Tim Cook’s coming out: Leaning in, trickling down

Poster - Coming Out Party_04I’ve lost interest in being gay. Not the sex; the slogans. This has been gathering over time — whose identity wouldn’t shudder under the dark suspicion it was shared with John Travolta?  — but something changed when coming out stopped being a matter of self-affirmation, with its secret thrill of hedonism, and became a moral obligation. What’s the fun of being yourself if you have to?

Everyone must be out now; and it’s not enough to be out, you have to be out enough to affirm the community, uplift the race. Thus Guy Branum (“writer and comedian”) has reprimanded Nate Silver, the numbers man, who announced he was gay a couple of years ago. Silver topped off his moment of candor, however, with a demurral: “I don’t want to be Nate Silver, gay statistician.” Wrong.

Silver’s refusal to fully participate in gay identity is the real problem … We can’t behave like Nate Silver’s choice to distance himself from gay culture is just another choice. … We need to make it safe for a statistician to be gay and have it affect their work, because some people are gay, some people are black, some people are women and all of those perspectives can enrich all fields. Nate Silver being a gay statistician will help that. [emphasis added]

Just as Philip Roth had to be a Jewish novelist, and Toni Morrison had to be a black writer, constrained in the gated communities of identity, so “yes, Nate Silver, you have to be a gay statistician.” Coming out isn’t just a public act because it’s addressed to a public, but because it’s owned by one.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, came out this week, and oh the humanity. People didn’t just congratulate him; they hailed him as Moses or Martin Luther King, as if he hadn’t just written an op-ed in Bloomberg Businessweek but had revised the Bible.

“Tim Cook’s announcement today will save countless lives. He has always been a role model, but today millions across the globe will draw inspiration from a different aspect of his life”

so said Chad Griffin of the Human RIghts Campaign. Apple is “a sponsor of the Human Rights Campaign” (“The work we do with these groups is meaningful and inspiring,” the company says). While it’s impossible to decipher how much money they ladle out, they give enough to make them an HRC “Platinum Partner.” HRC thus slobbers on the hand that feeds it. But some praise for Cook is unpaid. The unbribeable New York Times quoted the unbribeable Lloyd Blankfein, of Goldman Sachs:  “He’s chief executive of the Fortune One. Something has consequences because of who does it, and this is Tim Cook and Apple. This will resonate powerfully.”

A light in the darkness: Cook, with logo

A light in the darkness: Cook, with logo

I love my Apple swag, and God forbid I should be cynical. Yet for days fulsome praise of Cook filled my Mac’s screen, and I resisted just enough to wonder where the enthusiasm came from. How will a rich executive’s painless revelation, offered at the apex of his career, change lives, even save them? What do you mean, it will “resonate” — where, with whom? What does it say about our ritual public confessionals? What does it say about us?

Start with this. The New York Times quotes “Richard L. Zweigenhaft, co-author of Diversity in the Power Elite: How It Happened, Why it Matters … who has closely tracked the progress of minorities in business.” For Zweigenhaft, Cook’s announcement inspired “the same feeling that I had back in 1998, when many were speculating about when the first African-American would be appointed a Fortune-level chief executive.”

It’s odd Zweigenhaft was speculating about that in 1998. The first African-American head of a Fortune firm dates back to 1987. (At least by some counts.) So much for “closely monitoring.” The man was Clifton Wharton, and he was CEO and chairman of the pension behemoth TIAA-CREF.*

Jet Magazine, May 21, 1970, covers Clifton White's elevation to university president. Note that a nun gets higher billing.

Jet magazine, May 21, 1970, covers Clifton White’s elevation to university president. Note that a nun gets higher billing.

Yet questions start. One is: How earthshaking is it for a minority to run an enormous corporation if you don’t even notice when it happens? Another is: Why didn’t African-Americans explode with joy? Thirteen black men and one black woman have headed Fortune 500 companies since then. The “African-American community” seems different from the “gay community” (and not just because the “gay community,” whenever you hear the term, seems to mean a klatsch of people who are exclusively Clorox white). African-Americans didn’t hold a vast potlatch of rejoicing back when Wharton got his job, nor when Franklin Raines took charge of Fannie Mae and Lloyd Ward took over Maytag in 1999. Nor are those successes lodged in some collective memory today. Wharton crops up, for instance, in a book called African American Firsts: Famous Little-Known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks. Perhaps that’s a warning to Tim Cook: you can go from resonator, life-saver to little-known, unsung in the time it takes to get a gold watch. Fame is a by-the-hour motel.

It’s not that those people’s strivings and stories aren’t important. But they haven’t fed the same hyperbole that Cook has among the gays. It’s’s presumptuous to generalize — yet African-Americans seem to have different priorities for celebration. Conservatives have, of course, a long history of condemning “black cultural pathology”: they cherish what Michael Eric Dyson calls “an updated version of beliefs about black moral deficiency as ancient as the black presence in the New World.” For the Right, this refusal to deify the capitalists in your community would be a prime case study. If ghetto kids only read Ayn Rand and Horatio Alger, as infant gays do, then we wouldn’t have to gun them down! Lamenting the lack of a black John Galt is wrong in many ways. It neglects the obvious fact that capitalism has appeared in African-American history more as pathology than cure. John Galt himself, copper-haired and green-eyed, might have had a complicated relationship to private properties if his color made him one. There’s plenty of room for asking: How, if a system’s past is entwined with enslavement and exploitation, can it suddenly start strewing opportunity? Where’s the catch? 

