Puppet regime: A few more notes on Egypt and paranoia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

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

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

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

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

 Ahmed Spider takes on the Puppet Plot

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

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

torture abla fahita copy

Yeah. Or:

Bc-NPbTIQAAFcr2

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

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

I have three small points to add.

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

Apparently tyrannical shari'a law actually encourages women judges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

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

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

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

robertson kids copyYou know, priorities.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The warped reality therapy of Jeffrey Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bachmann copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nikolai Alekseev and Peter Tatchell respond: In solidarity, again

Tatchell and Alekseev, Moscow Pride, 2007

Tatchell and Alekseev, Moscow Pride, 2007

I believe — I’ve always believed — that everyone should have their say. That includes both Nikolai Alekseev and Peter Tatchell, whom I critiqued in the last post. It’s true that both Tatchell and Alekseev rarely stop talking. But that’s even more reason to ensure they get every opportunity to be heard. So addicted are they to soliloquy that, deprived of the microphone even for a moment, they might go on some awful withdrawal rampage, smashing up the premises like a minor cast member from Reefer Madness or Breaking Bad. 

Cycle of addiction

Cycle of addiction

Doug Ireland posted his long-postponed criticism of Nikolai Alekseev on the Euro-Queer e-mail listserve this weekend. Nikolai wrote in to comment — mainly on me, and my refutation:

Hi friends,

Just a few corrections on Mr. Long’s corrections in Mr. Ireland’s article. :-)

We just counted and tried to make it as accurate as possible. If that is what matters for Mr. Long and Mr. Ireland. I was arrested by police 13 times for civil public protests in Russia since first Moscow Pride in 2006. [I had questioned Ireland's extravagant claim that Alekseev was arrested 40 times.] This is a rough estimate. But I guess this is very important whether it is 1, 40 or 13.

Mr. Long wrote that political art groups in Russia appeared before Moscow Pride. This is totally wrong. Group Voina, which Mr. Long is quoting officially formed in 2008. This can be checked in Wikipedia here.  I don’t know if those gentlemen know the existence of such an international resource … Moscow Pride first announced in July 2005 and first action took place in May 2006. At this time there was no even a hint on any known political art groups. …

It is true that I never supported any opposition political protests and never will. LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia and GayRussia as well as Moscow Pride will always stay as purely non-political groups. We will co-operate with any politician who supports LGBT rights in Russia, whether in power or in opposition. This is our credo!

As for anti-semitism, I just need to have concrete proof of anything I said in 2007, as Mr. Long is saying. Otherwise it is a libel.

Hope that once again explains who Mr. Long is and who Mr. Ireland became.

All the best to all,
Nikolay Alekseev
GayRussia
Moscow Pride

That makes it all clear, then. I dealt with Nikolai’s actions in 2007 in detail in my earlier post. As for the Russian anarchist arts collective Voina: I mentioned it in my post as the group that gave rise to Pussy Riot, since Doug Ireland had claimed falsely that the real inspiration for Pussy Riot was Alekseev himself. It’s true Voina only “announced itself to the public” in 2008, but as its website notes, its founders Vor and Kozlenok (pseudonyms of Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol) started working together in 2005 — they’d married years before. Vor had been doing street art since 1995, on his own and with others. They have never had anything to do with Alekseev.

This brings us to Peter Tatchell. Tatchell Tweeted defensively about all this last night — defensive, I mean, about the idea that he was perhaps a little lax in ignoring or excusing Nikolai’s anti-Semitism over the years:

Tatchell tweet on Alekseev copy

“10.09am BST 3 Sep!” Sorry one missed that. Maybe a single Tweet is not the firmest way to dissociate yourself from a politically intimate ally of long standing. But let’s consider the “criticism” he made back in 2011. It came in an October 2011 article by Tatchell titled, suggestively, “A Tribute to Nikolai Alekseev.” In the fifth paragraph, Tatchell wrote:

Over the years, Nikolai said and did a few things that were in my opinion mistaken (but haven’t we all made errors?). … . I disapproved of Nikolai’s remarks which appeared to be anti-Semitic (although I personally doubt that he is prejudiced against Jewish people).

If you say that remarks only “appeared” to be anti-Semitic, and actually did not reflect any anti-Semitic feeling, you cannot claim later to have criticized the speaker for anti-Semitism. 

That one paragraph was far outweighed by the rest of Tatchell’s article:

Huge thanks to Nikolai for his amazing, ground-breaking work over many years … Even his harshest critics cannot deny Nikolai’s immense dedication and courage. … Not many people would have dared continue to put themselves in the frontline and take on the power of the ruthless tyrannical Russian state, having seen so many human rights defenders beaten, framed on trumped up charges and even murdered. But Nikolai did. Not once but dozens of times. [sic]

Then Tatchell turned on Alekseev’s critics, including those who had accused him of anti-Semitism:

Nikolai was sometimes subjected to poisonous smears and sectarian attacks by other LGBT activists, which caused him great hurt, as they were mostly without any truth and delivered with the venom you’d expect from the far right, not from fellow LGBT campaigners. Sadly, too many people were ready to believe some of the malicious things said against him.

Those of us who champion LGBT human rights surely have a duty treat others in ways that are consistent with human rights values?

Now, let’s say –just hypothetically, I’m not making any comparisons — I write an article called “A Tribute to Joseph Goebbels.” In it, I say that I disapprove of the way the guy stupidly made himself look anti-Semitic, though I don’t really believe he was. I go on to praise his his groundbreaking work, his courage — which you losers can’t deny whatever you may think of him – and to attack those sectarian people who smeared him with malicious accusations of racism and so on. I wonder how it would go if, later, I announced the article proved I’d been an anti-Nazi all along.

Obviously, Alekseev is no Goebbels; it’s an interesting thought experiment, that’s all. The truth is that Tatchell (and Ireland, and quite a few others) didn’t care about Alekseev’s politics one way or the other. All they cared was that cameras followed Alekseev wherever he went. By following him in turn — or playing his PR agency, in Ireland’s case — they could bask in the borrowed light of the paparazzi. Other Russian activists, who believed in democracy and weren’t racists and were doing serious and important work, didn’t offer the automatic promise of getting your name in the papers. The cult of Alekseev revolved around publicity, from beginning to end.

Media at Alekseev speech before Moscow Pride, 2011: © Charles "Chad" Meacham

Cameras at Alekseev speech before Moscow Pride, 2011: © Charles “Chad” Meacham

Tatchell followed up tonight by posting in Euro-Queer himself, in the thread about Doug Ireland’s article. He didn’t criticize Alekseev, naturally. He just criticized me. In full:

Scott Long has made factually inaccurate assertions about me and others. But I will not bother to refute them.

Euro-Queer was not established so that activists can abuse it to attack and smear fellow activists. Sectarian attacks have no place in the LGBT and human rights movement.

We should all concentrate on working together for the common good, whatever our differences. Fight homophobia, biphobia and transphobia – and all human rights abuses – not each other. Solidarity! Peter

Yes, this is clear, too. Peter’s not going to “refute” me, because he can’t. But he also thinks it more important to knock me than to state an opinion of Alekseev’s prejudices or past history. (I think my name can be substituted for “all human rights abuses” in the final sentence.) And once again he sees Nikolai — who claims I “libelled” him — as a victim of “sectarian” attacks. Comrades, the real enemy is among us!

The more things change, the more Red Square stays the same

The more things change, the more Red Square stays the same

As they resume “working together for the common good, whatever our differences,” I can only wish Peter and Nikolai the best of fortune. My only question is this. Alekseev has now made clear that he “never supported any opposition political protests and never will. LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia.” So you have to wonder: Who’ll be their target, unless other activists? What exactly are Alekseev and Tatchell going to do?

NOTE. Ruslan Porshnev has kindly included the full English text of his thoughtful article on Moscow Pride 2011, in the comments section of my last post. Check it out! It’s from AntiDogma, an important collective online resource on LGBT Russian issues. Queerussia today also carried an article in English on the Alekseev controversies, and his Western advocates’ (at least partial) desertion.

A Russian activist colleague also writes me with an interesting question about the new direction taken by Alekseev’s one-man show, GayRussia. For years Alekseev has insisted that no genuine activist can accept funding — something relatively easy for him to say, since he’s wealthy enough to fund his own activities; it’s been a way to bash the human rights groups in Russia that rely on grants to perform their vital work. This summer, though, he set up a fund in Switzerland to support GayRussia. From back in August:

alekseev fundraising 2 copy
As my friend points out, this fund can’t legally be used to pay fines. Russian law says these must be paid

by Russian citizens using Russian banks and currency. [To pay them from Switzerland] is close to illegal “money laundering” from foreign sources, or – see the next point. …

The most interesting part. Right now Russia has a draconian law against foreign financing of NGOs. Any NGO which is caught using foreign money for “political” activities (whatever that means – nobody understands this), is subject to severe fines. An NGO can escape fines only by registering itself as a “foreign agent.” Right now there is not a single Russian NGO which did this. All human rights activists all over Russia refuse to do this because it puts a shameful label on them being “foreign agents” acting in favor of their western sponsors, who are, obviously, right now enemies number one for Russia’s integrity and safety. I’m sure you are familiar with this rhetoric.

But this suggests an ominous possibility about what Alekseev is planning to do.

My thought is that Alexeyev and his Fund are being prepared to become the first self-registered foreign agent in Russia, since nobody wants to do this voluntarily. Alexeyev never spoke against this law while this is a number one hot issue for all Russian NGOs right now (many of them are under trials or in the process of closing down). Look what GayRussia writes on Facebook: “We are determined to become the ONLY fully transparent LGBT organization in Russia.”

