ISIS in Iraq: Real atrocities and easy fantasies

FIghters under the ISIS flag parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, near the Turkish border, Jan. 2, 2014.: photo by Reuters/Yaser Al-Khodor Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/01/al-qaeda-terror-spread-iraq-lebanon.html##ixzz34oYO5Rg3

Fighters under the ISIS flag parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, near the Turkish border, Jan. 2, 2014: photo by Reuters/Yaser Al-Khodor

ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — says it likes simple things. When I was in Iraq in 2009, a gay man told me how Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the militia from which it grew, had murdered his partner five years before in Baghdad’s al-Dora quarter.

It was at a time when there was a general cleansing of people they thought were immoral. Barbers who pluck out hairs with a string could be targeted because that was haram. They murdered ice-sellers because there was no ice in the time of the Prophet.

My boyfriend was hanging out on a street corner with a bunch of friends, and they saw a group of bearded men pull up in a car. They asked for him by name. He tried to run but they surrounded and cornered him. They tried to get information from him, asking for names of gay friends. People came up and saw there was a disturbance—so they just shot him and drove away.

There were no guns in the time of the Prophet, or getaway cars either. The fierce essentialism of the militiamen’s standards cannot alter all aspects of the present, or roll back the complexities of the world. Perhaps they don’t try too comprehensively in the end; they’re content with the paradoxes, slaughtering ice-sellers while paying car dealers. Consistency only impedes the freedom to kill. It’s the clash of values itself that empowers them. Their angry absolute beliefs are like a bar of heated iron, plunged into history as into a pail of water. Steam billows up and clouds the air, and in that blinding, enabling confusion the killers can work.

A lot of people in Iraq want to kill, and therefore multiple parties tend to find confusion congenial. A Twitter account “associated with” ISIS over the weekend posted pictures “apparently showing their fighters killing many Shia soldiers..”

201461624556763734_20The account, which was closed down before its exact provenance could be determined, claimed the victims were captured Shi’ites from the Iraq army. “Hundreds have been liquidated,” it said; a figure of 1700 was cited. According to the New York Times,

The photographs showed what appeared to be seven massacre sites, although several of them may have been different views of the same sites. In any one of the pictures, no more than about 60 victims could be seen and sometimes as few as 20 at each of the sites, although it was not clear if the photographs showed the entire graves. The militants’ captions seemed tailor-made to ignite anger and fear among Shiites. …

The Iraqi army itself appears unsure how to respond, initially casting doubt on the reports, then “confirm[ing] the photos’ authenticity” but dropping a zero from the number claimed dead. It’s more a question of strategy than of truth: if you say the murders happened, you might discourage your troops from surrendering (which they’ve been doing en masse) but encourage them to desert (ditto). So an atrocity story virtually admitted by the killers, one you’d think would be a propaganda present to a tottering regime, remains underexploited. Even death goes to waste.

But if the Iraq regime survives on confusion, it’s nothing like the confusion that comes from outside. Western policy on Iraq has been all about killing or letting-be-killed, and therefore promotes a comprehensive, cloudy unclarity in which killing can just occur, agency reassignable, responsibility ambiguous, story in the passive voice. Stuff happens. Decades of dishonesty and blowing smoke; that was the point of the yellowcake, the weapons of mass destruction, the “untidiness,” the whitewashing of the crimes of people like Maliki.

Bush looks under the White House furniture for missing WMDs: from an official Presidential humor video, 2004. No word on where those 100,000 Iraq bodies were buried, either.

Bush looks under the White House furniture for missing WMDs: from an official Presidential humor video, 2004. No word on where those 100,000 Iraqi bodies were buried, either.

It wasn’t just an opportunistic sacrifice of truth; truth was the target, as much as Saddam Hussein. The years of war appear in retrospect as a gigantic experiment to create a model country where nothing could be known and anything said, no certainties had but speculation. The oleaginous Tony Blair reappeared yesterday, a wholly indigenous cross between Mr. Chadband and Dr. Phibes. He denies everything. Nothing that happened happened, and it wasn’t his fault:

We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t. We can argue as to whether our policies at points have helped or not: and whether action or inaction is the best policy. But the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it.

You can omit the fact that by urging us to “liberate ourselves,” Blair seems to be calling for an auto-invasion. No: Western leaders never propped up Saddam Hussein in the years when his mass murders were at their height, never switched sides afterward and invaded, never left him to slaughter his opponents in the invasion’s wake, never starved the whole Iraqi people into delirium in hopes they would overthrow him, though those victims never installed him in the first place; they never invaded yet again, never unleashed a civil war. Those are non-facts, “a bizarre reading of the cauldron that is the Middle East today” (the mixed metaphor – who “reads” a “cauldron”? – itself suggests Blair’s fixed unwillingness to describe reality, or perhaps a will to replace reality with interpreting the magic brew, like the witches in Macbeth). “We have to put aside the differences of the past and act now to save the future”: thus Blair.

It’s in this context of the right wing’s constantly metastasizing lies that a small thing caught my attention this weekend. Tarek Fatah tweeted it, then Ben Weinthal.

tarek fatah bs TWOBoth these guys have impeccable neoconservative credentials. Fatah, a Canadian journalist for the right-wing Toronto Sun, is one of those quondam Muslims that Islamophobes love. He blames Islam for everything: “The worldwide cancer of terrorism by some Muslims is inspired by the teachings of Islam. To deny this fact is intellectual dishonesty.” He regularly emits the required warnings about takeover by creeping shari’a:

fatah sharia copy–and cheerfully imitates the foreign policy stylings of the rabid Dinesh d’Souza:

Fatah obama copyWeinthal is also a self-styled journalist, principally working through the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think-tank Glenn Greenwald called “a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” One job of the Foundation’s paid fellows is to drum up support in various constituencies for a war against Iran, and Weinthal somehow acquired the gay portfolio. Pursuing this, back in 2011 he published a vociferous piece in Gay City News accusing Iran of “anti-gay genocide.” I responded that the usual definition of accomplished genocide requires that people be dead, and there was no documentation of executions for consensual homosexual conduct in Iran since at least 2000. Weinthal has never forgiven me for this. As bête noire and “Iran apologist” I still haunt his Twitter feed, his occasional dispatches for the Jerusalem Post, and no doubt the recesses of his dreams.

“Don’t miss the niqabi!” Sure. The photo seemed off to me. It wasn’t hard to find out where it came from: certainly it shouldn’t have been complicated for two experienced pseudojournalists like these. The picture itself, as you can see, has a watermark, which says “Al Ghad”: the name of a newspaper in Jordan (Tomorrow).

BqB2G4mCMAAh9meThe photo isn’t from Iraq at all. Here‘s the original article from Al Ghad (with plenty of other pictures too). It’s from a mock anti-terrorism exercise conducted at the big SOFEX (Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference) confab held from May 5-8 this year in Amman, Jordan. That’s a chance for all sorts of doubtful mercenary, paramilitary, and private-security gurus and arms salesmen to hawk their wares to jittery governments. A rescue of “hostages” was staged by “counterterrorist” forces after a costumed “jihadist” group kidnapped them, and this is one image. The show stirred up a controversy in Jordan, implying as it did that “terrorism” was a conservative Muslim speciality. The Islamic Action Front, Jordan’s main religious political party, condemned the exercise, as did Salafists and many Facebookers — for spreading exactly the stereotypes that Fatah and Weinthal also deal in.

The sequel: "Counterterrorist special forces" capture "jihadists" at the SOFEX show in Amman

The sequel: “Counterterrorist special forces” capture “jihadists” at the SOFEX show in Amman

That’s not the point, though. The point is that doing a reverse Google search before circulating an image is good (journalistic) practice — especially in a tendentious situation, with people being killed. Interesting, too, is how the photo got redubbed. Tarek Fatah obtained it from the Twitter account of Raja Arsalan Shah, a Lahore-based journalist:

image recapitulated copyShah in turn got it from a Twitter account called “Proud Syrian”:

proud syrian copy 2All we know about “Proud Syrian,” who tweets pretty exclusively in English, is this:

proud syrian id copy“Proud Syrian” obviously found the photo somewhere and seized the chance to enlist it against ISIS. At least he, or she, included a disclaimer (attributing the ISIS link to social media); in its later peregrinations, Weinthal and Fatah shucked off any such caution. Strange that Weinthal, who campaigns aggressively for US intervention to overthrow Assad, is recirculating deceitful propaganda from an anonymous pro-Assad account.

When I pointed to the original source of the picture, Ben Weinthal became enraged: not at “Proud Syrian,” or himself, but at me. In fact, his answer, retweeted by Tarek Fatah, was downright churlish.

Shut up, Ben explained

Shut up, Ben explained

Is that even an answer? Perhaps it’s to be expected that people who give unquestioning credit to pro-Assad propagandists should also place faith in the nasty personal vendettas of the litigious Peter Tatchell. They’re equally reliable. Undisgraced, undiscredited, and undismissed, I still have to admire Ben’s talent for alliteration if not for accuracy. I feel I ought to imitate it somehow. Yet it’s hardly fruitful to waste belletristic tricks on such unrepentant people, disinclined to honesty and incapable of honor: dyspeptic, disingenuous and destructive propagandists for prejudice.

Neither Weinthal nor Fatah ever clarified the truth about the picture. This makes it harder and harder to call them journalists.

So the picture spread (as you can see, it got 700+ retweets from Fatah’s account alone), and it’s still cropping up here and there on Twitter. It’s picked up by Australian xenophobes:

tare12k 3 copyBy fans of the Dutch racist politician Geert Wilders (as well as, in this case, of head Indian Islamophobe Narendra Modi):

"Not sure about Islam? Or was Mr. Wilders right after all?"

“Not sure about Islam? Or was Mr. Wilders right after all?”

And by anti-feminists anxious to prove that Western feminism has got things wrong, or that Elliot Rodger was in some weird way right:

tarek 4 copy 2ISIS is a violent organization with a long trail of victims. It takes little trouble to find documented atrocities it has committed; so you have to wonder why so many people leapt on this picture, this fake back story. Weinthal’s and Fatah’s propaganda needs are clear. Even now, though, it’s conspicuous that while both cling to this tale, neither’s Twitter feed contains anything about ISIS’s own claims to have executed hundreds of soldiers. The probable atrocity has been driven out by the fake one.

I have two explanations. One’s in the picture itself; the jeans-clad women, with blond or dyed hair … I haven’t been to Mosul, but I’ve been elsewhere in northern Iraq, and I recall very few women who looked like that. The whole point of the Jordan exercise from which the picture came was to make the fake hostages look like us, a different us, not like ordinary Jordanians or Arabs: like Western or Westernized victims, just the people Special Forces are meant to rescue. Shi’ite soldiers shot by jihadists rouse a mixed response in the American or the neoconservative breast: on the one hand, we oppose any generic Muslim terrorists automatically, a non-sectarian instinct to battle and bomb; on the other hand, shooting Shi’ites is, from a geopolitical perspective, perhaps a Good Thing. It’s not just the anonymity of the violence in the ISIS pictures that inhibits identification. It’s a complicated if not necessarily informed political response. But with the fake photo, there’s no confusion of loyalties. These are our kind of slaves.

White slavery: Jaroslav Čermák, Abduction of a Herzegovenian Woman, 1861

White slavery: Jaroslav Čermák, Abduction of a Herzegovenian Woman, 1861

And that sympathy can’t be separated from their gender. There’s partly the tradition of women as the territory on which clashes of civilization are fought: a history stretching from colonial conquests down to Bush’s war in Afghanistan. There’s the titillating promise of actually watching women taken as “slaves”: part of a growing body of political pornography that sexualizes Muslim men as masters in a seven-veils version of Deep Throat, or Debbie Does Damascus. (Think the fantasy of “sexual jihad,” the myth that Islamists lure or force women into servicing fighters in Syria or Iraq — an Orientalist wet-dream sold by the sensationalist media in the United States, but one that’s been plagiarized in Egypt and elsewhere.) And there’s the excitement of watching women turn against women, which to guys threatened by feminism and all that women’s solidarity stuff is both ideologically satisfying and erotically thrilling. “Dont miss the niqabi with gun guarding the captives!” tweeted Fatah. It’s like lesbian mud-wrestling, but with automatic weapons.

Political pornography — and that’s what this is — reduces our thinking, our ability to respond, in many subtle and unsubtle ways. But one is this: it acclimates us to accepting that only visible abuses are real. The only violations that count are what our eyes can consume; our hungry seeing is the sole criterion for believing.

ISIS knows this too. When they took over Nineveh, also in northern Iraq, they released a document with sixteen rules for residents. These imposed hudud punishments (amputation for stealing), and banned alcohol and drugs. They also told women that “stability is at home and they should not go outside unless necessary. They should be covered, in full Islamic dress.” (This is a paraphrase, by the Washington Post.) 

Certainly, this reflects their version of religious precepts; but in a larger sense it’s a sweeping and familiar mandate on women to remain indoors and invisible, in a realm where abuse and agency will be equally unseen. No melodrama here, just the usual relegation to the usual rooms. Weinthal, Fatah, and the rest of the voyeurs on Twitter, obsessed with images of women herded off as “slaves,” won’t notice this violation, exactly because it places women beyond and beneath notice. Violence inflicts the worst wounds when it takes the form of denying visibility. To consign people to pure privacy is the severest privation. As long as our emotions and our politics are driven by pictures, in an orgy of exposure, trying to make sense of the thousand-word Babel they echo or imply, this will be the unattended message: the word we won’t hear.