Loves of the blondes: Dagny Taggart and John Galt fret over the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit, in recent film of Atlas Shrugged

Loves of the blondes: Dagny Taggart and John Galt fret over the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit, in recent film of Atlas Shrugged

Cornel West has written how the “nihilism” he excoriates in black communities stems from “the saturation of market forces and market moralities in black life.” Yet Lloyd Hogan, the African-American economist and theorist of black empowerment, had a slightly different take. That negativity wasn’t just what the market left behind after scouring out all other values; “nihilism” abjured superficial hope, but could nourish a sustaining culture of resistance.

“Legally stolen African-American labor, transformed into non-Black material wealth,” long spelled “the physical death of the African-American population,” Hogan wrote. But there is also an “African-American internal labor to overcome the ravages of death.”

A significant component of that internal labor is indeed the development of a consciousness within the Black community to eradicate the social source of its exploitation.

Inherent in the internal labor of the African-American population is the  … creation of a surplus African-American population above and beyond the exploitative needs of capital. This is reflected in the growing absolute magnitude of unemployed African-Americans, who represent the “freeing-up” of African-Americans from the binding forces of the capitalist market mechanism. Unemployment among members of the African-American population could be part of a process that portends growing liberation of these people from direct capitalist exploitative mechanisms.

There’s a touch of the smugness of the Marxist longue durée here. The not-so-Marxist point is, though, that a liberatory consciousness doesn’t just arise through labor within the system. The working classes aren’t the only potential rebels. Being shut out from the system can emancipate you from its terms. The “internal labor” of developing that freed consciousness is a work of culture. A disparate range of cultural phenomena, seen in this context, start to make sense together. You can recognize the gangsta celebration of gain unredeemed by even the faintest hint of productive purpose, which reveals money for what Brecht and Proudhon said it was — a glint of bling decking the fact of theft; you can recall an exaltation of bodies driven by defiant needs, in dance or sport, no longer drilled and regimented by the factory ethic. These sensibilities deny the nostrums of triumphant capitalism; they form an ungoverned undercurrent in American culture, otherwise bound to the wheel of Work and Progress. To see them as freedom takes only a slight shift in vantage — though something enormous is required to shake white folks away from the heritage of Horatio Alger. Resistance isn’t just rejection; it’s the creation of visions of life alternative to what the prevailing economy has on offer. African-American experience has been rich enough in the legacy of these not to wallow abjectly in the rubbed-off pride of a few singular success stories.

Sublimate this drive: Cover of 1972 edition of Eros and Civilization

Sublimate this drive: Cover of 1972 edition of Eros and Civilization

Didn’t homosexuality stand for something like that once? To claim the flesh is designed for desire and fun, not just assembly lines and breeding, was more subversion than self-indulgence. It formed a dissent and an alternative to the work-and-win compulsiveness of American life. It rebelled against the body’s subordination to morality and economy alike, its subjection to an imperative of production. Back in the Sixties, before Grindr or Lady Gaga, a lonely homo might spend a Saturday night reading Paul Goodman or Herbert Marcuse. For Marcuse, homosexuality “protests against the repressive order of procreative sexuality.” The “repressive organization of sexuality” by culture parallels the repressive organization of creativity by capital:

The sex instincts bear the brunt of the reality principle. Their organization culminates in the subjection of the partial sex instincts to the primacy of genitality, and in their subjugation under the function of procreation. … This organization results in a quantitative and qualitative restriction of sexuality…. it is turned into a specialized temporary function, into a means for an end.

Homosexuality portends a polymorphous sexuality liberating physical existence from the factory floor, fantasy unshackled from the demands of realism. Our future hinges “on the opportunity to activate repressed or arrested organic, biological needs: to make the human body an instrument of pleasure rather than labor. … The emergence of new, qualitatively different needs and faculties seemed to be the prerequisite, the content of liberation.” The great mythic figures who embodied that perversity, Orpheus and Narcissus, “reveal a new reality, with an order of its own, governed by different principles.”

Innocent in the garden: Marcuse

Innocent in the garden: Herbert Marcuse in the Sixties

Those were heady days, when through the thickets of even the densest prose flickered glimpses of an erotic Eden; naked in the undergrowth, Marx and Freud copulated under a fringe of green leaves. The gays were tutelary spirits of this verdant wood, dissidents by definition.

And now, no more. The gay movement put on its pants and wandered in a different direction. Nobody’s interested in liberation anymore; least of all those who praise placidly zipped-up, buttoned-down Tim Cook. Brittney Cooper wrote a few days ago about the gulf between black and white feminisms in the United States: “White women’s feminisms still center around equality …  Black women’s feminisms demand justice. There is a difference.  One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.” It’s tempting to say that here’s the distinction between the gay politics we practice now– the pursuit of belonging — and other movements that retained a tingle of radical aspiration, of transformational edge.

But does the gay movement even believe in “equality”? This is what the Tim Cook carnival makes me wonder. How can you praise equality when your poster boy is worth $400 million?

That’s an undercount. In 2011, Apple paid Cook $378 million, and his price has surely gone up. Business Insider notes that, although “compensated handsomely,” Cook

chooses to live a modest lifestyle. Cook lives in a modest, 2,400-square-foot condo in Palo Alto, which he bought for $1.9 million in 2010. He’s quoted as saying in the book Inside Apple: “I like to be reminded of where I came from, and putting myself in modest surroundings helps me do that. Money is not a motivator for me.”

