Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (3)

This is part 3 of a three-part post. Parts 1 and 2 are above.

Campaign poster for Proposition K, a 2008 initiative to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco, US

Professionally, we prefer victims:  or, the rescue trap

Does human rights – the Western human rights movement  — respect human autonomy?

I don’t just mean “sexual autonomy” now. I mean autonomy that encompasses and goes beyond that, the power of everyone to speak for themselves, represent themselves, be the selves or unselves they desire.

What a silly question. Of course! That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

And yet.

Other people ask the questions better than me. Teju Cole, for instance, countered the save-Africa panic churned up by the Kony 2012 viral video by naming and shaming the “White Savior Industrial Complex” and its attentions to the continent. He doesn’t single out the human rights industry, but it’s implicit in the way he describes social movements doing it for themselves:

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. … [A] nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. …

… How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.

Let me draw into this discussion an example from an African country I know very well. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians took to their country’s streets to protest the government’s decision to remove a subsidy on petrol. … But what made these protests so heartening is that they were about more than the subsidy removal. Nigeria has one of the most corrupt governments in the world and protesters clearly demanded that something be done about this. …

This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. … There is certainly no “bridge character,” [Nicholas] Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers. And yet, the story of Nigeria’s protest movement is one of the most important from sub-Saharan Africa so far this year. Men and women, of all classes and ages, stood up for what they felt was right; they marched peacefully; they defended each other, and gave each other food and drink; Christians stood guard while Muslims prayed and vice-versa; and they spoke without fear to their leaders about the kind of country they wanted to see. All of it happened with no cool American 20-something heroes in sight.

Women in fuel protest, Lagos, Nigeria, January 2012 (Photo: AP/Sunday Alamba)

It’s interesting how often Nick Kristof serves as symbolic figure for folks who want to critique the white savior complex. But he sets himself up for it. His telegenic stunt activism – live-tweeting his raid on a brothel to “rescue” women, congratulating himself on his flirtations with peril, all with a cool eye on divine Reputation and its Valkyrie paparazzi – lays out a seductive pattern for the type. (He comes up for approving mention in The Unfinished Revolution too.)  Laura Agustin, as always, is incisive:

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save miserable victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. … The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. …

Like many unreflective father figures, Kristof sees himself as fully benevolent. Claiming to give voice to the voiceless, he does not actually let them speak.

Instead, as we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, desire. Did anyone rescued in his recent brothel raid want to be saved like that, with the consequences that came afterwards, whatever they were? That is what we do not know and will not find out from Kristof.

Placard from sex workers' human rights march, March 2012, Cape Town, South Africa

The temptations of this kind of self-aggrandizing self-delusion are all the stronger in international human rights work, which carries both the armor of moral impeccability and the obligation of representation. Its job is carrying stories across borders; it takes on representing people in absentia, a strange, dangerous task.  Who’d be surprised if, in the process, its practitioners begin to acquire a creeping indifference to the wills and voices of those they represent?

Human Rights Watch is not overcome by those impulses, but it’s certainly not immune either. It used to say, in its self-descriptions, that it provided a “voice for the voiceless.” This phrase, so malignly common among those who work and talk across borders, neglected the fact that the movements and activists and even victims it supported usually had plenty of decibels at their disposal, and could scream with the best of them; it was just that the West preferred not to listen. But if you say that about yourself enough, you start acting that way, around the edges.

The effects showed when, for years, rights activists who were recipients of HRW’s prestigious annual award – articulate spokesmen at home — arrived in the US, only to be handed the speech the organization had written for them. They showed in a film screened at one of the Human Rights Watch gala annual dinners, full to the gills with gazillionaires: a very nice production about the organization’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The problem was that, as the minutes wore on, you realized not a single person from the DRC was speaking. You saw them them in footage, interviewed by an HRW researcher, who diligently took notes; but the soundtrack and the voiceovers drowned them out. The organization did’t think them relevant: They cannot represent themselvesthey must be represented. Instead, HRW talked to itself about its own efforts in the DRC. It felt like a cross between Heart of Darkness and Krapp’s Last Tape.