 

To Begin Again: From Daniel Bensaïd

decult_cv_DanielBensaid

Driven to bed by the recurrence of an old condition, I spent the last few days reading the 2004 memoirs of Daniel Bensaïd: Une Lente Impatience, published last year in English as “An Impatient Life.”  Probably you haven’t heard of the author, unless you are as quirky as I am, in which case seek help. Bensaïd was a French Marxist activist, a revolutionary, and a major thinker of our post- (but not post enough) modern Left.

The son of a Sephardic Jew from Algeria, Bensaïd grew up in Toulouse. When he was fifteen years old and a student, the Paris police repeatedly indulged in horrific abuses against Algerian communities. In October 1961, the forces of order commanded by the authentic fascist Maurice Papon – who was convicted nearly forty years later for his Vichy-era collaboration with the Nazis – massacred up to 200 demonstrators for Algerian independence. They dumped many wounded in the Seine to drown. They slaughtered nine more at a protest the following February. The blood and the indifference — the killings remained unnoticed and unknown — galvanized Bensaïd into politics.

October 17, 1961: arrested pro-Algerian demonstrators huddle on the floor of Paris police headquarters. Many would soon be shot in the courtyard.

October 17, 1961: arrested pro-Algerian demonstrators huddle on the floor of Paris police headquarters, where, a little later, many would be shot in the courtyard.

Bensaïd joined the Communist Party’s youth wing, but, repelled by its reigning Stalinism, he quickly became the center of a left opposition within the ranks. In 1966 he helped found the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire,  a dissident group formally breaking with party orthodoxy.  In 1968 he was, with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leading impetus behind the Mouvement du 22 Mars – the students who ignited the May 1968 revolt that almost toppled de Gaulle.  In subsequent years he supported leftist movements in the global South, especially Latin America, where he worked with groups in Argentina and Colombia through the 1970s and 1980s. In Brazil, he assisted in building the Workers Party, which now governs the country.  As a teacher, philosopher, and theorist for the Fourth International, he contended in the 1990s that Southern social movements were vital players in revitalizing the Left. For the last 16 years before his death, Bensaïd lived with HIV and AIDS; complications from the treatments finally killed him, at 63, in 2010.

These days are bad days. In Europe, a racist right feeds off the energy of anti-austerity, anti-bureaucratic resistance: the men who massacred Algerians in 1961 can applaud their children sitting in the European Parliament. In Egypt, where I am now, a murderous general staged his own election landslide, and aims to extinguish the last embers of the fading Revolution. In the United States … but why even think  about that? A US gay blogger wrote yesterday that “critical theory” is destroying the gay movement by making trans people and brown people hate their benefactors, gay white men. The last is only one small idiocy; but Bensaid’s book, as I’ve been immersed in it this week, has become a site and not just a set of words amid all the stupidities and losses, a closed place where beleaguered hope can take refuge, a shelter where theory can pay its proper respects to practice. “There is no human activity that does not involve the intervention of thought,” he wrote. “The non-intellectual does not exist.”

So I want to share a few passages from his memoirs. Find the whole book here.

1. 

I hesitated for a long while before writing this book … [But] I experienced the feeling that we belonged to a landscape threatened with disappearance. We had all grown up in the historical sequence opened by the Great War and the Russian Revolution, on a continent that was now almost submerged. Our formative years – the 1950s, 60s, and 70s – were as remote, for the new minds of the new century, as the Belle Époque, the Dreyfus affair, or the heroic deeds of Teruel and Guadalajara had been to us. Can the light from our extinct stars still travel on? Is there still time to rescue this tradition from the conformism that always threatens?

Student protester beaten and arrested by police, Paris, May 1968

Student protester beaten and arrested by police, Paris, May 1968

To transmit, but what? And how? It is the heirs who decide the inheritance. They make the selection, and are more faithful to it in infidelity than in the bigotry of memorial. For fidelity can itself become a banally conservative routine, preventing one from being astonished by the present. How not to mistrust, anyway, that virtuous fidelity which betrayal accompanies like a shadow? Does one always know to what or to whom one is really faithful?

Fidelity has a past. It is never sure of having a future. Many friends, tired no doubt of often having had to press against the grain of history, have made peace with the intolerable order of things. How melancholy was the disenchanted fidelity of Flaubert’s ‘48ers in A Sentimental Education! “Remain faithful to what you were” means being faithful to the fissure of event and the moment of truth, where what is invisible usually reveals itself. It does not mean giving in to the command of the winners, surrendering to their victory, entering their ranks. As opposed to a dogged attachment to a faded past, it means “being faithful to the rendezvous”—whether one of love, politics, or history.

Woman waving flag in crowd during general strike demonstration, Paris, May 1968: by Jean-Pierre Ray

Woman holding flag in crowd during general strike demonstration, Paris, May 1968: by Jean-Pierre Ray

2.  

We have sometimes deceived ourselves, perhaps even often, and on many things. But at least we did not deceive ourselves about either the struggle or the choice of enemy.

Thirty years after independence, Algeria was in the grips of civil war. The war of liberation in Indochina took a bad turn, with the butchery in Cambodia and the conflicts between peoples who had proclaimed themselves brothers. The humanist socialism that Che dreamed of seems to have evaporated. And yet? Is this sufficient reason to go over to the winning side, arms and baggage, and enroll in the imperial crusades of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld?

The “dispersal of meaning” in no way justifies such rejections and rallyings. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, Jean-Christophe Bailly wrote about the 1960s:

Revolution changed its home base, its continent, according to political colour, but it came from outside, and had the irrational virtue of an emotion tied to something distant that had to be brought into being. An emotional movement, no doubt, even if it was armed with theories, and lent more to the actual combatants than they could return. Today the tone is one of mockery, even pride. People conceal the fact that they waved flags and shouted names, or else they laugh themselves sick. There was undoubtedly an immense amount of illusion – but if there had not been, there would not have been that movement, that leap, the active convergence of all those rejections, and would we not then have covered ourselves with shame, quite incomparable with the mistakes that we may have committed in the running fire of support actions?

This is my position too. The planet-wide demonstrations of 15 February 2003 against the imperialist war were a new struggle against the shame there would have been in doing nothing. Without seeking here any positive hero, which is certainly for the best: neither Bin Laden nor Saddam Hussein were champions of a new internationalism.

Duty performed, or useless service? As long as one claims the right to start again, the last word is never said. And one always commences from the middle, as Gilles Deleuze maintains. Neither a clean slate nor a white page: “It is the future of the past, as it were, that is in question.”

Student demonstrator confronting riot police, Paris, May 1968

Student demonstrator confronting riot police, Paris, May 1968

3.

Eternity does not exist. So it is necessary to wager on the “non-inevitable share of becoming” inscribed “in this general faculty of surpassing that takes varying forms, in dream, imagination, and desire” … The notion of commitment clumsily evokes this logical wager on the uncertain. A secular, everyday wager, launched anew every day.

This wager, unavoidable as long as the necessary and the possible remain in disagreement, is made by countless people across the world, however discreetly. The Polish dissident Karol Modzelewski, when asked one day for the secret of his perseverance, despite disappointments and disillusions, simply replied: “Loyalty to persons unknown.” There are always, beyond gregarious membership and exclusive identity, these elective affinities, these molecular loyalties, this hidden community of sharing, this minuscule conspiracy and discreet conjuration whose “secret name,” for Heine, was communism, transmitted from one person to another. Despite the infamies committed in its name, it remains the most pertinent word, the word most freighted with memory, the most precise and most apt to name the historic issues of the present time.

On 11 July 1977, at seven in the evening, Roberto MacLean was murdered in Barranquilla, on the doorstep of his house. An almost everyday occurrence: in Colombia, thousands of political executions take place every year. MacLean was black and a revolutionary. He was thirty-nine years old, and had been a political militant since the age of fourteen. He led the civic movement in his town. For more than ten years, he lived every day with the imminence of violent death.

Bensaid (on the left) marches with Alain Krivaine at the funeral of Pierre Overney, a Maoist militant killed by a security guard at the Renault Billancourt factory in Boulogne in February 1972

Bensaid (on the left) marches with Alain Krivine at the funeral of Pierre Overney, a Maoist militant killed by a security guard at the Renault Billancourt factory in Boulogne in February 1972

A digression? In fact, nothing could be more pertinent. MacLean is a kind of emblematic representative of those unknowns to whom we are tied by an irredeemable debt.

I have no religious sense of redemptive suffering. I have never conceived my commitments as asceticism or reparation. I have never taken vows of intellectual poverty or chastity. As a young Communist, I took an immediate dislike to the bureaucratic bigotry of the Stalinist priests and its Maoist counterpart. The young red guards in their French version, hymning the thoughts of the Great Helmsman, were odious to me – these little monks who gave their person to the Cause (of the people or the proletariat). The Cause? It never occurred to me to sacrifice to such ventriloquous idols. Political militancy for me is the opposite of a sad passion. A joyous experience, despite its bad moments. My party, like that of Heine, is “the party of flowers and nightingales.”

During the gloomy 1980s, we stuck to our course under the satisfied condescension of the various “exes,” who had given up on everything but themselves. In a tone of ironic compassion, behind which sarcasm visibly lurked, they would ask: “Still a militant, then, old chap … ?” As if we were a disappearing species, the last Mohicans of a condemned tribe. As if we had lost our time and wasted our talents, instead of climbing the ladder of a successful career garlanded with laurels.

In the next decade, there was a change of air, even if it didn’t exactly turn scarlet. The tone had changed. The arrogance of the “winners” was seized with doubt and far more muted. They could see that we had avoided, in a bad time of restoration and counter-reform, a grotesque shipwreck on “the terrible sea of action without purpose.”

No, we hadn’t wasted our time. We rubbed shoulders with many indispensable unknowns – hundreds and thousands of MacLeans. We experienced wonderful friendships, and resurrecting shocks propitious for the rejuvenation of hearts and souls. Of course, we had more evenings of defeat than triumphant mornings. But we put behind us that Last Judgment of sinister memory. And, by dint of patience, we won the precious right to begin again.

4.

When strategic directions are confused or erased, it is necessary to return to the essential: what it is that makes the world as it is unacceptable and makes it impossible to resign oneself to the blind force of things. Its explosive mixture of partial rationalization and growing global irrationality. The disproportion and disarray of a deranged world. This is why the world still has to be changed, and still more profoundly and more urgently than we had imagined forty years ago. Any doubt bears on the possibility of succeeding, not on the necessity of trying ….

Paris, 1968, at a mass meeting held by Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire: from the left, Ernest Mandel, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Henri Weber, and Bensaïd

Paris, 1968, at a mass meeting held by Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire: from the left, Ernest Mandel, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Henri Weber, and Bensaïd

Politics is an art of decision, and implies constructing a power. By establishing the exception as norm, it resolves a critical situation. For a new right is never deducible by genealogy from an old right, without rupture or discontinuity. It comes about by the mediation of force.

How to act in such a way that this force is not reduced to arbitrary brutality? Between two opposing rights, a decision has to be made. “Choosing your camp” means deciding. And deciding means a certain sacrifice of complexity, of a good number of possibilities, rather like amputating a virtual part of oneself. The real, after all, what is called “actually existing,” is a great cemetery of possibilities. …

There is no ultimate certainty on which to base judgment. We are embarked, as the subtle Pascal put it. It is impossible to escape the tough duty of deciding.

So we have to wager.

Max Weber defined politics as the vocation of the man who, when the world seems too stupid or too petty to hope to change it, does not collapse and remains able to say “however” and “despite everything.”

What exactly is the politics on which we embarked forty years ago? Contemptuously defying the orthodox tradition, we happily proclaimed that “everything is political.” Everything is quite a lot, indeed too much. Everything? To a certain extent, and up to a certain point. If we want to avoid politics becoming despotic and totalitarian by devouring everything else, then that exact extent and precise point are decisive. Another register, another temporal regime: you cannot legislate on the Oedipus complex or on sexual orientation as you can on the civil service or social security.

Prague demonstration on the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 21 August,1969, by Gilles Caron: © Fondation Gilles Caron

Prague demonstration on the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 21 August,1969, by Gilles Caron: © Fondation Gilles Caron

Politics is said to be in crisis, struck by impotence and threatened with disappearing. Hannah Arendt was already worried that it would disappear completely from the world. The statisation of the social, the confusion between right and might, is one form of this menace. Another form is the crushing of the public space between the wheels of economic constraint and those of a culpabilising moralism: this is the danger of a “soft,” market totalitarianism. …

To rescue politics from these threats of disappearance, it has to be conceived anew, as the site of deliberation and decision where different spaces and rhythms combine. Those of the economy, of information, of ecology and of law are no longer in tune with one another. We have therefore to abandon the mirage of a politically homogeneous space and time, and learn to conceive the sites and moments of a future politics. Their articulation will determine the ability to open perspectives both spatial (territorial and local) and temporal (of memory and expectation), without which depoliticized politics degenerates into the management of a shrunken present, without either past or future.

Protest at rue Saint-Jacques, Paris, 6 May 1968, by Gilles Caron: © Fondation Gilles Caron

Protest at rue Saint-Jacques, Paris, 6 May 1968, by Gilles Caron:
© Fondation Gilles Caron

 

 

Too brown to be heard: The Brunei brouhaha

LGBT rights in Brunei now have a face:

Brunei, or Brüno?