The threefold refrain of “modest” is sweet. It’s true that most Americans spend much more than 1/200th of their annual income on a house. It’s also true that most don’t spend two million dollars. Cook is too poor to show up on Forbes’ list of the country’s very richest. But that’s OK; he’s Number 25 in its rankings of the most powerful people on the planet, “our annual lineup of the politicians and financiers, entrepreneurs and CEOs, and billionaire philanthropists who rule the world.” That’s an interesting list. It’s not about opportunity; it’s certainly not about democracy. Among the first 25 only five — Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Narendra Modi, François Hollande — are political leaders elevated in reasonably fair elections (unless you count the Pope). The rest are dictators or businessmen. It’s their world. We just die in it.

Equal affection, trickling down

Equal affection, trickling down

The gay movement talks about equality all the time. LGBT groups across the country sport it in their names; you could play a lethal drinking game with it cropping up in speeches; and then there are those damn equality signs, and the profile pictures. But how equal is it when your role model — “trailblazer,” “hero,” “an American Dream story” — has power and money to which no American can aspire?  It means your idea of equality has gone off the rails. “He serves as a shining example that you can be who you are, you can be gay, and become the CEO of the most valuable company in the world.” No, he doesn’t. In this century of spreading poverty, in this country of oligarchy, in this economy of injusticeno sane gay kid can or should grow up with the delusion that the path to infinite acquisition lies open.

Shave off every hair you can find, son, and after that we'll practice cutting your throat to drive out Satan: Father as role model, from right-wing group Focus on the Family's website

Shave off every hair you can find, son, and after that we’ll practice cutting your throat to drive out Satan: Father as role model, in a photo from right-wing group Focus on the Family’s website

What underpins this is the American gay movement’s firm, longstanding belief in a trickle-down theory of culture. We’re not trying to change realities, just opinions. A few well-placed examples at the top of things, a few powerful promoters of tolerance, and enlightenment will leak and dribble down to the mind-starved masses. We don’t need to tinker with the system, we don’t need to ask what keeps patriarchy going, we never need to think about money, we don’t need to wonder how poverty shapes masculinity or limits women or deforms childhood, and remember: race and militarism and the Gulag of mass incarceration have zero to do with sex or gender. All it takes are role models. The obsession with role models makes gay politics seem like a nonstop casting call. Celebrities — LGBT and out, or non-LGBT and approving — are the movement’s moral leaders; it’s as if Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy were the whole March on Washington. It’s all justified by the children — the kids who don’t need child care, or recourses from domestic violence, or protective laws, or better schools and textbooks, or homes for that matter, and who are never black or Latino or poor or anything except gay; they just need a wealthy gay man or occasional lesbian to look up to, otherwise they will commit suicide. In fact, children don’t kill themselves because of the absence of Tim Cook (unless, of course, they are Tim Cook’s children). They kill themselves because their families or communities fuck them over, and it takes more than a Silicon Valley executive to fix that. Cook may be a decent man, but Chad Griffin only calls him a “lifesaver” because Chad Griffin is unable or unwilling to think about the structural changes that might actually save children’s lives.

Trickle-down culture is a retreat from both “equality” and “justice.” It lures the gay movement into a never-never land where images fix facts miraculously, and a magic charisma conveyed by gods through their chosen paparazzi withers all wrongs like blighted figs. Trickle-down politics is a politics of pure recognition, where persuading the powerful to acknowledge your existence with a gesture or a sign calls for an abased, degrading gratitude, and substitutes for getting anything that counts. Trickle-down culture is the perfect entryway to trickle-down economics, the belief that the rich, like the famous, bless us by their mere existence. Contagious success is a lie. “Leaning in” doesn’t help those whose backs are against the wall. But while we beatify Cook as gay gazillionaire, that old Horatio Alger horseshit becomes part of America’s new gay ideology.

Trickle-down politics: Did I ever tell you you're my hero?

Trickle-down politics: Did I ever tell you you’re my hero?

We are ruled less by ourselves than by the rich, and everybody knows this, and the organized gay movement isn’t fighting that, just trying to get the rich on our side. This isn’t a job for activists, but for courtiers. Most other social movements in the US have figured out this won’t work, and why. They know by heart what Brecht said: “When everyone’s pursuing happiness, happiness comes in last.” If any African-Americans ever needed a lesson in the failure to trickle down, they got it in Franklin Raines, who became the first black CEO of Fannie Mae. What kind of role model was he? Raines enthusiastically drew the lending giant into the subprime mortgage business. His motives aren’t clear; perhaps, like many others at the time, he genuinely wanted to get the very poor invested in the economic system by making them homeowners. Or perhaps he wanted to raise his corporation’s short-term earnings, because his pay was based on them. (His creative accounting ended up overstating the earnings by more than $6 billion anyway, possibly in a conspiracy to inflate his bonuses.) Plenty of African-Americans took out mortgages and invested in the system, and when the system collapsed in 2008 it left them destitute. The money went to Raines and the banks. It trickled up.

I’m reasonably sure Tim Cook is a good man, personally. I fear the possibility he’ll be the gay community’s Franklin Raines. Apple makes beautiful things that gays love; but amid the euphoria, isn’t it reasonable to ask just what else the corporation does for us? Cook has tried to lever up Apple’s philanthropy, including to the Human RIghts Campaign. (“Unlike cofounder Steve Jobs who thought his company should focus on maximizing shareholders’ value so they can donate their own wealth, the new boss is adamant that Apple must do more.”)  In 2011, the corporation gave away $150 million, against $100 billion it had in the bank. This generosity takes on a paltry cast when you realize that, though now valued at more than $118 billion, Apple pays only a pittance in taxes. Anywhere. It’s one of Earth’s biggest tax cheats. For instance, Apple may seem to you like a Silicon Valley firm; on paper, though, it’s settled itself in Ireland, a notorious tax haven. It routs its international sales — 60% of its profits — through dummy companies in Dublin. From 2009 to 2012 it attributed net income of $30 billion to another offshore subsidiary which “declined to declare any tax residence, filed no corporate income tax return and paid no corporate income taxes to any national government for five years.” It’s as though Apple were a spaceship. A Congressional report estimates Apple evaded $9 billion in 2012 US taxes. Forbes, not usually a a Marxist rag, blasted the “vanity and contempt for government … amply displayed in Apple’s tax figures.”