In other words, Alekseev would break with the defiant consensus of real human rights groups in Russia, and become Putin’s first Potemkin NGO under the law — proof, for international consumption, that groups can register as “foreign agents” and do just fine. My friend adds that Alekseev’s proposal to meet with Putin “is in same line with all this”: volunteering to serve as window-dressing, to show the regime is rights-friendly. It seems unlikely Alekseev would go that far. On the other hand, those who have really paid attention to him for the last seven years know there’s no predicting how far he will go.

Doug Ireland and the Nikolai Alekseev circus: Lone Ranger fantasies in the wild, wild West

I cover the waterfront: Nikolai Alekseev in full Battleship Potemkin gear, as Grand Marshal of Vancouver Pride, Canada, 2010

I cover the waterfront: Nikolai Alekseev in full Battleship Potemkin gear, as Grand Marshal of Vancouver Pride, Canada, 2010

I hadn’t planned to say another word about Nikolai Alekseev, Russian activist and anti-Semite. But yesterday Doug Ireland (“International Affairs Editor” for Gay City News) published a piece in which he tries, after seven years of nonstop flattery, to cut his ties to Alekseev. Ireland was perhaps Alekseev’s greatest promoter to non-Russian audiences. This might, then, be a chance to admit that mistakes were made. But no. Doug insists he was right to praise Nikolai so fulsomely all along. It’s just that, in the last few days, the “brilliant and charismatic young lawyer” and “respected gay activist” has “gone over the edge into madness.”  Who’d have predicted it? At GCN, “We were,” he writes, “shocked by Alexeyev’s diatribes in recent weeks” –shocked! Ireland sounds exactly like the neighbor interviewed after the reclusive loner’s rampage. He seemed like such a polite young man. I never thought to ask why he wanted all those missile launchers. We never had a clue.

Some sample Tweets from early September: We do not laugh here, or there either

Some sample Tweets from early September: We do not laugh here, or there either

Ireland’s innocence is a put-on. He, and Nikolai’s other non-Russian supporters, had all the evidence years ago of the man’s instability and hatred. It’s important to tell the truth. It’s important, because the Alekseev story reveals a lot about the potential pathologies of gay activism: the cult of celebrity, the belief in saviors rather than social movements, the way Westerners project their desires and fantasies onto other countries. Why did Doug and others keep promoting Alekseev, and actively denigrating other Russian activists?  They damaged the whole Russian LGBT movement in the process. They shouldn’t get off the hook. And we need to learn lessons from how they went so wrong.

1. What did they know? and when did they know it?

Let’s go back to 2007. A slew of foreign activists and celebrities descended on Moscow for several days that May, in support of Alekseev’s second annual attempt to organize Moscow Gay Pride. Peter Tatchell was among them. Andy Harley, editor of UK Gay News –  a big fan of Alekseev’s, who makes a regular trip to Pride every year – reported on Day One that “Mr. Tatchell hit out at some Russian human rights activists who refused to include gay and lesbian rights in their campaigns.” Attacking Russian human rights activists for their supposed homophobia was Tatchell’s theme that year. He picked it up in his keynote address at the Pride Conference in Moscow’s Swissotel.

It is sad to see some human rights activists here in Russia distance themselves from the LGBTI human rights campaign — and from this weekend’s bid to stage the Moscow Pride march. When human rights activists pick and choose which freedoms to defend, they undermine and compromise the whole human rights agenda.

Now, I was in the audience (I went to Moscow in 2006 and 2007, to lend support); and I knew, and everybody in the hall knew, that Peter’s accusations were wrong. Mainstream human rights groups in Russia (specifically, the Moscow Helsinki Group, which Nikolai had been viciously, publicly defaming all that week) hadn’t “distanced themselves” from Pride because they were cherrypicking freedoms. They weren’t there solely because another person was there, sitting at the dais. The reason was Aleksei Mitrofanov.

White nights: Mitrofanov clubbing with TV hostess Olga Buzova, 2011

White nights for white people: Mitrofanov clubbing with TV hostess Olga Buzova, 2011

Mitrofanov, a Duma member from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s far-right, neo-fascist, racist party, was infamous for inciting violent hatred against immigrants, Chechens, and Muslims. He was also one of very few prominent politicians whom Alekseev recruited to support Pride that year. He wasn’t doing it for “human rights” reasons. Mitrofanov, who got his start as a music promoter, was in business with the titillatingly lesbian-themed pop group t.A.T.u. He hoped Pride would bring publicity for the band (and a weird movie project about them he was pushing on Hollywood). He also hoped the European politicians who’d flown to Moscow for the festivities would help him wangle visas to Western capitals: the E.U. barred most Zhirinovskyites from entry because of their extremist xenophobia.  A boxcar of a man in an Armani coat who looked the very image of the Russian VIP and vozhd, Mitrofanov loomed over Pride like a mountain over a profitable molehill.  Alekseev, glued to his side, fawned on him as an honored ally. Indeed, Nikolai announced at the conference that he would run for the Duma himself in the fall, as a candidate either of Zhirinovsky’s party or of President Putin’s own. (Mercifully, that never happened.)

Peter Tatchell knew perfectly well why the Moscow Helsinki Group refused to attend the conference. It wasn’t a secret; Lyudmila Alekseeva (no relation to Nikolai), the Group’s revered head, had told the press forthrightly. They refused to sit on the same stage as the racist Mitrofanov.

Alekseev’s indulgence for right-wing racism is nothing new, then. It should come as no surprise to Tatchell, Doug Ireland, or anybody else who’s followed his career closely.  The evidence was right at center stage in 2007. Tatchell defamed the Moscow Helsinki Group without ever talking to them directly. (In fact, the day after Pride, the Helsinki Group held a press conference to condemn the crackdown, as well as to discuss other human rights abuses against Russian LGBT people — proof they weren’t “distancing themselves” from the issue. I was one of the speakers. Tatchell sat in the audience, drawn by the prospect of press attention. He left, however, without saying one word to anybody from the Helsinki Group.)

Outside Tverskoia police station, central Moscow, May 27, 2007. That’s me in the foreground; my expression probably indicates my opinion of Aleksei Mitrofanov (R), talking to MEP Marco Cappato in the background.

Outside Tverskoia police station, central Moscow, May 27, 2007. That’s me in the foreground; my expression probably indicates my opinion of Aleksei Mitrofanov (R), talking to European Parliament member Marco Cappato in the background.

Other problems with Nikolai Alekseev were evident in that year’s Pride disaster, for all to see. There was the fixation on media and stardom; there was his indifference to what happened to ordinary Russian LGBT folk. Mitrofanov furnished lawyers for Alekseev and the foreign celebrities who faced arrest. But Alekseev made it clear that no “unauthorized” pride marchers would get legal assistance. 13 young lesbians and gays who showed up to support Pride were arrested and taken to Presesenskaya police station far from Moscow’s center; they were kept in an unventilated, overheated truck outside the jail. Their plight got no mention in press accounts, which focused on the glossy figures of famous Europeans in custody. (I was arrested too, very briefly – a fact I never even tried to make an issue of. The Russians who were arrested risked far worse abuse than any of us foreigners – and talking about ourselves was just a distraction.) I went to Presesenskaya with Alexey Kozlov, a heroic leftist activist and experienced protester, almost the only person who tried to help the arrested men and women. No one from Alekseev’s circle showed any interest in their condition. (HRW and ILGA-Europe’s 2007 report on Moscow Pride gives a detailed account.)

Toward midnight on the day after Pride 2007, a journalist in the US addressed Alekseev on a listserve: “You are a hero, Nikolai, and history will say so.” Exhausted and exasperated in Moscow, I typed out a private answer on my Blackberry. I sent it to the reporter; after thinking a moment, I forwarded it to Doug Ireland too. Here it is, misspellings and all.

Lyudmila Alekseeva, Moscow Helsinki Group

Lyudmila Alekseeva, Moscow Helsinki Group

I have been here for three days investigating 20 hours a day, and between us and in confidence, I can assure you nikolai is no hero.  He deliberately refused to organize any form of legal assistance (or doctors on hand, or even a rendevous point so that people could determine who needed help or who was missing) in advance, putting in danger everyone who attended.  Dozens of young lesbians and gays who showed up at their first pride were left to fend for themselves callously. Its not as though this is forgetfulness on nikolai’s part.  I approached him about this … others did as well, and his answer was that mitrofanov had promised there would be no trouble, so there would be no trouble.  Mitrofanov is a fascist, racist, and anti-semite.  Nikolai allied himself with him because he thought mitrofanov could manage the skinheads, and apparently because nikolai wants to run for the duma, I guess on the zhirinovskyite ticket.  When asked at the press conference–where he placed this nazi front and center–about mitrofanov’s vocally expressed opinions on chechens, immigrants, and others, nikolai said, “I haven’t heard of any such opinions.” Meaning he’s been in a coma for three years, because everyone in russia had heard of them. Mitrofanov’s only interest in this has been to get respectability by appearing on the dais with serious European politicians, and getting publicity for tatu, which he apparently half-owns.  Three days before pride the moscow helsinki group offered nikolai legal assistance for any arrestees. Furious becaause they had refused to appear at a previous press conference because they”d have to appear with mitrofanov as a fait accompli (and you must realize the moscow helsinki group would under no circimstances appear with a thug like mitrofanov) nikolai told them he would not accept legal aid because they are “extremists.” This is the Moscow Helsinki Group, the spiritual and institutional heirs of sakharov and yelena bonner: and nikolai calls them extremists?  … Last year dima makarov and alexey kozlov of Green Alternative furnished almost the only Russians who came to Pride and stood on the street and braved the skinheads–most gay russians were too scared (legitimately, which is why it’s so sad the gay russians who showed up this year got screwed by the organizers). Dima and alexey are straight but they did it because as genuine activists they believe in human rights, and they wanted to support nikolai.  And how did nikolai show his gratitude this year? When they objected to mitrofanov being at the center of events, nikolai banned them from coming into the swissotel during “his” human rights conference. … This year, alexey kozlov stood for hours outside jails trying to get help to those arrested sunday.  When the partner of volker beck [German MP] called alexey last night at 11 trying to find a lawyer for nikolai [who was in custody], since most human rights lawyers had been personally insulted by nikolai and wouldn’t touch the case, alexey ran off to try.(He found one: his wife was willing to represent nikolai, from what I understood: but by then mitrofanov had found some other nationalist lawyer, and nikolai preferred him). I will also note that since his release some 8 hours ago nikolai has shown no evident interest in the others who were arrested, many through his own incompetence. …