Well, sort of. When you see the Sultan-slamming headline that arcs over that pic in Queerty, “Why I Can’t Go Home Again: Young Activist Takes Stand Against Savage Antigay Policy, you naturally think it’s about a gay Bruneian driven into exile by the tyranny of shari’a law. Here’s a story of expulsion across continents, brutal police, fearful flight, uncertain welcome. Right? Well, sort of. The “young activist” is not exactly Asian. He’s the blond grandson of James Mason (Judy Garland’s husband in A Star is Born), and the son of Belinda Carlisle (the Go-Gos), and “home” isn’t Bandar Seri Begawan, it’s the Beverly Hills Hotel. The auberge has always been his refuge: his grandmother “said that when deciding where to live in L.A. that she couldn’t be more than five minutes away from the Beverly Hills Hotel. Being close to it gave her a sense of comfort and safety.” But no more. Now this gay scion of the West Coast’s ersatz Windsors knows he’ll be stoned to death if he sets foot in the bar … Well, sort of. Actually, he’s not in personal danger. Despite how very nice the minions are (“Whenever I go in, the staff members are always there to give me a hug, to give me a sense of belonging,” which is the least you can expect with rooms running $645 a night) it’s more the symbolism of the thing. The Sultan of Brunei owns the hotel (well, sort of: through his Finance Ministry’s investments) and you can read in the papers that he has a plan for “the stoning and murder of gay people,” and why should your own widow’s mite (suites start at $1280) go to swell the coffers of a man already worth $24 billion? So the young activist has been forced to seek asylum at less prestigious watering holes in LA, like those pathetic boat people drowning off Australia. … Well, sort of. “Alas that is the reality we are facing,” he writes: though given the distance between his problems and those of the Sultan’s subjects, the “we” seems more royal than real.

"An exile, saddest of all prisoners / Who has the whole world for a dungeon strong..." Byron, The Prophecy of Dante

“An exile, saddest of all prisoners / Who has the whole world for a dungeon strong…” Byron, The Prophecy of Dante

It’s not fair to pick on the author, James Duke Mason. He’s obviously a nice and idealistic guy, and everybody should follow him on Instagram (“the Beverly Hills Hotel is my favorite place on the planet. Even those who don’t know me can see that from my posts on social media”) to find out what replacement hostel has taken the exile in.

The question nagging me isn’t about him, or “the reality we are facing” — it’s that “we.” Who is that “we”? Where the hell did that “we” come from?

I’ve said my bit on the recent burst of outrage over Brunei here, at PolicyMic. Briefly, I wrote that despite the exclusivist furor in the US and UK over the “antigay” impact of the measure, shari’a is much more likely to affect the rights of women. And I said that Western activists’ reluctance to acknowledge the multiple dimensions of the issue, much less the pioneering work of women’s rights activists across southeast Asia, was a disgrace.

I got some nods, some hate mail, and more than the usual amount of incomprehension. I had an argument on Twitter (an oxymoron, anyway), with an eminently earnest man who responded to me at complete crosspurposes. Why, I kept asking, wouldn’t you check with women’s groups or sexual rights activists across the region, who have experience with context and culture, in planning a boycott? “There are no LGBT groups in Brunei,” he kept answering, as if this meant there was no one to talk to about the issue anywhere except Los Angeles or London: no relevant expertise outside his postal code. Meanwhile, the tempest kept growing. Britain’s chief LGBT lobby group, Stonewall, declined to endorse a boycott of the Brunei-owned chain of hotels. Its acting head, Ruth Hunt, wrote in the Telegraph: 

We only implement actions that we can calculate will have an impact. … I do, however, fear that the boycott could do very real harm to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people of Brunei. By turning the issue into a battle between gay people and the Sultan – which it isn’t, it affects everyone in Brunei, not just gay people – we limit the opportunity for dialogue and put the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people of Brunei at far greater risk. A group of people, I hasten to add, who’ve yet to publically call for a boycott.

To anyone who’s actually done international solidarity work, this is a perfectly plausible thing to say. To many who hadn’t, it was Thoughtcrime. For instance, Peter Tatchell, who has a longstanding grudge against Stonewall, seized the chance to Tweet:

tatchell boss copy (Tatchell would of course never refer to himself as the “boss” of the coincidentally named Peter Tatchell Foundation, which is seemingly baptized after a completely different Peter Tatchell, not the Tweeter, who is a lowly janitor there.) Naturally, everybody else piled on, with varying degrees of violence:

Stonewall boss 3 The whole storm was a convincing display of peer pressure as a substitute for argument: straight out of Mean Girls

The question here isn’t the wisdom of this boycott or others, on which I’m agnostic. (It’s quite reasonable, in fact, to say both that a gay-rights group shouldn’t patronize Brunei-owned hotels, and that a loud, Western-centric boycott is a bad idea.) The question is: what kind of “activist movement” do we have when you can dismiss as mere “BS” all talk of “activists on the ground” in the countries where you’re allegedly defending human rights?

A bad one. And this is why I think James Duke Mason’s plea on Queerty for asylum is a revelation. Queerty, which if you haven’t heard of it is a Big Glay Bog in the United States, serves as a kind of beekeeper for the gay hive mind. And here’s what Queerty has to show. The Brunei campaign isn’t really about Brunei at all. That “we” isn’t some inclusive articulation of solidarity. The campaign’s about us, and the “we” is me. It would be presumptuous of real Bruneians to introduce their situations into the discussion; their role is to suffer and be silent. The voices belong to the people exiled from the Beverly Hills Hotel, crossing the swimming pool in flimsy rafts by night, traversing the border with only their Louis Vuitton luggage on their backs. The stir is more about our moral purity than about anybody else accomplishing change. This is less activism than narcissism, and the fact that most participants couldn’t find Brunei on a map only reaffirms that the ego has its own geography, as grossly exaggerated as a Mercator projection.

2ef3b2f0-3b1e-44f3-a7b1-860022caf330Here are some facts. Brunei’s government announced its intent to introduce a shari’a-based criminal code back in October 2013. In other words, the Western gay activists who just discovered Brunei and its “savage antigay policy” are at least six months too late. While the Westerners were doing other things, though, a coalition of regional and international women’s, human rights, and LGBT groups issued an analysis and condemnation of the Brunei code within days of its proclamation. They included eighteen organizations in neighboring Indonesia, as well as the influential Islamic feminist group Sisters in Islam from (also neighboring) Malaysia, and the international network Women Living Under Muslim Laws. They called on Brunei not only to cancel the proposed laws but to fulfill other outstanding human rights obligations, such as reporting to the United Nations on its women’s rights record, and signing the UN Convention against Torture. You can find their appeal here. The action was coordinated with an ongoing international campaign to end the punishment of stoning, which has drawn support across the global South. Malaysia’s Islamic Renaissance Front separately condemned the laws. All the Western white people loudly clamoring about Brunei now — Cleve Jones, Peter Tatchell, James Duke Mason, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Fry, and somebody named Lisa Vanderpump who’s famous for something (I’m out of touch) — ignored these actions back then. They’re still ignoring them now. They haven’t acknowledged them or asked advice, much less taken note of what they called for. Those other activists are too brown to be heard. 

It’s true, there are no open LGBT organizations in Brunei in which Western gays can find their interests mirrored. Whether this is because they’re “terrorised into invisibility” is an open question; if they’re terrorised, it’s at least as likely to be due to the colonial-era, British sodomy law already on Brunei’s books, a law which will remain in force even after the shari’a code supplements it. (The sentence is up to 10 years in prison, and proving guilt is much easier than under shari’a. No Western activist has complained about that law.) But that doesn’t excuse anybody from listening to the other local constituencies that have already spoken on the issue, based on long histories of engagement.

For real international activists, a paucity of allies on the ground means a problem, and a challenge. It means you have to work even harder to figure out the context, to gauge the impact of anything you might do. It means an extra obligation to take the guidance of regional groups who know the situation and have records of relevant work. You’d think that campaigners or angry clicktivists who don’t know anything about Brunei would want to look for help; would want to coordinate with the prior efforts of activists in Indonesia or Malaysia, who fought against fundamentalism before Jay Leno even heard the word. But here’s the rub. These guys don’t see the supposed silence of Bruneians as a problem. They see it as an opportunity. It gives them freedom, in their own minds, to speak for the silenced and say anything they damn well please. It means they don’t have to share the spotlight with anybody at all.

American gay-rights activist Gloria Swanson prepares for a protest at the Beverly Hills Hotel

This does say something about “the reality we are facing.” It spells trouble for LGBT rights internationally.

There was a time, back when — fifteen, ten, even as little as seven years ago — when there really was no constituency in most Western countries that took an interest in LGBT people’s rights abroad. Gay men in Los Angeles or London couldn’t be bothered with what happened in Lagos or Lilongwe. If police arrested hundreds of homosexuals in Cairo, or brutalized the gender-nonconforming in Nepal, you had to fight to get even a brief mention in the Guardian or the New York Times. 

When I worked at IGLHRC or Human RIghts Watch, we’d drown our after-hours sorrows in lamenting this indifference, and the fog of inattention that curtained intolerable abuses. Yet it was enabling in certain ways — and not just in the ways that nostalgia gilds almost anything. We knew who our constituencies were, and they were different from our donors. They were the folks in Lagos or Lilongwe, the social movements that actually carried on the fight for rights, and absent constant pressure from publics at home we were free to let our work be guided, if imperfectly, by their devices and desires. The lack of a domestic audience freed up an ethical space for international solidarity where attention could be paid to the people who mattered.

Now all’s changed. In Europe and North America international LGBT rights are big news. There are big constituencies, too, of activists and tweeters who avidly absorb the stories of foreign abuse, and demand Action! Now! And there are more and more domestic LGBT organizations feeding on those audiences, and turning their eyes to foreign affairs, and pressing their governments for Action! Now! Neither the constituencies nor the organizations, though, know that much about the rest of the world, or human rights, or have patience for long-term efforts, or get the complexities of political action across borders. They just want Action! Now!, and the less they have to worry about subaltern voices muddying up the message, the better. The problem is that a lot of the new constituencies are idiots. I don’t mean they can’t tie their shoes or screwed up their SATs. They’re idiots in the root Greek sense, which is a lament rather than an insult:  ἰδιώτης, a too-private person, a consumer of politics rather than a participant in it. incapable of understanding the lives of others except as versions of himself.

And you should be.

And you should be.

Amnesty International used to work by mobilizing mass constituencies around international human rights issues, building publics that would support struggles in other countries. In the process, though, Amnesty also tried to educate those publics about both human rights and movement politics. That was a slower age. Who has the time to learn about anything multisyllabic in a 140-character world? These days, the idiots educate the experts; their demands drive what everyone else does. If you don’t react fast enough, a Twitter tornado will hit you. Remember #BS, and #StonewallDisgrace! Indeed, because many of the people insisting on Action! Now! are rich celebrities (James Duke Mason, who’s had minor roles in three movies, was named one of the 100 Most Influential LGBT People in The Whole Wide World by Out magazine), even groups like Human Rights Watch and IGLHRC are much too scared ever to step in and say: No, fellas. Bad Idea. 

When you come right down to it, isn't every human rights abuse about marriage? Human RIghts Campaign explains same-sex wedding packages in Brunei

When you come right down to it, isn’t every human rights abuse about marriage? The Human Rights Campaign explains same-sex wedding packages in Brunei

So we’ll have more and more overnight boycotts, and hashtag hurricanes, and flash-mob demos. We’ll have more and more white celebrities monopolizing the megaphones. None of these dust-devil campaigns will last much longer than you can remember yesterday’s TV commercials; then we’ll all move on to the next unpronounceable polity where there are people to be saved. The struggles of Southern activists who have built up movements and worked on dangerous issues for decades will be relegated to silence, along with their demands, their analyses, and their knowledge. This won’t be politics in any known sense, and none of it will do much for anybody’s human rights. Some folks’ awareness will be raised before crumpling down again like a painful Yoga posture, some Facebookers will synchronize their profile pictures for a day, Twitter will make a bundle. But rich people will feel good about themselves, and they’ll save money on their hotel rooms.

Brutal gender crackdown in Egypt: The tomorrows that never came

An epitaph for Egypt's revolution: "Remember the tomorrows that never came?" Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

Heartbreaking epitaph for Egypt’s revolution: “Remember the tomorrows that never came?” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

You go home, you lock your door. If you live in a place like Cairo where everybody talks about crime, maybe you bolt it two times, three times. The door is centimeters thick but it marks an almost geological division: between your life, your self, and all those other lives that have no place in yours. Yet one knock, one blow of a fist, can tear through that integument like tissue paper. The flaccid walls melt, the architecture of a dream; they fold like cardboard stage-sets in a hurricane.

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another…. Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your  life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? … The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.” …

Everyone living in the apartment is thrown into a state of terror by the first knock at the door.

That’s Solzhenitsyn. But in each repressive society, among every persecuted people I’ve ever known, from old Bucharest to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the knock on the door takes on an almost metaphysical meaning: the barriers around your personhood dissolving. It’s a signal of intimacy, now transmuted into dread.

There is a crackdown, now, in Egypt. Activists calculate that, since last October, 77 people have been arrested, but the real figures are surely higher. The prison sentences are draconian; one victim got twelve years. It is one of many crackdowns. You could compile an honor roll of endangered people in Egypt: atheists, journalists, revolutionary protesters, Islamist supporters — of whom the army slaughtered more than 1000 last summer alone. What’s distinctive about this particular pattern of arrests isn’t so much its breadth as the peculiar intensity of its assault on intimacy and privacy. The police burst into people’s homes and apartments; they’re seizing those whose main offense is that their clothes and hair are different. Didn’t we hear a year ago — from everybody including the well-paid Tony Blair — that the Muslim Brotherhood had to be overthrown and its members murdered because they wanted to trample personal freedoms, impose compulsory hijab, to turn Egypt into a new Iran? So why are its successors, Sisi’s military dictatorship and its supposedly secular henchmen, the ones enforcing a dress code with truncheons and guns?

"Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot)." Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

“Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot).” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

The current wave of arrests started last autumn, as far as anyone can make out; back then I wrote on this blog about the first two cases. On October 11, police in El Marg, a working-class neighborhood in eastern Cairo, raided a bathhouse and gym and arrested fourteen men. Residents of the quarter had seemingly complained about the comings and goings in the place — they sacked it in rage after the raid. Beaten and abused in detention, the men were charged with fugur or “debauchery,” the term of art by which male homosexual conduct is criminalized in Egyptian law. The arrests got good press; Al-Akhbar Al-Youm, a semi-official newspaper, picked up the story immediately; and that must have provided encouragement. On the night of November 4, in the western suburb of 6 October City, police raided a private party in a detached villa. Among dozens in attendance, they picked up ten people (including a woman working as bartender). Here, the pattern began to set, like an obscene drawing scrawled in wet cement:

  • The invasion of a private dwelling.
  • The focus on gender nonconformity — after the proprietor of the house, police singled out the most “effeminate” guests, including a male bellydancer. (The link to the military regime’s exacting standards of manhood was very clear. The immediate motive for the raid was apparently that visitors to the house who passed a nearby, post-coup checkpoint had offended the soldiers’ sensibilities; the troops called the police in the nearby village of Kerdasa to come do something.)
  • The draconian sentences handed down. Eight defendants got the maximum permitted by the law on fugur — three years in prison; the host had a battery of related charges thrown at him, including “corrupting” others and managing a house for purposes of “debauchery,” and got nine years. (The woman was acquitted.)

Since then, the arrests have come in an accelerating rush, till now a new raid happens virtually every week. Some incidents:

  • In the Red Sea resort of Hurghada,on December 14, police arrested two men (according to their IDs) who were wearing “women’s clothing and wigs” in a nightclub; they found “lipstick and condoms,” “makeup and creams” on them, according to the media.  The press also reported that the morals (adab) police perceived a pattern of “young people aged 16 to 20 from the Western provinces and Cairo” coming to Hurghada to “wear women’s clothing, carrying handbags with makeup tools and accessories and sexual creams and condoms.” In April, a court sentenced one of the two victims to three years in prison; the other was sent to a juvenile facility.
  • In February, the same Hurghada vice squad announced the arrest of three more “deviants,” aged 19, 20, and 23: “dressed as ladies and carrying handbags, in which an inspection found cosmetics and women’s clothing.” They confessed they wanted to “turn into women.” The police reassured the public that a “security crackdown” on deviance was in progress. There have probably been more Red Sea arrests of which we know nothing.

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada "security crackdown" on trans people: from El- Dostour

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada “security crackdown” on gender-nonconforming people: from El- Dostour

  • On March 11, the newspaper Youm7 headlined a court conviction for a “prostitution ring” in the Mohandiseen district, in Cairo west of the Nile: “a mixed network of girls and ‘third sex.'” Among the five defendants they mentioned, two were women and three were (biological) men; two of the latter apparently had women’s nicknames. The defendants’ ages ranged from 17 to 23, and the paper cheerfully printed their pictures. They had apparently been arrested, after “the receipt of information” and “investigations,” in a vice squad raid on an apartment they shared. They received one-year prison sentences.
  • On the very same day, March 11, Youm7 also reported the vice squad in Alexandria had arrested nine university students for “practicing sexual deviance,” in a raid on an apartment in the Montazah district. The newspaper said they had been caught “in flagrante delicto.” Egyptian LGBT activists later reported they had been released without charge, but it has been impossible to confirm this for certain.
  • On April 21, the vice squad in the Suez Canal city of Ismaïlia arrested a 22 year-old with male identity papers, who was wearing women’s clothing in a public park. The victim faces trial this month; the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has sent a lawyer. Youm7 reported the case and printed two photographs of the defendant, face fully exposed, seemingly seized from her house or phone.
  • On April 1, vice police in Nasr City — a district of eastern Cairo — arrested four people in an apartment. Their ages ranged from 18 to 31; according to their friends, two of them identified as male-to-female transgender. They had only moved into the flat the day before; it seemed that neighbors or their new landlord reported them. Prosecutors charged them with fugur. A lawyer who went to the jail to help them heard police calling them the “four faggots [khawalat].” The case moved extremely quickly; on April 7, a Nasr City court convicted them all for”debauchery.” The oldest also was found guilty of “facilitating debauchery” and maintaining “premises for the purposes of debauchery,” under provisions of the same law. He received eight years in prison, while the other three took three-year sentences.
Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

  • Also in Nasr City, during the first week of May, the vice squad arrested five more people in another apartment raid. Marsad Amny (“Security Observer”) printed their full names. It also reported that they were “clients” of those arrested in the earlier raid; activists believe the cops found them through the phones or friends’ lists of the previous victims. According to police, they confessed that they “hold private parties and drink  alcohol and liquor, and then they imitate women and [practice] vice with men.” The press also pruriently reported they had acknowledged “abusing pills” (presumably hormones) for breast enlargement and to “soften the voice and remove unwanted hair from their bodies. … They said that taking the pills helped them to acquire the shape, parameters, and characteristics of the female body.” And they owned “industrial tools for the practice of sexual deviance,” which is anybody’s guess. Today — May 19 — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights told me that one of the accused has been given a four-year prison sentence; three received eight years; and the court sentenced the flat’s main tenant to twelve years.
  •  On May 4, police arrested six people in a flat in the Cairo district of Heliopolis. Youm7, which carried a report the next day, called them “effeminates” (mokhanatheen, مخنثين, sometimes translated “shemales” or “sissies,” sometimes more respectably as “intersex” or “androgynes”) and claimed they were part of an “international sex network,” apparently because one had a Moroccan passport. The paper carried three successive, sensational stories based on information the police leaked, including pictures of the defendants and even two videos filmed in the lockup. Another paper said they confessed to “suffering from excess female hormones in the body and having sex hundreds of times.” The media also quickly announced that two of the accused “had AIDS,” suggesting an HIV test had been carried out in detention. Charged with “debauchery,” they are facing trial.
Major General Hisham el-Sawy of the Minisry of Interior, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

Major General Hisham el-Sawy , director of the general administration of the morals police, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

The news accounts and police statements actually suggest a still wider crackdown coming. The stories stress again and again that the “deviants” “advertise themselves through social networking sites,” or “through the pages of Facebook.” I interviewed a man arrested a year ago who recounted how the cops told him, “We know the cafes where you people gather, and we know the websites you use too.” Some of the recent court decisions adduce defendants’ personals ads, on sites like “Worldwide Transsexual Dating,” as evidence against them. Plenty of LGBT Egyptians use apps like Grindr, or have ads on multiple sites, or have posted indiscreet things on their own Facebook pages or in supposedly secret groups. A few strategically placed informers, and these people — thousands of them — could wind up in prison.

All that has happened before. From 2001-2004 Egyptian police arrested thousands of men for “debauchery,” entrapping many over the Internet. I can say with pride that this crackdown ended because we at Human Rights Watch, together with Cairo activists, documented it in clear detail, including the sleazy methods undercover cops used to delude and capture people. (“It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt,” a high Ministry of Interior official told a well-placed lawyer in 2004, “because of the activities of certain human rights organizations.”) For the next eight years, excepting an abortive spate of arrests of gay men suspected of being HIV-positive in 2008, no one went to prison for fugur in Egypt.

"A salute to our martyrs:" A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A salute to our martyrs:” A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead whom military and police killed. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Years of relative calm, then this. What underlies these new horrors?

First, media sensationalism feeds the arrests. Each juicy story gives police more incentives to pursue publicity. Youm7 (Seventh Day“), a privately owned paper, is the worst offender. They’ve blared out each new arrest with hungry glee, publishing names and faces, marching into jails with police collusion to capture the miscreants on videocamera.  Founded six years ago under Mubarak, Youm7 has parlayed its official connections to become one of the most popular papers, and websites, in Egypt. Since the Revolution, it’s become unofficial mouthpiece for the military and the security state. During the Morsi presidency, it whipped up hysteria against the Muslim Brotherhood (most famously, it claimed that the Brotherhood had dispatched roving medical vans to perform female genital mutilation door-to-door in rural Egypt, a story that spread widely before people noticed there was no evidence). More recently, its editor-in-chief was one of the elect anointed to tell a waiting world that Generalissimo Sisi planned to run for President.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” The face was not blurred in the original.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7  didn’t.

Youm7 and its imitators dehumanize the arrested “deviants,” portraying them as both pathological and irrefragably criminal. Each article offers new images and verbiage of degradation.

But here’s the second point: of course, the government is feeding these stories to Youm7. And spreading stigma is a defining mark of the post-coup military regime. The whole strategy of Sisi’s government has been to divide and conquer Egypt, with a thoroughness earlier rulers never achieved in living memory: by creating instability, conjuring up threats and then assigning faces to them, it gins up the impression of necessity around its palsied grip on power. It started last summer, portraying the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters (at least a quarter of the country) as not just terrorists but rabid animals whom only death could discipline, indifferent to life, including their own. Stripping humans of their humanity, however, unleashes an energy that brooks no confinement to particular targets. The circles of lives unworthy of living, of those expelled brutally from both the society and the species, keep expanding. Egypt is now devouring itself in an infuriated quest to define who is no longer Egyptian. The “perverts” are just the latest victims.

Police and media together have generated a full-fledged, classic moral panic. Just ten days ago, walking downtown during Friday prayers, I heard a sermon piped over loudspeakers in the very heart of Cairo: “Why do we now see men practice abominable vices?” the imam demanded. “Why do they put on makeup, lipstick, and behave in the way of women?” I forget the answer. The question was the point. These forms of “deviance” are now the common topic in corner mosques as well as national news. All the typical tropes come up. Youm7 interviewed pundits about the “problem” — a psychologist, a professor of Islamic history, and a “security expert,” who compared queerness to drug addition.

Recently a serious phenomenon has surfaced in our society, with devastating  effects on individuals, society and the nation. This phenomenon is the crime of homosexuality ["الشذوذالجنسى," sexual deviance].

Advocating personal freedom, which our society could not apply correctly, does not mean that the individual is free in his actions regarding his personal and physical requirements. Affronts to legitimacy and legality should be disciplined, so that they do not conflict with the laws of nature or violate human dignity. But “homosexuality” is an affront to all humanity.

“Homosexuality” is filed as a taboo — but we must open it up whatever the reaction. It is a phenomenon that has swept Egypt following the revolution. Although it existed before it has now risen to the surface. …  It has even appeared in the recent involvement of some Arab princes in the practice of “homosexuality.”

As that suggests, you can subsume plenty of other enemies under this sweeping rubric. Revolutionaries, dissidents, and even Gulf magnates who may have given money to the Brotherhood are all tarred. In a violently xenophobic atmosphere, Western criticism of the arrests only proves there’s a foreign conspiracy against Egypt’s morals and manhood.

And, third: manhood is basic here. The crackdown mainly targets the people in Egypt’s diffuse and fragile LGBT communities who are most vulnerable and visible, those who defy gender norms. This is despite the fact that, while Egyptian law does criminalize male homosexual conduct, it says nothing about “crossdressing” or “effeminacy.”  Still, in many of these cases people were convicted of homosexual acts with no evidence but their looks (or the clothes or makeup in their handbags) alone.

Evidence survives that Egyptian cultures before the advent of British and French colonialism had specific niches for the gender non-conforming. Khawal is now an insult for men who engage in homosexual conduct, regarded as a terrible term of opprobrium. In the 19th century, however, it meant male dancers who dressed as women, who enjoyed (like some South Asian hijras) a recognized role as celebrants at events such as weddings.

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: "Egypt - haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer."

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: “Egypt – haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer.”

Whatever those niches were, though, in the 20th century they closed. Khawal came to mean not a gendered role but a sexual practice. Despite a few well-publicized cases of Egyptians seeking sex reassignment surgery, there was little social space for most people – particularly men – to cross gender lines for anything like a significant section of their lives. Only in recent years has there been a growing awareness of “transgender” identity, and an expanding willingness by a brave, determined few to live in at least a liminal space where gender blurs. Many of these folks don’t define themselves as “trans,” nor are they bound to particular gendered pronouns.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

One way to put this is that “gender identity,” if it means anything in Egypt, often exists in a continuum with “sexuality” rather than as a disaggregated axis for identity. But the development of downtown Cairo and a few other urban zones as places where all kinds of self-consciously “alternative” styles tacitly tolerate each other; the burgeoning availability of Internet information; and the discursive and personal freedoms the Revolution pried open, all encouraged a lot of people to experiment with new ways of appearing and even living, with being “ladyboys” (a term often heard in LGBT people’s Arabic), or fem, or trans. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The attention also meshes with other potent anxieties. I’ve written here before how the Revolution raised a nervous question about what Egyptian manhood meant. The generals who seized control of the country after Mubarak fell began at once to disparage dissenting youth as effeminate: long-haired, culturally miscegenated, and incapable of masculine virtues like loyalty and patriotism. As if in reaction, revolutionaries adopted a language of attacking others’ manhood: “Man up,” a call to courage and defiance suggesting that opponents were wusses, became a running cliché of revolutionary speech.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version disparages the police as "gay." Activists painted over the insult and turned it into a statement on homophobia.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version calls the police “gays.” Other activists painted over the insult and made a different statement: “Homophobia is not revolutionary.”