Not giving at the office: Apple's profits vs. Apple's taxes, 2007-2011

Not giving at the office: Apple’s profits vs. Apple’s taxes, 2007-2011

Apple’s philanthropy redistributes to private causes what it robs from public coffers — a tiny mite of what it robs, anyway. Instead of paying its dues to democratic governments, where disposing the proceeds would be a shared decision (you vote on what to with tax money), Apple gives what and when it wants to whomever it chooses. That’s neoliberalism in action. Here it’s the gays who profit at the public’s expense. I don’t grudge them. But LGBT groups could get other donors to support their battle against bullying in education; whereas dwindling tax dollars are the only thing that supports the education. End school bullying. Don’t end the schools.

This meme was made on a Mac: From Americans for Tax Fairness

This meme was made on a Mac: From Americans for Tax Fairness

One area where Apple did something nice for the gays at last, after a string of mistakes, was privacy. True, it took long enough: years of bad publicity and stonewalling before the corporation showed it was truly serious about information safety. Data protection is vital to LGBT people for obvious reasons; not everyone is out, and cops and blackmailers in many jurisdictions would love to learn who isn’t. When Apple issued a new, sweeping privacy statement last month, promising not to share information with either marketers or governments, it was especially important to those customers. For sure, it’s part of the corporation’s branding:

Apple has always tried to build an emotional connection between its devices and customers. With its increasing focus on privacy, it’s clear that Apple not only sees privacy as important to maintaining this bond, but as a means of differentiating itself from the competition.

It’s also imperfect — cops can seize information even if it’s not handed over — and Apple needs to answer many more questions. (Why does the Mac operating system still send Apple keystroke-by-keystroke data on what you do?) Yet the protections will let vulnerable users rest a bit more easy.

EyePhone: BIg brother thinks different

EyePhone: Big brother thinks different

“Privacy” is an interesting idea, though. It was a key theme in Tim Cook’s coming-out op-ed, a month after Apple’s your-data’s-safe-with-us campaign started — suggesting he saw his honesty through the same lens, perhaps as part of the same PR. “Throughout my professional life, I’ve tried to maintain a basic level of privacy,” he intoned, but “my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important.” Could this be a way of saying, Listen, geeks, there are bigger things than your selfish insecurity about your silly secrets? What’s certain is: Cook is willing to forgo his personal obscurity and become a news story and symbol; but Apple, by contrast, protects its corporate privacy to the death. Literally.

On July 16, 2009, Sun Danyong, 25 a Chinese factory worker for Apple’s manufacturing supplier Foxconn Technology, killed himself by jumping from the window of his 12th-floor apartment. Three days earlier, he’d told the company he’d lost a prototype model for the next-generation IPhone. Foxconn security forces searched his home, interrogated him, and beat him. Two hours before he died, Sun texted his girlfriend:

“My dear, I’m sorry, go back home tomorrow, something has happened to me, please don’t tell my family, don’t contact me, this is the first time that I have ever begged you, please agree to that! I am so sorry!”

And he wrote to a friend: “Even at a police station, the law says force must never be used, much less in a corporate office. … Thinking that I won’t be bullied tomorrow, won’t have to be the scapegoat, I feel much better.”

Sun Dan YongSun’s death drew attention to the human consequences of Apple’s obsessive concern with secrecy. It also pulled back the veil on working conditions for those who make your IPhones and IPads. In 2010 alone, 18 Foxconn workers attempted suicide, and 14 died. Mic.com describes Tian Yu, a17-year-old migrant from rural China:

Her managers made her work over 12 hours a day, often without a day off for up to two weeks, and attend unpaid work meetings on top of that. Tian Yu’s demanding work schedule in Foxconn’s sweatshop-like conditions forced her to skip meals and accept the manufacturer’s restricted toilet break policy.

The company finally sent her on a bureaucratic run-around to get the meager monthly wages of just over $200 it owed her. She bussed from office to office in a futile quest: “Why was it so hard to get what I’d earned? Why must they torture me like this?” she asked a reporter later. That day, she jumped from her dormitory window, and barely survived.

A Hong Kong-based watchdog investigated working conditions at Foxconn, and found its factories were more like military labor camps. A Hong Kong professor, Jack Qiu, made a powerful short film on Foxconn’s sweatshops:

A former Foxconn manager told the New York Times that “Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost. Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their interests.”

Apple promised audits and produced its own figures, but showed angry indignation that anyone dared impugn its motives or inspect its claims. Tim Cook said in a company-wide email that he was “outraged”: but by the abuses, or the reporting?

Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple’s values today … We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. …. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. … For the many hundreds of you who are based at our suppliers’ manufacturing sites around the world, or spend long stretches working there away from your families, I know you are as outraged by this as I am.

What stands out is Apple’s fierce concern not just for its customers’ privacy, but for its own. Corporations are people too, and they have their intimacies. If they enjoy the full rights of free speech, surely they’re entitled to keep the state out of their bedrooms. Would you fuck somebody — the workers, in this case — with a whistleblower watching?