The most obvious hero of the last few days has been alexey kozlov, who has been working constantly and selflessly but whom yoiu won’t read about in the gay press, or any other press, because he is allergic to publicity and spends his time arguing with police captains rather than looking for cnn.  Nikolai alexeev has certain defined pr skills but he is neither the only nor really the bravest advocate of lgbt rights here.

Aleksei Kozlov, a hero of Moscow Pride

Aleksei Kozlov, a hero of Moscow Pride

Nor did Ireland need to take my word. As self-described leftists, both he and Tatchell surely read the article about Moscow Pride 2007 by a member of Russia’s Sotsialisticheskoye Soprotivleniye (Socialist Resistance), published in English by Socialist World that June. The Russian author told how Moscow’s progressives urged Alekseev to

build a wider movement with other oppressed peoples facing economic and social discrimination, and to take the issues of discrimination and freedom up within the workplaces and colleges. This approach has been opposed by the organizers of Gay Pride. Unfortunately, they represent a layer of the “gay elite” … who use their sexual orientation for their own benefit and public relations purposes. This was clearly demonstrated in the discussions in the run up to last Sunday’s events. The whole structure of the parade was undemocratic and restricted to those people who agreed with the organizers. The aim of the event was not to attract and involve a wider layer of gay and other activists but to ensure the participation of gay “VIP”s. For example, when the question of legal aid for anyone arrested was raised, it was stated by the organizers that only certain people would be helped ….

It came from behind: Vladimir Zhirinovsky receiving inoculation against gay cooties and related propaganda

It came from behind: Vladimir Zhirinovsky receiving inoculation against gay cooties and related propaganda

Even worse however, is the blatant political positioning of the organisers with Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s “Liberal Democratic Party” [LDPR]. Zhirinovskii first came to the world’s attention when his party won a considerable number of places in Parliament in the early days of Yeltsin’s reign. Then many commentators described his party as fascist. … It is therefore viewed with disgust by many gay activists that the organizers of Gay pride have promoted an alliance with one of the leading deputies from the LDPR in the forefront of their activities. This individual, Mitrofanov, the best known member of the LDPR after Zhirinovskii, was given pride of place at the pre-march conference. …  As one activist commented “this just proves that the organizers are more interested in public relations for themselves than genuinely campaigning for the rights of ordinary gays. I won’t be surprised to see some of them as LDPR deputies after the election!”

Socialist Resistance tries to protest Mitrofanov's speech, Pride conference, 2007

Socialist Resistance tries to protest Mitrofanov’s speech, Pride conference, 2007

Discussion on this question was, of course, not allowed. Activists who wanted to raise the issue were not allowed in to the conference. “Socialist Resistance” members who raised a banner of protest saying “Mitrofanov – Non passaran” when he was speaking were quickly ejected from the hall. As a result of the tactics of the organizers, Sunday’s [Pride march] has not been productive. It gave the media the opportunity to demonstrate that gays are extremely isolated within society. In addition, the participation of Mitrofanov will strengthen the impression of many people that this was not a genuine protest against discrimination but a public relations spectacle.

Doug Ireland can’t say he wasn’t warned.

2. Shared fantasies and beautiful friendships

Ireland, Tatchell, and the rest should have done two things. They could have looked objectively at the problems in Alekseev’s politics and person as far back as 2007, and stopped promoting him as the only legitimate Russian gay voice. And they could have talked to other Russian LGBT activists, to get a picture of their work, goals, and strategies. They did neither.

Instead, they heaped unqualified praise on Alekseev, and they actively insulted other Russians’ struggles.  After Moscow Pride 2009, for instance, Tatchell took to the Guardian to declare himself “awestruck by the masterful strategy and tactics of the organisers,” and added a gratuitous swipe at other Russian LGBT groups:

The gay parade organisers realise that the conferences, glossy reports and low key vigils of other Russian gay organisations have little or no impact on the government — or on public consciousness.

In 2010, Tatchell called Alekseev “a real pioneer and hero.”

His actions are supporting, broadening and strengthening the wider democratic and human rights movement in Russia … Alekseev’s campaigns show him to be a man of great bravery and moral principle. He is risking his life for the sake of liberty and freedom.

2012 pro-democracy protest in Moscow: The kind of thing in which Alekseev never took part

2012 pro-democracy protest in Moscow: The kind of action Alekseev never joined

The odd idea that Alekseev had any part in the broad anti-Putin, pro-democracy movement was one that both Tatchell and Ireland regularly spread. It was completely false. As I’ve noted above, in 2007, Alekseev even announced (with Tatchell present) that he proposed to run for Parliament as a Putin supporter. For years he made it clear that his beef was with the Mayor of Moscow, not Russia’s President. He has always refused to support pro-democracy marches or demonstrations, and has insulted democracy activists as “extremists” (a Putin-era code word for terrorists) or worse. (See the endnote below for more on this.)

Doug Ireland kept up the drumbeat. (Gay City News has, strangely, taken down many of Ireland’s articles on Russia. No use hiding evidence, though: many are still online elsewhere.)  Ireland admits he has “has done more reporting on Alexeyev’s activism and interviewed him more frequently than any other [journalist].” In 2010 he called him “Gay Moscow’s Man of Action,” “intrepid, militant,” and “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers.” (Funniest line: “the dauntless Alexeyev, who rarely talks about himself.”)  Alekseev’s “indomitable courage and perseverance” made him “the principal catalyst for modern Russian gay organizing.”

Barechested boys feel Slavic Pride: Pan-Slavist poster from the US

Barechested boys feel Slavic Pride: Pan-Slavist poster from the US

There were ample other incidents of Alekseev flirting with right-wing ideologies. When, in 2008, he renamed Moscow Pride “Slavic Pride,” allegedly in solidarity with other former Soviet nations, some Russian gays pointed out the Slavophilic and ethnocentric implications. (Putin had already revived 19th-century ideas of “Slavic unity” as part of his imperial discourse.) Not all citizens of Russia or the rest of the old USSR are “Slavs,” they observed, and the name excluded Asians, Muslims, Jews, and others. Surreally, Peter Tatchell praised the idea of a “broader panSlavic movement for queer liberation.” (This is a bit like praising the homo-friendliness of the Black Hundreds.) Tatchell took it upon himself to reprove Viacheslav Revin, a distinguished Russian activist, who raised doubts:

As this Slavic Gay Pride took place in Moscow the focus was on homophobia in Russia. In future the focus will be on homophobia in Belarus and other Slavic [sic] countries. I do not think it is helpful to criticise a successful protest that has done so much to raise awareness of gay people and gay issues. [Tatchell to Euro-Queer listserve, May 19, 2009]

Then consider how Ireland and friends dealt with earlier evidence of Alekseev’s overt anti-Semitism, when it emerged in 2011. Ireland conveniently omits any mention of that incident in his recent article. He’s forgotten completely.

I played a role in outing Alekseev that time. In early 2011, a Russian colleague alerted me to something Alekseev blogged during the Egyptian Revolution: commenting on Israel’s apparent support for Mubarak, Nikolai went off against “the Jews.”

And who, after this, are the Jews? In fact, I knew already who they are.

Nikolai Jews 2011 copyI posted this on a listserve. Alekseev was about to launch a tour of the US; some of the sponsoring organizations, such as Equality California, indignantly withdrew their support for his gigs.

What hue and cry! John Selig, a blogger and friend of Ireland’s, wrote on the Bilerico Project: “Scott Long is scum in my opinion.” Someone named David Badash published a long defense of Alekseev, arguing that of course Alekseev wasn’t a bigot, because Doug Ireland said I was a bad person. In a fine example of circularity, Doug Ireland then reposted Badash’s article, claiming it disproved the “nasty and absurd accusations against Nikolai.” The anti-Semitic comments were “justified criticism,” Doug said.

Ireland anti-Semitism copy 2Gay City News also intervened in Alekseev’s defense. In an adulatory article on Alekseev’s speech in New York, it dismissed the anti-Jewish slur by “Russia’s foremost LGBT leader” as merely a critique “regarding the State of Israel’s support for Egypt’s dictator.” Gay City News accused Alekseev’s critics of “blacklisting” him:

“Gays have no way to express themselves [in Russia],” [Alekseev] said. “If you are gay, lesbian, homosexual, you are blacklisted.” Blacklisting was something Alexeyev risked being subjected to in his US visit as well, once news of the Israel-Mubarak blog post went viral … “I have respect for everyone,” Alexeyev said. “My comments were misinterpreted.”

