as “antigay” — these kinds of things don’t just demolish nuance and discussion. They destroy movements.
They breed amid the mounting fever of ever more high-pitched rhetoric that surrounds the Russia campaign. The panic gets steadily more manic. The Holocaust comparisons are becoming not just offensive but insane. Aravosis warns Weir that “Jesse Owens won and the Nazis still killed millions afterwards”! — as if Putin is already testing his gas chambers. Harvey Fierstein seriously believes the next stop after Sochi is, if not Auschwitz, at least Bergen-Belsen:
Vigilantes [in Russia] have implied instruction to protect their communities from the rampant evil. … And now the government comes in with “concern” for the gay community’s safety. They are rounded up for their own protection and isolated for the sake of the children at risk of infection. Welcome to the return of concentration camps.
This is all in the present tense: Fierstein seems to think it’s happening now, or anyway only a day away. If you really believe that, then of course you can’t waste a second on discussion, there’s genocide going on, something must be done immediately, and dissenters are as bad as killers. Johnny Weir has blood on his blades! This kind of hyped-up desperation debases all debate.
There’s something even more disturbing about the abuse. The truth is: Weir’s opinions, whatever you think of them, are shared by a significant number of Russian LGBT activists. Many activist voices there have criticized the boycotts. The Russian LGBT Network issued a statement six weeks ago that said:
Participation and attendance of the Games in Sochi will not indicate endorsement of injustice and discrimination; they will only if they are silent. We hope to join forces and succeed in raising everyone’s voices for LGBT equality in Russia and elsewhere. We hope that together with those who share this vision, we will succeed in sending the strongest message possible by involving athletes, diplomats, sponsors, and spectators to show up and speak up, proclaiming equality in most compelling ways. …
Do not boycott the Olympics – boycott homophobia! Stand in solidarity with people in Russia and bring LGBT pride and values of human rights and freedoms to the Games in Sochi!
So? Is the Russian LGBT Network “antigay”? Are they fake gays, mere gays “de jure,” as Aravosis says? Are they quislings, Scott Wooledge? Are they only concerned about their selfish interests, instead of a bunch of American boycotters’ needs? Attacking Weir is actually a way for these folks to attack Russian activists and Russian arguments by proxy. They’d be shouting insults and heaping abuse on some of the Russians they claim to defend, if they dared.
Surprise! There are divisions among Russian activists. All the attention paid in recent days to the sheer looniness of Nikolai Alekseev — whose pathology and prejudice truly put him beyond the pale — obscures the fact that serious, respected activists in Moscow and Petersburg differ, for the most part civilly, on what to do. Some people support the Stoli boycott but not the Olympics boycott, some support both, some want neither. The first obligation on Western supporters in this kind of situation is: Do no harm. Whatever you do, try not to worsen the divisions unnecessarily, try not to turn disagreements into civil wars by the sheer weight of your influence. But when Aravosis and Wooledge demonize a perfectly credible strain of opinion by abusing it viciously as “antigay,” they are really, really, really not helping the movement within Russia.
More than that, though: There have to be strategic discussions. Western activists actually can play productive roles here. They can help create virtual spaces for talking strategy — Skype, Viber and Internet chat are wonderful inventions that, surprise again!, are useable for more than hookups. They can serve as sounding boards for their Russian colleagues, to figure out what methods will sway foreign governments as well as their own. They can learn about what’s worked in Moscow or Rostov, and, with a little humility, they can offer examples of what’s succeeded elsewhere. Doing this would require getting off the high-horse of urgency, discarding the frantic certainty that we are summoned to do something, anything, and it has to be now. It would mean admitting that this is going to be a long fight that will stretch way beyond Sochi. It would mean trying to settle on some common and realistic long-term goals, which might not be the stuff of headlines (Putin overthrown! Anti-gay law repealed) but could be very meaningful all the same: arrests that aren’t made, trials that don’t happen, organizations that actually survive. It would mean building a movement for the long haul, too, reaching out to the backbone structures that power real, successful international campaigns — labor unions, anti-war and women’s groups, minority lobbies, mobilized students. It would mean putting the Western activist ego in abeyance a bit, admitting that you’re not going to save a bunch of Russians solo, that Russians are more likely to save themselves.
Of course, this would all be slow and boring and terribly unsexy, and much of it would be out of the public eye. Which is why the Dan Savages will probably never go for it.
How much are the U.S. campaigners bothering to listen to Russians at all — you know, the kind inside Russia, the ones who are going to be directly affected by what they do? Not much, from what I see.
Exhibit One. Dan Savage gave an interview to Radio Free Europe a week ago:
RFE/RL: Are you in communication with Russian LGBT activists about the situation on the ground?
Savage: I’m getting a very clear picture. I live in Seattle, Washington. And there isn’t a large Russian or Russian gay community here. The large Russian community and large Russian gay community is in New York City. And I’m following very closely their statements and following meetings that are going on there.
I visited Moscow in 1990 and met with gay people there. And it just breaks my heart that they were so full of hope for their futures and for the progress that they hoped their country would make as it joined the civilized world.
This all means “No,” with a little overlay of “I can see Russia from my house.” Savage weirdly answers a question about whether he’s ever talked to a Russian activist in Russia by saying he “follows” –whatever that means — what Russians living in New York are saying. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that these aren’t the same thing. He does let us know, however, that 23 years ago he talked to some people in Moscow. It’s a pity they still aren’t civilized. They do have Starbucks now, though.
It makes you wonder whether Savage thought Russians should have any input into the boycott campaign he started. John Aravosis began his attack on Johnny Weir today with this immortal line: “It’s time we stopped pretending that every guy who sucks d*ck, as my friend Dan Savage would put it, is somehow an instant expert on our civil rights.” But how many blow jobs does it take to make you a Russia expert?
Exhibit Two: Also last week, Eric Sasson, a Wall Street Journal blogger, published a piece at Salon on the Nikolai Alekseev mess. He reviews the grim record of Alekseev’s anti-Semitism, but then gets down to the 64,000 ruble question: “Just how does the Russian LGBT community move forward when its most prominent voice loses his credibility?” The answer is, it can’t, and its credibility is shot. The whole initiative lies with activists in the West: “We have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot do so. This is exactly what the propaganda ban is about: denying a class of people the right to stand up for themselves.”
In the process he attacks Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel, who dared to suggest that “a truly effective fight for LGBT rights” means listening and giving priority to what Russians themselves say and do. Vanden Heuvel, he says, simply seeks “to dismiss the efforts of Westerners (including activists such as Harvey Fierstein and Dan Savage and journalists such as John Aravosis and Richard Socarides).” We need to remember how important those people are, “given that the propaganda ban effectively denies Russian LGBT citizens the right to protest freely.”
The law is awful, but Sasson is silly if he thinks it has shut “Russian LGBT citizens” up for good. They continue to organize, protest, and write. Of course they demand and need Western support, but they are also perfectly capable of saying what they want, and telling Aravosis, Fierstein, and Savage what to do. It’s their country. For Sasson, the law really seems less a human rights abomination than a wonderful opportunity for Westerners to speak for “silenced” people. No matter how loud they scream, Putin says they’re “silenced,” therefore we’ll do the talking. The good intentions shouldn’t obscure the terrible methods here. As Teju Cole wrote, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
Exhibit Three: Lesbian Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen gave an interview last week to Michelangelo Signorile, in which she said: ”It’s high time to talk about asylum. The only way at this point that the U.S. can help Russian gays and lesbians is get us the hell out of here.” Masha’s an old friend of mine, and somebody whose opinion I respect a lot. She’s been a power behind the boycott movements, but she’s also consistently discouraged expecting quick results. Repealing the propaganda law is unlikely, she’s stressed, for instance; the best one can hope for is scaring Putin into seeing that it’s not enforced. It’s hard not to read this statement as a reminder that the US has limited clout in Russia, that persecution and arrest are real threats, and that we have a responsibility to clean up our own act where the human right to asylum is concerned.
That’s not how the comment played, though. By the time the meme-makers had mangled it, this was spreading over Facebook like kudzu:
Bullshit. No activists are “begging” for asylum. They’re not abject mendicants. Most activists in Russia are courageously working and fighting on. But we need to feel that Russians need us. So we translate even a message that there’s not much we can do into a satisfying cry for help. How great to live in a country people want so desperately to get into! Let’s not think about immigration reform, though (does anybody even remember that?) As Teju Cole wrote, for the White Savior Industrial Complex, ”The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.”
None of this is the stuff of successful campaigning. It’s the raw material for personal catharsis, not change. And in fact, despite all the urgent talk of concentration camps and gas chambers, the Russia campaigns aren’t going swimmingly. The anti-Stoli side of the boycott came in for withering ridicule in last week’s New York Times. More importantly, nothing in Putin’s Russia has budged; new, worse law proposals keep coming. Aravosis tried to tabulate the boycott’s successes today, while reproving Weir:
The only reason that Johnny Weir is even on Keith Olbermann’s show is because the boycott took an issue that most people didn’t care about and made it an international scandal with non-stop coverage going on seven weeks now. No one outside of the gay blogs and the very occasional news article was talking about Russia’s draconian crackdown on its gay and trans citizens, and it certainly wasn’t being discussed on a daily basis like it is now. Yet, just days ago, the issue was raised at the G20 summit by both President Obama and the British Prime Minister. … It happened because some activists called for a boycott which caught the attention of the gay community, the media and the world.