Apple’s philanthropy is a good investment. By buying up shares in US civil society, they ensure noisy activists will side with them, and ignore the nameless foreign workers. Apple donates to HRC in part to give itself a, well, righteous gloss. How could a bigtime patron of the Human RIghts Campaign flout human rights?

Hello down there, little man: Tim Cook tours a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, in 2012

Hello down there, little man: Tim Cook tours a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, in 2012

But all this exposes still another scandal: The complicity of US social movements with corporate abuse.

There’s nothing new here, and it’s not unique to Apple. In 2012, Bil Browning revealed how “One day after several leaders from LGBT orgs met to talk about American Airlines’ anti-union activities and how it’s been affecting their LGBT employees, the Human Rights Campaign sent out an email urging their supporters to purchase airline tickets from the company.” American Airlines is another big donor to HRC; just like Apple, it’s a “Platinum Partner.” Effectively, these companies pay the gays to pinkwash them, to do their PR work. Purchasing social movements through philanthropy is remunerative traffic for the Fortune 500, and the gays come cheap. All I can say is: when onetime activists for liberated desire become hired flacks for the profiteers of sweatshop abuses, we’ve come a long, long way from Marcuse.

It's my party: Movie poster from 1934

It’s my party: Movie poster from 1934

Coming out is so complicated! I began by citing somebody’s demand that Nate Silver come out as a “gay statistician.” What is a “gay statistician?” Presumably it means you deal in gay statistics. And what are those? If you’re gay, or black, or Jewish and a novelist, I get how you may write gay, or black, or Jewish novels — a novel tells stories, and the teller’s identity is free to enter. But how professional is it to pass pure numbers through the sieve of self? Or maybe it’s all about the subjects you research. Should gay Nate Silver serve us up statistics about the gay community, then? Yet that might include statistics the gay community’s leaders wouldn’t like us to hear. You know — figures like:

  • How much does Apple pay the Human Rights Campaign to advertise for it?
  • How many praise-filled Tim Cook-related press releases were funded by Tim Cook-related money?
  • How much money do groups that rate corporations’ “gay-friendliness” take from corporations?
  • What percentage of the US LGBT movement’s funding comes from corporate donors, or donors high-placed in corporations? And on what terms?
  • What percentage of LGBT groups taking cash from corporations have ever criticized the human rights record of those corporations?

No, that won’t do. I’m sure the Human Rights Campaign prefers fewer, not more, gay statisticians.

I have nothing against Tim Cook. I wish him well. We spend too much time looking for individuals to blame for the horrors we dimly discern in the world; it diverts us from thinking about the system that dictates individuals’ acts, and constrains their desires. Cook’s coming out, I think, is an attempt to be a personality in a career that provided few chances for it: to claim a little corner of real, old-time personhood, not the corporate kind, inside a structure where selves subordinate themselves to shareholder value. (Even Steve Jobs, as quirky a figure as any leader in US life, tried with Zen obsessiveness to erase and efface himself down to desireless degree zero.) But if being gay can be bought and sold, it’s not a realm of self-expression anymore. Rebellious soul and body dwindle to a market niche. Cook at least has a distinctive prose style: “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick,” he wrote in his op-ed. “This is my brick.” But where is that stone cemented? Is it the yellow brick road? Or another brick in the wall?

* NOTE: TIAA-CREF has always been enormous, but it doesn’t seem to have appeared on the Fortune 500 list until 1998, I suspect because the magazine tweaked its rules then to include non-profit corporations. It’s been on there steadily ever since. So does Wharton’s 1987 accomplishment count? Was TIAA-CREF technically a Fortune company in 1987, since it was later? In any case, Wharton lists himself as the first African-American Fortune 500 CEO: here, for instance, and here. Either the Times didn’t acknowledge him as it should, or Wharton shows how CEOs — perhaps including Cook as well — are not to be trusted to measure their own importance.

Booya

Booya

Poem of the day

whauden2Wystan Hugh Auden died forty years ago, on September 29, 1973, in his sleep after a poetry reading in Vienna, Austria. He was 66. I read his obituary in Time Magazine a few weeks later; I was ten years old. Discovering Auden for me was the discovery of — I meant to write, what you could do with language, but I realize I want to say something else: what language could do with you, an impersonal power coursing through the husks of words that, freed, could shock you to delirium, or wring you and your attempts at meanings like a wet rag. That chasms of mood so jagged, sinister, and deep could open after shuffling a few sounds struck me as an appalling secret underneath the world, as though Hagia Sofia or the Alhambra, which haunted my imagination though I’d never seen them, could be constructed out of matchsticks. All through my teenage years an old paperback of his Collected Poems sat on the floor near my bed. Even today to think of its cover, stark green letters on white like an Icelandic landscape, gives me a sense of companionship coupled with fear and awe. No other writer except Nabokov has ever affected me so much.

Here are three poems from the sonnet cycle In Time of War, written on a visit to China during the Japanese invasion, in 1938. The first alludes to another great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who suddenly recovered his powers after long depression during a stay in the Château de Muzot in Switzerland in 1922; in a few weeks, he completed the Duino Elegies. In a letter he wrote that, having finished the work, “I went out and stroked the little Muzot, which had protected it and me and finally granted it, as if it were a large old animal.”