The puff piece was headed, “Nikolai Alexeyev tells New Yorkers why he remains an optimist.” Why not be an optimist, when you’ve got friends who’ll excuse anything you do?

In fact, Ireland is still pushing the Alekseev myth: claiming that Nikolai always was the unique and fearless leader, before his descent into “madness” two weeks ago. He now writes,

The courageous young women of the agitprop punk band Pussy Riot, now serving a two-year prison sentence … and the equally brave female Russian Olympic athletes who staged a same-sex kiss in front of the cameras to signify their opposition to Putin’s anti-gay repressions in a photo seen around the world, are both linear descendants of [Alekseev’s] Moscow Pride street activism, which no doubt inspired them.

“Linear descendants”? Ridiculous. The anarchist and punk movements that gave rise to Pussy Riot are exactly the ones Alekseev expelled from “his” Pride in 2007, and vilified after. (Ireland might want to look up Voina, the street-art collective from which Pussy Riot sprang. It’s older than Moscow Pride. And “street activism” in Russia far predates Alekseev, and needed no inspiration.)  Anyone who has seen Pussy Riot’s work, and who’s been to Moscow Pride (Ireland never attended) knows there’s no relation between the former’s po-mo visual shock, and the latter’s traditional march-and-picket style. As for the “same-sex kiss,” Doug obviously is ignorant that the two women athletes have insisted their embrace had nothing to do with protest, gays, or Putin. He might want to check these things before going to print.

Alekseev could never be so anarchistic: Pussy Riot members protest in Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, February 21, 2012

Alekseev could never be so anarchistic: Pussy Riot members protest in Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, February 21, 2012

Then Doug offers up this gem:

Recalling how Alexeyev had been kidnapped and drugged by Putin’s security forces in an attempt to pressure him to drop his lawsuit against Russia before the European Court of Human Rights — while Putin-controlled news media put out a phony story that Alexeyev had sought political asylum in, of all places, the homophobic dictatorship of Ukraine! — we thought it was not entirely impossible that the anti-Semitic garbage being attributed to Alexeyev was the work of hackers from Putin’s sophisticated Internet control operation working to discredit Russian gay activists.

First off, by “Ukraine” Doug means “Belarus”— after all these years writing on “Slavic” lands, Doug still confuses countries. The incident he referred to happened in late 2010. Scheduled to board a flight to Switzerland at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, Alekseev disappeared, and went incommunicado for two days except for cryptic calls and SMSes. (Reports that he was seeking asylum in Minsk came from Belarusan state media, not Putin’s.) Doug and his friends understandably tried to rouse international concern – I even advised some worried people on how to contact UN human rights experts. When he resurfaced in Moscow, Alekseev claimed he’d been arrested, drugged, and pressured to withdraw his lawsuits.

But none of this happened; almost as soon as he surfaced, we knew it was all fake. Russian human rights activists will tell you what really transpired: airport police refused to let Alekseev board and then detained him, after he flew into violent fury when asked to remove his shoes. Having texted his “kidnapping” to a waiting world, though, Alekseev had to follow through on that story. If evidence is needed that the incident was trumped up, it’s that the litigious Alekseev – who sues mayors, cops, and human rights activists almost weekly — never pressed a case against police, airport, or airline for the alleged abduction. Alekseev’s onetime “kidnapping” doesn’t suggest that his present statements are forced. Instead, Ireland might ask whether Alekseev’s present instability isn’t more proof that the kidnapping was a fraud.

In one ear, out the other: Ireland, played by noted actor J. J. Hunsecker (R), receives news

In one ear, out the other: Ireland, played by noted actor J. J. Hunsecker (R), receives news

Doug Ireland is perhaps a uniquely awful case. I’ve dealt with many strange reporters over the decades, but Ireland stands out in his favoritism, his mendacity, his capacity to mishear or misrepresent the simplest of facts. He’s loathed me for years, because for years I’ve been on to him; I figured out how he works – or how he doesn’t work: the facts he never checks and the mistakes he never corrects, the basic laziness with which he treats his stories. It’s a reputation that goes back a long way. Friends at The Nation recount how, before they fired him, he used to bellow with rage when editors insisted on correcting his slothful translations from the French. He’s notorious for never interviewing more than one source for a story – less, if he can get away with it; like the Unitarians, he believes in at most one God. (You’ll notice that for his new piece on Alekseev, he spoke to absolutely no one else, in Russia or beyond.)

Still, it’s not just Ireland. Many journalists inflated Alekseev’s reputation over the years; many ignored the signs of trouble. What won him this persistent fan club?

First: It didn’t hurt that Alekseev was on the rich side, with a wealthy Swiss partner. Alekseev flew Peter Tatchell and US military campaigner Dan Choi to Moscow Pride at his own expense. Some gay journalists, like the UK’s Andy Harley, he invited to sojourn in his chalet in the Vale of Chamonix.  When these people went on to write in Alekseev’s extravagant praise, you might expect them to mention their material debts to him. In the tiny worlds of gay activism and journalism, though, with their omertà and codes of silence, ethical standards often don’t apply.

Second: a connected but more important fact. To many Western eyes Nikolai wasn’t just a Russian. In Joseph Conrad’s phrase: he was one of us.

Alekseev had long lived in France, was fluent in both French and English. (Cold-War educational xenophobia left many Russian rights activists monolingual; it puts them at a serious disadvantage if they want to attract foreign attention.) But Nikolai’s attractiveness went beyond his multilingual charm — and beyond his blond good looks, though the number of times Ireland describes him as “young” is certainly suggestive. For Westerners, he offered reassurance that their ways of working were really better, and would work anywhere.

When I met Nikolai back in 2006, I thought he was an idealistic activist with a lot of potential. I also recognized him immediately as a type I knew from years in Eastern Europe: the exile who returns home full of notions about how things should be done, determined to override the provincial idiots’ inadequate ideas. I saw these people flooding Hungary and Romania in the 1990s, flush with ambitions to Westernize everything. In most cases, they got realism knocked back into them quickly, along with a sense of indigenous possibilities, though not without alienating a lot of the people they wanted to help. However, Nikolai was cushioned from ever discovering Russian reality — by the foreigners who discovered him.

Playing to the gallery: Media, mostly Western, at  Moscow Pride conference in 2011. © Charles "Chad" Meacham

Playing to the gallery: Media, mostly Western, at Moscow Pride conference in 2011. © Charles “Chad” Meacham

From the first, in 2006, Moscow Pride played to the foreign gallery. As Moscow authorities announced they’d quash it, foreign activists started signing up to attend in solidarity. By the time I arrived that May, I found it was hardly a Russian event at all. When, at the last minute, Alekseev suggested calling off the march for safety reasons, only about 10 out of more than 100 people in the conference hall were his compatriots; the rest, us tourists. I suggested that the non-Russians leave the room so that only Russians could decide – a move that enraged Nikolai. He’d identified his main audience.

Western adulation meant that Alekseev didn’t have to give a damn about what Russians thought. He confirmed to Westerners that their methods – visibility, marches, rainbow flags – were universally valid; he adjusted his demands to imitate what Westerners wanted, pushing for marriage rights instead of protections from violence. The Prides turned into a repeated drama played for the Western press, detached from Russian reality. Indeed, they fed xenophobia, and helped stigmatize LGBT issues as a foreign intrusion. Evgeny Belyakov, Andrey Demidov, and Igor Yassin have written:

Well-educated, arrogant, wealthy, and flamboyant, Alexeyev presents an elitist and “bourgeois” image of what it means to be gay. Some have even argued that his position is a repetition of the postcolonial discourse depicting Russia as being a “barbarian” country that has much to learn from the “civilized” West.

Sometimes, Westerners just get in the way. Activist Ruslan Porshnev has described perceptively how the 2011 beating of a single, sympathetic Russian — lesbian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko (whom Alekseev never invited to Pride) — affected public opinion far more deeply than years of antics by foreign guests.

Elena Kostyuchenko, taken into custody at Moscow Pride 2011 after an Orthodox protester struck her with a rock

Elena Kostyuchenko, taken into custody at Moscow Pride 2011 after an Orthodox protester struck her with a rock

Third: People relentlessly projected their own fantasies onto Alekseev. In him, disaffected Western activists could see their own dreams of heroism, prestige, and power.

The story of Alekseev that Tatchell and Ireland spun was that of a single, heroic figure changing the world not through politics but through gesture: by sheer force of personality. This wasn’t about Alekseev. It was about themselves. Alekseev vindicated their isolation; they described themselves in him. He embodied the idea that “direct action,” symbolic activism, solo stunts, could move mountains. Media coverage meant more than movement building; as Tatchell wrote,

It is only visible and challenging actions, like the [one-man] gay parades, that put queer issues on the public and political agenda. The same has been true all throughout history. It has been direct action by radical campaigners like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King that has most dramatically and effectively overturned injustice. [emphasis added]

The arrogant pleasure of comparing yourself to King and Gandhi is only one agreeable byproduct. The main joy lies in arguing that your loneliness makes you special. When Tatchell condemns the “conferences” and “low-key vigils” of other Russian LGBT groups, he’s telling us that community organizing and collective effort are secondary. It’s the solitary martyrs, madmen, and gunmen who make history. They’re accountable to nobody and untrammeled by obligations. Gay politics fades into the wild, wild West; the Western, or Westernized, hero rides across its lunar landscape, masked and ready — the Lone Ranger.