This is getting the cart before the ass, I think. The boycotts creatively rode a wave of indignation that was already rising; they didn’t create it. But even granting the point (which Gessen also agrees with) that the boycotts have done a lot to crystallize public attention: what do you do with that public attention? Just getting publicity is not, is never, the point. Even pressing Obama to talk to Putin is not the point, as long as Putin doesn’t listen. If the Olympics stay in Sochi, what’s the plan? What are you going to do when Sochi’s over, and the law’s still there? Can you mobilize people for something more sustained and demanding than dumping vodka in a drain? What actually are your concrete goals, short of bringing Putin down?
I don’t yet hear answers to any of these questions — and that’s partly because even to take a stab at answers, you’d have to pay some serious heed to Russian activists, especially Russians outside New York. Short of that, all this attention-catching and publicity-grabbing mainly mean attention and publicity for Dan Savage and the rest. Russian activists, Russian movements, and ordinary Russians facing silence or arrest are still waiting to see what it means for them.
In Geneva, lobbying the UN largely means sitting at a round glass table in an enormous coffee bar called the Serpent. The name always gives conservative Christians the willies; they think they’re in the guts of Satan anyway. The bar lies in the imperial sprawl of the Palais des Nations. Through windows on the one side, blue Lac Leman unfurls, with the alabaster Alps beyond; on the other, government delegates lumber by, and you try to nab them on their way to cappuccinos. I slumped there one afternoon in 2004, just after Brazil, which had introduced the first-ever resolution on sexual orientation at the Commission on Human Rights, had withdrawn its efforts, partly under pressure from the Islamic bloc. For all of us who’d sustained hope for weeks, a gloom settled thick as Gauloise smoke. Three diehard resolution opponents plumped themselves down deliberately at my table. I knew them well. Two were American: Blond, taut-smiled Lynn Allred, with a perpetual whiff of hairspray, represented a shifting range of Mormon organizations; Jeanne Head, stern and square-jawed, was designated driver for several Roman Catholic anti-abortion groups. Between them sat Amr Roshdy, a strutting mass of machismo from the Egyptian mission, who had led the fight against Brazil’s resolution on the Commission floor.
A promiscuously ecumenical crew, as always: in other eras or gatherings, they might have burned each other at the stake. Only the strange power of sex brought them together – not, of course, to have sex with each other, but to dissuade anybody from having sex they didn’t like. Their alliance across deep confessional divides embodied the peculiar conjunctions that fear of feminism, and hatred of human rights, can bring about. Allred, in her organization’s newsletters, used to ladle praise on Roshdy, whose work as spokesman for the UN’s Islamic bloc surely placed him high in right-wing nightmares about the coming Caliphate. “During our time in Geneva,” she wrote, “I began to suspect that beneath Roshdy’s shirt and tie there was very likely a big red ‘S’–of the variety that Superman wore.” Was she sure it didn’t stand for “Saracen”?
As we monitored the negotiations of numerous resolutions with other pro-family non-governmental organizations, we would often pass by them in the hall, frantically looking for him. “Where’s Amr?” “Go find Amr!” “We need Amr!” He raced from room to room whenever a problem arose that required pro-family input. He saved the day on many occasions.
This day, the trio staged a little conversation for my benefit, since they knew me as chief UN representative for Satan’s sexual wiles. I remember Jeanne Head asking Roshdy theatrically, “What if the homosexuals bring this resolution back next year?” The Egyptian, loudly: “We’ll kill it.”
It’s nine years later, and a similar resolution long since passed in Geneva, and LGBT people’s rights as human rights are more safely ensconced in the UN than ever. Yet defeat for these folks is only an aphrodisiac. Their capacity to set principle aside in their political copulations is still going strong.
Consider Austin Ruse.
Ruse heads the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, better known as C-FAM, one of the most powerful anti-choice, anti-sexuality groups lobbying at the UN. I remember his dour presence from many a Geneva and New York meeting. This Friday, he published an article at Breitbart.com, the huge US right-wing website, defending Russia’s new anti-homosexual law, which he claims “human rights groups” actually support. Ruse’s intervention reveals the alliances these campaigners are trying to build.
It’s an astonishing article. Consummately smarmy, Ruse cites news reports on the anguish of queer Russian kids growing up surrounded by homophobia. And he claims he wants to help them:
[The Washington Post] tells the story of 16-year-old Maxim of Moscow who came out publically [sic] as gay at 13-years-old. He says his classmates called him names and that a teacher tried to cut his “longish hair.” …
So, who is supposed to be talking to Maxim about such a complicated and thorny issue? Should it be gay advocates who have an ax to grind? Certainly, they would like to increase their tribe … The Russian people, supported by 100 human rights and other groups from around the world, have determined that such unscientific ideologues should be kept out of schools and out of sight of school children …
Like all young people, Maxim deserves space to grow and learn and change and to be free from ideologies that may not have his best interests in mind.
There’s a Dickensian hypocrisy to Ruse’s woozy New-Ageism, his tender concern that Maxim “grow and learn and change” while kept far away from any facts that might help him feel slightly better about himself. Mind you, the “ideology” that Ruse thinks does have Maxim’s “best interests in mind” is not some spongy-soft, vodka-soaked version of family values. It’s the authoritarian State ideology of Vladimir Putin.
Ruse is on a regular campaign to prop up Putin. In another recent op-ed, he turned on gay right-wing journalist Jamie Kirchick (an ambitious, long-time brownnoser to the Breitbart empire, by the way, who must be hurt that his flattery has gone unrequited). Ruse called Kirchick “hysterical” for opposing the anti-“propaganda” legislation. He applauds the fact that Jamie and his ilk “cannot have their way with those in other countries and certainly not with the Russians who overwhelmingly support the reasonable new law.” Meanwhile, C-FAM, Ruse’s organization, has come up with the most inventive defense yet of the odious provision. By their lights, its stiff fine on anyone who produces positive information about homosexuality merely “acts as a tax on public displays of affection by homosexuals”! After all, “$155 is hardly unmanageable for homosexuals who want to kiss in public.” Taxing kisses! You’d have to admit those smooches come kind of pricy.
Finally, C-FAM helped organize a letter by 102 “pro-family” organizations (mostly European Catholic and Orthodox circles, with a few American exemplars like Linda Harvey’s weird and militant US cult) in support of the Russian law. These are the “human rights groups” Ruse refers to. The letter waxes piously indignant over the “heavy attacks” that Russia endures over its actions — though in fact, as with Syria, oil-fed nationalism seems to cushion Putin against any vestigial sensitivity to criticism he might feel.
What is up with Ruse, and his passion for Putin?
Probably most Americans reading Ruse’s recent drivel know little about him or his organization. C-FAM has a relatively small budget – $1.2 million in 2012, according to its tax filings – but outsized influence. It is the not-exactly-legitimate offspring of an anti-abortion group called Human Life International (HLI), founded in 1981. HLI’s creator, Father Paul Marx, a DC-based Catholic priest, exploited two networks to build his brainchild: Reagan-era US conservatives, and the Vatican. The former provided funding, the latter global connections. HLI grew quickly, establishing outposts across Latin America, Africa, and Europe. An odor of disreputability hung about it, though, partly from its ties to violence-inciting anti-abortion fanatics such as Randall Terry. Several times in the 1990s, Jewish leaders in the US and Canada condemned Paul Marx for a trail of anti-Semitic statements. Marx had tried to win favor with the French, for instance, by claiming:
A famous genetics professor in Paris told me that the leaders of the abortion movement in France were Jewish. I saw one, a Jewish female liar, do her thing on behalf of abortion at the World Population Conference in Bucharest.
HLI proved too controversial for the UN, which denied it consultative status in 1993. In response, its leaders set up C-FAM in 1997, as a more respectable and NGO-like front for its lobbying at the world institution. Minutes from C-FAM’s first internal meeting, obtained by the progressive group Catholics for Choice, say:
Not public knowledge that HLI is funding office. Use discretion. Initially state that we are supported by multitudes of individuals/organizations. Don’t hide the fact that HLI is funder — just don’t volunteer that fact to uncertain/non-friendly persons.
Austin Ruse, an unknown who had worked on the financial end of various magazines from Fortune to Rolling Stone, rose to be its head – perhaps because he had no spoor of embarrassing political comments behind him.
This was in the aftermath of two landmark UN meetings, which produced unprecedented affirmations of women’s sexual rights; The 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, and the 1995 Fifth World Conference on Women held in Beijing. Women’s rights opponents were on the defensive at the UN. One thing they’d learned, though, was that a critical mass of conservative States rejected reproductive freedoms, and reacted against homosexuality as a classic wedge issue. Yet many of these countries — in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — didn’t take well to HLI’s highly religious, Catholic-specific message. HLI, after all, had held panels on topics like “The Muslim Threat to the World.” This didn’t exactly go down easily with Egypt’s or Pakistan’s UN delegations.
