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

Iran: How assaulting eight women and girls can make you a “gay man” (updated)

Abandon hope: Surreptitiously taken photograph of the entrance to Lakan Prison, Rasht, Iran

Abandon hope. Surreptitiously snapped photograph of the entrance to Lakan Prison, Rasht, Iran

Note: Update at the bottom of this post

Let’s start with Washington, that pale cold city. The Washington Free Beacon is a right-wing US webzine edited by Matthew Continetti, who used to write defensive hagiographies of Sarah Palin. The zine is disarmingly blunt about its specialities: a) attacks; b) propaganda. (“At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment: Do unto them.”) Examining its mission statement when it launched two years ago, an Atlantic critic burst into adjectives: “flawed, soulless,” “vicious and unethical.” The Beacon loves guy stuff, neocons, and wars. It actually has a reporter named Adam Kredo — who sounds like a DC Comics supervillain, particularly since his name on the website is trailed by a Twitter command: Follow Kredo0.  

They turn to me, not to you, Spider-Man. Soon I will rule the world!

They turn to me, not to you, Batman. Soon I will rule all Gotham!

On March 3, Kredo published a piece declaring that “Iran executed two gay men on Sunday for the crime of ‘perversion’…The head of Iran’s judiciary department in the northern city of Rasht announced on Sunday that two homosexual men had been executed for ‘perversion,’ which is considered a severe crime under Iran’s hardline Islamic law…  As the Western world negotiates with Iran over its contested nuclear weapons program … While Iran is known to plan and fund terror attacks across the globe …” And on and on.

Where is Rasht? It is the capital of Gilan province, not too far from Tehran as an ambitious crow might fly, but a long way by land over the mountains. Thirty kilometers south of the Caspian Sea, the city once called itself the Gate to Europe: opulent trade with Russia and beyond rumbled over its pine-lined roads. In its prison last week, executioners put two men to death. Were they gay? The rumor trade, richer these days than spices, reached America.

L: Gilan province in Iran; R: Rasht and vicinity

L: Gilan province in Iran; R: Rasht and vicinity

These stories, about gays murdered in Iran, waken questions. The stories are recurrent and they all resemble one another, without enough detail to individuate them. They’re all unsourced — usually there’s a newspaper article the writer never actually read. They have their own life and appear in locust cycles, not so much out of design as from a summer swelter of fear and xenophobia, whenever a crisis between the US (or Israel) and Iran is imminent, or wanted. I’ve seen them many times before. The repression of LGBT people in Iran is real. These stories have little or nothing to do with it.

Instead, these rumors seize the lives of distant human beings, hollow them out, and use the husks. The victims become both mannequins and messages, static and imperative like propaganda posters. They also distort the reality of death as it’s actually dealt out to prisoners in Iran. Look at the gays, they say, the “innocent” ones like us, twisting our attention away from the scope of atrocities and the other dead who aren’t assimilable or attractive.

The stories play out in entirely predictable, functional ways. For Kredo0 (adding that extra zero to his name is irresistible) it’s mainly about showing his cojones to cowardly lefties who love the Muslims.

adam kredo gay iran

For Jamie Kirchick, it’s about how Iran never changes. (On Twitter, Kirchick lathers praise on Free Beacon and its editor Continetti with the ardor of someone angling for a job — the webzine supposedly has a cushy seven-figure starting investment.)

kirchick iran copy

But basically it’s about getting the gays to stop worrying and love that bomb graph Netanyahu used to hold.

iran israel copy

Nobody bothered to check Iranian sources. But I wanted to know what the real story was. 

Here it is.

In the last week, the local press in Gilan province reported just one case of two people executed together. The two men were killed on Wednesday, February 26 (7 Esfand,1392). The story first appeared in KhazarOnline.ir the next day. (Xazar is the Farsi name for the Caspian Sea.) It’s headlined “Two corrupt Rashti men were executed for the crime of desecration of 8 women and girls.”

Two predators were executed yesterday morning (Wednesday) at Rasht Central Prison … About two years ago, the defendants locked girls and women in cars for the keeping of livestock. The public affairs office of the Gilan judiciary said the two men were executed for raping eight women and girls.

There you are. How did these rapists become “gay men”?