The Lone Ranger (cover)

For some of Alekseev’s allies, these self-aggrandizing fantasies were urgent. Doug Ireland’s career as a journalist was pretty much washed up by the time he staggered into the Last Chance Saloon of Gay City News. Hitching himself to Alekseev’s ascending star looked like a smart move. A romantic collusion of matching narcissisms, of insecurities and delusions of grandeur, it was as if Doug’s desperate dreams and Nikolai’s strode off together into the credits: the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The people who suffered for it, though, were Russian LGBT folk. Because individuals don’t move politics: movements do. Dozens of LGBT groups in Russia have slowly been creating broad-based social movements. They’ve been building their communities, making spaces for youth, women, the gender-nonconforming. They’ve been connecting to other political movements and human rights groups that can offer not only support but services. They’ve been trying to carve out a place in the historic pro-democracy campaign. They’ve been reaching out through less confrontational means — film festivals, art exhibitions, publications — to a wider public. It’s not just that Ireland’s and Tatchell’s obsessive promotion of Lone Ranger Nikolai marginalized them and made their work invisible. It’s that the Lone Rangerism made LGBT rights in Russia revolve, in media narratives and then in popular paranoia, around a few flawed, foreign-identified figures. Alekseev’s polarizing prominence was a walking cry for backlash. Alekseev’s fans and fantasists have to answer for the damage.

Alekseev may be finished as a figure, but the forces that dreamed him up live on. Already activists in the West who work on Russia are looking for a new Lone Ranger: somebody else to be the “go-to person,” “new and prized leadership, an imperative voice for the plight of LGBTI Russians.” When they find the guy (it’s usually a guy), they’ll forgive almost anything as long as he gives fodder to their fantasies and says what they want to hear. Just consider this. Alekseev is a racist and an anti-Semite. He finally rubbed his supporters’ faces in it so hard they had to let him go. Michael Lucas, porn king and political commentator, is a racist and Islamophobe. He has a column in Out magazine, and white guys hang on his words for wisdom about the Russia situation. The only difference between the two? Lucas, a professional at feeding other people’s fetishes, knows better than to Tweet while drunk.

NOTE: There is no question that Nikolai Alekseev showed genuine bravery in subjecting himself to arrest on a number of occasions. Some realism about these incidents is necessary, though. First, there’s the matter of their numbers. Ireland claims in his recent piece that Alekseev was “arrested some 40 times in civil disobedience to Russian bans on gay demonstrations.” That’s strange, because after Moscow Pride in 2009 Ireland wrote, accurately, “This is the fourth time the young lawyer has been arrested for holding a gay rights protest.” Either Alekseev was arrested four times in his first three years of activism, then 36+ times in the next four, or Ireland is simply making up figures out of whole cloth. Doug Ireland is serially inaccurate; of course he’s inventing the numbers.

The perhaps six or seven times that Alekseev has actually been arrested for exercising his right to free assembly represent a grave violation of human rights.  However, he has never spent more than 24 hours in jail as a result. It is simply wrong for Ireland to compare him to the women of Pussy Riot, now serving a two-year sentence under inhuman conditions. (It’s even more immoral for Ireland to suggest falsely that Alekseev somehow galvanized Pussy Riot to action.) Equally inappropriate is equating the dangers Alekseev faced to those braved by dissenters whom Putin’s regime murdered, including dissident journalists and others.

Peter Tatchell claimed in late 2011 that “Nikolai’s activism put him in great personal danger from bashings – even assassination … Not many people would have dared continue to put themselves in the frontline and take on the power of the ruthless tyrannical Russian state, having seen so many human rights defenders beaten, framed on trumped up charges and even murdered.” The fact is, though, that Alekseev has consistently disclaimed any affiliation with human rights defenders or the anti-Putin opposition. He is not a pro-democracy activist. There is no evidence that his life has ever been in danger. It does no credit to the courage he actually showed to place him in company where he does not belong, or to exaggerate the circumstances. And in doing so, Tatchell and Ireland insult the memory of activists who have paid the hardest price for truly supporting democracy.

Anna Politkovskaya, journalist, murdered in Moscow, 2006

Anna Politkovskaya, journalist, murdered in Moscow, 2006

Austin Ruse wants to take away your children: C-FAM’s fake “family values”

Ruse_at_UN

Austin Ruse at the United Nations: Don’t confuse that thing behind me with a halo

In Geneva, lobbying the UN largely means sitting at a round glass table in an enormous coffee bar called the Serpent. The name always gives conservative Christians the willies; they think they’re in the guts of Satan anyway. The bar lies in the imperial sprawl of the Palais des Nations. Through windows on the one side, blue Lac Leman unfurls, with the alabaster Alps beyond; on the other, government delegates lumber by, and you try to nab them on their way to cappuccinos.  I slumped there one afternoon in 2004, just after Brazil, which had introduced the first-ever resolution on sexual orientation at the Commission on Human Rights, had withdrawn its efforts, partly under pressure from the Islamic bloc. For all of us who’d sustained hope for weeks, a gloom settled thick as Gauloise smoke. Three diehard resolution opponents plumped themselves down deliberately at my table. I knew them well. Two were American: Blond, taut-smiled Lynn Allred, with a perpetual whiff of hairspray, represented a shifting range of Mormon organizations; Jeanne Head, stern and square-jawed, was designated driver for several Roman Catholic anti-abortion groups. Between them sat Amr Roshdy, a strutting mass of machismo from the Egyptian mission, who had led the fight against Brazil’s resolution on the Commission floor.

Clark Kent, Cairo style; Amr Roshdy asking where is the nearest telephone booth

Clark Kent, Cairo style; Amr Roshdy asking about the nearest telephone booth

A promiscuously ecumenical crew, as always: in other eras or gatherings, they might have burned each other at the stake. Only the strange power of sex brought them together  – not, of course, to have sex with each other, but to dissuade anybody from having sex they didn’t like. Their alliance across deep confessional divides embodied the peculiar conjunctions that fear of feminism, and hatred of human rights, can bring about. Allred, in her organization’s newsletters, used to ladle praise on Roshdy, whose work as spokesman for the UN’s Islamic bloc surely placed him high in right-wing nightmares about the coming Caliphate. “During our time in Geneva,” she wrote, “I began to suspect that beneath Roshdy’s shirt and tie there was very likely a big red ‘S’–of the variety that Superman wore.”  Was she sure it didn’t stand for “Saracen”?

As we monitored the negotiations of numerous resolutions with other pro-family non-governmental organizations, we would often pass by them in the hall, frantically looking for him. “Where’s Amr?” “Go find Amr!” “We need Amr!” He raced from room to room whenever a problem arose that required pro-family input. He saved the day on many occasions.

This day, the trio staged a little conversation for my benefit, since they knew me as chief UN representative for Satan’s sexual wiles. I remember Jeanne Head asking Roshdy theatrically, “What if the homosexuals bring this resolution back next year?” The Egyptian, loudly: “We’ll kill it.”

It’s nine years later, and a similar resolution long since passed in Geneva, and LGBT people’s rights as human rights are more safely ensconced in the UN than ever. Yet defeat for these folks is only an aphrodisiac. Their capacity to set principle aside in their political copulations is still going strong.

Consider Austin Ruse.

Ruse heads the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, better known as C-FAM, one of the most powerful anti-choice, anti-sexuality groups lobbying at the UN. I remember his dour presence from many a Geneva and New York meeting. This Friday, he published an article at Breitbart.com, the huge US right-wing website, defending Russia’s new anti-homosexual law, which he claims “human rights groups” actually support. Ruse’s intervention reveals the alliances these campaigners are trying to build.

It’s an astonishing article. Consummately smarmy, Ruse cites news reports on the anguish of queer Russian kids growing up surrounded by homophobia. And he claims he wants to help them:

[The Washington Post] tells the story of 16-year-old Maxim of Moscow who came out publically [sic] as gay at 13-years-old. He says his classmates called him names and that a teacher tried to cut his “longish hair.” …

So, who is supposed to be talking to Maxim about such a complicated and thorny issue? Should it be gay advocates who have an ax to grind? Certainly, they would like to increase their tribe … The Russian people, supported by 100 human rights and other groups from around the world, have determined that such unscientific ideologues should be kept out of schools and out of sight of school children …

Like all young people, Maxim deserves space to grow and learn and change and to be free from ideologies that may not have his best interests in mind.

There’s a Dickensian hypocrisy to Ruse’s woozy New-Ageism, his tender concern that Maxim “grow and learn and change” while kept far away from any facts that might help him feel slightly better about himself. Mind you, the “ideology” that Ruse thinks does have Maxim’s “best interests in mind” is not some spongy-soft, vodka-soaked version of family values. It’s the authoritarian State ideology of Vladimir Putin.

No, really. I have your best interests in mind: Putin with unconvinced child

No, really. Listen to me. I have your best interests in mind: Putin with unpersuaded child

Ruse is on a regular campaign to prop up Putin. In another recent op-ed, he turned on gay right-wing journalist Jamie Kirchick (an ambitious, long-time brownnoser to the Breitbart empire, by the way, who must be hurt that his flattery has gone unrequited). Ruse called Kirchick “hysterical” for opposing the anti-“propaganda” legislation. He applauds the fact that Jamie and his ilk “cannot have their way with those in other countries and certainly not with the Russians who overwhelmingly support the reasonable new law.” Meanwhile,  C-FAM, Ruse’s organization, has come up with the most inventive defense yet of the odious provision. By their lights, its stiff fine on anyone who produces positive information about homosexuality merely “acts as a tax on public displays of affection by homosexuals”! After all, “$155 is hardly unmanageable for homosexuals who want to kiss in public.” Taxing kisses! You’d have to admit those smooches come kind of pricy. 