When all the apparatus of report 
Confirms the triumph of our enemies;
Our bastion pierced, our army in retreat, 
Violence successful like a new disease, 

And Wrong a charmer everywhere invited; 
When we regret that we were ever born: 
Let us remember all who seemed deserted.
To-night in China let me think of one

Who through ten years of silence worked and waited,
Until in Muzot all his powers spoke,
And everything was given once for all:

And with the gratitude of the Completed
He went out in the winter night to stroke
That little tower like a great animal.

๛ ๛ 

No, not their names. It was the others who built
Each great coercive avenue and square,
Where men can only recollect and stare,
The really lonely with the sense of guilt

Who wanted to persist like that for ever;
The unloved had to leave material traces:
But these need nothing but our better faces,
And dwell in them, and know that we shall never

Remember who we are nor why we’re needed.
Earth grew them as a bay grows fishermen
Or hills a shepherd; they grew ripe and seeded;

And the seeds clung to us; even our blood
Was able to revive them; and they grew again;
Happy their wish and mild to flower and flood.

๛ ๛ 

Wandering lost upon the mountains of our choice,
Again and again we sigh for an ancient South,
For the warm nude ages of instinctive poise,
For the taste of joy in the innocent mouth.

Asleep in our huts, how we dream of a part
In the glorious balls of the future; each intricate maze
Has a plan, and the disciplined movements of the heart
Can follow for ever and ever its harmless ways.

We envy streams and houses that are sure:
But we are articled to error; we
Were never nude and calm like a great door,

And never will be perfect like the fountains;
We live in freedom by necessity,
A mountain people dwelling among mountains.

Ban homophobia in Africa: Ban Ki-Moon

Shoot for the Ki-Moon

At the opening of an African Union (AU) summit this morning, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told assembled leaders to respect LGBT people’s human rights. The AFP says:

“One form of discrimination ignored or even sanctioned by many states for too long has been discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” Ban said.

“It prompted governments to treat people as second class citizens or even criminals,” he added. …

“Confronting these discriminations is a challenge, but we must not give up on the ideas of the universal declaration” of human rights, Ban told the summit.

Ban has shown more nerve over the years than I’d have thought possible at the beginning. Good for him.

(Un?)freedom tower: The HQ project

All this took place amid the inauguration of the African Union’s posh new headquarters in Addis Ababa — and that blingy building suggests why neither Ban’s admonitions, nor David Cameron’s threats, nor all the pious efforts of those who want to squeeze humanitarian aid in the name of human rights, may in the end amount to much.   The elaborate complex, a glossy imitation of the UN building towering over one of Africa’s poorest cities, cost between $120 million and $200 million (US), and was entirely constructed by China. China Daily quotes  “Zeng Huacheng, a special councilor to the AU headquarters project from China’s Ministry of Commerce”:

“The accessible height of the main office building is 99.9 meters, in reference to the founding date of the AU and the rise of the continent,” Zeng said. “The panoramic view of the conference center is like two hands holding each other, signifying the strengthening friendship between China and Africa.”

Asia Times goes into more detail:

In the thin air of Ethiopia’s low-slung, mostly ramshackle capital, a glittering tower complex is erupting from a warren of corrugated tin roof shacks that many locals call home. …

Though the CSCEC [China State Construction Engineering Corporation] describes its efforts there as “aiding” the African Union, make no mistake, it is building the facility wholesale. Stern-faced Chinese foreman command ever-smiling Ethiopian laborers who are working round the clock to finish the project at breakneck speed for its planned January 2012 inauguration. …

In anticipation of a hoped-for visit to Addis Ababa by President Hu Jintao for the new AU’s debut, [a Gabonese Diplomat]  stated: “We cannot thank China and it’s leaders enough for it …”

As China scours the continent for resources virtually unchallenged, this “gift” to the people of Africa will certainly come with strings attached. In a recent meeting with a high-ranking CSCEC official, Erastus Mwencha, a seasoned Kenyan diplomat who holds the deputy chair of the African Union Commission that oversees the project, hailed it in a recent press statement as a “permanent signature on African soil”.

When Asia Times Online visited the present AU headquarters hugging hilly Roosevelt Street, a representative of its Conflict Management Division lamented the depth of Chinese involvement both in Ethiopia and across the entire region. Africa’s sudden anti-democratic partner is engaged in a slew of road rehabilitation and construction endeavors in many parts of the country.

We are unbuilding socialism: The complex under construction

As I’ve pointed out here, Chinese aid for Africa — of which the new HQ is merely the biggest symbol — comes with few political conditions, certainly not rights-related ones. What accompanies it are economic expectations: that the continent will provide endless, cheap raw materials for China’s boom, as well as new markets for Chinese exports. That’s no good news for ordinary Africans, who’ll find their economies shunted every more firmly into a neocolonial niche of underdevelopment. But the elites who control the African Union’s governments will turn a profit.

As if in an emblem of this relationship, there weren’t even many African raw materials inserted into the building: Save them for export to Beijing!  “Even the furnishings were imported from China and paid for by the Chinese government,” a Ugandan blogger says sourly.   China Daily puts the best face on this:

To ensure construction quality, only the best materials were used and furniture was specifically designed and ordered.

“Details such as the height of a table and the color of a carpet were all discussed with representatives from the AU,” Zeng said.