That’s a story in itself. It’s an Iranian game of Telephone. On Saturday (March 1, 10 Esfand) another Gilan website, DiyarMirza.ir, covered the case: “Execution at Rasht Central Prison of two accused of harassment  [آزار و اذیت].” It’s not clear why the charge has gotten vaguer and weaker-sounding in this telling. My suspicion is that concern, or pressure, to protect women victims’ honor mitigated against offering detail. (Moreover, the item is buried as a short postscript to a longer story about the execution of three other men for drug dealing — one of the most serious offenses in Iran.) The one paragraph gives the initials of the dead, and their parents’ first names.

Culture of killing, from the cradle to the grave: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

Culture of killing: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

This is not a very important item. It’s not till Sunday (March 2, 11 Esfand) that it reaches Tehran, when it’s picked up by the national Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). It makes just a blip on their website, saying that “two men aged 28 and 30 years were executed today in Rasht Central Prison,” based on information from the Gilan judiciary. It gives the offense as “unlawful acts” [اعمال خلاف شرع].  You can more or less see what happened: either IRIB gave Gilan a routine call to see if they had any news, or the Gilan PR people decided to phone their executions in, but in either case they gave only a cursory account of a really negligible slaughter. It would seem, moreover, that IRIB got the date wrong. (I checked. The Gilan news sites have no report of executions after February 26.)

Late Sunday, though, the generally respected Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), which tries to draw attention to all executions in Iran, carried the story. HRANA was set up in 2009, after the Green Revolution, to disseminate news of abuses and resistance; it has essentially relocated to the US now. “According to IRIB,” they reported, “two men were executed today in Rasht Central Prison,” for “unlawful acts.” Then, because HRANA is particularly concerned with the pretexts for which Iran kills people, they try to hone in on figuring out the “unlawful acts” phrase. It

consists of acts that are prohibited by law and by Islamic shari’a law, and the penalty for them is set on the basis of the religious laws in Islam. Acts of crime and sin can be included such as: lavat [ لواط] (men having sex with men), masaheghe [ساحق] (women having sex with women), zina [ زنا] (sexual relations between men and women who are not married to one another), moharebeh (attempting to overthrow the Islamic Government), drinking alcoholic beverages, sabolnabi (cursing the prophets and the imams), theft (stealing another’s property covertly), and ghazf (accusing others of zina or lavat) — and in general acts that are opposed to shari’a. 

I see some unlawful acts here: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

I see some unlawful acts here: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

HRANA published a version of this article in English as well. That concluded by noting that “The specific charges of the 2 men hanged in Rasht on charges of unlawful acts against Sharia Law are not clear.”

But that warning went nowhere; because the next to take up the story was Iran Press News, in the United States. Iran Press News, a site dating from 2004, offers content in both Farsi and English, with a right-wing bent especially in the latter. One item in the HRANA lists of “unlawful acts” had jumped out at them. In Farsi, IPN published only a bare mention; but the headline was now “Two young homosexuals [ همجنسگرا ] were executed in prison in Rasht.”

The public affairs office of the Gilan judiciary announced that two men, aged 28 and 30 years, were executed today in Rasht Central Prison. The two men were guilty of unlawful acts … Unlawful acts as a crime in the Islamic state is usually used to suppress the execution of homosexuals. [Emphasis added]

This was the first suggestion in the whole trail that the men were homosexual; it was based entirely on the fiction that “unlawful acts” could only stand for one crime in the HRANA roster.

How did the “homosexual” version leap from Farsi to English news sites? Answer: Banafsheh Zand.

Just a few centimeters more: Cartoon by

Just a few centimeters more: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

Banafsheh Zand is an Iranian exile in the US who couples far-right inclinations with a strong fetish for the gays. She’s been a regular for Fox News, Front Page magazine, and the National Review, though all seemed to inch away eventually from her extravagant insights. An immigrant herself, she pals around with racist, ferociously anti-foreigner Michelle Malkin; but she also gamely frequents Glenn Beck‘s paranoiac show to cheer for the homosexuals against Ahmadinejad. She’s a fount of conspiracy theories. Here, on the fringe Newsmax site, you can hear her descant on Egypt, only days after the military massacred a thousand civilians this summer. That leaves her unfazed; she’s still worried that Iran, through the dead Muslim Brotherhood, may overrun the country. Never mind that the Sunni Brotherhood oversaw what Amnesty called an “unprecedented level of sectarian violence against Shi’a Muslims” during its brief reign. “There are major Shi’a strongholds in Egypt,” she intones. Also, Iran has “forty thousand trained suicide bombers” planted worldwide, waiting to bust like balloons.