What's the matter, faggot, you didn't pay your fucking taxes? Police assault a marcher at St. Petersburg Pride, 2013. AP: Dmitry Lovetsky

What’s the matter with you, faggot, why didn’t you pay your fucking taxes? Police assault a marcher at St. Petersburg Pride, 2013. AP: Dmitry Lovetsky

Finally, C-FAM helped organize a letter by 102 “pro-family” organizations (mostly European Catholic and Orthodox circles, with a few American exemplars like Linda Harvey’s weird and militant US cult) in support of the Russian law. These are the “human rights groups” Ruse refers to. The letter waxes piously indignant over the “heavy attacks” that Russia endures over its actions — though in fact, as with Syria, oil-fed nationalism seems to cushion Putin against any vestigial sensitivity to criticism he might feel.

What is up with Ruse, and his passion for Putin?

Probably most Americans reading Ruse’s recent drivel know little about him or his organization. C-FAM has a relatively small budget – $1.2 million in 2012, according to its tax filings – but outsized influence. It is the not-exactly-legitimate offspring of an anti-abortion group called Human Life International (HLI), founded in 1981. HLI’s creator, Father Paul Marx,  a DC-based Catholic priest, exploited two networks to build his brainchild: Reagan-era US conservatives, and the Vatican. The former provided funding, the latter global connections. HLI grew quickly, establishing outposts across Latin America, Africa, and Europe. An odor of disreputability hung about it, though, partly from its ties to violence-inciting anti-abortion fanatics such as Randall Terry. Several times in the 1990s, Jewish leaders in the US and Canada condemned Paul Marx  for a trail of anti-Semitic statements. Marx had tried to win favor with the French, for instance, by claiming:

A famous genetics professor in Paris told me that the leaders of the abortion movement in France were Jewish. I saw one, a Jewish female liar, do her thing on behalf of abortion at the World Population Conference in Bucharest.

Father Paul Marx (center) leads protesters outside an abortion clinic

Don’t be frightened, everybody, but there are Jews inside: Father Paul Marx (center) leads protesters outside an abortion clinic

HLI proved too controversial for the UN, which denied it consultative status in 1993. In response, its leaders set up C-FAM in 1997, as a more respectable and NGO-like front for its lobbying at the world institution. Minutes from C-FAM’s first internal meeting, obtained by the progressive group Catholics for Choice, say:

Not public knowledge that HLI is funding office. Use discretion. Initially state that we are supported by multitudes of individuals/organizations. Don’t hide the fact that HLI is funder — just don’t volunteer that fact to uncertain/non-friendly persons.

Austin Ruse, an unknown who had worked on the financial end of various magazines from Fortune to Rolling Stone, rose to be its head – perhaps because he had no spoor of embarrassing political comments behind him.

This was in the aftermath of two landmark UN meetings, which produced unprecedented affirmations of women’s sexual rights; The 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, and the 1995 Fifth World Conference on Women held in Beijing. Women’s rights opponents were on the defensive at the UN. One thing they’d learned, though, was that a critical mass of conservative States rejected reproductive freedoms, and reacted against homosexuality as a classic wedge issue. Yet many of these countries — in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — didn’t take well to HLI’s highly religious, Catholic-specific message. HLI, after all, had held panels on topics like “The Muslim Threat to the World.” This didn’t exactly go down easily with Egypt’s or Pakistan’s UN delegations.

Austin Ruse and C-FAM helped perfect a strategy of reaching out to those States. He switched rhetoric, no longer focusing exclusively on religion but on vague and elastic “traditional values,” and –- most importantly — on respect for “sovereignty,” supposedly threatened by outside forces and by international norms. I’ve written elsewhere how the latter language proved especially seductive, for repressive governments resisting human rights scrutiny.  C-FAM helped them figure out how to fight back against intrusive rights advocates. Ruse talked in terms of power, not principles. He warned sympathetic countries that “UN radicals in alliance with radical lawyers and judges and other advocates around the world are attempting the greatest power grab the world has even known.”

C-FAM banner: Your sovereignty is in good hands with us

C-FAM banner: Your sovereignty is in good hands with us

His tactics included packing UN meetings with supporters – sometimes priests and nuns — who intimidated women’s and progressive groups, and in some cases virtually staged putsches in NGO spaces. “We attended all of the women’s meetings and essentially took them over,” he boasted. “Memos were going back from [conferences] in New York to governments in the European Union that radical fundamentalists had taken over the meeting, and that was us.”

He built close relationships with other US conservative forces, including Mormon and evangelical Protestant campaigners. After  the century’s turn, he nuzzled up to the Bush White House, even moving his own office from UN Plaza to Washington in 2006. Ruse’s greatest victory, though, was in making improbable buddies out of some of the Bush administration’s international enemies. Sudan, Libya, and Iran all became his allies in fighting sexual and reproductive rights, along with China, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.  C-FAM turned into one of the best friends of brutal dictatorships ever to lobby the UN.

And that tells you what’s behind Ruse’s pandering to Putin. His history of fraternal intimacy with repressive States has served him in good stead. Austin Ruse owes one to Russia’s authoritarian government, and he pays his debts.

At the UN Human Rights Council in recent years, Russia has pushed for, and passed, a resolution on “traditional values” and human rights. The initial Russian draft, Austin Ruse has written approvingly, “could easily have come from the pen of Tony Perkins at the Family Research Council” — one of America’s most far-right advocacy groups. The resolution was concocted with clever ambiguity; its passage owed partly to several Latin American states who believed, wrongly, that it might bolster indigenous people’s cultural claims. In fact, the text aims implicitly at the rights of women and minorities, shunting them into second priority behind protecting undefined customs and traditions.

"Leave them alone!" Traditional values defend Russian children from homosexual Michael Jackson impersonator: From a right-wing website, http://www.pravoslavie.ru/smi/62193.htm

“Leave them alone!” Traditional Values Man, resembling Tolstoy with muscles, defends Russian children from homosexual Michael Jackson impersonator. From a right-wing website, http://www.pravoslavie.ru/smi/62193.htm

Most likely, Russia’s initial motive was to strike at reproductive rights — its action in Geneva coincided with a move in Moscow to restrict abortion severely, for the first time since the fall of Communism. Ruse, however, quickly saw that the resolution, if successful, could become a tool for conservatives worldwide to roll back an array of freedoms — and crack down on LGBT people. At a time when LGBT rights seemed ascendant at the UN, Russia handed Ruse a gift. “What we are witnessing,” he declared,

is an awakening of the Russian social policy bear. Many governments have grown weary of the aggressiveness of the sexual left, now firmly ensconced in the U. N. bureaucracy and human rights machinery. …  Russia seems happy to join this fight with her geopolitical competitors.

Ruse’s gratitude to the Russians makes him a reliable defender of almost any excess of Putin’s regime. He’ll go to rhetorical extremes to repay them. He added:

Some will say, that’s all well and good, but should social conservatives make common cause with a geopolitical competitor of the United States? Some will ask if we’re concerned about Russia’s domestic crackdown?

Yes on one, no on two. “Russia is far from perfect, but on social policy she is a good deal better than we are at the moment.”

There’s one small kink, but it’s unlikely to bother Ruse. It does, however, expose the lie that lingers in C-FAM’s very name: the Catholic Family Institute. The day before Austin Ruse’s Breitbart piece appeared, a new law came before the Russian Duma. It would let the State take children away from lesbian or gay parents, adding homosexuality to a list of conditions (including drug and child abuse) that give legal cause for loss of custody. “In cases when a parent has sexual contact with people of their own gender, the damage that can be inflicted on the psyche of a child is enormous,” said the bill’s sponsor, Alexei Zhuravlyov.

I am your father, all of you, I am your father. That man in your house is just an accident.

I am your father, all of you, I am your father. That man in your house is just an unnecessary accident.

It’s not clear whether the bill will pass. Zhuravlyov is a member of Putin’s ruling party. More importantly, he’s a leader of Rodina (“Motherland”) a populist, neo-fascist faction sometimes called ‘Putin’s special force.” Racist and nationalist, Rodina speaks for just the right-wing constituencies that Putin is trying to peel away from the divided political opposition. There’s a good chance that, expedient as always, he’ll give them exactly what they want.

Zhuravlyov, in full drag, addresses a Rodina rally

Children, who have you seen your parents touching? Zhuravlyov, in full drag, addresses a Rodina rally

Ruse might just possibly claim he didn’t know about the anti-family bill before he mounted his latest defense of Putin. If so, Ruse is lying. Rumors of the legislation have circulated — in the Western press, too — for months. Lesbian journalist and activist Masha Gessen warned weeks ago, in the Guardian, that lawmakers had “pledged to create a mechanism for removing children from same-sex families.” She added:

In March, the St Petersburg legislator who had become a spokesman for the law started mentioning me and my “perverted family” in his interviews. I contacted an adoption lawyer asking whether I had reason to worry that social services would go after my family and attempt to remove my oldest son, whom I adopted in 2000. The lawyer wrote back telling me to instruct my son to run if he is approached by strangers and concluding: “The answer to your question is at the airport.”

So much for Austin Ruse and his hypocritical group’s “family values.” Ruse and C-FAM will watch and cheer a monstrous State tearing children from their families, if it advances their own political power.