Oh, Krapp

Some shows up in The Unfinished Revolution, as well. Although it calls itself “Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights,” two thirds of the book’s chapters are by present or former HRW staff. And with two articles on Afghanistan, you’d think an actual Afghan could have been found to write perhaps one. It’s hard not to read in this an unconscious confidence that the organization knows best about the world and its countries, better than the countries’ citizens do. As the old Oxford doggerel went:

First come I. My name is Jowett.
There’s no knowledge but I know it.
I am master of this college;
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.

For far too long information in the international human rights movement has flowed from periphery to center, from Congo and Cairo and Buenos Aires and Bangladesh to London, Geneva, New York. Only there, once edited and published in the capitals, did it mature into Knowledge. And there it stayed, little bartered back and no returning current. Sometimes it festered, and the gangrene of arrogance set in.

shut up, he explained

I’m certainly not calling this universal, in Human Rights Watch or anywhere else. Nor is it some sinister, deliberate plot to deprive others of their voices and agency. It’s rather a danger built into the practice of representation, the art and politics – Faustian with a touch of Edgar Bergen – of speaking for somebody else. The exercise of lending vividness to the lives of others tends to shale into the assumption that one knows what they want, and what’s best for them. You get more used to their desperation than their autonomy. You start seeing victims even when they’re not there.

There is a less tendentious dimension to this problem as well – one not just about the problems of practicing politics in a still-imperial world, but about democratic politics itself, and its discontents. A line of thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Raz, and John Gray, has emphasized that a coherent liberalism, unlike most philosophies, can imply no single vision of the Good Life to which members of a community should aspire. The old moral philosopher’s vision of existence cut to one dress pattern is motheaten now. Modern democratic society must embrace the maximum diversity of life projects without tilting its overt or intangible preference toward any.

Human rights, which expressly aims only to set out basic ground rules for the functioning of political societies, in some ways models this modern claim to neutrality in values. Yet maintaining the pose of studied impartiality is particularly hard both for communities and for individuals accustomed to subjecting not just acts, but lives, to moral scrutiny. And political life, as well as the practice of rights protection itself, keeps slipping back over into an idea that freedom implies a positive commitment, is about you living the life I like for you, one fulfilled not just in itself but by certain external standards. Some versions say: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which means wearing gray pajamas, saluting the Leader, and bathing in cold bilgewater every morning at 5. But it hardly has to be that extreme. More commonly they tell us: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which is the life of political struggle and engagement. Or the life of appreciating Beauty and Art. Or the uxorious life of family with someone whose genitals differ from your own.  Or the life which certainly does not include selling your sexual services online.

What kind of self-correction can we build into human rights movements — especially with the moral exemption from critique they often claim — to keep them understanding victimhood as an exceptional breach rather than a definitional condition of people’s lives; to keep them respecting autonomy in all parts of all people’s lives, including that most charged and symbol-laden sphere, sex?

Me, I have no answer. In fact, the best self-correction I know is asking questions.

However. This has been as long as a human rights report; and since reports end with recommendations, I’d feel amiss if I didn’t offer a couple, at least to Human Rights Watch. Here goes:

  • Human Rights Watch needs to work much, much harder on integrating thematic issues across all its work, so that no wasted opportunity like the untruthful, unfinished Unfinished Revolution occurs again. And donors have a role to play in this. You need to support the LGBT Rights Program, and other thematic divisions, because their work is vital. But supporters who care about sexual rights should press HRW to make it part of all its relevant reporting. Before you sign the check, ask HRW’s leadership to tell you in concrete terms what they are doing to change both the mindset and the structure of the organization, to implement and cement that integration. If you’re going to show you think the work is important, so should they.
  • I’ve got no idea whether, after years of being dissed, sex worker movements are really interested anymore in nicely asking the mainstream organizations to recognize their rights to bodily autonomy and livelihood. A sex worker picking up The Unfinished Revolution couldn’t be blamed for saying, Why bother? But in principle, one should press the organization to do the right thing. And I recommend bypassing the lawyers and their obfuscations, and going to Ken Roth and the leadership directly. If anybody still cares to make an effort, the World AIDS Conference is coming up, and Washington is just a short train ride from New York. This might be a good time to demand a meeting.

Sexual rights are too important to get screwed again.