The lack of political conditions doesn’t mean, though, that Africa’s integration into the Chinese co-unprosperity sphere comes without political consequences. That Ugandan blogger’s comments suggest how neocolonial dependency fosters both patriarchal power structures and cultural protectionism:

Where is the pride in us as Africans having this luxurious new home? Where I come from, and I believe many African men come from similar backgrounds, you are not considered a real man unless you have built your own house which you will call your home. Its only then that you can marry your wife and its only then that you are respected by everyone in the village. …

Yes, indeed, it’s a reflection of a new Africa …  An Africa without a culture, without a moral campus, an Africa without any pride, an Africa that can’t build their own home, an Africa that thrives on begging for food, for money and now for a home. An Africa that is shameful and disgraceful. An Africa that is empty and without a future, an Africa that is everyday selling its soul to powers foreign …

So congratulations to Ban Ki-Moon for speaking out. A glance at the balance sheets, however, shows there’s a long way to go.

Aid and the China connection: Pink dollar, meet red renminbi

Like a rainbow

A reporter once said that the most boring headline he could think of was one beginning “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” OK; here’s a Canadian initiative; see if you think it’s worthwhile. As the premier of British Columbia gets ready for a trade mission to China, she’s laid down some rules for business people tagging along:  “Tourism operators marketing trips to the province for Chinese people must agree not to promote casinos, gambling or gay tourism.”

B.C. Tourism Minister Pat Bell …  said the federal government accepted the terms when it negotiated approved-destination status with China last year, and B.C. had no say in the matter.

Approved-destination status allows tourism operators in Canada to market their services in China, and Chinese tour operators to organize and promote travel packages to Canada.

He said B.C. simply wanted to ensure that its tourism operators understood the rules: “We’re not necessarily endorsing the specifics.”

The government soon retracted its requirement. But it was an embarrassing moment, especially with Vancouver trying to hawk itself as a gay tourist destination, like other cities from Cape Town to Tel Aviv. It’s also embarrassing in other venues. Gay conservatives in the US have long contended that the “pink dollar,” the buying power of gay consumers, can eradicate inequality better than the law. As Stephen G. Miller, founder of the right-wing Independent Gay Forum, affirms, “Corporations increasingly are courting the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender markets for their buying power and trendsetting value”:

The gay market is a significant demographic. … Free markets work to sweep away the ineffectual, inefficient and irrational (including unprofitable prejudice) when allowed by the state to do so.

Maybe so — but not if they meet a bigger market with prejudices of its own. China right now is the mother of all buyers and sellers, the 800-pound panda (dragon? duck?) in the room. The puny pink dollar can posture if it likes. The red renminbi — China’s victorious currency — rules.

The same is true of China’s aid policies. That‘s the chord this story struck with me — coming in the midst of the global South debate over the UK’s vague promises to tie LGBT rights to development assistance. Chinese aid, to Africa in particular, has become a slowly growing question-mark, a cloud of discomfort, hanging over geopolitical discussions in the West. A blog I noticed last week carried a British gay man’s “Letter to Tanzania,” in which he intones with gravid sarcasm:

To have to lower yourself to accept money from such selfish nations as the UK must be extremely galling.  I’m sure you have only done so for the last 35 years because you simply had no other choice, but maybe, if you’ll permit me to make a little suggestion, it’s time to consider asking the Chinese for more help, or some of the oil-rich nations of the Middle East?  They don’t let pesky little things like gay rights get in their way so I think you’d get on very well.

Ask the Chinese? Uh, don’t worry. African countries will.

China’s aid role is a crucial point not fully considered in the aid debate. Western countries that once had plenty of of “policy leverage” in attaching conditions to assistance now have less, because another donor has come to town.

The motives and forms of Chinese overseas aid are not well understood elsewhere. All that’s fully known is that there’s a lot of it. In a recent report, researchers from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa argue China doesn’t strive deliberately to obscure the aid flows; it’s just that the information is scattered in different papers and websites through the Chinese bureaucracy. Still, it’s difficult to extract simple figures — such as how much money goes to Tanzania or Malawi –from the facts at hand.

However, for the first time, China this year published a white paper outlining its policies on overseas development assistance. Vague in many areas, the document is evidently but perhaps not adequately calibrated to assuage uneasy critics in other industrialized countries.  One can take three overall facts from it:

a) China is overwhelmingly interested in Africa. Almost half its aid goes there.

b) Chinese aid goes heavily to economic infrastructure projects. For instance, the government breaks down its low-interest loans to developing countries as follows:

c) China advertises its aid as no-strings-attached, in respect of rights or any other conditions. It still proudly foregrounds the “Eight Principles for Economic Aid” Mao promulgated in 1964, among them:  “In providing aid to other countries, the Chinese government strictly respects the sovereignty of recipient countries, and never attaches any conditions or asks for any privileges.”

Let’s start with the last point first.

Unconditionality is obviously attractive to many aid recipients, often for all the worst reasons. Robert Mugabe knows that Beijing will never care if his handshakes leave bloodstains behind. China is notoriously unwilling to integrate rights discussions into its aid mechanisms — indeed, to talk about rights at all. (The white paper contains no mention of rights, or of gender for that matter.) When I worked at Human Rights Watch, directors had desperate discussions about the impossibility of opening any channels with China’s rulers. At one point we were urged to make any kind of contact we could — if we met a Chinese official anywhere,  even in a public restroom, to strike up a conversation and try to connect. I have no idea whether any HRW staff got arrested for indecent conduct as a result.

Conditionality in Western aid has a long history. As one US official said in the 1990s, “”Aid appears to have established as a priority the importance of influencing domestic policy in the recipient countries.” However, it’s far from true that all or even most conditions  tied to aid were rights-related. Many were raw attempts to gain economic advantage — which makes the whole subject of conditionality rankle in the memory of some nations. One account notes:

[Njoki Njoroge] Njehu [director of the 50 Years is Enough campaign] cited the example of Eritrea, which discovered it would be cheaper to build its network of railways with local expertise and resources rather than be forced to spend aid money on foreign consultants, experts, architects and engineers imposed on the country as a condition of development assistance.