Austin Ruse and C-FAM helped perfect a strategy of reaching out to those States. He switched rhetoric, no longer focusing exclusively on religion but on vague and elastic “traditional values,” and –- most importantly — on respect for “sovereignty,” supposedly threatened by outside forces and by international norms. I’ve written elsewhere how the latter language proved especially seductive, for repressive governments resisting human rights scrutiny. C-FAM helped them figure out how to fight back against intrusive rights advocates. Ruse talked in terms of power, not principles. He warned sympathetic countries that “UN radicals in alliance with radical lawyers and judges and other advocates around the world are attempting the greatest power grab the world has even known.”
His tactics included packing UN meetings with supporters – sometimes priests and nuns — who intimidated women’s and progressive groups, and in some cases virtually staged putsches in NGO spaces. “We attended all of the women’s meetings and essentially took them over,” he boasted. “Memos were going back from [conferences] in New York to governments in the European Union that radical fundamentalists had taken over the meeting, and that was us.”
He built close relationships with other US conservative forces, including Mormon and evangelical Protestant campaigners. After the century’s turn, he nuzzled up to the Bush White House, even moving his own office from UN Plaza to Washington in 2006. Ruse’s greatest victory, though, was in making improbable buddies out of some of the Bush administration’s international enemies. Sudan, Libya, and Iran all became his allies in fighting sexual and reproductive rights, along with China, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. C-FAM turned into one of the best friends of brutal dictatorships ever to lobby the UN.
And that tells you what’s behind Ruse’s pandering to Putin. His history of fraternal intimacy with repressive States has served him in good stead. Austin Ruse owes one to Russia’s authoritarian government, and he pays his debts.
At the UN Human Rights Council in recent years, Russia has pushed for, and passed, a resolution on “traditional values” and human rights. The initial Russian draft, Austin Ruse has written approvingly, “could easily have come from the pen of Tony Perkins at the Family Research Council” — one of America’s most far-right advocacy groups. The resolution was concocted with clever ambiguity; its passage owed partly to several Latin American states who believed, wrongly, that it might bolster indigenous people’s cultural claims. In fact, the text aims implicitly at the rights of women and minorities, shunting them into second priority behind protecting undefined customs and traditions.
Most likely, Russia’s initial motive was to strike at reproductive rights — its action in Geneva coincided with a move in Moscow to restrict abortion severely, for the first time since the fall of Communism. Ruse, however, quickly saw that the resolution, if successful, could become a tool for conservatives worldwide to roll back an array of freedoms — and crack down on LGBT people. At a time when LGBT rights seemed ascendant at the UN, Russia handed Ruse a gift. “What we are witnessing,” he declared,
is an awakening of the Russian social policy bear. Many governments have grown weary of the aggressiveness of the sexual left, now firmly ensconced in the U. N. bureaucracy and human rights machinery. … Russia seems happy to join this fight with her geopolitical competitors.
Ruse’s gratitude to the Russians makes him a reliable defender of almost any excess of Putin’s regime. He’ll go to rhetorical extremes to repay them. He added:
Some will say, that’s all well and good, but should social conservatives make common cause with a geopolitical competitor of the United States? Some will ask if we’re concerned about Russia’s domestic crackdown?
Yes on one, no on two. “Russia is far from perfect, but on social policy she is a good deal better than we are at the moment.”
There’s one small kink, but it’s unlikely to bother Ruse. It does, however, expose the lie that lingers in C-FAM’s very name: the Catholic Family Institute. The day before Austin Ruse’s Breitbart piece appeared, a new law came before the Russian Duma. It would let the State take children away from lesbian or gay parents, adding homosexuality to a list of conditions (including drug and child abuse) that give legal cause for loss of custody. “In cases when a parent has sexual contact with people of their own gender, the damage that can be inflicted on the psyche of a child is enormous,” said the bill’s sponsor, Alexei Zhuravlyov.
It’s not clear whether the bill will pass. Zhuravlyov is a member of Putin’s ruling party. More importantly, he’s a leader of Rodina (“Motherland”) a populist, neo-fascist faction sometimes called ‘Putin’s special force.” Racist and nationalist, Rodina speaks for just the right-wing constituencies that Putin is trying to peel away from the divided political opposition. There’s a good chance that, expedient as always, he’ll give them exactly what they want.
Ruse might just possibly claim he didn’t know about the anti-family bill before he mounted his latest defense of Putin. If so, Ruse is lying. Rumors of the legislation have circulated — in the Western press, too — for months. Lesbian journalist and activist Masha Gessen warned weeks ago, in the Guardian, that lawmakers had “pledged to create a mechanism for removing children from same-sex families.” She added:
In March, the St Petersburg legislator who had become a spokesman for the law started mentioning me and my “perverted family” in his interviews. I contacted an adoption lawyer asking whether I had reason to worry that social services would go after my family and attempt to remove my oldest son, whom I adopted in 2000. The lawyer wrote back telling me to instruct my son to run if he is approached by strangers and concluding: “The answer to your question is at the airport.”
So much for Austin Ruse and his hypocritical group’s “family values.” Ruse and C-FAM will watch and cheer a monstrous State tearing children from their families, if it advances their own political power.
Ruse has never cared about human rights. Ten years ago, after all, he palled around with Amr Roshdy and the Egyptian UN delegations at the very same time their government was torturing men accused of homosexual conduct in Cairo. Ruse didn’t give a damn about the blood and agony. He couldn’t give a damn about dissent, or murders, or free speech, or anybody’s rights in Russia now.
Still, Ruse’s assault on Russian families — the families his group claims to value — is a new low. “Defending families” is supposed to be his group’s reason for being, not exposing them to State annihilation. Ruse has been willing to use his own family in the past, to promote himself and his political agenda. He’s been featured on “Fathers for Good: Newsworthy Dads,” holding his children up to view. He’s exploited his daughter as example and argument, claiming the Food Network exposed her to the sight of a “lesbian chef’s” wrongful relationship:
My eight-year-old Lucy, sweet Lucy, turned to me and said: ‘Did she say wife?’ And I said, ‘No, I think she meant girlfriend.’ And Lucy said, ‘I think she said life.’ God bless the innocence of this child. But they will not let us off the mat, the ideologies who want to cram this thing down our throats no matter where we go.
But Ruse is the one who won’t let go, of the beliefs that put other parents and other kids in danger. Ruse’s own ideology matters more to him than any family. Even, I suspect, his own.
My Wardrobe, My Right: Trailer for documentary on the dress-code law, made by SASOD (Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination), Guyana
Around 8:30 on the night of February 6, 2009, two young women, Falatama and Gulliver, were planning to go off to a snack shop in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital. Instead, as they stood on a street corner waiting for a taxi, a police car drove up. Officers arrested them both.
They were hauled to Brickdam Police Station, photographed, and made to strip. Then the policemen threw them in a cell, and held them there for a weekend during which three other arrested women joined them. They asked repeatedly why they’d been detained, but the cops refused to answer. They were denied a lawyer or a phone call. Only on Monday, when they were all dragged before a magistrate, did they learn the charges. This inaugurated a court case that, pursued to higher tribunals, lasted four-and-a-half years. The issue was never what they were doing on that streetcorner, but what they were wearing: Falatama, a jersey top, skirt, and slippers; Gulliver, a pink shirt and tights. Those clothes were against the law.
That month, police in Georgetown launched a crackdown on trans* folk. Between February 6 and 10, cops arrested at least eight people, picking up some twice. Police ordered them to “bend over” for a “search” after they stripped in the police station; they told them to put on “men’s clothing.” Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson fined detainees GY$7,500 (US$36) each, under a law dating from 1893, when Guyana was a British colony. It criminalizes anyone who
being a man, in any public public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in a female attire; or being a woman, in any public public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in a male attire.
The magistrate also offered them free (except for the $7,500) advice: to ”go to church and give their lives to Christ.”
Last week, on September 6, Guyana’s Chief Justice delivered a ruling in the case. I’d followed the matter since the victims were first arrested — early on, Human Rights Watch produced one of the first international statements on the arrests — so it held more than usual interest for me. The decision was a mixed bag. One victory: the justice found the police had violated the claimants’ rights by holding them incommunicado and denying them contact with a lawyer; he awarded them damages. Curiously, he held that there was no particular inconsistency in a magistrate, an officer of a secular state, telling the arrested victims to go to church:
The Court has extreme difficulty in accepting the proposition that the mere exhortation … to the applicants to attend Church and to give their lives to Jesus Christ constituted a hindrance to their freedom of thought and of religion of the applicants. Otherwise, every religion leader, in propagating the religion to which he or she subscribes would be guilty … At the highest, the Chief Magistrate can be accused of proselytising. But, proselytising does not constitute a hindrance to freedom of thought and of religion.
The way is thus clear for every local judge to bellow and Bible-thump like a street-corner preacher.