 I can see Ayatollah Khameini from my house: The mullahs are coming to Cairo

She’s part Scheherazade, part salesman, marketing stories. I encountered her first during the frenzy of July 2005, when GayWorld exploded over the “gay teenagers” hanged in Mashhad, Iran, and she played a central role. Peter Tatchell and Doug Ireland were devouring fictions fed to them in part by Iranian exile cultists; headlines burgeoned; and Zand was hourly calling up the offices of New York’s Gay City News, claiming she had incontrovertible proof the children were lovers and had been raped by mullahs in detention. (At the time she styled herself, uneuphonically, Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi: but Signor Bonazziwhoever he was, has since decamped into Shah-like obscurity.) Back then, and for years after, she was English editor of Iran Press News. I believe she helped found it. This time, she may have given the IPN story its “homosexuals” slant. If not, she knew how to run with it.

On the killer's trail: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

On the killer’s trail: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

The hard-right website Gateway Pundit picked up the story on Sunday evening, March 2, only hours after IPN carried it. Zand had translated the IPN text for them; their version ended, “Hat Tip Banafsheh Zand.” (They added the obligatory, morbidly exploitative photo of “Iranian gay teens” in 2005 being prepared for hanging.)

From there, it easily made its way to Adam Kredo0 and the Washington Free Beacon. Despite his title of “Senior Writer” on “National Security & Foreign Policy” for the Beacon, Kredo0 seems to have limited international experience, apart from five swell months interning at the Jerusalem Post. Zand probably overwhelmed him. He quotes her all over. “Not much is known about the two men executed over the weekend due to” — an inability to read Farsi? — no, “Iranian efforts to sweep such executions under the rug, according to Banafsheh Zand, an Iranian political and human rights activist.” “‘When people talk about the nukes, the nukes are a symptom,’ said Zand.” And so on.

So there you have it. It is, of course, just possible that there was another execution of two men in Rasht last week, and both those men were gay; it’s also just possible that those stories of eight women raped were make-believe, like Obama’s birth certificate. But it’s not likely.

By Mana Neyestani

By Mana Neyestani

Rather, everything suggests this was a heterosexual rape case that quickly got turned into a “homosexual” story — the moment it reached the US. It was reshaped deliberately, deceptively, and opportunistically, as a small stratagem to persuade US gays to mobilize in opposition to Iran, Rouhani, and any possible nuclear accord. It’s another instance of what happened in 2005: facts manipulated to rouse a constituency’s intense emotions. We haven’t absorbed much since about skepticism or evidence. Possibly the Washington Free Beacon didn’t realize they were baited. But they didn’t try hard to learn. Adam Kredo0 didn’t look for the source article, or call any Iranian diasporic LGBT groups, or speak to anyone except Banafsheh Zand. Expedient distortion and lazy journalism cooperated to deceive. By the way, I did contact the under-resourced but always resourceful Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), an extensive, reliable, and diverse network of activists centered in Canada. They hadn’t heard of the Rasht “gay” story — bad sign for its veracity — but are investigating. If those hardworking people can add, contradict me, or confirm, I will let you know.

US gays have a little bit of political power now, in the Obama era. That augurs an intensified competition to get you to take somebody’s side, to seduce you into backing bombing or demanding droning, with the illusive wiles of solidarity.

But this story is also a reminder of how neither I nor you have ever thought hard enough about Iran. The one sensible thing Kredo0 did for his article was to quote my colleague Hadi Ghaemi, of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran: describing the case of Ruholla Tavana, who faced the death penalty for things he said in a private video on his personal computer. (Kredo0 didn’t bother to call Ghaemi, just used a press release.)

This is an unbelievable act of inquisition at its worst ….The Iranian Judiciary’s insistence on the death sentence calls into question whether these sentences are politically-motivated and intended to confront the wave of international protests against the trend of ever-increasing executions in Iran.