Lesbian Avengers flyer, US

N.B. This piece draws on the draft of the volume I’m finishing, tentatively titled Out of Here: Sex and Rights in the World. If you like it, look to buy the book when it’s published. If you don’t like it, buy the book anyway and deface the margins.

More on Hillary and Barack

the marriage of true minds: any impediments?

A future torture victim sat next to me yesterday, on my flight from Paris to New York. She was in her twenties, and strung tight as piano wire, and professed to be half-German, half-Egyptian. She’d been subjected to a random search back at Charles de Gaulle. This put her in a state of steaming outrage, during which she emitted, to no one in particular, vocal and egregious threats: “I hope they bomb that airport. I hope everyone is killed. I feel like I am in Auschwitz.  How dare they serve Coca-Cola on this plane?”  Finally she wrote, in big black letters on a piece of paper, and pinned to the TV screen in front of her:

FUCK YOU
CHARLES DE GAULLE
HITLER’S AIRPORT AND
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
I hope you are blown to bits and
Everybody dies
Coke Kills

I huddled in the aisle seat, thinking in no special order: a) Given all the security, it’s impossible she has a bomb. b) Then why does she keep talking about it? c) Can the stewardesses see that note? d) I need more wine. e) If the stewardesses see this, she will be taken to Guantanamo. f) If we make an emergency landing so she can be taken to Guantanamo, my flight will be six hours late. g) Should I protest if she’s taken to Guantanamo? h) Do I want to go to Guantanamo? i) I need more wine.

Air France handled things surprisingly well, as it happens. Nobody was wrestled to the floor or cuffed. Instead, a senior, marmoreally-coiffed French woman shunted me from my seat and lectured the passenger for almost an hour. I heard snatches of the one-way conversation: “You can of course think zat. But you cannot say it on an airplane. And you cannot expose it zat way for others to zee.” There is nothing like a dressing-down from une française soignée to put even incipient psychosis in its place. The note vanished, the writer calmed down, the plane landed on time, and no one seemed to go Gitmoward. I desperately hope someone was waiting past customs with Valium, and not an orange jumpsuit.

I’d meant to spend the flight thinking about the Obama administration’s new LGBT human rights initiative; and instead I worried about whether seat 27b had a ticket to a Caribbean prison. Yet this made sense somehow. How progressive are the Obamaites in talking about human rights!  They meet with rights NGOs and flatter their fragile egos; they support the touchy issues, the women and the queers; they speechify. But Guantanamo is still there. The military tribunals still promise to happen in a slow parody of justice. Drones still descend from the sky, with a blue whine beyond appeal, to kill people we don’t like. It’s nice to be part of the class that merits concern, not cages; protection, not jet-fueled murder. This administration does demonstrate more real action on human rights than its bloody predecessor.  But the action is just selective enough to leave you wondering why you were singled out, when so many others still suffer the vast yet individuated violence. As Samuel Beckett wrote, musing on the two miscreants crucified on either side of Christ: “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”

Reading some of the US responses to Clinton’s speech only reinforces this queasy feeling. Take gay activist-at-large Wayne Besen, who writes:

A historic address of this magnitude was desperately needed to counter the rising tide of backwards and barbaric nations that had recently been persecuting LGBT people to distract from their glaring problems. …

The list of countries that recently declared war on sexual minorities include Russia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Iran, and Zimbabwe. For the contemptible despots who run these underachieving nations, fomenting homophobia makes political sense. .. [S]omething drastic needed to happen to turn back the tide of violence and discrimination that plagued these “loser nations.”

Or, as Besen intones elsewhere,

The LGBT community rarely thrives in backward places that promote ignorance over education and medieval views over modernity. As these intellectual swamps sink, sexual minorities make ideal targets… [P]laces that are leaders in passing anti-gay laws are losers in virtually every other category that defines successful, civilized societies.

I can’t imagine how you could even communicate to Besen that the gays in  “loser nations” like Nigeria or Uganda don’t really like having their countries called “backward and barbaric.”  Besen wouldn’t get it: he’d counter, But the gays are civilized!  It’s the other Cameroonians who live in trees! In other words, he understands why the gays in loser lands deserve to be singled out: they’re better than their compatriots, more successful, more unbarbaric, more like us.