But the Chief Justice refused to find the “cross-dressing” law unconstitutional. He held that it was not discriminatory (after all, he wrote, it applied to both biological men and biological women); moreover, he considered its appalling vagueness (what defines the masculinity or femininity of “attire”?) not to be a constitutional issue. He tried, at the same time, to constrict the law’s ambiguity somewhat in his decision. For instance, he observed that attire means only textiles, not other bodily accoutrements.
It is not an offence for a male person to wear a female head wig or ear rings in a public way … Nor is it an offence for a female person to wear a pair of male shoes or finger rings.
The Justice’s most important concession, though, lay in emphasizing the one significant limitation in the text of the law.
It is important to reiterate that neither male nor female is prohibited … from being cross-attired in a public way or place if the purpose of doing so is not improper … It is only if such an act is done for an improper purpose that criminal liability attaches. Therefore it is not criminally offensive for a person to wear the attire of the opposite sex as a matter of preference or to give expression to or to reflect his or her sexual orientation. [emphasis added]
This is generous, and surreal. Never mind that the decision seems to confuse “gender identity” with “sexual orientation.” What the hell is an “improper purpose”? It’s for courts to decide. It is “ultimately a question of fact in the prevailing social conditions and particular circumstances.” This of course leaves individuals in exactly the state where the law should not leave them — in a quandary as to whether any particular act is illegal or no. I want to go to the snack shop. Is that an improper purpose or not? You can’t be sure till you’re arrested. Tell it to the judge: he’ll determine your motive’s decency. Every courtroom becomes a priest’s confessional, exposing inner states of mind. Gulliver — legal name “Quincy McEwan,” now head of Guyana Trans United — said after the ruling, “The trans community is very worried, and still fearful of arrests, in light of this decision.”
It’s easy to see, in fact, what was on this particular judge’s mind. Same-sex sex is still illegal in Guyana, under another colonial law that has been debated lately, but is not yet near repeal. Sex work is also criminal, despite the advocacy of a nascent sex workers’ rights group. And laws against loitering are meant for use against both groups — against cruising or gathering with others of your own kind. Those purposes are “immoral.” So both “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are relegated to the realm of pure expression. You can dress to express, but the minute you dress to impress – to attract attention, to encourage somebody to find you attractive, to be noticed at all — you’re potentially a criminal. This leaves hardly any room to breathe, or to be, at all.
I know many people on the excellent legal team working on this case, and, despite the partial victory, it is good news that they intend to appeal. The judge’s ruling reveals the insane niceties of distinction inherent in enforcing any gendered dress code. What is improper? What, indeed, is “attire”? The built-in ambiguities — for as the definitions multiply, the uncertainties also amass — reveal the scope for repression that still remains: as well as the room for Puritanical inquests, not just into the character of clothing, but into the nature of a person’s yearnings, purposes, and desires. Such a law is intrinsically oppressive. It gets not only into your clothing choices, but under your skin. Dress codes are no less totalitarian, in their demands upon their victims, in Georgetown than they are in Teheran.
But where are all the humane and earnest internationalists who lament the horrors of the hijab? Where are the North American and European interventionists who urge bombing Iran to burn the veils off women? Where is FEMEN, that coven of bare-breasted opponents of all repressive dress codes? Why aren’t they dancing on the streets of Georgetown in solidarity with their forcibly clothed sisters? Could it be that the mammary-loving male Svengali who decides their deeds and schedules dislikes the tropical climate?
The truth is, most of our Western activists object only to dress codes that target women like them: their middle-class sisters who dream, at least in the Western imagination, of a liberation contiguous with their own. They don’t know about the other codes that hem in and constrain the poor, the different, the transgender, the sex worker and the street-bound. And if they knew, they wouldn’t care. Consider British writer Suzanne Moore’s complaint last winter about the “Brazilian transsexual” who represents all the bodily norms she and her friends resent and resist. Never mind that Brazilian trans* people get murdered right and left. What matters is, they look like women we don’t like.
There’s still a deep narcissism in our conception of rights. It’s just that self-love is now disguised by being globalized, subsumed in and then projected on a planetary scale. In this economy of imagined neighborhoods, sympathy is easy, because you find your likeness in far-off places: countries you can’t and wouldn’t visit but that are, exactly in consequence of their opacity, no terra incognita but a reassuring mirror. And outside this circuit of similarities, there are the unfamiliar and unimaginable. Don’t worry: they can make no claims.
Here is the press release on the Chief Justice’s decision, from the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), Guyana Trans United (GTU), Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC), Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (CariFLAGS) and the Faculty of Law University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP)
Constitutional Court rules that Cross-Dressing is not a Crime if Not for “Improper Purpose” - Rights Groups Plan Appeal on Dubious Decision
On Friday afternoon, September 6, 2013, the Honourable Chief Justice (Ag.), Mr. Ian Chang delivered his judgment in Quincy McEwan, Seon Clarke, Joseph Fraser, Seyon Persaud and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) vs. Attorney General of Guyana. Section 153(1)(xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) provision makes a criminal offence of a man wearing female attire, and a woman wearing male attire, publicly, for any improper purpose. The Chief Justice said that cross-dressing in a public place is an offence only if it is done for an improper purpose.
The Chief Justice also found that the police violated the human rights of the four litigants in the case during their crackdown in February 2009 when they arrested them under section 153(1)(xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act and he awarded each of the four arrested compensation of $40,000 (GYD) for breach of their rights to be informed as soon as reasonably practicable as to the reason(s) for their arrests under Article 139 (3) of the Guyana Constitution.
Chief Justice Chang also decided that section 153 (1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, is immune from the constitutional challenge brought by the four transgender litigants and their supporting organisations. As an 1893 law, pre-dating Guyana’s independence, the Chief Justice said “legislative rather than curial action is necessary to invalidate the provision.” The litigants are preparing to appeal this and other aspects of Friday’s court decision.
Colin Robinson, manager of the CariFLAGS secretariat based in Trinidad, praised the court’s finding that “It is not criminally offensive for a person to wear the attire of the opposite sex as a matter of preference or to give expression to or to reflect his or her sexual orientation.” The court also found that the law applies only to “attire” and not other gendered accoutrements such as head wigs, ear rings or even shoes. “The learned Chief Justice, however, has confused sexual orientation with gender identity,” Robinson commented.
Reacting to the judgment, the first-named applicant, Quincy McEwan, better known as Gulliver, who is also the Director of Guyana Trans United (GTU), noted that, “The Chief Justice was relatively clear that once you are expressing your gender identity, it’s not criminal for a man to wear female attire. But the law really stifles us, because what could be an improper purpose? The trans community is very worried, and still fearful of arrests, in light of this decision.” The court did not clarify what improper purposes gave rise to the arrests in this case.
The Chief Justice was not convinced the cross-dressing law amounted to ‘discrimination’ on the basis of gender, which would have been in violation of the Guyana Constitution. The court also ruled that the prohibition in the 1893 law is against persons of both genders for the same conduct and, as such, does not amount to discrimination based on gender. Se-shauna Wheatle is Jamaican and Lecturer in Law at Exeter College at the University of Oxford and a researcher in the fields of comparative human rights law and comparative constitutional law. Wheatle, who is the author of the 2013 report “Adjudication in Homicide Cases involving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Persons in the Commonwealth Caribbean,” said that “The constitutional moment presented by this case demanded more detailed assessment of the issue of discrimination against transgender persons.” She observed that “The reasoning of the learned judge omitted any discussion of the prescription of gender roles to individuals according to their sex and the consequent requirement that individuals dress according to those prescribed gender roles. There was no discussion of the way in which the challenged section reflected such prescription of gender roles or the impact of this dynamic on persons who are transgender.”
The court also ruled that SASOD had no locus standi (standing) in the matter since the individual applicants brought the claim in their own names as the persons who were personally aggrieved. The Guyana Constitution was the first in the English-speaking Caribbean to give “an association acting on behalf of its members” the right to bring a claim before the Constitutional Court that there has been a breach of the guaranteed fundamental rights. The standing of SASOD is one of the issues which the litigants expect to argue before the Court of Appeal.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Zenita Nicholson, Secretary of SASOD’s board of trustees. “I feel the court lost a golden opportunity to give life to the Guyana constitution by vitiating this 1893 law against cross-dressing and establishing that all Guyanese are entitled to fundamental rights and freedoms, including our transgender citizens, who unfortunately will continue to be vulnerable to human rights abuses, with this dubious decision. We must appeal it,” she said.
Dr. Arif Bulkan who argued the case on behalf of the litigants is a lecturer in constitutional law and human rights law at the Faculty of Law, UWI, St. Augustine and a coordinator of the Faculty of Law UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP), which has managed the litigation. Dr. Bulkan said that“This case raises issues of great public and constitutional importance relating to the scope of the restrictive savings law clauses in the Constitution that limit challenges to repressive colonial laws and the new provisions in the Guyana Constitution dealing with equality and non-discrimination. The region is closely watching this case.” He added that the legal team for the litigants, which includes Mr. Gino Persaud as instructing counsel, looks forward to arguing these important human rights concerns before the Court of Appeal. He said “In the content of our laws and details of our conduct, we must give meaning to the strong commitment in the Constitution to eliminate ‘any and every form of discrimination’ in Guyana.”