Ruse has never cared about human rights. Ten years ago, after all, he palled around with Amr Roshdy and the Egyptian UN delegations at the very same time their government was torturing men accused of homosexual conduct in Cairo. Ruse didn’t give a damn about the blood and agony. He couldn’t give a damn about dissent, or murders, or free speech, or anybody’s rights in Russia now.

Still, Ruse’s assault on Russian families — the families his group claims to value — is a new low. “Defending families” is supposed to be his group’s reason for being, not exposing them to State annihilation. Ruse has been willing to use his own family in the past, to promote himself and his political agenda. He’s been featured on “Fathers for Good: Newsworthy Dads,” holding his children up to view. He’s exploited his daughter as example and argument, claiming the Food Network exposed her to the sight of a “lesbian chef’s” wrongful relationship:

My eight-year-old Lucy, sweet Lucy, turned to me and said: ‘Did she say wife?’ And I said, ‘No, I think she meant girlfriend.’ And Lucy said, ‘I think she said life.’ God bless the innocence of this child. But they will not let us off the mat, the ideologies who want to cram this thing down our throats no matter where we go.

But Ruse is the one who won’t let go, of the beliefs that put other parents and other kids in danger. Ruse’s own ideology matters more to him than any family. Even, I suspect, his own.

Not without my daughter: Austin Ruse defends his children against homosexuals who may want theirs back

Not without my daughter: Austin Ruse defends his children against homosexuals who may want theirs back

Nikolai Alekseev speaks: “I’ve been called a faggot on every corner, and I can’t call someone a Yid?”

"They are trying to seize power in Russia," and my little LGBT organization is the first target: Russian edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1992

“They are trying to seize power in Russia,” and my little LGBT organization is the first target: Russian edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1992

Nikolai Alekseev, the activist who has for long enjoyed a near-monopoly on Western media coverage of LGBT issues in Russia, had yet another social-media meltdown last night, spewing a flood of unequivocally anti-Semitic Tweets and Facebook posts. This is the latest eruption among several in recent weeks; John Aravosis covers the repellent content here. This morning, Alekseev followed up with an interview given to the independent news website Slon.ru. Here is a translation, completed with the help of Russian-speaking friends. (Please, if you notice any inaccuracies, note them in the comments.) This may at least settle the fears of many of Alekseev’s diehard fans and supporters who still suspect he’s been hacked or made away with, and can’t bring themselves to admit he’s saying these things himself. Or, the human propensity for naive belief being what it is, maybe it won’t. Anyway, let the man speak for himself.

[NB. Alekseev Tweeted this article this morning, and posted it on his Facebook account. So, unless the same Kremlin puppeteers who kidnapped him and hacked his passwords also impersonated him in talking to Slon, one can assume that he approves of how he was represented in the interview.]

Alekseev: “Americans do not help the LGBT community in Russia, they just undermine it” 

Ilya Shepelin

Alekseev, from Slon.ru

Alekseev, from Slon.ru

Today, the most famous Russian LGBT activist, the head of human rights project GayRussia Nikolai Alekseev, lashed out at U.S. gay organizations. In particular, he called their leaders “Jews, who want to control the LGBT movement in Russia.” Recently, foreign LGBT rights activists have come out with frequent proposals to take action against Russia because of a law banning “propaganda of homosexuality among minors,” but Alekseev’s statements seem perhaps even sharper than the reaction of the Russian authorities. Slon contacted Alekseev, to find out what angers Russian LGBT activists.

- Nikolai, why do you have to use anti-Semitic slurs against members of Western LGBT organizations?
- I don’t understand what ‘s the big deal? They are trying to seize power in Russia – power over the LGBT movement. For example, right now in America, there is a group of people who are actively doing everything to frustrate my trip to the U.S. They put pressure on Human Rights Watch [sic: Human Rights First initially invited Alekseev to a U.S. meeting], so I wouldn’t go to Washington in early December. They just bombard them with emails and all that they’ve got, so that I was disinvited. Moreover, this whole campaign is about the boycott of the Olympic Games and Russian vodka, which is not supported by the active part of the LGBT community in Russia.

The entire campaign which they’re now cranking up is pure PR for a topical subject which has recently come up around Russia. They don’t help the LGBT community in Russia, but simply undermine it. They sit there for themselves in New York and London, and they are not at risk. And we are here. Therefore, the whole of their activity does nothing but harm. The way they operate – and behind the scenes to boot. They say something and say they have freedom of speech, but there is no there is no freedom of speech! All this is a myth. I played there in the University of Harvard [sic: Alekseev is referring to a lecture at Columbia University in New York in 2011], so they just went to the rector, and urged him to cancel my lecture there! [sic: I was at Columbia at the time, and nobody urged that. His lecture went undisturbed.]

- I don’t really understand why you disturb them.
- But I do not do what they want. I don’t support their methods – the boycott of the Olympic Games in Sochi, the absolutely ridiculous boycott of vodka. They operate by their own methods, which we have to accept and act the way they should. But we will not! All of our court cases and complaints to the European Court were initiated by us. Any suggestions as to how to deal with the laws on propaganda, they pooh-pooh. But no one listens to us. They just continue to do their PR.

- And tell me, what is this gay lobby in America?
- Oh, yes, there are a lot of them! You read what they’re writing in their articles! It feels like they’ve got nothing better to do than read my Facebook and Twitter, and search out the things that they find, in their opinion, unacceptable. Now they’re trying in every possible way to attribute some anti-Semitism to me!

- But you called them “Yids”  [жидами] a few hours ago on Twitter.
- Yid – is that an offensive anti-Semitic word?

Lyudmila told the truth: Lyudmila Alekseeva

Lyudmila told the truth: Lyudmila Alekseeva

- Actually, it’s a term of contempt for the Jews [евреев].
- I’ve been called a fa**ot [п*******м] on every corner, and I can’t call someone a Yid? I don’t run to the courts when I’m name-called. [sic: Alekseev famously sued Lyudmila Alekseeva, no relation, the widely revered 86-year-old leader in the Russian human rights movement, for libel, Peter-Tatchell-style, after she called him a “liar.”] 

- If you’re name-called, I think it’s no reason to name-call the Jews [евреев].
- I didn’t name-call the Jews [евреев]! [sic: check Alekseev’s Twitter feed.] I said that there is a group of people in America which is engaged in clandestine subversive activities. It includes pornographer Michael Lucas, who fled from here in 1994, journalist Masha Gessen – now she’s settled in America, under the pretext of these laws on “promotion” [of homosexuality], just to get away from here quickly, though she’s not doing anything for the LGBT community. Twice she took a job, and then they drove her out from everywhere. All these people are promoting their agenda, and it doesn’t suit us. I said nothing about Jews in general. [sic] I talked about specific people in America who are engaged in such activities and who have tried to disrupt [my] event there. Well, what kind of freedom of speech can you speak of there?

- And you’re trying to say that American LGBT organizations should just take your position?
- No, but here all the leading organizations opposed the boycott of the Olympic Games, and opposed the boycott of vodka.

- But these organizations, quite frankly, aren’t likely to reflect the views of the majority of Russian gays.
- And who can represent the views of anybody else, unless there is an election? You can say that something reflects the opinion of the majority of Jews [евреев] in Russia? What do you mean, referendums were held there?

- There are organizations that have some authority.
- I’m talking about them – about the active LGBT community. People who are on the front lines and fight for their rights. And what ordinary members of the LGBT community think doesn’t matter, because they do not affect the development of the situation.

- Foreign LGBT organizations do not have the right to express their opinion?
- For God’s sake. But what are they trying to do? To do what’s  best for the LGBT community in Russia, or to make a universal noise and get more grants?They are doing it for their own sake, or for Russia? If it’s for their own sake, then let them be. And tomorrow I can arrange a protest against Obama, for example. And then what?

- It is not exactly clear what successes are due to these active LGBT organizations in Russia.
- Very big ones. The first victory in the European Court of Human Rights (the case of “Alekseev v. Russia”), the victory at the UN Committee on Human Rights about the law “On the promotion of homosexuality” in the Ryazan region. There the law was adopted in 2006, back then nobody was interested in it – now everybody pounces on [the issue]. Now in Ryazan, a court is reviewing the case – and the review would be a terrible blow to Ryazan, and to the federal laws “On the promotion of homosexuality”! And we have a lot of achievements!

- Of course. Only these achievements take place outside of the Russian Federation, in Strasbourg and Brussels.
- So these solutions will just have to do! If there are dozens of such decisions and Russia doesn’t take them into account, it’ll just be removed from the Council of Europe! Because the issue has already been before the Cabinet of Ministers of the Council of Europe for two years, and every six months they require an explanation from Russia. And it won’t last forever!

- However, the situation for the rights of gays in Russia is certainly not getting any better. And I have to say, among some of my gay friends you have a dubious reputation. I’ve heard that there have been cases when you were supposed to come to the unauthorized gay pride parades, and don’t show up.
- When was that? I went to all of them except 2012. Then I did not go simply because at the time my father was dying – for your information. You all just show up, and I’m working!

- Well, why do we just show up? Because you will too. Now, remember, you spread information that the City Council had agreed for the first time to allow a gay pride parade in Moscow, but it was not true.
- Oh, how do you know whether it was true or not true?

- City Hall immediately denied your claim. You didn’t show any documents that allegedly were a tentative agreement.
- Denied? And so what?

- It turns out that you lied.
- No, that isn’t true! So what?

- The fact is, it’s pretty sad. 