What Ghaemi points to is that all these sentences are “politically motivated,” meant to send a message about the state to its citizens as well as external foes. There is no special status for LGBT people in Iran; they’re not “innocent victims” to be preferred to others, to the rapists and murderers we can cast off when we find the unpleasant facts of their stories. The Iranian state lives increasingly on the death penalty, and the death penalty is an extreme assertion of ownership over the limit point of everybody’s bodies and life-spans. There is no distinction. The state is saying it wants to control anything it can, and those who resist that even in the inmost crevice of private spaces can lose their lives. The casual indifference with which its officials toss off the figures and details — another two dead, “unlawful acts,” today or last week, like Don Giovanni’s thousand-and-third in Spain — suggests the degree to which the allocation of death has become an ordinary business of living. The crime (rape, murder, warring against God, sodomy, harassment) matters less than the message, which is that your existence is submissive to power, is porous.

Hanging toys: Cartoon by Mana

Hanging toys: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

LGBT people live in oppression in Iran. The constant possibility of the death penalty is part of that, though it’s been inflicted for consensual lavat only rarely in the last decade. Far more comprehensive, though, is the intrusion that the death penalty stands for: the claims of the state over life as well as death, over clothing and skin and hair, orifices and closets, bottles and bedrooms and belief; the quality of the air you breathe (intolerable in many places), the onetime plenitude of water now being drained away, the things you whisper or write that turn out to be criminal after the fact. Everybody faces those in some measure. We outside gravely mistake that situation if we think we fulfill our responsibilities by showing our solidarity with respectable people: the nice attractive gays (the young, clean, virgin ones you can write your dreams on), the secular published authors, the decent political prisoners. Resistance comes from everywhere, and the strength of the movement LGBT people are building lies in its unexpected solidarities. Resistance hides amid the secret drunks, with the down-and-out heroin addicts in Artists’ Park, who don’t want to be told what they can put in their bodies. (To read the crime pages on Iranian news websites is to see in the mind’s eye a ceaseless parade of drug users marched to execution: it’s possibly the main pretext for the machinery of killing in the country.) It rests with the sex workers who spread their legs despite divine animadversions and don’t even bother to shield their hair, with the stoned street kids even more than with the North Tehran parties, and even with the rapists who, whatever else they may have done, don’t want to die. Feeling sympathy with likeness is one thing, but solidarity can’t stop with sympathy. Our local obsession with identity is a weak distraction. It divides and detracts from the struggle against the state of death.

If you want to read one thing about Iran, read this summary of longtime human rights lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei’s advice for how to roll back the death penalty, in an Islamic state where execution is not just policy but religious precept. “Stop using slogans and save lives,” he says. Don’t deal with generalities or identities; talk about individuals and their cases. Every accused is worthy. “Nobody is born a criminal.” Every person has a story. All that matters is that the stories be true, and theirs.

"Sweet moment of release from prison in Rasht": Yousef Nadarkhani, a Christian preacher imprisoned for  four years, is freed in January 2014; by joindhands on Flickr

“Sweet moment of release from prison in Rasht”: Yousef Nadarkhani, a Christian preacher imprisoned under threat of the death penalty for four years, is freed in January 2014; photo by joindhands on Flickr

Note: Several friends I can’t name assisted me with research and translation here. All errors are my own. The drawings are by the remarkable Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani. Among Neyestani’s other distinctions, he’s one of the few Iranian artists of a political bent to have addressed themes of LGBT people’s oppression in his work:

cartoon 2 copyImportant Update: Ali Abdi, an Iranian-born anthropologist studying at Yale, has done his own research on this situation since I published this post, and has helpfully shared with me what he’s discovered. He did the sensible thing, and went to the website of the Gilan provincial judiciary to look for cases there. Here’s what he found:

a) The case of two men raping eight girls (reported in KhazarOnline.ir) and the case of two men executed for “harassment” [آزار و اذیت]; reported in DiyarMirza.ir on March 1 (or 10 Esfand) actually do seem to be separate ones! In fact, the execution of two men for eight rapes appears to have occurred all the way back in December. The Gilan judiciary website recounts it, dated December 19, 2013 (or 28 Azar 1392). The details are a bit different from the Khazar Online version but it certainly looks like the same basic story.