What resulted? An environment where all sides constantly debated masculinity and leveled accusations at its absence. Coupled with a fear of national vulnerability and diplomatic irrelevance (which the military governments carefully cultivated) this created ideal conditions for defaming transgressors against gender as traitors to culture and country. A stridently soldierly, macho dictatorship could hardly look for a more useful bogeyman than the mokhanatheen, who embody like a freeze-dried concentrate all the vices it attributed to its enemies.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: "The names change, the crime remains the same." The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: “The names change, the crime remains the same.” The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Fourth: the crackdown is convenient for the reputation of the police. In the Revolution’s wake, Egypt’s police forces stood discredited and despised. The cop represented the point where most citizens met and suffered from the power of a regime beyond the law. Almost everybody had a personal story of police extortion, or arbitrary harassment, or torture. After February 2011, the police almost disappeared from most Egyptian streets – loathed and cowed figures, fearing for their lives.

With Sisi’s ascendancy the cops are back with a vengeance. You see them at every traffic circle, big-bellied, smug, hitting up taxi drivers for their daily bribes. The regime’s purchased politicians praise the gendarmerie whose lucre-fueled alertness saves the nation from Islamist terror. Their presence hasn’t necessarily made them popular; memories of their abuses die hard. But going after still more despised enemies of virtue gives their image a lift. The news stories hammer home the moral: when it comes to “deviance,” our security forces are on guard.

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo. At top: "Those who appoint a successor never die." a parody of a proverb. At bottom: "O system! You're afraid of a pen and brush. ... You long to fight with walls, to have power over lines and colors." ACAB: "All cops are bastards."

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo, 2012. At top, Mubarak’s face emerges under that of General Tantawi, his Minister of Defense who overthrew him: “Those who appoint a successor never die,” a parody of a proverb (“Whoever has a child never dies”). At bottom: “O system! You’re afraid of a pen and brush. … You long to fight against walls, to have power over lines and colors.”At upper right, a policeman is beating a graffiti artist. ACAB: “All cops are bastards.”

Finally, you have to notice that this crackdown so far doesn’t proceed by policing public spaces like cruising areas or cafes, or by sneaking into pseudo-public spaces like Internet pages or chatrooms. It may go there, but not yet. It’s private homes the police invade. With each news story, they tout their X-ray ability to peer through the walls like cellophane.

And this is the grimmest message, though at first it may not seem so. If Egypt’s Revolution had one collective goal, it was to roll back state power. State surveillance of personal life, of people’s rooms and bodies, was the precondition for the state’s other abuses: especially torture, the crime that all the Arab Spring revolts most focused on, the ultimate assertion of government authority over people’s physical existence down to their bones and nerves and skin. The Revolution rebelled against the policeman’s eyes at the window, his ears in the walls, his clawed hand on the shoulder.

That’s over. There is no privacy. The hand is a fist, and it is knocking at the door. The knock is a reminder that the state is still there, that it can control whatever you do, what you wear, what your bodies desire. The knock insinuates itself into your dreams. It’s trans or gay or lesbian people, or effeminate guys or mokhanatheen, who hear and fear it now; the message reaches them first, in the early stages. Accustomed to dread, they’re an attentive audience. (A gay man with nothing exceptional about his appearance told me three nights ago that he is afraid to answer the door these days, afraid to go out of doors lest his neighbors see him and suspect something and report him to the police.) But it’s a message for everyone, and eventually everyone will listen. The Revolution promised “personal freedoms,” but forget it; “our society” couldn’t “apply them correctly”; they’re a corrupt aspiration, an evasion of the necessity of control. Remember all those dreams of tomorrow? Tomorrow went away.

"Shut up! because your freedom doesn't help me": Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

“Shut up! because your freedom doesn’t help me”: Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

 

 

Documenting human rights violations through interviews: Training materials (English and Arabic)

"Everyone is Different": campaign for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, 2014

“Everyone is Different”: campaign for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, 2014

One thing I do with some frequency is trainings. These powerpoints reflect a session I worked on recently with the Egyptian LGBT community group Bedayaa. The first (download the English version here; Arabic, here) deals with issues in human rights documentation in general terms. The second (download English here; Arabic here) deals more specifically with strategies for interviews.  I’m posting them here in the hope that they may be useful to activists who weren’t able to attend the workshop, and to people elsewhere as well.

Some of the material is specific to Egypt, some is not. (The second powerpoint contains lots of basic information on medical responses to sexual violence. This is an urgent issue in Egypt; on the other hand, many simple medical treatments which victims of sexual assault should receive aren’t routinely administered by Egyptian hospitals and doctors. I’ve put the info here as a reminder that anybody anywhere who takes an assault victim to a hospital may have to fight to make as many of these interventions as possible happen. If you want much more detailed information on medical responses to sexual violence, materials from another training I’ve done are on the website of Nazra for Feminist Studies, here, in Arabic. I would be happy to share an English version; just ask.)

These aren’t copyrighted; I’m not sure how you would copyright a basic skills set. (Actually, late capitalism can copyright anything. What I mean is, I don’t want to know.) However, if you find them interesting enough to adapt or reuse, I ask that you let me know, and cite me as the author.

Many thanks to Bassel McLeash for his patient work translating!

What to do about Syria

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

You would think that, having stayed in Cairo for much of the last year, I would feel closer than in New York or Boston to the Syrian catastrophe taking place only a few borders away. But it doesn’t work that way. Egypt has enough of its own problems: massacres, mass arrests, one dictator on trial, another one running for president; these aren’t as replete with murder but they fill the mind as blood fills the brain after a hemorrhage, and expunge thought. You imagine Aleppo for a second and flinch: There’s enough not to think about without not thinking about that. 

To be sure, Syria is here, in the form of thousands of refugees who have fled the killing. (The UN says there are almost 150,000 in Egypt; some estimates run double; in any case, Lebanon hosts many times that, more than a million.) But neighbors harass them, police persecute them, they stay out of sight. Many Egyptians are conscious of the influx mainly because of the Syrian restaurants that have sprung up here and there, succulent roast chicken splayed on the plate, mehshi and manakish that scarcely taste of dispossession. The food’s good; why isn’t everybody happy?

When I visited Cairo in 2011 I met and became friends with Razan Ghazzawi, the fierce feminist and Pasionaria of the resistance, who in a short time taught me a great deal about the revolution’s dreams. The war had been going on for just four months then, and already it had worn down everybody’s psyches; she’d come to Cairo for six weeks to meet Egypt’s own revolutionaries and replenish her energies, at a time when events on the Nile still seemed in the vanguard of change. Now my closest Syrian friend here is a gentle refugee who shares my house; I’ll call him Youssef. He supports Assad, not militantly but with the vague erasing nostalgia traditional to exiles, threadbare asperities who fled France with the Bourbons, beggared bourgeois on the run from Bolsheviks. He interviewed Bashar once for a Syrian paper, while Assad Senior still lived, and can go on at length about his unassuming manners. We don’t talk politics much, since I disagree with most everything he says. Still his affection for the regime — which isn’t ancien yet, rather quondam et futurusis barely political; rather it’s a memory of stability, secularism, and calm, and an amnesia about their foundations in blood. He and Razan wouldn’t abide each other if they ever met, but they have some things in common. Razan’s vision of what freedom meant was clear as if it were etched in fire, and very much a product of Syria’s splintered map: a place where people could realize their differences without shame or fear. Stability and calm were preconditions for that. Youssef’s gauzed vision of the placid days of old includes the notion that you were at liberty to be yourself then — with the unspoken caveats of privilege and discretion; but making sure everybody, not just the lucky, could live free of surveillance and enjoy the sweet seclusions of security and privacy also preoccupied the original revolutionary dream. The overwhelming violence has made their imaginations definitively incompatible. Violence breaks bodies, but it also murders dreaming.

The violence also stamps out efforts to imagine a solution. Increasingly the Syrian state’s violence is matched by the violence of political Islamists who oppose almost all the original revolutionaries’ democratic ideals. Syria has become “a magnet for jihadist recruits,” writes Peter Neumann. Like many, he blames Assad for fostering these movements, then allowing them to slip from his control. But it’s also clear that this burgeoning radicalism owes plenty to American policy, and American allies. For one thing, the United States’ left hand keeps unravelling what its right hand does. As Adam Shatz notes,”the American government is fighting Sunni extremists in Iraq, while its allies, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are arming the same Sunni extremists in Syria.”

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra ((Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra (Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

More broadly, though, every successive American intervention in the region has backfired, creating more of the violence it was supposed to stop.  And this makes it even harder for well-meaning Americans facing the Syrian horrors to figure out what to do.

The swashbuckling American military adventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to counter the Russian invasion, helped create both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and the former now controls large swatches of the country once again. The American incursion in Saudi Arabia in 1991, to roll back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, helped refocus the embryonic al-Qaeda’s attention on the US, while turning it from a regional annoyance to a global franchise. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified in part by lies that Saddam Hussein supported al-Qaeda, aimed to extirpate radicalism of all kinds from the Middle East; instead, eleven years later, a significant part of Iraq’s Sunni population has been thoroughly radicalized and supports al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is now fighting in Syria, in its new incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). On top of that, the American campaign in Libya failed to build a functional state; but, like the long American involvement in Afghanistan, it stirred up a spillover of arms and fighters that destabilizes surrounding countries, from Mali to Lebanon. (Seymour Hersh maintains that the US has been sending Libya’s spare weaponry to Syria’s rebels through Turkey.) Patrick Cockburn summarizes much of this grim history of incompetence:

The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hardcore jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states. Despite apparent military successes, in none of these cases have the local opposition and their backers succeeded in consolidating power and establishing stable states.

Western interventions in the broader Middle East – from the Maghreb to Pakistan – have done nothing to stop extremism. Instead, they’ve created and spread it.

There are principled and abstract reasons for Western leftists to resist the cult of liberal interventionism. But this history furnishes a pragmatic and specific argument for opposing it in Syria. A moral consciousness, however — one not content to concentrate on the restaurant menus while ignoring the dead and refugees — still gropes for some kind of answer. It’s natural for leftists facing the naked reality of mass murder to want some scope for action, some space where the Enlightenment ideal of thought informing practice can recover its aptitude.

Hmm. Banner from the  sixth annual Marx Conference,  “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism," Tel Aviv, 2012

Hmm. Banner from the sixth annual Marx Conference, “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism,” Tel Aviv, 2012

It’s in this light that I read a new piece by Danny Postel, which is all over Twitter these days.  Its title promises “Alternative Left Perspectives on Syria.”

Postel contends that “The responses of most leftists to the Syrian uprising” have been “deeply disappointing.” The Left’s inadequacies “fall into three main categories:”

1. explicit support for the Assad regime
2. monochrome opposition to Western intervention, end of discussion (with either implicit or explicit neutrality on the conflict itself)
3. general silence caused by deep confusion

But wait: there’s hope.

There is a fourth camp, however: a small but growing group of progressives who embrace the goals of the Syrian revolution. There are several shades within this camp – it includes Marxists, pacifists, feminists, Third Worldists and leftists of various sorts. Some support the armed struggle in Syria, others do not, standing instead with the nonviolence activists in Syria. But what unites this camp is its solidarity with the Syrian struggle for dignity, justice and self-determination.

The writings of this vanguard “directly challenge the dominant narratives on the Left about Syria and offer a critical alternative to it.” And Postel gives us a ladder of links: “collected in one place, some of the key texts of this dissident left camp.”

To call these leftists “dissidents” is self-congratulatory. Certainly there are some on the left who support Assad, but they’re hardly hegemonic; they strike me as marginal and devoid of influence.

Just as certainly there’s a larger body of leftists who are uncertain, after military intervention seems to have proven its uselessness but no other form of action presents itself. So when an “alternative” steps loudly to the fore, a Fourth Way, one plausibly expects that it will proffer a guide to the perplexed: that it will tell the hesitant what they can do to help.

What’s notable about the “body of writings and arguments” Postel presents is that it does nothing of the kind.

I’ve read almost all the texts he links to. Few of the writers outline strategies, or offer innovative ways to assist the revolution. For the most part they just describe how they feel, a repertory of emotion that runs the limited gamut from sympathy and solidarity to moral agonizing to self-congratulation. These are legitimate sensations, but more existential than political. It would be hard to call them constructive. Is this the new pathway for the left? In fact, I think the writings Postel posts do point out something about the left, but nothing as bold or hopeful as he imagines.

solidarity-of-labour

Walter Crane, “International Solidarity of Labour,” 1897

Postel links to almost no proposals that are both concrete and in any way practical. I count three exceptions. The admirable Gilbert Achcar opposes intervention but urges arming the (liberal) rebels (it seems, though, that the US has been doing this covertly for some time).  Mary Kaldor invokes international law: “The first step,” also the only one she mentions, “would be to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.” She notes that, since Syria never signed on to the ICC, this requires a vote by the UN Security Council. Russia has repeatedly voted no, but “the current context might change things.” Might. It’s also possible that Vladimir Putin might hand Crimea back to the Ukrainians and retire. It’s not very responsible, however, to make this kind of outcome seem easy.

Finally, the always-brilliant Richard Falk, after painstakingly dissecting the inadequacy of existing options, calls (but not optimistically) for a renewed commitment to negotiation.

Just as doing nothing is unacceptable, mounting a military intervention is unrealistic, and perhaps undesirable, and for now politically impossible.