The case of McEwan, Clarke, Fraser, Persaud and SASOD v. Attorney General was initiated four years ago following the February 2009 conviction and fine of seven individuals for violating section 153 (1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act. The 1893 law makes it a criminal offence for men to wear female attire and for women to wear male attire “in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose.” Other activities criminalised in section 153(1) are: grooming an animal in a public place; placing goods in a public way in town; beating a mat in a public way; flying a kite in the city; loitering around a shop and hauling timber in a public way. Unrepresented and unaware of their rights, the defendants were detained in police custody over the weekend, and then hustled through the legal system and fined $7,500 (GYD) each.
U-RAP co-founder, attorney-at-law and public law lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, Dr. Arif Bulkan explained that this colonial law was part of repressive penal regimes instituted in the second half of the nineteenth century throughout the Caribbean to severely constrain the lives and actions of recent freed Africans and the newly arrived indentured servants. Bulkan notes that “Despite the discriminatory aspects of these colonial laws, and their low regard for the majority colonial populations, vagrancy laws like section 153(1) have been kept in effect long after independence.” He adds that “The law is plainly at odds with the Guyana Constitution which states that it is committed to ‘eliminating every form of discrimination.’”
Tenth anniversary video produced by Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), Guyana
“It is true,” he said, “that you cannot commit a crime and that the right arm of the law cannot lay its finger on you irrespective of the degree of your criminality. Anything you do is a lie and nothing that happens to you is true.”
I nodded my agreement comfortably.
“For that reason alone,’ said the Sergeant, “we can take you and hang the life out of you and you are not hanged at all and there is no entry to be made in the death papers. The particular death you die is not even a death (which is an inferior phenomenon at the best) only an insanitary abstraction in the backyard, a piece of negative nullity neutralised and rendered void by asphyxiation and the fracture of the spinal string. If it is not a lie to say that you have been given the final hammer behind the barrack, equally it is true to say that nothing has happened to you.”
“You mean that because I have no name I cannot die and that you cannot be held answerable for death even if you kill me?”
“That is about the size of it,” said the Sergeant.
–Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
“A priest-ridden Godforsaken race,” James Joyce called his fellow Irish. Till about twenty years ago this was true. Ireland now is a society (Quebec in the 60s was another) that’s whirled through an extremely swift process of secularization. Damped down in part by the church-abuse scandals, weekly attendance at Mass has dropped precipitately (from close to 90% of professing Catholics twenty years ago to barely 20% now). That’s only the tip of the altar — even if many of the signs of this seismic shift might be taken for granted elsewhere in Europe. Divorce, long banned in the Constitution, became legal in 1995. You can now buy condoms without a prescription. Even the Archbishop of Dublin grudgingly acknowledges that the country’s secularization turned out to be “in great part” a benefit, like the earth revolving around the sun, which was a risky thing when first tried but seems not to have done too much damage.
As with Quebec, the status of homosexuality has served as bellwether of these changes. The State decriminalized same-sex sex in 1993, outlawed discrimination in 1998, and, three years ago, permitted civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples. Dublin is now a gay tourist destination.
Militant secularists tend to see superstition’s recession and liberty’s advance as simultaneous and inseparable. Indeed, when the patriarchal conception of personhood that dominated Irish politics for decades gave way to a modern ideal of equal citizenship, it was (to paraphrase the Archbishop) in great part good. You couldn’t ask for a worse symbol of the old, medieval-minded Ireland than the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Perhaps the non-Irish don’t know much about these; they were an appalling survival of slavery into modern times. From the 1920s on, the Church imprisoned thousands of “fallen” women — women who had sex outside marriage, or even their young children — forcing them to labor unpaid, as penance, in profit-making laundries. Many were stripped even of their identities, given a new name when they arrived at their religious jails. Many spent their lives in confinement. The government was complicit in the horrors (police often dragged girls back if they managed to escape); it allowed them in subservience to a Church that claimed large elements of State-like power. The public remained largely unaware till 1993, when one convent sold land on which a disbanded laundry had stood. 155 unmarked graves of women were discovered on the grounds.
All that is over, surely — the last laundry closed in 1996. The secular State assures that no woman or man will go nameless, that equality brings freedom. True? The gays are doing great in Ireland, after all. And yet … other kinds of sex are less lucky.
What happens during secularization? The truth is: Parts of paternalism always survive. Power is polymorphously perverse and adaptable. The secular State can all too readily assume a pastoral mantle, in the presumption that some people are unready for citizenship and need surveillance and protection.
I sometimes call this the ideology of damaged citizenship — or better, perhaps, since not all the victims are citizens, “damaged belonging.” Elements of it underlie citizenship discourses almost everywhere, since equality is always partly fictive. But I believe they’re particularly insidious where rapid changes in belief give politics a new foundation that’s insecure, untrusted, wobbly. Identifying some members of the community as damaged serves a dual purpose. It justifies the State’s power to control and intervene. And it defines certain people who resist that power as not fully members of the polity, not qualified to speak at all. It also allows religious claims and repressions to renew themselves in sheep’s clothing, in a safely secular guise. The new regime draws on the old one for support.
“Damaged belonging” is the model whenever politics starts to revolve around, not people’s claims for participation, but the State’s claims on their behalf. Sometimes these are people who genuinely need protection, like kids, though (since they aren’t allowed to speak for themselves or describe the hazards they face) the threats conjured against them often run from exaggerated to imaginary: pedophiles rather than poverty, prostitution rather than family violence. Sometimes the furor demands the State defend a purely theoretical person, the fetus. (Barney Frank’s line remains the best ever on abortion politics in the United States: “Republicans believe that life begins at conception, and ends at birth.”) Only a month ago did Ireland — extraordinarily regressive on abortion for all its liberalism in some other areas — pass a law saying that saving a mother’s life could be prioritized over preserving a fetus’s viability.
Sometimes, on the other hand, real citizens need protection from damaged citizens, or people altogether outside the citizenship pale. The poor or, that reliable staple of current European rhetoric, the migrant become the terrors.
So many of these stories come together in … the sex worker. Sex workers number among the demanding, undeserving poor. They’re migrants not neighbors, people from Out There coming to claim our benefits and corrupt our shores. On the other hand, they recruit our children into prostitution. And of course, having done that, they want the State to kill their fetuses for them. (A UK abolitionist site, despite couching itself as feminist, condemns “risk of pregnancy [and] high abortion rate” among the “hazards of prostitution.”)
Last November, Ireland’s government, under pressure from anti-prostitution campaigners, announced a review of the country’s laws on sex work. (Ireland effectively decriminalized buying and selling sex in the 1980s, but soliciting and brothel-keeping remain illegal, accompanied by the usual sweeping laws against loitering.) The ultimate aim was to impose the so-called “Swedish model,” which criminalizes the purchaser of sex. The campaign to put the screws on the government offers interesting insight into how religious forces ensure their influence in the supposedly secular State. Ruhama was one of the main players. What a nice womany group, down to its ecumenical-lefty name (Hebrew for “renewing life”)! It says on its website that it
regards prostitution as violence against women and violations of women’s human rights. ‘Prostitution and the accompanying evil of trafficking for prostitution, is incompatible with the dignity and worth of every human being’ – UN Convention 1949. We see prostitution and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it as being deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation.
This defense of “gender equality” is nice. But coming from Ruhama? Weird.
In fact, Ruhama is a project of the Catholic Church, not previously noted for its attachment to the idea. When it was founded in 1993, its registered office (legal headquarters, that is) was the Provincialate of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Dublin. In 1995, it changed digs (moving as often as Simon Dedalus!) to the Dublin address of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. In 1998 it moved again, relocating with the Sisters of Mercy. And in 2002 it found its final resting place, at least till today, at All Hallows College, a private Catholic school (directed by the Vincentians, a collection of orders that counts the Sisters of Charity in its family). They must feel nervous, typing UN language into their computers in these sacral locations; isn’t there some anti-Antichrist software on hand? But “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” That’s Luke 10:19.
Sr. Angela Fahy (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 1993-2000
Sr. Evelyn Fergus (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1996
Sr. Jennifer McAleer (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1995
Sr. Noreen O’Shea (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1998, 2003-2008
Sr. Helena Farrell (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 1995-2000
Sr. Johanna Horgan (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1995-2005
Sr. Aileen D’Alton (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1996-2000
Sr. Margaret Burke (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity) 1996-2006
Sr. Ann Marie Ryan (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 2000-2004
Sr. Clare Kenny (Good Shepherd Sisters), 2008-2009
It’s like Sister Act! Ruhama, as a service organization, also gets tons of Irish government money, some of which it then uses to lobby the Irish government for anti-prostitution laws. The whole thing illustrates the easy way that religious mandates can be repackaged, to mesh with and support State power.