Strings attached to US aid for similar projects, she added, include the obligation to buy products such as Caterpillar and John Deere tractors. “All this adds up to the cost of the project.”

WIll China in fact be better? Many suspect China’s aid programs carry a similar economic agenda: the attempt to build markets for cheap Chinese goods.The Chinese white paper, as one commentator notices, refers to “financial support of a certain scale to developing countries” in the form of “preferential export buyer’s credits.” The pundit adds,

[T]his means more subsidies to help China’s exporters continue making money. It also means preferential financial packages that will continue to make it difficult for large multi-national organisations – including those from developing countries like South Africa and elsewhere in Africa – to compete with China’s for major contracts.

Economic infrastructure aid reveals the other side of Chinese ambitions. Here, Chinese assistance seems focused on a few areas. For instance, the graph shows that transport stands out: the white paper adds that

By the end of 2009, China had helped other developing countries build 442 economic infrastructure projects, such as the Sana’a-Hodeida Highway in Yemen, the Karakoram Highway and Gwadar Port in Pakistan, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, the Belet Uen-Burao Highway in Somalia, the Dry Dock in Malta, the Lagdo Hydropower Station in Cameroon, Nouakchott’s Friendship Port in Mauritania, railway improvement in Botswana, six bridges in Bangladesh, one section of the Kunming-Bangkok Highway in Laos, the Greater Mekong Sub-region Information Highway in Myanmar, the Shar-Shar Tunnel in Tajikistan, the No.7 Highway in Cambodia, and the Gotera Interchange in Addis Ababa of Ethiopia.

Many of these projects would be quite useful in moving large quantities of heavy things, as well as energy, from place to place.

This tends to support suspicions that a priority of Chinese aid is to facilitate extracting raw materials and other resources from recipient countries. The pattern of Chinese trade with Africa, which is burgeoning, bolsters this.  Crude oil and minerals are the main things China imports from there.  You can see an emerging picture of the Africa Chinese aid may aim to build. Countries send raw materials to China; in return, they become a market for Chinese consumer goods, which presumably help make the populations happy. The prospective flows of capital, and the vision of mobs kept quiescent by cut-rate cellphones and toys, must be pleasing to many an African oligarch’s reveries.

Not everyone would agree with this. (For a nuanced and more optimistic view of China’s role in Africa, see Deborah Brautigam’s blog here.) But if it bears some truth, there are at least two lessons to be drawn. There’s one for Western governments — and activists in their countries — who want to support LGBT movements, and human rights movements, in the South. There’s another for Western states thinking about the geopolitical future.

First, on a purely pragmatic level — and whatever you think of the ethics of aid conditionality — tying bilateral aid to LGBT rights won’t work. It won’t work because increasingly governments know they can get stringless aid from a different source, China. The best way for Western governments to advance LGBT rights is to aid LGBT rights movements themselves directly. As African states move into the orbit of a flush and generous funder uninterested in rights protections, the same will hold true for almost any human rights issue. If you want to promote it, don’t try bullying officials. Your dollars or pounds, pink or green or whatever, carry no clout against the indifferent renminbi. Fund the advocates; fund civil society.

Then there’s the question of Western countries’ own self-interest.  I am obviously unwilling to make an argument that appeals, even implicitly, to the the industrialized countries’ desire for unrestricted access to the fuels and other raw goods lodged in Africa’s soils.

That interest can’t and shouldn’t be met. We want a world in which countries keep autonomous control over their own resources, and  tend and protect the environments in which those resources are embedded. But, again in pragmatic terms, one can at least appeal to Western countries’ desire to keep China from having unrestricted access, either. This is a geopolitical concern that most of the old industrialized countries share.

The best way to do that is for Western governments to support strong democracies; strong civil societies, but also strong states that are simultaneously responsive to the diverse interests in their own populations, and resiliently resistant to external economic and political pressure. Such societies and such states will indeed make the West pay a fair price for any resources they get, on the countries’ own terms; but they’ll make China do the same. Such proximate equality is probably the best bargain the West can hope for.

The other alternative they have is to rely on the outworn oligarchies they’ve supported for decades, perhaps with new faces and new uniforms, but with the same old kleptocratic manners and brutal morals. That seems to be the route Western states are taking now. How much are they really concerned with full democratization, and how much with clinging to “political leverage,” and economic leverage too? The example of diehard US and European support for Yoweri Museveni in Uganda is not promising.

The problem is, oligarchies are notoriously ungrateful. They know a cash cow when they see one — they grew up milking them — and if the Chinese market appears before their kraal, swollen and mooing, the temptations of a dried-up West will seem desiccated and despicable. China has as much money as the West has now, and will soon have more. Oligarchies can be bought. Buying democracies is harder.

In Zambia, long lusted after by the industrial world for its copper reserves, Michael Sata — locally known as “King Cobra” — ran three populist presidential campaigns partly based on condemning Chinese economic intrusions. He called for investigations of working conditions in Chinese enterprises, and demanded economic independence for Zambia. In 2006, China threatened to cut diplomatic ties if he were elected. After two losses, Sata finally won in 2011, toning down his rhetoric somewhat. (He also survived a campaign controversy fed by his Christianist opponent after he appeared tentatively to support LGBT people’s rights. In a presage of current aid controversies, opponents accused him of selling out — for Danish money.)

Is Sata’s imperfect populism, defending African autonomy against all comers, a way forward for the continent?