The rape of the jock: A-jad, manhood, and “Iran 180″

At Electronic Intifada, Benjamin Doherty excellently investigated the megaweird San Francisco Pride crèche of Ahmadinejad being sodomized by a nuclear warhead. To summarize what he’s found: something called Iran 180 sponsored the float. It’s a “movement of  people and organizations who have come together as a unified voice to demand a 180 by the Iranian government on their pursuit of nuclear weapons and the treatment of their citizens.” As you would expect from that, it’s not a movement at all: discouraged that anti-Iran rallies outside the UN “attract fewer attendees and even less press, the New York Jewish Community Relations Council decided to act and formed a new coalition called Iran 180.” They found the language of human rights instrumental to their cause:

A petition on basic human rights for women, minorities, unions, media, journalists, political opposition, juveniles, and more, helped generate interest from some non-traditional allies such as the NAACP and 100 Hispanic Women.

Not to mention the Korean American Community Empowerment Council and the United Haitian American Society.  Most of the groups undoubtedly signed on with no particular idea what they were endorsing, except that it all sounding like a Good Idea.  As Ben notes, it’s a fine case of “astroturfing” — “advocacy in support of a political, organizational, or corporate agenda, designed to give the appearance of a ‘grassroots‘ movement” (merci Wikipedia). Two PR firms spearheaded the 2010 launch, one of them a division of Burson-Marsteller, notorious for refurbishing the images of evil dictators and other miscreants.

That scowing, hook-nosed Ahmadinejad puppet is the staple of Iran 180′s street theater. One of the lead groups writes, “The popularity and presence of this puppet made it a useful tool for Iran 180 … The press had a catchy photograph and Iran 180 had a hook” — the latter a Freudian slip, no doubt. Ben found additional photos of the SF Pride float. On the left, Mahmoud drops his pants to let the warhead in; on the right, he fellates it:

They’re obsessed with the Ahmedinejad-is-a-fag theme. Here’s a UN demo with A-jad in red heels (it’s Human Rights Day, December 10, which I never knew also celebrated the fashion-challenged):

And here they’re staging a gay wedding between A-jad and Bashar Assad, under a chuppa, with Qaddafi as witness:

What the hell is the point of all this iconography? Any residual irony is wasted in the case of Assad, who is known for many awful things but not especially for homophobia. Is this supposed to change the minds of gays somehow? I find it hard to imagine any homo stumbling on this touching scene and feeling the urge to blast away those Persian centrifuges, or rain destruction on Damascus.

Surely, instead, he’d think he’d wandered into the long-postponed wedding of Frankenberry and Count Chocula.

The whole bizarre display seems torn from the discredited writings of Raphael Patai, the Israeli-American Orientalist whose dissection of “The Arab Mind” (and, by extension, Middle Eastern masculinity in general) became an ur-text underpinning Abu Ghraib. As Seymour Hersh wrote:

The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. … [Patai's] book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. …  The Patai book, an academic told me, was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged—“one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”

Putative insults directed at the sexualities of US enemies in the region are legion. There was, and is, for instance, a longstanding rumor that Yasser Arafat was gay and died of AIDS, spread by neoconservatives with glee. Unlike most rumors, it’s possible to pinpoint this one’s source with some precision. Ion Pacepa, chief of foreign intelligence in Ceauşescu’s Romania, defected to the US in 1978, and later composed his memoir, Red Horizons, while under CIA protection. In it, he claimed that secret microphones caught Arafat making love to his male bodyguard while visiting Bucharest.  The book is full of wild stories, and this particular propaganda gem had a two-birds usefulness for the US: it impugned not only Arafat for screwing a man, but Ceauşescu (notoriously puritanical) for tolerating it. The CIA called his book “an important and unique contribution to the United States,” and it should be read as such, along with other important and unique fabrications such as the histories of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch.

As I’ve written here about “outing,” deploying anxieties about homosexuality to defame or shame people simply means manipulating — and endorsing — homophobia. This is true whether the object is Ahmadinejad, Assad, or Rick Perry.

On looking at this stuff, though, I have to note what bad propaganda it is. Is Burson- Marsteller (“the world’s biggest PR company,” apparently) any good at what it does? Ben quotes the Guardian on its mind-molding feats: the firm

was employed by the Nigerian government to discredit reports of genocide during the Biafran war, the Argentinian junta after the disappearance of 35,000 civilians, and the Indonesian government after the massacres in East Timor. It also worked to improve the image of the late Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu and the Saudi royal family.

Its corporate clients have included the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979, Union Carbide after the Bhopal gas leak killed up to 15,000 people in India …

Hmm.  Nobody much doubts anymore that Nigeria’s, Argentina’s, and Indonesia’s dictators were guilty of murder; while if I remember my 1989 rightly, Ceauşescu and his brand went the way of the Edsel and New Coke.  Three Mile Island pretty much ended the nuclear industry in the US — and so on. If I were Ahmadinejad, I would take comfort from this record of ineptitude and sip my Coke Classic in peace of mind.

Nicolae on trial: I demand to speak to the Grand National Assembly and Burson-Marsteller right now

The Ahmadinejad puppet clearly derives from old anti-Semitic imagery. But the point of Nazi propaganda was to frighten people. (Jeffrey Herf’s study of wartime anti-semitic posters is a thoroughly disturbing guide.) The Jew appeared as monstrous threat, individuality always dissolving in collective, conspiratorial menace:

"The Jew: Inciter of the War, Prolonger of the War." 1943 Nazi poster, from Jeffrey Herf, "The Jewish Enemy"

“The Jew: Inciter of the War, Prolonger of the War.” 1943 Nazi poster, from Jeffrey Herf, “The Jewish Enemy”

It’s horrific, but it worked, a gross demonology that actually did incite and prolong the war. It wouldn’t have occurred to them to depict the Jew as schlemiel. This Ahmadinejad — sexually passive, his pants down, generally pathetic — has nothing threatening about him. There is no great propaganda value in portraying the dictator of Iran as Woody Allen. Even when he tries to scare, the effect is unconvincing:

Such is the dreaded Mad Bomber, the feared Hitler of the Gulf, and the worst he can do is wave one of Dorothy’s ruby slippers at you? Even in the unmanly corridors of the Arab Mind (how many times have we been told in the last decade that “Showing the sole of your shoe has long been an insult in Arab culture”?) this guy is considerably less alarming than Imelda Marcos.

This failure points, I think, to a larger and partly disabling ideological contradiction in our world of post-colonial wars. It’s a point often made that the Nazis brought back colonial methods  – of disenfranchisment, dispossession, and murder — to the European homeland. Yet in order to do so, in order to overcome the moral and material barriers to such a slaughter on nearby soil, they needed to conjure a threat more comprehensive and capable than the colonial Other, generally shown as impotent, backward, and helpless minus the mission civilisatrice. They needed the tropes of far-reaching conspiratorial power, the Enemy within, that came from anti-Semitic paranoia. Only that kind of fearsome, concocted foe could gin up a comfort-fattened populace to the hardships of total war — not to mention the horrors of mass murder.

That ’70s Paranoia: Big Mullah, Little White Man

In the interminable battles with brown people that constitute American foreign policy at the start of the millenium, though, these tropes aren’t functional. Brown people, after all, are born schlemiels and born bottoms; so intrinsic to the West is the contempt for their competence and capacities that it’s hard to impute the requisite menace to them.  The late 20th century saw various attempts to elevate the Arab or the Ayatollah to the power and dignity of World Enemy, based mainly on the conspiratorial connection with oil; these sinister plotters kept hatching destructive cabals in clandestine secret hideouts, like Tora Bora, OPEC, or the UN.   But those enemies, like Ahmadeinejad, kept lapsing back into their appointed role in the Western imagination, as buffoon.  The propaganda around the last Gulf War was illustrative of the contradiction. On the one hand, Colin Powell and Tony Blair and the rest assured us that Saddam Hussein was a universal monster who put everybody in jeopardy, with poised weapons forty minutes’ flight from Paddington. On the other, keeping up support for the war meant promising this would be an easy kill; the poor joker couldn’t possibly hold out in his bunker for more than a week, and we’d be welcomed with flowers while opponents withered like kudzu in the desert. Memorably, neither was true.

It’s quite telling that, although there’s a bomb on the Ahmadeinejad float, the droopy A-jad isn’t the one wielding it. Instead, he’s the one raped by it. Iran, in the imagery, is the party getting nuked.

How strange … or is it? Could this be a last Freudian slip in Iran 180′s unconscious repertory? After all: the one universally known but unspeakable secret in the current furor over Iran’s nuclear program is: there’s already one nuclear power in the region. Günter Grass presumed to mention this fact in a recent poem, and got hit by the intellectual equivalent of Desert Storm for his presumption (though the controversy did contribute to investigations of how Germany furnishes Israel with submarines to carry its nuclear arsenal).

After Ben published his piece, Iran 180 posted, miraculously, an apology on its Facebook page.

In June 2011, Iran180 participated in the San Francisco Pride Parade … The performance mocked the Iranian regime’s homophobia and was intended to raise awareness of the continued persecution of the LGBTQ community in Iran. As our followers know, drawing attention to the plight of Iran’s LGBTQ community is a priority for us. While the float was largely well received by onlookers, there were elements of the performance that unfortunately crossed the line and were clearly inappropriate. For that we sincerely apologize and have taken steps to ensure that this will not happen again.

But what line, exactly, did they cross? Is this an unlikely acknowledgement that rape and racism are bad? Or are they recognizing that, inadvertently, they gave too much away?