But it’s more than that. Both of these religious orders ran Magdalene Laundries for decades. Their hands are stained with the sweat of the women who worked there, and the blood of the women who died there. These God-fearing enforcers are the “fallen” people, and not even their own slave laundries could wash them clean. The orders’ offers of compensation to the survivors of abuse have been risibly inadequate, and they’ve continued to rake in money from the properties where the horrors happened. (In land sales in 2006 alone, the Sisters of Mercy “received €32m for a 16-acre tract in Killarney. And the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold the site adjoining its Magdalene Laundry in High Park Dublin for €55m.”) Now, with consummate sliminess, they are using a feminist-sounding front to campaign against sex work, on the grounds that it’s — get this — “slavery.” Or as they put it: Ruhama’s ”view is that trafficking for sexual exploitation,” into which they lump all prostitution, “is a contemporary form of slavery, with a distinctly gendered bias.” Really! (On its off days when it’s not oppressing sex workers, the Holy See doesn’t even like the word “gender.”) Ambrose Bierce called hypocrisy “prejudice with a halo,” and you can see why.
The Joint Oireachtas (Parliament) Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality held hearings on the prostitution laws in early 2013. These were a stacked, tilted joke. The official record shows that only one speaker from the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland was allowed to testify. There were twenty-three witnesses from member groups in the Ruhama- inspired, anti-sex-work Turn Off the Red Light campaign, including two from Ruhama alone. That isn’t democracy, it’s a sing-along; you might as well listen to the Vienna Boys’ Choir. But then, as Flann O’Brien told his readers years ago, ““The majority of the members of the Irish parliament are professional politicians, in the sense that otherwise they would not be given jobs minding mice at crossroads.”
One academic delicately complimented Turn Off the Red Light for “a brilliantly run campaign” which “rested on a shaky foundation, that of limited comprehensive knowledge about the actual nature … of prostitution in Ireland.” No surprises, then: in June, the legislators recommended the Swedish model, criminalizing all purchase of sexual services. They unanimously added other, still more draconian proposals. People who provide accommodation to sex workers would be criminalized — meaning that indoor sex work (by far the safest kind) will be illegal, and sex workers can be driven from their homes. The Gardaí (police) would be able to disconnect any phone suspected of being used by a sex worker: an effort, as activists note, to
cut off sex workers’ access to communication by phone – which would affect them in all aspects of their life, not merely their sex work activity…. Denying sex workers the right to use telephones could also have adverse effects for their safety, by making it impossible for them to use “ugly mugs” schemes that alert them to dangerous clients, or preventing them calling for help if attacked.
And, incredibly, “the accessing of web sites – whether located in the State or abroad – that advertise prostitution in the State should be treated in the same way as accessing sites that advertise or distribute child pornography.” This is absurd on innumerable grounds, but it’s also horrible. Even a sex worker who checks ads (say, to see what the competition are doing) could be arrested.
Outreach health and social service workers who engage with sex workers through these sites, as well as sex industry researchers, would also be affected. It goes without saying that this proposal would require a significant expansion of the apparatus already in place to monitor Irish internet usage.
This is damaged belonging with a vengeance. In the name of protecting sex workers, they’re cut off from phones and from the Internet; not just buying their services but contacting them virtually becomes criminal; the law treats and insults them as exploited children, “fallen” and powerless, and all in the name of protection. Down that road lie the Magdalene Laundries that Ruhama’s founders used to run.
Already, even before a law’s been passed, the deprivation of basic rights is starting. As I noted in a previous post, police in Ireland have rarely if ever used the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order), a tool of repression common in the UK, one that allows jailing suspects even for acts that are not illegal. But not long after the Oireachtas report, the Gardaí in Limerick sought ASBOs against eight alleged sex workers, mostly Romanian, to strip them of freedom of movement in the city’s center. Years in prison just for showing their faces on certain streets! Once you’ve become a non-person, as Flann O’Brien’s policeman explained, the law’s letter doesn’t matter because you have no name. Anything can be done to you.
The great blog on sex workers’ rights El estante de la Citi has recently posted an analysis of Ireland’s anti-sex-work panic that appeared in the underground magazine Rabble. I recommend the blog. It’s in Spanish, and in fact also offers a Spanish translation of the same piece, and as soon as I opened it Google Translate kicked in on my browser, to turn it back into English — this is globalization in action. Thus I discovered that Google translates “las Lavanderías de las Magdalenas” (Magdalene Laundries) as “Cupcake Scrub.” (It’s probably a tribute to the Spanish-speaking world’s own secularization process that “Magdalenas” first reminds an electronic brain of not the saint, but the sweet.) But this made me remember some of the awful names of anti-sex work purges that police have mounted in the past. New York had “Operation Flush the Johns” this year. Rio de Janeiro, where police crack down lethally on sex workers all the time, has seen Operation Shame, Operation Sodom, Operation Princess, and Operation Come Here Dollbaby. Who is to say that Operation Cupcake Scrub isn’t part of Ireland’s repressive future?
I want to close simply by quoting some of the Rabble article:
The Magdalene Laundries existed to control women’s lives, and made money, but rescuing modern Ireland’s fallen women is worth quite a bit too. You could never be certain of their motivations but you can certainly speculate as to why some organisations are involved in this. Laura Lee [a sex worker activist] says of the motivations: “Their agenda seems to be nothing more than continued funding. Government funding and salaries. It suits them to portray the sex industry in a very bad light. The rescue industry is worth big money. They’re all saying we’re pimped and trafficked —even if we’re jumping up and down saying no we’re not.” When actual sex workers are telling a different story to TORL [Turn Off the Red Light], you could be forgiven for asking the awkward question, ‘Who might know the most about being a sex worker?’ …
Rachel, a Romanian escort working in Dublin for the past number of years questioned [the claims that Ruhama and TORL make], and the absence of sex workers own voices in the debate. … “They say they want to fight against human trafficking but all the escorts I know work of their own free will. I remember the raid last year, 200-ish accommodations were searched by the police and they didn’t find one single escort who was trafficked or working against her will.”
But despite the good intentions of those who are genuinely behind TORL it doesn’t take away from the fact that criminalising buyers makes things more dangerous for sex workers. The fear of the potential consequences of criminalisation are pretty evident for Rachel: “If condoms will be used as a proof of sex with a client (if it is criminalised) then sex workers might stop using them.” The repercussions of this type of fear for the health of the women and their clients is obvious.
Criminalisation pushes the industry further underground and creates more pimps. It also gives the Gardai more control over these women’s lives. And it means that two women who are both sex workers and share an apartment for safety and security might be convicted of brothel-keeping. … Sure, just bring back the Good Shepherd Sisters, Ireland still needs to be saved. You can’t be having filthy, dirty, sinful, sex for money. No, you should be out cleaning jaxes for minimum wage. If you can’t pay your ESB bill or put food on the table for your kids? Well so be it. Better than being a whore and all that.
Correction: The first version of this blog post incorrectly attributed the Rabble article to activist anthropologist Laura Agustin — mainly because the post that followed it in El estante de la Citi actually was an article by Agustin, and my eyes blurred from having too many browser windows open. My apologies. Be sure, though, to check out Agustin’s blog at The Naked Anthropologist, for plenty of excellent insights on trafficking, sex work, and morality policing that are indisputably hers.
Yesterday, with four good friends, I went to Dream Park.
Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress? If you never read Pilgrim’s Progress when you were a lonely kid, then perhaps you should; it’s one of the great English novels – the lone believer sets out on foot from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, plodding slowly through an allegorical landscape, through the Country of Coveting and the Slough of Despond, and of course Vanity Fair, which is probably near Dream Park. It entranced and frightened me as a child. The opening had the suddenness of pristine terror:
As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.
“What shall I do?” Christian cries, because the book tells him that everything around him will be burnt with a fire from heaven, and he, and his neighbors, and his wife and children are all doomed to annihilation. Isn’t that a good reason to leave home? Isn’t that why you go to Dream Park?
My Egyptian friends invited me on condition that I promise not to open a book all day, because they thought that would be good for me, and you can see why. (Christian’s book tells him, “Flee From the Wrath to Come,” and mine aren’t much lighter.) Dream Park is Egypt’s biggest amusement park, kind of like the various Disney universes but minus the megalomaniacal style. It was a lovely day in the sun with lovely people, cracking jokes and doing the bumper cars and eating homemade kofta sandwiches. I only cheated once and cracked a book during the Towboat Ride, when I was sitting in the back. Don’t tell.
Amusement parks always are a bit of an allegorical landscape for me. “Forget your cares,” they say, and of course if the day works out you do, but there’s no such thing as complete amnesia, and putting the present aside makes room for the past to overtake me. I spent my childhood summers in Noble County, Ohio, a poor and rural place. There were two big revels every season, the County Fair and the Fireman’s Festival (to raise money for the fire department), and for both, traveling carnival companies set up rides. My mother never liked the Fair much, and neither did I. It was mostly for farmers — there was a constant recruiting drive to get kids into 4-H, so intense in its ethical overtones (“Head, heart, hands, health!” “Make the best better!”) that I imagined a junior agricultural cult sacrificing virgins to the crops, although virgins were too rare to be killed lightly in Noble County, and weighing pigs and evaluating fertilizer were the more likely diversions. Also, the Fair rides sucked. Once I went in a “haunted house” which mainly consisted of rubbery things touching your cheeks in the dark. My mother threw a fit at what she almost saw as child abuse, complained to the sinister carnies who huddled in a tent behind, and got our admission back. She liked the Fireman’s Festival better, because your money went to a cause. The crowds were smaller, the steers and swine gone, the rides seemed cooler and the carnies less scary. Every time I go to an amusement park, though, I remember her anger at the ghost house, where I had been robbed of a promised good time. She frightened me sometimes with the intensity of her feeling; but I learned with age, long after her death, that love means going to battle even for others’ smallest joys.