Why would that be so? Well, possibly the foreign gays have a cultural leg up, and have gotten book-learned and Westernized by reading … oh, for instance, Wayne Besen, who’s available on the Internet even in darkest Russia. Or possibly it goes deeper, it’s in the chromosomes, and even in Cameroon the gays are genetically predisposed to be like “us,” park-cruising rather than tree-dwelling, forwards rather than backwards.

Except that isn’t so. As far as a) the chromosomes go, there are plenty of theories about the genetic roots of gayness, but none of them argue it’s linked to a gene for intelligence or Western-ness. And if you tried to contend that, there’d be Wayne Besen to disprove it: clearly not the brainiest fish in the primal soup, and a permanent dilution in the gay gene pool. Moreover, as far as b) culture is involved, I can testify that the lesbians and gays in foreign countries really don’t read Besen ever, at all. Maybe this is evidence for a) after all — maybe their intelligence genetically disinclines them to study him; but then you have to deal with Besen disproving the theory again, because after all he’s gay and he reads himself. Or you’d think so.

By a fearful symmetry, though, the forward Besen and the “backward” lands he criticizes match each other. His rant exactly echoes how the offending parties he condemns rage against the initiative. There, too, people know why Clinton singles out the queers: they’re infiltrating agents of the West, objects of its special and invasive interest. The rhetoric is entirely predictable, because it’s been used so much before. “Africa new frontier for West’s gay rights crusade,” one African news source headlines. In Nigeria, now finalising a draconian bill to ban public expression around homosexuality, legislators rushed to assert their independence:

“Why would America want to dictate to a sovereign country which law to make and which one not to make? How can the depraved ways of a minority become the standard for law making in Nigeria?”

And so on.

Then there’s the question of just how the Obama administration will support LGBT rights elsewhere in the world. Clinton’s speech and the president’s memorandum are rather vague on the techniques. This leaves considerable white space to be filled in by the imagination. On the right, various voices already kvetch because Obama isn’t willing to send the army out to protect the gays. On the neoconservative Commentary site, Abe Greenwald complains:

At the end of this year, the United States will cease to be a military presence in Iraq. Here’s whose influence will grow in Iraq once the U.S. leaves: Al-Qaeda, whose new leader once shot a male teenage rape victim in the head for the “crime” of homosexuality. … Who else stays on in Iraq after the pro-LGBT president has pulled out American forces? Iran, world leader in the public hanging of gay teens.

And, in 2012, when Obama withdraws surge troops from Afghanistan against the advice of our military commanders, what exactly does he think Afghan homosexuals will face in the resurgent Taliban (the same Taliban Hillary Clinton is trying desperately to strike deals with)? The answer is known: they will face something called “death by falling walls.” …

Although George W. Bush is vilified by many in the gay community for talking about the sanctity of marriage, the freedom agenda he instituted did more for global human rights—gay or otherwise—than any speech or memo that might warm your heart.

Never mind that Bush’s own Texas has, statistically, almost certainly killed more teenage gay offenders in recent years than Iran. The point is: the best way to protect human rights is to invade and conquer countries. We’ve already got our hands on Texas. What about the others? By not listing an axis of homophobic evil — bauxite-rich Jamaica! oil-endowed Iran! — Obama failed to make the case for future action. He didn’t even use the homophobes to prolong the invasions we’ve already got going on.

If diplomacy for the neocons is merely a preamble to bombing, for many US and European gays it’s a synonym for money. And in this equation they’re aided by the brouhaha over David Cameron’s incredibly ill-handled statements on LGBT rights and foreign aid last month. This fiasco — threats that Cameron bandied about without even the pretense of a strategy, then tried to abandon after half of Africa reacted in fury — has imprinted itself on the imaginings of activists and reporters alike. If you have an agenda, why not enforce it with cash? Even the US and UK headlines on Clinton’s speech suggested an aid linkage. “U.S. to Use Foreign Aid to Promote Gay Rights Abroad,” the New York Times said.Gay rights must be criterion for US aid allocations, instructs Obama,” the Guardian reported. And of course the chronically inaccurate sporadically truthful blogger Paul Canning spun that spin: “Obama admin to ‘leverage’ foreign aid for LGBT Rights.”