What is left to fill the gap between the unacceptable and the unrealistic is diplomacy, which has proved to be futile up to this point, but hanging on to the slim possibility that it might yet somehow produce positive results, is the only conceivable way forward with respect to the Syrian situation. It is easy to deride Kofi Annan and the frustrations arising from the repeated failures of Damascus to comply with the agreed framework, but it remains impossible to  find preferable alternatives.

This is glum, but realistic.

But that’s it.  Nobody else has much to propose. The 2011 open letter from the Campaign for Peace and Democracy has a lot of well-known signatories (Ed Asner, Noam Chomsky) but I don’t know why Postel thinks it “challenges a dominant narrative.”

The Campaign for Peace and Democracy expresses its deep admiration for the amazing courage shown by the people of Syria, struggling for democratic reforms in the face of horrific repression. … We stand with the people of Syria in their remarkable struggle for democracy.

The open letter, often published in the New York Review of Books, used to be a distinct literary genre among the New York intellectuals; it’s no one’s fault if it seems dated as a Baroque eclogue. “Standing with” the oppressed and slaughtered is still a noble gesture. It’s churlish, but perhaps nonetheless important, to point out that while Syrians die, the standers remain standing.

But is there a plan beyond the posture? Two years later, Thomas Harrison and Joanne Landy – the CPD’s co-directors, both peace activists with long and distinguished records – produced a personal statement, of which Postel also approves. I have huge admiration for the authors, but this text leaves more questions than answers.

The fate of Syria must not be decided by foreign powers or forces … Equally, we condemn the attempts by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf states to manipulate the Syrian revolution by promoting reactionary Islamist forces within its ranks … Consistent with our strong opposition to any kind of military intervention in Syria by the U.S., or other foreign powers, we also oppose providing air cover or establishing no fly zones.

All right, but what are you for?

We stand for full democracy, an independent labor movement, and complete equality for women, sexual minorities, religions and ethnic groups everywhere.

And:

We will do everything we can to support Syrian groups and individuals who share this democratic vision, and we call on people throughout the world to do the same.

But what is “everything you can”? What are you going to do?

Are you sure?

Are you sure?

In some cases, the writers wrestle tangibly with their inability to find answers, and the result can be moving. Mohammed al-Attar, an exiled Syrian playwright, confesses:

During an open debate organized by London’s Royal Court Theatre at the end of August 2011, I was asked: “How can we support the Syrian people in their revolution without inevitably serving the interests of political agendas?” I was silent for a few seconds, unsure of what to say, before tentatively replying: “I’ve no doubt that it is still possible to separate the fundamental justice of the protestors’ cause from the distortions of politicians and the media.”

Much has changed since then but the same question continues to be put forward, and I have no clearer answer than that my brief and improvised one which I provided at the Royal Court Theatre.

Al-Attar’s piece is well worth reading, but it is not clear why Postel regards it not as an analysis of the trauma of political commitment in a divided world, but as a clear prescription for action.

But more often the pieces Postel praises just read like leftists exalting their own superiority to other leftists, because they have deeper moral feelings. Thus Bill Weinberg accuses the left in general of

treason against our natural allies in Syria—the secular, progressive forces in the opposition to the Assad regime, now besieged by ruthless armed actors on all sides. … Our natural allies in Syria are in this democratic resistance (not in the dictatorship!), and they will need solidarity whether the US intervenes or not.

But what are we going to do for them? We don’t know.

Heeding these voices does not mean we have to support Obama’s intervention. But it does mean (at least) that we have to find ways to oppose it that do not betray and alienate Syrians who have for over two years been fighting for freedom and are now fighting for their very lives.

What ways? Apparently we’ll start writing a lot about our intense moral commitment, a strategy that probably won’t alienate anybody, except perhaps the few people who pay attention — but won’t help anybody either.

Then there’s Postel himself. He calls for a “New Internationalism.” This entails lots of rhetoric:

But for progressives, especially ones who profess the values of solidarity and internationalism, the story surely can’t end at America’s shores. Struggles around the world for justice and dignity matter to us. We believe that we have a stake in them and their outcomes. We take sides.

How do we take sides? By “supporting and sympathizing with popular struggles against authoritarianism and for human dignity.” Well, sympathizing, at least. We good leftists are not afraid to restate the tough questions; we’re just afraid to answer them.

Where does [the peace movement] stand on the struggle to topple Assad’s murderous dictatorship? How does it propose the bloodshed be brought to an end? What is to be done?

There are no obvious, clear-cut answers to these questions … These are vexing problems. … But only having a position on what shouldn’t be done, while avoiding the question of what should be done, is a copout – and a betrayal of the tradition of internationalism. The question of what should be done is much thornier, to be sure — it requires more thinking, analysis, reflection, even soul-searching.

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I'll change the world later

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I’ll change the world later

Postel never tells us what is to be done, but searching our souls is, in fact, an end in itself. Marx stands inverted: we may not be able to change the world, but we can think about it. “The point is to place the plight of the Syrian people front and center on the agenda and to think seriously about how to resolve it.” Postel concludes:

What if progressives devoted just a fraction of the energy and effort that went into mobilizing against a US military strike to the cause of bringing Syria’s nightmare to an end? It might not make a concrete difference – all the efforts to resolve the conflict thus far, including those of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have come to naught … But the effort would at least be an expression of solidarity and internationalism. Factoring the Syrian people – who have been largely absent from the progressive discussion – prominently into the equation would represent a welcome departure from the solipsistic, US-centric tendencies of the American peace movement.

We will not “make a concrete difference”; but we will express ourselves, and thus feel like the heroic internationalists of olden times. Postel seems unaware that this is not an alternative to solipsism, but an example of it. He gives no clue what you could do to end the “nightmare,” no suggestion how the “energy and effort” should be directed, just faith that we’ll be morally better if we expend it. Absent some proposal for a concrete solidarity more substantive than a warm, mushlike emotion, Postel hasn’t factored “the Syrian people” into an equation here at all, except as spectators of our own catharsis.

It’s easy to make fun of this Fourth Way, this brave alternative, which enters with a flourish of trumpets and exits with something between apology and sigh. But I don’t want to make fun. These writers are honest, and a lot of them are very smart, Postel included. Their failure to deliver what Postel promised is instructive.

The lesson they teach is that we on the left aren’t exempt from the diseases of the imperial ego. Leftists may opposite liberal interventionism, but its animating fantasies are ones to which they’re not immune. The basic idea that we in our powerful we-ness ought to be able to change the world; that our good intentions have the authority to make reality malleable; that injustice is friable before the force of our desires — that basic idea is pretty much the same, regardless of whether it’s armed with drones and aircraft carriers, or open letters and petitions. The brand of internationalism for which Postel feels such acute nostalgia was always predicated on a naive faith in morality combined with power. It’s painful for leftists to come to terms with a case where “solidarity” is difficult, where there aren’t easily intelligible solutions, and where any action risks making the unbearable worse. The proposition that there are limits to what you can do is intolerable to Westerners. The more this is brought home to you, the more you fall back on believing that “expressing solidarity” is action, that there is a magical power in the very intensity of one’s moral agonizing that must, inevitably, find a pliant answer in reality, must bend politics to its will.

You're sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010,

You’re sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010.

The spirit of disenchantment is more and more characteristic of our world. Geopolitics used to be so comfortably bi- or unipolar. Human RIghts Watch, where I worked, was founded in the confidence that there were few things you couldn’t fix by getting the United States government to act. Washington was the fulcrum of their advocacy for decades; this peculiar dispensation where Beijing, Moscow, and even Brasilia and Pretoria are independent actors has brought about a grating and harsh adjustment. Even for more uncompromising leftists, it was reassuring to think that opposing America could put you on the right side of most of the world’s wrongs. These days, responsibility is strewn too promiscuously around. And after Iraq, after Rumsfeld and his known unknowns, awareness of power’s limitations has become too general for comfort. Twenty years ago we were taught to say “never again” to Rwanda. But how can you cope with somebody like Alan Kuperman, whose detailed study of the Rwandan genocide found that, with utmost political will and celerity of action, the West could not have prevented more than a quarter of the deaths? The idea that our solidarity is not a cure for everything comes hard.

I hate to see moral solemnity go to waste, though. There are practical things that an earnest leftist could do about Syria, if she wants to, rather than sitting around expressing solidarity to the void.

Here are some suggestions.

1) Go to war. I’m serious. Everybody wants to be George Orwell these days, a fearless deflater of hypocrisies. Christopher Hitchens thought he was Orwell. Paul Berman thinks he is Orwell. Even young Jamie Kirchick dons the Orwell drag, though he ends up looking more like a cross between Enoch Powell and Evelyn Waugh. But if you ask these ersatz Orwells what they’ve done for their causes, they’ll sound more like Flaubert: “I stayed at home and wrote.”

Orwell didn’t. Is Syria the Spanish Civil War of our generation, a crossroads of profound moral choice? Then choose. Orwell went to Spain. So did Arthur Koestler, Ernest Hemingway, Willy Brandt. So did Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim, 1937

That war is memorialized in poetry, more perhaps than any other of the twentieth century’s wars. Why? Because the Thirties really was a moment when individual choice took on a communal meaning — stopped being existential and became political.

The Anschluss, Guernica — all the names
At which those poets thrilled, or were afraid

– they still resonate, because history turned personal in them. That’s the burden of Edgell Rickword‘s lines, which every lefty schoolboy used to rattle off:

From small beginnings mighty ends:
From calling rebel generals friends,
From being taught in public schools
To think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and Britain wildly gambles
To bribe the butcher in the shambles.

Or there’s John Cornford, poet and Communist, killed on the Madrid front in 1936, at the age of 21. He wrote to his distant lover before he died:

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn’s near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

How different people were then! There are parts of that poem that an agonizing moralist or a muscular liberal, a fan of Hitchens or a signatory of the Euston Manifesto, might sympathize with. But they could never write the line “I am afraid of my fear” — because they’d feel it, too deeply.

I’m indulging in an excuse to quote poetry here: sentimental of me. But the poems say better than I can what I’m trying to say. Nobody on the left wants to put his own life on the line anymore. If “internationalism” requires a sacrifice, we expect the State to do the sacrificing for us. If comes to intervention, or policing, or punishing the guilty or protecting the good, the State will furnish the bodies, and they won’t be ours. When did we become so dependent on the powers we once wanted to overturn?

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Those damn fool romantics in the Thirties took things personally, instead. If their governments wouldn’t stand up and say no, if their polities or parties were run by those “Whose suave compliance sealed the fate / Of thousands left to Franco’s hate,” they stepped up themselves; they went to Spain. They took up a weapon like Orwell or drove an ambulance like Auden, they acted. “They floated over the oceans; / They walked the passes. All presented their lives.” More than 40,000 people joined the International Brigades in some capacity, combat or no.

What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.

The only ones who shoulder this kind of responsibility today are the jihadists, people still used perforce to thinking of principles outside the State’s compass. The secular leftists sit at home and express their solidarity from the sofa’s safety.

Of course, even setting aside the serious and principled pacifists, there are perfectly decent reasons not to go to Syria. For one thing, governments have cracked down harshly on the jihadists who travel there and on their allies who recruit; they call it terrorism. Moazzam Begg, for instance, the heroic survivor of Guantanamo, is now in jail in the UK, charged with trying to train people for Syria. The same officials might start confusing foreign leftists with foreign jihadists, a terrible mistake since the jihadists actually do something, or might apply the same provisions for consistency’s sake. For another thing, there’s no reason on earth to think the Free Syrian Army has any use for a bunch of volunteers who don’t speak Arabic, know nothing about modern weapons, and get their medical knowledge from studying Foucault.

So maybe I should expand my point a bit. Though violence in Syria has metastasized like a cancer, the struggle in Syria is not waged just through violence. And there’s work you could support or even participate in from outside Syria’s borders. I can name just a few Syrian organizations carrying on the fight on the front of human rights: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Violation Documentation Center (VDC), the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCSyria), Syrian Women for the Syrian Intifada (SANAD); there are more. (Please add others in the comments if you like.) There are companion projects outside Syria which try to use the documentation such groups collect to raise humanitarian resources, like the #100000Names Oral Memorial for Syria. It is arduous to determine whether you can actually help any such efforts rather than getting in the way; it’s a terrible thing, the risk of realizing one’s own superfluity. That’s a danger you don’t encounter on the couch. But an individual commitment is better than an abstract solidarity.

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

2. Remember the refugee. A leftist who wants to cast off the shackles of the quotidian and go engage in meaningful action need not look for Syrians in Syria; that is one consequence of the war. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counts 2,700,000 Syrian refugees in surrounding countries. They calculate more than half of these are under 17 years old; 38% are younger than 11.

Those figures reflect only Syrians who have gone to the UN for assistance; hundreds of thousands more are unregistered and underground. Estimates for the total in flight go as high as 9 million, out of a total Syrian population of less than 23 million.

There is plenty to be done. A dedicated leftist might settle herself in Beirut, or in Cairo, or in Turkey near the southern border, and attach herself to one of the organizations working with refugees, whether in cities or in camps. In Egypt, Syrians face xenophobia and violence from a population propagandized into thinking they are allies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Police pick them up on pretexts; some are deported. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now number 30% of the country’s population. They suffer arbitrary curfews, police harassment, physical assault.