There were things I really enjoyed at Dream Park; there was a boat going over a waterslide that was delightful. But there were things that were different — different, too, from the Disneyland my parents took me to when I was nine years old, where I loved It’s a Small World After All, and the Mad Tea Party. Those ride were intimate and individuated; you got in alone or with your “guardian,” and spun around in a way that left you feeling special — that your experience was your very own, so to speak. (All the more so if you puked in the whirling teacup, and so made your temporary mark.) There were a few like this at Dream Park: they had an imitation teacup ride, and something called Caesar’s Shaker which could have fit in back in Noble County. But all the emphasis was on mega-rides, where dozens of people get buckled into some giant, meat-grinder-like machine.
Is this a new fashion? I don’t remember these being around to envy when I was small. We all took the Top Spin, which looks like a cross between a combine and a trash compactor, except fifty feet high; it takes two rows of strapped-down victims, and hoists them and flips them upside down and throws them groundwards.
I forwent going on Discovery, which seems to be the biggest attraction in the park. Shackled in a circle on a huge gondola hung from metal beams, you sit and the thing spins while swinging back and forth like a bell’s tongue, higher and higher till it’s more than perpendicular to the earth. One of my friends dislocated his shoulder.
Peer pressure to show you can take this stuff pervades the air. Another friend really didn’t like these “violent” rides, he said, and felt so frustrated that he almost cried at his inability to enjoy what other people seemed to. But I knew where he was coming from. I liked the spinning teacups better, and I missed the singing dolls and tinkling cembalo music of It’s a Small World.
I didn’t put words to my dissatisfaction till the day’s end, when we sat in the waning sun while Selim nursed his shoulder, and watched Discovery from a distance. It didn’t look frightening in the right way, it looked degrading: people packaged up and manhandled by a vast machine. It was frightening in the way that air travel is to the inflexibly phobic (including me): not just because of the heights and the speed, but because you’re processed and immobilized, strapped down in an anonymous collective, and everything that goes on abolishes not just your volition but your personhood. It seemed an exercise not so much in excitement as in complete submission, like S&M without any of the erotics, where your master is made of metal and is sixty feet tall. This didn’t strike me as fun. It reminded me of bang-up special effects, from Transformers or War of the Worlds.
Probably it’s good that I didn’t have a book. But being bookless didn’t stop me from wondering what’s the fun in these rides that seem more helplessness than thrills, pure abnegation to technology. Today I remembered Adorno, my old guide and companion Adorno; and I looked up a few passages from Minima Moralia, the book he wrote in exile during the Second World War.
Some years ago, the report circulated in American newspapers about the discovery of a well-preserved dinosaur in the state of Utah. It was emphasized that the specimen in question had outlived its species and was a million years younger than any hitherto known. Such reports, like the repulsively humorous craze for the Loch Ness monster and the King Kong film, are collective projections of the monstrous total state. One prepares for its horrors by getting used to giant images. In the absurd willingness to accept these, a humanity mired in powerlessness makes the desperate attempt to grasp the experience of what makes a mockery of every experience. …Two years before World War II the German public saw a film of the downfall of their zeppelin in Lakehurst. Calm, poised, the ship went on its way, only to suddenly plummet straight down. If there remains no way out, then the destructive drive becomes completely indifferent as to what it never firmly established: as to whether it is directed against others or against its own subject.
This is really not a style of thinking conductive to having fun. (I have read that Adorno greatly enjoyed practical jokes, and that his friends wondered how someone so humorous could write “that way.”) Having quoted it, I wonder if my friends will invite me to Dream Park, or anywhere, ever again.
But he’s on to something, isn’t he? — in our era, where the special effects have gotten even more destructive, where movies are basically a succession of bigger and bigger things getting blown to bits. In such an age, every park is Jurassic. This feeling that being manhandled and anonymous before some humongous power, helpless in a humiliated mass, is fun: does it arise, not from some deep eternal masochism in the human soul, but from this moment in our history, where everybody’s strapped down to something, where powerlessness is so much the way you are that being even more powerless is the only thrill you can imagine?
You go to the many Dream Parks to get away from the city. But the history of amusement parks is one of counter-urbanism, creating faux utopian spaces that nonetheless reflect as well as refute the realities left behind them. Disneyland is vacation from and mirror to L.A., Dream Park is oasis and supplement to Cairo. (FORREC, the Canadian firm that built it, cites “forty years of experience in theme, urban, architectural and interior design” that give “a singular ability to merge design creativity with fiscal practicality.”) It’s fourteen years old, but it’s part of a larger urban project that began in the late Sadat years (when capitalism and speculation came to once-socialist Egypt): to create “new cities” on the edges of Cairo, safety valves for the megalopolis’s congestion. The rage of masses trapped in crowded poverty and powerlessness demanded an outlet: not for them, but for the middle classes who wanted to leave that menacing anger and the sump and stagnation behind.
Dream Park was uncrowded, comparatively empty on our visit, another victim of Cairo’s tensions and the curfew. (The latter only moved back from 9 to 11 PM yesterday.) People don’t like to travel these days. Earlier, another friend even warned me about the microbuses you have to take to get there — “terrorists” will stop them to take sojourners hostage, he told me. Those who had trekked there wanted, like us, to enjoy a day with the streets far off, the stories of murder silenced. But it’s not that simple. October 6 City, of which the park is a peripheral part, is an excrescence in the desert; it still looks as though only enchantment sustains its cement and lawns, as though a brief lapse of will would make the mirage vanish. When it wavers into sight on the straight horizon, it reminds you of the power of the corporate djinns who coaxed it from a lunar landscape of sand and rock. Speculating in land is almost the only growth sector in Egypt’s economy, but it takes enormous money and influence to make the desert even pretend to bloom. A Mubarak crony bribed his way to get the permits to build 6 October City. He eventually married his daughter off to the then President’s son: a fairy tale about a captive princess that might make a decent theme park ride. After the Revolution, a court tried him for corruption, along with the former Minister of Housing, who enabled his castles in the sand; he got a prison sentence in absentia. But he’s fled somewhere to safety, his class of hangers-on is back in power again after the coup, and few expect him to suffer much or long.
The whole desert development is artificial, an enormous strain on the environment that seems to be cracking at the seams. The grass is desiccated, the sand can’t be kept out of doors. In Dream Park, the aquatic rides take an immense amount of water — more than anybody could justify allotting to the place when 18 million people are living in the vicinity; so they keep reusing it, and it stagnates, and in corners it smells, and bloated dragonflies circle hungrily above the guests.
I’m not a good person for amusement, I suppose. Yet I really enjoyed Dream Park; I loved being with my friends; I loved the innocence despite everything, and I loved — even as I swayed under — the unleashed flood of memories of childhood. Tonight I’m remembering still, and for some reason I’m thinking of Pilgrim’s Progress. I read it in my great-grandparents’ farmhouse in Noble County, on languid summer days when the bluebottle flies buzzed in the prisoning windowpanes. It stood in the dark bookcase with many other old books, but it was the most impressive; they had a stately edition from the Henry Altemus Company, ample with engravings, one that must have sat in the parlor of many a pious family at the last century’s turn. I remember looking at Christian casting off his burden, Christian tempted by Vanity Fair, Christian crossing the river at last to the Celestial City.
I remember also the book’s ending, which brought back the pure terror of the beginning, here at the resolution where it was least expected. Christian and Hopeful enter Heaven after fording the treacherous RIver of Something. But Ignorance — a bumbling character who’s been the earnest hero’s comic foil — sails over by boat, which is cheating, and then tries to charm his way in without his ticket of salvation. The sentinels turn stonefaced, the story darkens. “When they asked him for his certificate, so he fumbled in his bosom for one, and found none. Then said they, Have you none? but the man answered never a word.”
The King of Heaven is intolerant of intruders. He orders his servants, “the two shining ones,” to act: “to go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away.” I never forgot these lines:
Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.
The night air is full of hypotheticals these weeks, and reality feels like a far-off country.
David Cameron lost tonight. It was sweat-inducing drama, the kind that makes you focus so closely on the grimaces and rumors that you forget about the war. By 13 votes, his motion to give a loose preliminary OK to Syrian intervention went down. (He’d tried to scale it back as a vague non-binding slightly amnesiac go-ahead to his government, like a Dad saying “Sure, someday” to a preteen daughter who wants to marry Justin Bieber.) Most of the UK papers seem to focus on Cameron’s humiliation, and Labour leader Ed Miliband’s triumph, as though a lot of other people’s lives aren’t at stake in this one way or the other. Everybody agrees there is another, spectral loser: Tony Blair.