As always, pursuing exactly what Canning says gives an insight into a whole mindset, of which he is the sum, the symbol, and the White Whale. He embraces multitudes, the way a blank piece of paper contains all the dumb things that could be written on it. Canning is very attached to the idea of “leverage,” so much so that when @iglhrc tweeted, “Significantly, neither the memo nor Clinton’s speech said LGBT rights would become a condition for foreign assistance,” his beak bit back:

“It says ‘leverage foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination’. Sounds like conditionality to me!”

But it’s true; neither Clinton nor Obama said a syllable about conditionality. The word “leverage,” which Canning rolls lusciously on his tongue, comes not from the Clinton speech or the Obama memo, but from the fact sheet the White House press office put out to summarize things for reporters. It has no official weight.  The president’s directive instead ordered:

 Agencies involved with foreign aid, assistance, and development shall enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure regular Federal Government engagement with governments, citizens, civil society, and the private sector in order to build respect for the human rights of LGBT persons.

“Ongoing efforts” doesn’t sound like a completely new policy — rather, like existing conversations more aggressively pursued. The US has a very spotty record on linking aid to any human rights issue; ask any Egyptian about America’s long support for the military, or any Palestinian about … well, anything. It would be a peculiar and skewed occurrence if the administration launched a first-ever policy of general aid conditionality in the specific and limited sphere of LGBT rights. And most likely, it won’t happen. The idea of “leverage,” and of supporting LGBT rights at the domestic level, will most likely involve private and particular conversations. Any public aspect is adequately embodied by Clinton’s proposal to launch a fund for LGBT rights advocacy.

Canning, however, wants broad aid conditionality; it gives him a sense of agency; it makes him feel that his emails to the UK Foreign and Colonial Office bear immediate fruit in action, in treasuries trembling and programs withering on the vine. Much as the neocons see diplomacy as war pursued by ineffective means, Canning sees it as money given or withheld under a convenient cover. In either case, the Obama statement becomes a field of dreams, a place where imaginings about Northern power get printed or palimpsested on the global South. It’s fun, it’s fertile, but it’s not quite real.

Trying to look realistically at what Clinton and Obama actually said, I still see occasion for optimism.  The contrast with Cameron’s recent blather is telling. Cameron came up with a quick-fix bit of rhetoric, not to benefit LGBT activists anywhere else in the world, but to silence the Peter Tatchells and Kaleidoscope Trusts, noisy Brits who wanted to see their country dominating the Commonwealth in the cause of justice and freedom. It meant nothing except short-term political gain, and when he got burned loudly enough by the stubborn ex-colonized, he flailed ineptly, trying to dog-paddle backwards and away.  There is, by contrast, little domestic political gain Obama and Clinton can extract from their move; the LGBT vote is largely on the administration’s side already. On Clinton’s part, and I suspect on Obama’s also, there’s a sincere commitment. Her speech was intelligent; it reflected an engagement not just with the issue itself but with the reflexive opposition it inspires. They’re trying to develop a strategy, not just a posture. The reaction from the usual suspects — such as Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania — whlle vocal, has actually been subdued by comparison with the Cameron affair, and this also, I think, displays a feeling that there is something substantive here that can’t simply be shouted out of existence.

The devil partly lies in the absence of detail, and in the scope this opens for disaster. Obama’s memo offers the agencies few patterns or directions for action. They’re supposed to come up with their own plans, and no one knows what that will add up to.  A dozen or so Southern LGBT activists were flown to Geneva to sit and applaud Clinton’s speech; the main measure of success will be whether they, and their innumerable colleagues elsewhere, continue to be consulted on what the US government should do in their countries. What if aid conditionality really does rear its head — what if an ill-conceived proposal for tying all funds to repeal of a sodomy law moves publicly out of the embassy in some unfortunate nation? What if a particular post decides on loud, press-release-based advocacy that backfires and stigmatizes local LGBT groups as servants of a foreign power?