Ali caught me in one significant error: the Khazar Online story is dated 1 Esfand (February 19), not 8 Esfand as I reported. My apologies. But in any case, if the execution happened in December, why did Khazar Online resurrect it after two months, claiming it was recent? Abdi speculates that they were looking around for clickbait and hoped that “rape of women and girls” would lure readers. If so, it worked; the story is still one of the most viewed on their main page.

b) The Gilan judiciary website has a short announcement of the execution of two men on March 1, 2014 (10 Esfand); “harassment” [آزار و اذیت] is the only description of their crime. This is apparently the story that DiyarMirza.ir carried the same day. It got picked up by IRIB the following day; they substituted “unlawful acts”  [اعمال خلاف شرع] for “harassment.” It seems to me quite possible that IRIB jumbled together the rape case and the “harassment” case, each involving two executions, which the Gilan media had headlined in recent days. (Remember, the rape case was still prominent on the Khazar Online front page.) That might explain why they used “unlawful acts,” to cover the confusing multiplicity of accusations.

HRANA then took up the story, and included a list of things that “unlawful acts” might mean; their possibilities included extramarital sex, theft, blasphemy, false accusation, and lavat or sodomy. From there, Banafsheh Zand and right-wing hacks in the United States seized on the “sodomy” possibility as the only one that interested them. They started spreading their propaganda about “gay executions” to the American LGBT public. And so it goes.

Women's equality: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani (apologies, of course, to the Human Rights Campaign)

Women’s equality: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani (apologies, of course, to the Human Rights Campaign, which probably has that symbol copyrighted)

c) So what does “harassment”  [آزار و اذیت} mean? It’s not a crime in Iranian law, which makes it strange to see on an official judicial website. A quick survey of Farsi media suggests it’s commonly used for “sexual harassment” in the generally-understood sense, particularly intrusive attacks in public places which have become an issue throughout the region. However, those would probably not make a capital crime in Iran. But it also seems to be used widely for sexual assaults on minor girls, including by people in authority (see here or here). And Abdi confirms this thought. Faced with an assault against an adult woman, he writes me, officials would refer openly to “rape” (and possibly try to publicize the state’s paternal efforts at protection.) But an assault against a girl might be shrouded in euphemism: “when a minor is raped, assaulted, etc. there is a conscious effort not to bring it up.” (Ali believes this would hold for assaults on minor boys as well. This makes sense, although in the Mashhad executions in 2005, the rape of a minor boy was widely publicized as such — as lavat beh onf, “forcible sodomy“.) There is certainly no reason at all, though, to think that “harassment” is a cover for consensual male homosexual acts.  

d) I’m very grateful to Ali Abdi for his research. Updating and correcting information is a basic part of honest human rights work. This, others writing on Iran might learn. Gay City News, for one, has never published a correction on any of its messily flawed Iran reporting, (Or anything else. Even when the late Doug Ireland, in one of his last pieces for them, confused Belarus with UkraineGay City News never corrected itself.) As for the egregious Peter Tatchell, he never admits to error; instead he stirs up a storm of invective, threats, and distractions in PR blasts and social media, in the hope that the facts, like light in the ambit of a black hole, will bend themselves before his mistakes and mendacities. If these folks had just done some basic checking back in 2005, they could have spared us a world of trouble.

It is, of course, beyond rational expectation that the Free Beacon would double-check anything. You have to live in reality to recognize the possibility of error.

e) Oh, and one thing about the Gilan judiciary’s helpful site. So user-friendly, so transparent! Truly, this is reform. Indeed, when they’re posting announcements on stuff like meetings, conferences, and judicial sentences carried out, the very avatar lets you know the topic, and the result:

Gilad judiciary copy

I don’t even need to try my feeble hand at translating. Then when you do clink the link (maybe with a tingle of trepidation, like turning a doorknob in a slasher movie), atop the announcement perch the images like Poe’s raven on the bookcase, reminding one, far more powerfully than any bureaucratic lingo, what the state in its might and majesty can do for you:

ImageHandler

Words fail me.

Puppet regime: A few more notes on Egypt and paranoia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

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

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

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

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

 Ahmed Spider takes on the Puppet Plot

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

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

torture abla fahita copy

Yeah. Or:

Bc-NPbTIQAAFcr2

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

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

I have three small points to add.

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

Apparently tyrannical shari'a law actually encourages women judges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

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

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

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

robertson kids copyYou know, priorities.)

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

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

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

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

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

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