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

And if the exhausting labor of daily humanitarian work seems overwhelming, there’s advocacy needed as well, to change the hearts, minds, and laws of wealthy nations that don’t want to let refugees in. European and American migration policy — the politics of the closed door — means there is nowhere to resettle most of these people; they will remain in unsafe countries and conditions, in semi-permanent limbo. The West would much rather pay money to keep Syrians in tents than offer them a final destination in Detroit or Turin. Sweden, the most generous European state, has taken in just over 14,000 Syrian refugees, and given them permanent residency. France has accepted under five thousand. That’s still better than the United States. In August 2013, the US agreed to resettle 2000 Syrian refugees, though later in the year the Washington Post reported that “nobody’s actually been admitted yet, since they have to go through an extensive screening process for possible terrorist ties.” Already prejudice is at play. A right-wing US website warned, “Sure most people just see refugees, but Democrats see voters …  If the Muslim Brotherhood Jihadists lose in Syria, their leaders will flee to Europe and America where they will suborn, undermine and plan acts of terror. … Obama isn’t all that interested in Christian refugees.”

All these numbers are trivial against the appalling figures of three million people externally displaced. Even the UNHCR, confronting the recalcitrance of countries unwilling to accept supplicants, has set its sights absurdly small.

UNHCR is proposing that countries admit up to 30,000 Syrian refugees on resettlement, humanitarian admission, or other programmes by the end of 2014, with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable. However, in light of the growing needs of the Syrian refugee population, this goal represents only the first benchmark in securing solutions for this group. … UNHCR has called upon States to make multi-annual commitments towards a goal of providing resettlement and other forms of admission for an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. [emphasis added]

That makes just 130,000 refugees the UNHCR hopes — with little likelihood of success — to resettle in the next three years, out of at least three million. Less than five percent.

Serious leftists are prone to dismissing humanitarian work as merely palliative. They imagine it’s a bandage not a cure, an evasion of the “real” issues within Syria itself. It’s not. Work with refugees gets to the heart of how states define citizens, how they value lives, how they decide who belongs and who is cast out. Leil-Zahra Mortada, an Arab activist living in Spain, writes:

There is so much to be done. And it is not charity we are talking about, nor the corrupting relief mentality. It is radical and revolutionary work that is needed. It is stepping out of the narrow Eurocentric vision of semantics into political action. It is not only Assad and the Islamists who are killing the Syrian people, it is international systems like the EU border regime and the international relief mafias to name but a few. This is not about Syria, and this is not “just a faraway civil war”. They are dying right here, on EU borders, and they are in EU immigrant detention camps. If it is not for Syria, and out of belief in the Syrian revolution, or even in the right for every people, wether they meet our shades of color or not, to rebel, it should be out of coherence with our political beliefs. Our fight on the EU front is needed. This is a people who has risen against a brutal dictatorship, only to see that they have a whole world to overcome. A world of international meddling, whether in the form of Islamist militias, or international relief, or leftist patronization. A world of closed borders and complicit governments that once again put their profit over life. A world of apathy. This is what the Syrians and the Palestinians in Syria are facing. Questions that are not only related to Syria, but related to international and intertwined local struggles.

3. FIght for diplomacy. Finally, if, for understandable reasons, you don’t want to lobby your government for military action, you need to fight to make a diplomatic solution possible.

If you don’t believe in war, diplomacy is the only way out left. And diplomacy these days is as messy as war, though less bloody. It’s messy because that unipolar world we used to live in, convenient as it was, is gone. It’s messy because Syria has become a vast playground of the polarities, a prone place where different countries pursue and divvy up their divergent interests. Obama funnels a few arms to the Free Syrian Army; Russia and China and Iran vocally and materially support Assad; the Gulf monarchies shower largesse on the jihadists.

A place at the table: Sign from Kaffranbel, Syria, 2013

A place at the table: Sign from Kafranbel, Syria, 2013

It’s not enough, then, to push the American administration or the EU to do this or that. Pressure needs to fall as well on the oil-soaked leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on Putin and Rouhani.

It’s hard to say what, for a Western leftist, this might mean. Effective advocacy for peace would be internationalist, but not in the easy sense of announcing prefab solidarities. It would mean listening across a lot of borders. It would mean trying to acquaint yourself with what’s left of the left in Russia or Iran, or with civil societies that aren’t of the left at all, and seeing if they have any practical concern with ending violence in Syria, or even ways to speak about it. It would mean reacquainting yourself with negotiation and compromise, which are always painful. It might mean recognizing your powerlessness, which is even more so.

That path lies beyond the scope of what I’m writing here. Our left critiques power, and is abstemious about engaging with it. That’s part of its genius, and its virtue. But something more is needed now, if you’re serious about Syria, than proclaiming sympathy or oneness. A more rigorous engagement requires putting something at risk — if not your life then your self-image at least, your private drama, your unquestioned faith in your purity and your efficacy. Action is dangerous. Hannah Arendt wrote:

Action … always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries … To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin.  It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.

This is different to but not incommensurate with what the poet said:

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.

"Syrian women, revolt against all authority!" Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

“Syrian women, revolt against all authority!” Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

 

Two poems about blackbirds, for World Poetry Day

"Little Blackbird,"  by Randy Aquilizan

“Little Blackbird,” by Randy Aquilizan

It’s World Poetry Day!  Like so many holidays — the ones dedicated to Love, for instance, and Generosity, and Peace on Earth, and People Who Are Different — this one commemorates a quality that most of us expel from our lives rigorously the other 364 days of the year. In this light I am moved to think of R. S. Thomas (1913-2000), a poet I have been fond of ever since discovering a volume of his in an office in Budapest some twenty years ago. A religious and mystical and yet intransigently worldly writer, he is the least musical and, in that sense, the least poetic of poets. What he writes makes no effort to seduce you; it shows you its raw bones like a gnawed fish, it forces you into considering what actually makes something poetry, and whether you like his work or not will depend on whether you can think that through and what quality of thought you bring to the enterprise. In being unmusical he is also very un-Welsh, Wales being his native country and the object of his intermittent patriotism. I have a lot of Welsh blood — my great-grandfather was named Harper, a profession as Welsh as one could wish — so I claim the right to quote Evelyn Waugh’s immortal diatribe on the Welsh nation and its accomplishments (from Decline and Fall):

“The Welsh character is an interesting study,” said Dr. Fagan. “I have often considered writing a little monograph on the subject, but I was afraid it might make me unpopular in the village. The ignorant speak of them as Celts, which is of course wholly erroneous. They are of pure Iberian stock– the aboriginal inhabitants of Europe who survive only in Portugal and the Basque district. Celts readily intermarry with their neighbours and absorb them. From the earliest times the Welsh have been looked upon as an unclean people. It is thus that they have preserved their racial integrity. Their sons and daughters rarely mate with human-kind except their own blood relations. …

“I often think,” he continued, “that we can trace almost all the disasters of English history to the influence of Wales. Think of Edward of Carnarvon, the first Prince of Wales, a perverse life and an unseemly death, then the Tudors and the dissolution of the Church, then Lloyd George, the temperance movement, Nonconformity and lust stalking hand in hand through the country, wasting and ravaging. But perhaps you think I exaggerate? I have a certain rhetorical tendency, I admit.”

“No, no,” said Paul.

“The Welsh,” said the Doctor, “are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture, no drama. They just sing,” he said with disgust, “sing and blow down wind instruments of plated silver….”

Except for the bit about not mating with humankind (he did have a wife, but one senses he regarded the species’ reproduction as one of God’s more lasting errors) that is not R. S. Thomas.

Here are two marvelous poems about blackbirds. The second, it will be noted, makes mincemeat of the easy lyricism of Wallace Stevens.

A Blackbird Singing

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes’
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history’s overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

"Blackbirds flying," by Kathleen Westkaemper

“Blackbirds flying,” by Kathleen Westkaemper

Thirteen Blackbirds Look at a Man

1

It is calm.
It is as though
we lived in a garden
that had not yet arrived
at the knowledge of
good and evil.
But there is a man in it.

2

There will be
rain falling vertically
from an indifferent
sky. There will stare out
from behind its
bars the face of the man
who is not enjoying it.

3

Nothing higher
than a blackberry
bush. As the sun comes up
fresh, what is the darkness
stretching from horizon
to horizon? It is the shadow
here of the forked man.

4

We have eaten
the blackberries and spat out
the seeds, but they lie
glittering like the eyes of a man.

5

After we have stopped
singing, the garden is disturbed
by echoes; it is
the man whistling, expecting
everything to come to him.

6

We wipe our beaks
on the branches
wasting the dawn’s
jewellery to get rid
of the taste of a man.

7

Neverthless,
which is not the case
with a man, our
bills give us no trouble.

8

Who said the
number was unlucky?
It was a man, who,
trying to pass us,
had his licence endorsed
thirteen times.

9

In the cool
of the day the garden
seems given over
to blackbirds. Yet
we know also that somewhere
there is a man in hiding.

10

To us there are
eggs and there are
blackbirds. But there is the man,
too, trying without feathers
to incubate a solution.

11

We spread our
wings, reticulating
our air-space. A man stands
under us and worries
at his ability to do the same.

12

When night comes
like a visitor
from outer space
we stop our ears
lest we should hear tell
of the man in the moon.

13

Summer is
at an end. The migrants
depart. When they return
in spring to the garden,
will there be a man among them?

Favim.com-36134

Injustice at Columbia: Power and public health

Not any more

Not any more

Update: There are now several petitions you can sign to support Hopper and Vance. If you have an academic affiliation, go here — there are petitions on behalf of both scholars. If you are an activist or advocate, you can sign a petition for Vance here

Columbia University is rich. This was brought home to me many years ago, the first time that — a kid from the countryside — I visited Rockefeller Center. As I walked through the marmoreal plazas of that temple of capitalism, someone, I forget who, pointed out that the Rockefellers didn’t actually own the land the skyscrapers were built on. Columbia University did, and rented it to Nelson, David, et.al. This astonished me. I thought of universities as assemblies of disinterested, impecunious intellectuals; it was like hearing that Keats personally built the British Museum, or that Van Gogh paid for his life of luxury by hiring out the Louvre. In fact, Columbia, a canny cross between Scrooge and Thomas Sutpen, has made a fortune by speculating in land. It moved its quarters uptown in 1896, building a formidable campus at what was then virtually the northern edge of settlement; its colonial relations with impoverished neighbors, a sorry record of exploitation and expropriation, led its own students to riot in 1968. But it clung to its midtown holdings, raked in the rent, and finally sold them to Rockefeller Center in 1985 for a tidy $400 million. It’s still growing like a sci-fi movie fungus, planning a whole vast new campus on 17 acres that used to be part of Harlem. Among US universities, its endowment of $8.1 billion puts it behind only Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and (get this) Texas A&M and the University of Texas; but that’s greater than the GDPs of, among others, the Bahamas, Haiti, Malawi, Moldova, Montenegro, and Tajikistan. American universities are unprecedented entities in the world: huge concentrations of power and money, economies in themselves, ostensibly devoted to free thought but despotically run as any petrostate, and virtually immune to protest since the scruffy ’68 generation moved on to practice corporate law.

Someday, son, all this will be yours, plus most of the surrounding neighborhoods: Aerial view of Columbia's main campus

Someday, son, all this will be yours, plus most of the surrounding neighborhoods: Aerial view of Columbia’s main campus

It’s worth remembering this while reflecting on the fact that Columbia just fired two of the most important public intellectuals working in the fields of health and human rights. Carole Vance and Kim Hopper had been professors at the Mailman School of Public Health for decades — 27 and 26 years, respectively. Vance, The Nation rightly says, has done “pioneering work on the intersection of gender, health and human rights”; Hopper “is both an advocate for the homeless and one of the nation’s foremost scholars on homelessness.” They were fired not because of any shortcomings in their research or teaching, but because they hadn’t raised enough money.

In an excellent article, The Nation expands on the Darwinian economics behind this move, and I can’t do better than quote them:

Like many schools of public health, Mailman operates on a “soft money” model, which means that professors are expected to fund much of their salaries through grants. (Many professors there, including Vance and Hopper, work without tenure.) Recently, the amount expected has increased—from somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of their salaries to as much as 80 percent …. Meanwhile, the [US government's] National Institutes of Health, the primary source of grant money, has seen its budget slashed. These days, only 17 percent of grant applications are successful—a record low.

Vance told the Columbia Spectator that “requiring faculty members to fund 80% of their salaries through external grants is unbelievable at an educational institution.” As The Nation points out, “Legally, professors who are 80 percent grant-supported have to spend 80 percent of their total workweek on grant-related research.” This means, says Vance, “that only 20% of faculty time is available for teaching, mentoring, and advising.” It’s even worse, in fact; you have to deduct the time spent hustling to corral the funds, because those grants don’t raise themselves.

Students of the Mailman School at a meeting to protest the firings: Ayelet Pearl, Senior Staff Photographer, Columbia Spectator

Students of the Mailman School at a meeting to protest the firings: Photo by Ayelet Pearl for Columbia Spectator

Students at the School of Public Health have protested vigorously; they donned T-shirts reading “Un-Occupy Mailman,” because funders have taken over the school’s priorities. A representative of the Dean responded in bureaucratese: “Public health depends on soliciting feedback from all stakeholders.” (References to multiple “stakeholders” always mean: You to whom I am speaking will get screwed.) “That is why Dean Fried invited doctoral students to share their concerns — concerns we all have — about the importance of maintaining the high quality of a Mailman education in the face of reduced federal support.” And further blather.

Carole Vance is a friend of mine. I’m well aware that when bad things happen to people, their friends often respond with public praise that is entirely merited but doesn’t really change things. The victims may end up with the sense that they are reading their own obituaries in advance, which may be pleasing but is hardly encouraging. There is nothing retrospective about Carole, and I will try to avoid this note of plangency.