In June 2011, the US Embassy in Islamabad took a pointer from Obama’s proclamation celebrating US Pride that May, where he’d perorated that “we rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” The embassy hosted what it called “Islamabad’s first ever gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) Pride Celebration,” to show

continued U.S. Embassy support for human rights, including LGBT rights, in Pakistan at a time when those rights are increasingly under attack from extremist elements throughout Pakistani society.  Over 75 people attended including Mission Officers, U.S. military representatives, foreign diplomats, and leaders of Pakistani LGBT advocacy groups. … Addressing the Pakistani LGBT activists, the Chargé, while acknowledging that the struggle for GLBT rights in Pakistan is still beginning, said “I want to be clear: the U.S. Embassy is here to support you and stand by your side every step of the way.”

That’s from the embassy’s press release. “Every step?” Well, except for steps outside the embassy walls.  It didn’t occur to them that announcing the country’s “first-ever” Pride from behind the turrets of a fortified compound, guarded against a public enraged by American assassinations and bombs, sent a not-very-indigenous message. A South Asian blogger remarked:

Within a few days, the streets of major urban cities of Pakistan … were hailed with the students and political workers of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious political party, chanting slogans at their highest pitches against homosexuals and America. For them it was a golden opportunity to kill both ‘the evils with a single stone’. Banners were displayed in major cities, especially in the federal capital, within a few days demanding persecution of gays and accusing Americans of propagating and imposing this ‘westernized’ idea. The lash back didn’t remain limited to the Jamaat-e-Islami only but sooner most of the political parties joined this bandwagon to form a coalition against the government for their menial political interests. …

Unthankfully, all the sensational and flowery claptrap peddled around this event turned out to be a disaster for the budding underground Pakistani LGBT movement as the US Embassy conveniently over[looked] the repercussions this event would have brought in an already critical country which is fighting against terrorism and radicalization while sacrificing its peace, its liberty, its sovereignty and countless lives of its law enforcement agencies and civilians alike.

protesting US Pride in Pakistan

The idiocy of all this seems obvious; but it wasn’t obvious to the diplomats involved. With an only-broadly sketched plan, there’s ample leeway for an embassy or two to try this catastrophic kind of thing again.

But the devil lies also in the way that Clinton’s initiative necessarily entangles LGBT movements around the world — mostly progressive, mostly loud in their opposition to unjust and oppressive domination, many resolutely radical — with the US, its rights record, its power, and its imperialism.  And the truth is, this may be terrible, but we are at a point where such imbrication could no longer be avoided. We’re stuck with being fully a part of the world we live in, and with trying to maintain our ideals and values despite, not through and with, our friends.

When I started lobbying the UN about fifteen years ago, queers had no power. Nobody offered them the slightest regard; nobody noticed their politics or positions; with the possible and partial exception of the Dutch, there wasn’t a single country willing to make even a rhetorical genuflection to the rights of LGBT people as a serious issue anywhere in its foreign policy.  This absence of clout was wonderful, inspiring. The lightness of being it brought was not only bearable, it was beautiful, an afflatus of innocence that bore one ecstatically aloft in places the merely practical could never reach. Trying to advocate in this atmosphere of glorious irrelevance, one was never corrupted by the blandishments of power; no one wanted your support, so there was not the least temptation to sell it. In powerlessness lies moral purity; the former is the latter’s fount and succor. One can easily be absolute for truth and right when nobody pays attention.

Now, of course, there are states that pay attention to us. And for better or for worse, we have to deal with their histories and practices, their virtues and their sins, because these affect us. If we don’t watch out, they will all become our own. When South Africa sponsors us at the UN Human Rights Council, we have to recognize that it is seen as an imperial power on much of the continent it underpins. When the US speaks out on our behalf, our future words thrum with the undertone of its assertions, like a basso ostinato. The echoes of its peculiar idealism and its failures, its invasions and its abuses, from Martin Luther King to Rumsfeld, from Guatemala to Abu Ghraib, are disharmonies that will resound in what we say and do. We have to decide when to speak with them and when to speak against them, and reserve and exercise the right to the latter as well as the former.

We can’t, as movements, reject all those who want to aid us. Maturity means negotiating, not denying, these obstacles. Politics means accepting the burden of having — however little — power. But we also have to be willing to stand up to our friends and risk their enmity in the name of what we see as truth, instead of clapping hands mechanically and taking handouts with uncritical gratitude. Indeed, nobody needs to be grateful for Hillary and Barack’s support. Never thank others for recognizing human rights, unless their case is such that they show real courage or risk some tangible  cost in the act. Otherwise, they’re doing nothing more than their duty, to you and to the world. And a duty demands no recompense. Acknowledge it, but feel no obligation. You owe nothing in return.