Not just Blair’s righteous policy of bringing freedom to the benighted, of shaking the world like a kid’s kaleidoscope and reshuffling the pieces. But Blair himself. Two days ago he stepped directly into the debates, with a piece in the Times that stirred up memories of mendacious arrogance in the worst way.
People wince at the thought of intervention. But contemplate the future consequence of inaction and shudder: Syria mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda, a breeding ground of extremism infinitely more dangerous than Afghanistan in the 1990s; Egypt in chaos, with the West, however unfairly, looking as if it is giving succour to those who would turn it into a Sunni version of Iran. Iran still — despite its new president — a theocratic dictatorship, with a nuclear bomb. Our allies dismayed. Our enemies emboldened. Ourselves in confusion. This is a nightmare scenario but it is not far-fetched.
And then he goes maundering about Egypt, seemingly his pet obsession these days, claiming that not bombing Syria would help the Muslim Brotherhood and hurt the military government in Cairo, which is striving to bring stability to the country despite “actions or overreactions” like killing a thousand people in a fit of pique. (Blair, immune to facts as ever, seems unaware that Egypt’s diehard secularists and the junta they helped to power generally look with favor on Assad; the generals overthrew Morsi in part because he opposed the dictator.) But Blair’s intrusion triggered all the wrong recollections in the public. Maybe if he’d shut up, Christian soldiers would be marching off to war.
Here’s a question, though. Why did Blair need to imagine this horrific post-non-intervention future to prop his argument? Isn’t the slaughter that’s already happened enough? More than 100,000 have died in the conflict, according to Syrian activists and the UN. Why can’t Blair rest his case on this vast carnage, instead of dreamy geopolitical speculations and “nightmare scenarios” about how things could get even worse? Isn’t the nightmare now?
The reason, I suspect, is that Blair knows, and we know, and he knows that we know, that the “humanitarian” intervention he imagines will not do much to help. The dead are past aiding — even Blair, with his propensity to impersonate Jesus, probably gets that — but what is the chance that the mechanized violence of Western powers can forestall more violence in Syria? Will more killing save more lives — killing in the self-protecting way the West does it? Iraq haunts Blair, haunts every word he says, not as a sin (he’s Godlike enough to absolve himself) but as a miscalculation. Humanitarian intervention there only accelerated murder. Better not to look at the past, and better not to promise the deaths will end. Instead, focus on the infinite horrors you can pack into an imaginary what-if. The hypothetical can always be worse than anything real.
It’s very striking how little the discussion in Britain dealt with what’s actually happening in Syria beyond the chemical attacks. It’s as if the proposed intervention had nothing at all to do with the civil war. ”It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict,” Cameron told Parliament, oddly enough since only one side was slated for bombing.
It is not about regime change or even working more closely with the Opposition. It is about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime – nothing else.
What an odd war he wanted, one with a motive but not a goal. It’s a bit hard, moreover, to square this with Nick Clegg’s assertion that “The sole aim is the relief of humanitarian suffering.” (What the hell is “humanitarian suffering”? The adjective seems to have taken refuge with the wrong noun: surely he meant “humanitarian aim” or “humanitarian relief.” But out of such Freudian slips does truth step, naked.) How would Clegg relieve suffering? Would all the suffering stop if the chemical weapons were disabled? No; there have been plenty of other deaths. Something bigger, some kind of “taking sides” or even “regime change” would be required.
In fact, Clegg and Cameron offer the lowest-common-denominator version of “humanitarianism,” in which it means no more than a mix of punishment and personal catharsis. We have to “respond to a war crime.” This won’t stop further war crimes, but we’ll have done our part. It’s barely a step down from that to “We want to bomb something, and Syria is there.“ In this light, “humanitarian suffering” really does refer, perhaps, to the suffering of the humanitarian himself, who feels impotent and guilty, who wants to do good and can’t imagine how, who has migraines from knowing that none of his actions will accomplish the ends he posits, and who would like a large explosion to relieve him. Bombing Damascus is a bit stronger than Alka-Seltzer, but it’ll do.
The argument for humanitarian intervention inhabits a strange half-reality, not quite resembling anything else in the languages of democratic politics. It’s almost never a discussion about “What will happen if we do this?” It’s a fever dream about “What will happen if we don’t?”
Back two years ago when the Libyan bombings were bruited, the editors of n+1 asked: “Has there ever been a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian intervention?”
Not of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, who deposed the Khmer Rouge for their own reasons (the Khmer kept crossing the border, and also murdered their entire Vietnamese population), and then replaced them with Hun Sen, who has been ruling Cambodia with an iron fist for more than thirty years. Not the Indian intervention in Bangladesh, under whose cover the Indian government arrested all student protesters in India. And not NATO in Kosovo, which, while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo, could not make it a viable state … and also led to the ethnic cleansing of the Serb population. Too bad for the Serbs, to be sure; but the creation of a safe space for the expulsion of a civilian population cannot be what anyone had in mind when they launched the planes. That there has never been a successful humanitarian intervention does not mean that there cannot be one in the future. But the evidence is piling up.
All these misfortunes still have ample defenders in retrospect, though, and the justification always takes the same form: What if we hadn’t done it? Things would be worse. It is no coincidence that some of the best-known advocates of humanitarian war, like the power-worshpping Niall Ferguson, are historians fascinated by alternative histories. Ferguson has written whole books that rewrite the past; he defends the what-if approach to understanding because it refutes Marxism and other attempts to trace laws that make history make sense. Life is random. Something completely unpredictable could always happen, or have happened.
What are the implications of chaos for historians? … The counterfactual scenarios [that historians] need to construct are not mere fantasy: they are simulations based on calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes in a chaotic world. … Perhaps the best answer to the question, “Why ask counterfactual questions?” is simply: What if we don’t? Virtual history is a necessary antidote to determinism.
Slumming among the angry Arabs, Niall Ferguson rescues a brown person and shares killer-app lessons from the Western worldview
He surely hopes to sound oracular like Lawrence of Arabia, the imperial hero intoning “Nothing is written.” Instead, he ends up a bit like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, rambling on about chaos theory: Fuckups are inevitable, the dinosaurs will always get loose, leave while you’re still alive. His scenarios are more like movie pitches than histories. But the method’s utility in excusing policymakers’ catastrophes (like those of his idol Kissinger) is obvious. Who knows how much worse things would have been, without our fucked-up attempt at fixing them? If the US hadn’t invaded Cambodia and unleashed the Khmer Rouge, something else would have gone wrong.
Everything settles into indeterminacy this way. There is no proving a hypothetical. You can always invent a rate of forced flight from a Kosovo where the NATO invasion never happened that’s satisfyingly much greater than the one we know. You can always find a way to say that Iraqi mortality for 2003-2013 would have been as great or greater if Saddam had stayed in power — because he would have nuked his own people, or diverted the Euphrates, or weaponized the Middle East Coronavirus. This spares you the unpleasantness of looking at what actually took place, analyzing the melancholy figures, seeing what caused the painfully factual deaths or displacement. So much more agreeable to understand the unreal than reality!
Stuck in a jungle somewhere between lectures, Niall Ferguson (Jeff Goldblum) discusses chaos theory with crusty adventurer Henry Kissinger (Sam Neill) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (the ever-radiant and enlightened Laura Dern)
But an argument that’s merely flimsy when used to analyze history turns deadly when used to decide what to do here and now. The incessant drumbeat of “What will happen if we don’t?” drowns out the two more important questions: “What will happen if we do?” and “What is happening now?” Only the latter, because they deal with facts and with the consequences of a specific course of action, have even the possibility of instructive answers. The advocates of “humanitarian intervention” seem to turn every debate into a panic. It’s not just that the incited desperation overpowers the ability to judge. It’s that moving debate into a never-never land reached by the road-not-taken degrades all political discourse. The dreamwork starts to construct our daytime lives.
I can’t bring myself to stand in blanket opposition to any humanitarian intervention at all, in Syria or elsewhere. What I feel sure of, is that the arguments used to hawk the war in Britain are destructive and dangerous. They swivel our attention away from the reality of death in Damascus and Homs. Instead they insult the dead by imagining “nightmare scenarios,” ones somehow worse (at least for us, if not them) than what is occurring now, ones that suggest the ongoing disaster is not yet disastrous enough for minds acclimated to atrocity. They do this to conceal the poverty of their plan, which isn’t a plan at all and would help almost no one. They convince us that a dystopian future is the only alternative, because they are incompetent or unwilling to do anything about the present.
The Commons was right to vote these proposals and their shabby logic down. I would like to think there is a little interval of time for the rest of us to learn about life and death in Syria, and debate in concrete terms what can be done to support the Revolution. But the US is already heaving itself to action, greaved and ready, for the aimless killing — “nothing else,” “the sole aim” — the UK refused. I don’t need a theory to know chaos when I see it. I don’t need an alternative history to know there have to be alternatives.