51SE6423GcL._SL500_AA300_Still, you can’t fail to note that Vance has been a major force in US and international feminism at least since the 1980s, when she co-organized the famous 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality, and compiled many of the resultant papers into the landmark anthology Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. These days, when people talk about the Sex Wars they may think either of Uganda or of something to do with Sandra Fluke; then, though, it meant an impassioned contest over how feminism would cope with the unregulatable reality of multifarious sexual desires. Carole’s groundbreaking work for thirty years has carried forward the message that both feminism and human rights practice have to integrate sexuality as a central human concern.

I first got to know Carole about fifteen years ago, when, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, she organized a program to bring both activists and academics working on sexuality and rights to Columbia as fellows. The goal was to give activists space to reflect on the theoretical implications of their work, and theorists a chance to consider practical effects. I was never a fellow in the program, but I went to many of its workshops and meetings, so I can say with perfect objectivity that it not only brought together uniquely gifted groups of people, but gave a great many of them a second lease on their thinking and working lives. The Nation quotes Rebecca Jordan-Young, a professor of women’s studies at Barnard and a onetime student of Vance’s: “Truly there is nobody else that mentors with the intensity that Carole does … She’s being actively punished for being an extraordinary mentor—that’s the direction the corporate university is moving in.” Very true, but one thing the article doesn’t capture is how Vance’s extraordinary mentorship reaches beyond the borders of both the US and academia. She has fostered the dangerous mating of theory and practice among campaigners in places like India and Turkey, where she co-developed and co-directs an annual workshop for sexual rights activists from around the world.  Like the best of teachers, she makes spaces where people realize things for themselves. “Dr. Vance is remarkable,” an Indian activist commented in an e-mail I saw this week. “She has changed the way we think.”

carole-beck_blog

Vance (L) and Rebecca Jordan-Young

It’s here that Columbia’s decision is particularly menacing. Internationally, two groups in particular have benefited from Vance’s powerful thinking and teaching: LGBT activists, through her work on sexuality, and — through her cliché-breaking work on trafficking — activists defending sex workers’ rights. Anybody who’s even dabbled in these fields knows that LGBT rights remain underresourced, and sex work issues — unless you want to eradicate it, of course — face a pathetic dearth of funding.

Columbia has a pretty panoply of anti-discrimination policies that claim to protect LGBT people (sex workers, as always, are left unprotected); but its decision here, along with the implications of its funding policies, constitutes active discrimination. Research aimed at amplifying rights protections for these two groups is not, under current conditions, going to be a magnet for funds. (As Columbia well knows, the US government, the public health school’s major funder, has spent years trying to shut down or censor research and advocacy on sex workers’ rights.) The Mailman School’s policies, and the precedent it’s set, mean nobody specializing in that work is likely to be on staff in the foreseeable future. That’s discrimination. It’s also a disgrace to an institution of alleged learning. The university is abdicating its duty to be an impartial arbiter of knowledge and surrendering it to funders, who get to dictate its research directions and thus their conclusions — and who are in no sense impartial. That $8 billion endowment is useless unless it exists to prevent this.

When research in these areas is so underfunded, a policy like Columbia’s also forces scholars into a competition for scarce resources with the very communities they’re trying to serve. This is especially immoral. Traditionally, universities saw a duty to the broader world: to use their resources in disseminating knowledge where it is most needed. Columbia has abdicated that too. Instead, the university sits preening like a Roman emperor in the Coliseum, watching its own professors forced to battle it out with a few barbarian activists for the scraps they need to live.  Unlike the Roman gladiatorial combats, there aren’t even any spectators – the fights aren’t exciting enough to draw in the distraction-hungry masses. The only people entertained are the university administrators, who must have a sick and solitary sense of fun.

Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant, by Jean-Léon Gérôme(1859)

Dean of a public health school, upper right, conducting routine classroom observation

Public health is and has always been an ambivalent profession. On the one hand there are the ethical and genuinely selfless practitioners who care about the public and the sundered individuals who make it up: their mythic stories fill a film like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, where the heroes fight disease with everything they’ve got and get carried out in body bags. On the other hand, the field has a long history of loving power, and serving the ambitions of those who have it. Surveillance, contact tracing, quarantines, sterilization, the fantasies of eugenics, the hygienic justifications for police control: all these are also part of its past, and sometimes of its present. Governmentality, in the Foucauldian sense, has been well served by public health, indeed was bound up with it from the outset.

Knights in white satin: How public health sees itself

Knights in white satin: How public health sees itself

Nietzsche wrote: “The ‘freedom’ that the state bestows on certain men for the sake of philosophy is, properly speaking, no freedom at all, but an office that maintains its holder.” Education is not offered by office-holders but by thinkers. The Mailman School’s funding policies cater to the worst in public health, and bring back the most disreputable impulses in its history. They force professors to kowtow to power: either government power or the power of capital. They imperil the ethical advances that have tried to reshape the field. They silence critical questions. They discourage conversations about rights. They ignore students while misusing the money they’ve paid for their educations. They ensure that unpopular and marginal groups will go unrepresented in the work of the institution. They discredit a distinguished — and wealthy — university.

Petitions to support Vance and Hopper can be found here. Please sign. There’s a Tumblr (this is 2014: there’s always a Tumblr) set up by students to fight the firings: it’s here. It includes various letters of protest, which you may take as models should you want to write the Dean directly (lpfried@columbia.edu). The critical thinking you save may ultimately become your own.

I'm sorry, it protects who?

I’m sorry, it protects who?

From Uganda: Guidelines for action against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill

 Miriam Makeba, A luta Continua

When Uganda’s “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” first appeared in Parliament in late 2009, human rights groups, women’s movements, LGBT organizations, HIV/AIDS NGOs, and other forces in the country formed a Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law (CSCHRCL) to fight it. With help and support from partners across Africa and the world, they kept the bill at bay for over four years.

Now, at last, the bill has passed and Museveni has signed it into law. The Coalition has sent out helpful guidelines, mainly meant for the international community, on how to offer needed, continuing assistance in the fight for LGBTI people’s human rights in Uganda.  With their permission, I’m posting the guidelines here. I’ve added a few links that may help explain some issues — the links are my own, and don’t have the Coalition’s endorsement. Same with the illustrations.

Solidarity to our comrades in Uganda! Viva the Coalition Viva — as they say in South Africa.

cschrcl copyGUIDELINES TO NATIONAL, REGIONAL, AND INTERNATIONAL PARTNERS ON HOW TO OFFER SUPPORT NOW THAT THE ANTI-HOMOSEXUALITY LAW HAS BEEN ASSENTED TO

Introduction

Dear Partners, Friends and Colleagues,

We thank you for all the support you have accorded the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law (CSCHRCL) in its fight against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (the Bill) over the years. We specifically thank you for the support since the Parliament of Uganda passed the Bill on 20th December 2013.

Unfortunately, despite the intensive work that has been done since 2009 to stop the passage of this draconian bill into law, President Yoweri Museveni Kaguta of the Republic of Uganda on Monday February 2014 signed the Bill into Law. We now have to work with the reality of the Anti- Homosexuality Act (2014).

These guidelines are intended to all our partners on how to support the CSCHRCL in this new context:

1. Speaking out: It is very critical that we continue to speak out against the law and its implications in terms of security of the LGBTI community, their allies, and the general implications of the Act on the work around public health and human rights in general.

Important to Note: In all communication about the impact of the law, please refer to the shrinking and deteriorating policy space that civil society is experiencing; not only about this human rights issue, but about “mainstream” human rights as well: Uganda’s track record is bad, and is getting worse, and these issues are related. In this regard please also be aware of the Anti-Pornography Act and the Public Order Management Act when discussing the situation of civil society activists in Uganda.

Women in Kampala protest against dress code and anti-pornography legislation, February 26: AFP

Women in Kampala protest against dress code and anti-pornography legislation, February 26: AFP

2. World Wide demonstrations. We call upon all partners, friends and allies to organize demonstrations in different cities around the world now as this Act is set to have detrimental effects for all of us. We all MUST continue to speak out. These could include demonstrations at the Ugandan embassy in our country, or asking your place of worship to organize a vigil.

3. Call on Multinational companies that have businesses in Uganda to go public about their concerns on the Act and their future economic engagements in Uganda. For example Heineiken, KLM, British Airways, Turkish Airlines, Barclays Bank, and other companies with important interests in Uganda and that already respect and value LGBT rights in their own internal policies, should note the risk that these laws pose for the safety of their own employees, as well as the impact on their brand image of continuing to do business in Uganda.

4. Issue statements condemning the passage of the Bill into Law. We need the Government to know that they shall not get away with their actions. These statements should reflect the other human rights violations in the country, not just about LGBTI rights. Please always alert us to any such statements, whichever language they are written in, such that we may either post them on our website (ugandans4rights.org) or a link to your website.

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Ugandan policeman beats a journalist, Kampala, May 28, 2013

5. The question of cutting Donor AID has arisen. Our position on this is very clear. We do not support General Aid Cuts to Uganda. We do not want the people of Uganda to suffer because of the unfortunate Political choices of our government. However, we support Strategic Aid Cuts to specific sectors, such as the Dutch Government’s decision to withdraw funding from the Justice Sector. We encourage urgent review of Aid to organizations and government institutions that have failed to demonstrate respect for Human Rights and those that have been actively supporting this bill. We DO NOT support cuts in support to NGO’s and other civil society institutions that offer life saving health services or other important social services to the People of Uganda.

6. Partners should expand investment in funding for service delivery and advocacy in defiance of the law, targeting LGBT populations, to attempt to mitigate the harmful impact this law will have on access to services, and on human rights.

SMUG banner at the World Social Forum, Nairobi, Kenya, 2007

SMUG banner at the World Social Forum, Nairobi, Kenya, 2007

7. We encourage you to lobby your Government’s Immigration Services to adjust their asylum policy with regard to LGBTI persons from Uganda, Nigeria, Russia, Cameroun and other countries in which levels of state-sponsored homophobia are rapidly rising.

8. We further request that you send us information on which organizations can be helpful in assisting the individuals who are at risk if the situation gets worse and they have to get out of the country and seek asylum or relocation elsewhere.

9. We request you to prepare for Urgent Actions given that LGBTI people or people doing work around LGBTI rights are increasingly liable to being arrested. Urgent actions could include sending messages to the Uganda Government to protest such arrests, use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, to raise awareness that arrests have happened, contacting your own embassies in Uganda to voice your concerns.

10. Call for your governments to issue travel advisories on Uganda, and remind them that they have a duty to protect and therefore should take responsibility for alerting their own LGBTI citizens to the risks of traveling to Uganda.

11. Contact travel companies to urge them to also routinely issue such travel advisories to their customers (on the same principle that tobacco products must have a health warning visibly displayed, so flights and package holidays should have warnings of the risks of traveling to Uganda!)

12. Get more foreign leaders in foreign governments to say something about the Act as they have not come out strongly as it was expected.

13. Get celebrities to say something against the Act. We need more voices that Ugandans recognize and revere socially to speak out against this Law.

14. Get more international Aid groups especially those responding to HIV/AIDS work to say something for example: USAID, Pepfar, CDC, Global Fund and others.

15. Use your influence and work or networks to encourage and Pressure more African leaders to speak out against the rising levels of homophobia through state sanctioned Anti Gay laws.

Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mozambique, who urged African leaders to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in a 2014 open letter: http://www.theafricareport.com/Soapbox/an-open-letter-to-africas-leaders-joaquim-chissano-former-president-of-mozambique.html

Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mozambique, who urged African leaders to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in a 2014 open letter: http://www.theafricareport.com/Soapbox/an-open-letter-to-africas-leaders-joaquim-chissano-former-president-of-mozambique.html

16. Engage with any non-LGBTI partner organizations in Uganda that you may collaborate with or whom you fund to issue statements condemning the passage of the AHB and its implications to the work of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Remind them that this Bill is going to further shrink NGO spaces and is bound to affect the work they are doing.

17. Draw international public attention to issues such as corruption, human trafficking, nodding disease in northern Uganda, land-grabbing, as well as the suppression of media freedom and civil society space, the Public Order Management Act so that attention shifts to where it properly belongs; in the best interests of the country’s population as a whole. We need to step up public criticism to other negative trends in Uganda and remind the world that this Act is being used as a tool to divert attention from other pertinent issues that Ugandans are facing.

18. Get religious leaders of all faiths (Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Protestant, Seventh Day Adventists, Quakers, etc.) to issue statements encouraging tolerance and respect for human rights for all Ugandans and Africans.

19. Call for your governments to ‘recall’ ambassadors back to their respective Capitals for at least one week for strategic consultations on how to move forward when dealing with Uganda and Nigeria in regards to the two draconian laws. This will give the Ugandan government food for thought.

20. Contribute physical, financial, or technical support to the Coalition and the LGBTI community as well as the exposed Human Rights Defenders working on LGBTI rights who are likely to begin to be arrested and charged or otherwise persecuted. Financial and technical support for challenging the Act in the Constitutional Court and the East African Court of Justice.

For More information Contact:
Jeffrey Ogwaro : jogwaro@gmail.com /ahbcoalition.coordinator@gmail.com Tel: 256 782176069
Clare Byarugaba: clarebyaru@gmail.com /ahbcoalition.coordinator@gmail.com Tel: 256 774068663
Kasha Jacqueline: jnkasha@gmail.com Tel: 256 772463161
Frank Mugisha : frankmugisha@gmail.com Tel: 256 772616062
Pepe Julian Onziema: onziema@gmail.com Te: 25 772370674

Ugandan billboard against corruption

Ugandan billboard against corruption