Instead, each movement in each country needs to figure out whether it will accept America’s new assistance, and if so, how to do so on its own terms. Hillary and Barack’s one-two performance carries opportunities. More largely, though, and in the ethical sphere, it offers a renewed challenge: to maintain values in the face of power.

Friends Forever

Please do check out this excellent blog from Kenya. It deals with language, music, poetry, politics, post- (are we ever “post”? — which is the point) -colonialism, and a whole range of other things; I’m always delighted to find a spirit whose interests are more eclectic than my own. Here’s the post that drew me to it, reprinted by the author’s permission. (The Fanon picture, one of my favorites, is my fault.) Just read it.

Friends Forever

November 26th, 2011

I am well aware that I could not do justice to the subject without offending those “professional friends of the African” who are prepared to maintain their friendship for eternity as a sacred duty, provided only that the African will continue to play the part of an ignorant savage so that they can monopolise the office of interpreting his mind and speaking for him. To such people, an African who writes [or thinks] is encroaching on their preserves. He is a rabbit turned poacher.—Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (1938)

I want you to understand, sir, I am one of the best friends the Negro has in Lyon—Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952)

Africans have many friends.

I am often amazed by how many friends we have. Friends who multiply, especially when they learn about the multiple oppressions we face. Friends who launch campaigns, write letters, donate things we really need, including underwear and textbooks written in the 1940s, because every little bit helps.

Every little bit helps.

Our friends like to smooth our way. Aware that Africans are bashful, they write our documents for us, write and edit our speeches, adopt and present our petitions to those in power, and facilitate all the little transactions we cannot, because we are bashful.

We blush in gratitude.

And because they really care, they are willing to handle all those things we cannot, including financial things. Africans are intuitive and love music and cannot handle math or money. Haven’t you heard about the African farmer who planted coins and waited for a tree to sprout?

Yes, our friends are very helpful. We could not exist without our friends.

Even Fanon says so: “Willy-nilly, the Negro has to wear the livery that the white man has sewed for him” (Black Skin). Because our friends are kind and generous, the livery will be sewn to accommodate all those African extras—the buttocks, the genitals, the breasts, you know. Space enough for the African to breath.

But then Fanon is not very generous. He does not appreciate the friendliness of those who are friendly: “We shall have no mercy for the former governors, the former missionaries. To us, the man who adores the Negro is as ‘sick’ as the man who abominates him” (Black Skins). I am not as ungenerous as Fanon. I appreciate our friends. We appreciate our friends.

In fact, we appreciate our friends so much that when we hold meetings and forums, we are excited when they monopolize these spaces with their ideas and visions and expertise. And we don’t even mind fetching water when they get thirsty. And we are even more grateful when they bring along their friends who monopolize question time. We are so grateful to learn from them.

What would we do without our friends?

Friends are friends forever!

We are happy that our friends want to save us. We are delighted that they translate our statements so that others can understand them. Regrettably, we have not yet learned to write or speak in ways that make sense to anyone else: our translators are our very best friends. We are very grateful.

And because our friends want only what is best for us, we should have no problems assenting to their plans. After all, they have been doing this for a very long time and we are still underdeveloped. If we want to be like them, we should listen to them, or so they say.

As Fanon says, “The black man wants to be like the white man. For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white” (Black Skins). Fanon is too harsh, I think. Surely our friends do not think like this. They want us to be developed, like them, not white! Simply free and developed. In fact, one day we will be so developed, our gay people will be free to wear leather chaps bare-assed in the middle of Moi Avenue. On that day, we will know we are truly free.

Until the day we can be as developed and free as our friends, we will never be truly free. Or so our friends keep telling us. Until then, our friends will continue to fight for us, to talk for us, to write for us, to use our stories, to show pictures of our faces, to create scholarships and awards in our names, to create petitions for us, to translate our lives for important people.

Our friends will never abandon us.

We are in this together.

For good.