Why I am not proud

This comes to me by way of Maya Mikdashi and the folks at Jadaliyya:

It’s a float from 2011’s San Francisco Pride. It shows a dungeonmaster dominating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There’s a whip involved, but mainly he’s fucking the Iranian with a nuclear bomb.

Jadaliyya headlines this “No Comment,” and probably it’s healthier for what’s left of my gay identity, and ungay sanity, not to dwell on it.  I feel like I’ve been putting up with other people’s overspill of testosterone for several days now, from the guy downstairs whose pit bull seems to be killing a giant squid at great length, to the baltageyya an ocean away who assaulted a women’s march in Cairo. But as I wrote rather inarticulately yesterday, you can only address the operations of power by first thinking them through — you know, trying to unpack a bit what’s at work there. So shoulder to the wheel; let’s try to extract some useable lessons from this very American, very gay piece of imperial performance art.

1) Rape is funny, depending on who you’re raping. Not funny-strange or funny-abnormal, but funny-ha-ha.  So, for that matter, is nuclear war!   Why give head in front when you can give warhead from behind?

What’s funny about it, though? Freud argued (in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious) that humor is a safety-valve for thoughts society inhibits; jokes play much the same role for the collective imagination that dreams do for the individual’s. But they release the repressed temporarily only to restore the social order in the end. Comedy is conservative. It puts the bounder, the miscreant, the climber or the rebel in his (or her) place, by saying, finally: this is who you are.

Rape is funny, then, when it reminds the raped (and the onlookers) of what’s inescapable, the self he can’t get away from. Inferiority is always a matter of interiority, the inner — penetrable — person placed, defined, exposed. Now, look at Ahmadinejad again. Who is he, really? Isn’t he a bit … familiar?

Cartoon from Der Stürmer, for another annual celebration: “The Year is Over. The Battle Goes On.”

Really, these hook-nosed Eastern types need some big blond leathery Meister to whack, or fuck, the presumption out of them 24/7.  (The Iranians have this notion that they’re Aryan somehow, and such arrogance especially calls out for the whip.) This is a fascinating instance of how grossly anti-Semitic imagery is so ingrained in Western modernity — the Jew as synonym for weakness, effeminacy, corruption — that it’s a floating, limpetlike defilement. It doesn’t even require actual Semites to glom onto. (I say nothing here about what you can assume are the pro-Israel, and particularly pro-Netanyahu, implications of the display. I suppose if you read Joseph Massad you might argue that Israeli discourse is also capable of exploiting anti-Semitism on its own terms. But then, I would never read Joseph Massad, would I?)

no comment

Of course, what’s more satisfying than insulting Ahmadinejad by alleging he’s not really a proper male, just one of those squirmy little degenerates? It’s a feel-good thing for two reasons: it disses the the odious Mahmoud, while it affirms Manhood in general, including yours and mine. Ideologically, men are so damn easy to please.

Brown people are born to bottom. This is a fundamental fact, as it were: one in which politics has clearly seized the steering wheel away from desire. Plenty of white gay men, in the Bay Area as well as other precincts, undoubtedly harbor fantasies of being topped by some darker, muscled Other in a sweaty, hairy abnegation of one’s personal power, one’s private nuclear arsenal: an arms treaty for the ages. But these dreams are luxuries to be sacrificed for the national good, for the sanctified collective purpose, the way Americans submitted to gas rationing to beat the Nazis, or gave up — remind me, what did we give up? — to win the Iraq war. Politically, brown people are perpetually being screwed, and it’s only natural that sex (which in essence is politics without the voting, like the rest of politics these days) should reflect that. Sex is also an excellent way of reminding them of the fact.

You can see what I mean by comparing the Pride photo to an image that must have been clanking around somewhere in the back of the floatmasters’ minds, one of the most celebrated stills from any American film:

yee haw

Of course, that’s Slim Pickens riding the bomb down to oblivion and Armageddon at the terminus of Dr. Strangelove. He’s in pretty much the same position as the megaton-wielding Master on the float, with the Russians (honorary brown people for Cold War purposes) positioned where the Iranians now stand in our diminished day. Although this is an anti-war film, notoriously subversive of the military verities, there’s no suggestion anywhere that any proper American is going to have his buttcheeks opened to insert weaponry. That would be, one supposes, too subversive — one turn of the screw too many, a fuck too far. (Instead the movie presents American soldiery as obsessed by Purity of Essence, keeping the holy jism bottled up and restrained for the Big Moment when its outburst is required. Or think Deliverance or Pulp Fiction, where the key to national masculinity is maintaining a clenched anus, despite all the menacing forces — from Vietnamese captors to Appalachian S&M freaks — trying to pry it open.)

2) It also depends on who’s doing the raping. Not just anybody can accomplish the curative and conservative function. The question is: who’s got the power?

(Re)consider, please, the following two photographs — I discussed them yesterday. Both accompanied Mona Eltahawy’s article on Middle Eastern women, in Foreign Policy magazine this spring. This is the one FP chose for the article itself — a famous shot of an Egyptian demonstrator abused and stripped by police:

This really had to go with Eltahawy’s essay — it was too well known to leave out. But they wouldn’t and didn’t put it on the cover, to draw a Western reader in. Why not? Well, it wouldn’t seduce, it wouldn’t draw. The people doing the dominating there aren’t Us (to borrow Eltahawy’s terms): they’re Them, those Arabs, and the problem with them is they have too much power. No purchaser of FP in DC is going to be turned on by the politically suspect sight of them exerting it. Many viewers, in fact, saw the photo as especially disturbing because the bra made the woman seem like Us, prone at Their mercy — a commodity like underclothing is notoriously a more accurate indicator of a woman’s identity than voice or face. Who can stand to see a Westernized woman subdued by Their violence? Thus Sally Quinn wrote:

Aside from the sheer brutality, I think what got to me was that she was wearing this gorgeous, sexy bright blue bra. … This person covered from head to toe demonstrated her beliefs through her choice of underwear. The blue bra said what I imagine her to be feeling: “I may be oppressed. I may not have rights. I may have to cover up my body and face. But you cannot destroy my womanhood. You can’t rob me of my femininity. You can’t take away my power.”  That blue bra, to me, was the ultimate symbol of women’s power.

Me, I am no bio woman, just a poor aging drag queen on a Saturday night. But please, please, I want me a talking bra.

The cover photo FP chose instead, of course, was this:

Now, that woman has taken off her clothes not for Them, but for Us (not to mention how she’s painted on that fetching, Ayisha-meets-Al-Jolson blackface niqab). Look at her! She’s looking right at Us, acknowledging that she’s at our command!  Of course, it’s a voluntary stripping she’s undertaken. It isn’t rape per se. But you don’t need to be an acolyte of Catherine MacKinnon (I’m not, believe me) to realize that the fantasy of women’s willing submission is intrinsic to the pornographic imagination. (It’s one reason it’s hard to argue that porn actually incites violence against women: most porn doesn’t need it.) This photo, unlike the aggressive-Arabs one, shows the right kind of Sex at Issue here. Like ha-ha rape, it puts Them in their place, while pumping up Ours.

And now I see why, as part of the endless wars over “gay executions” in Iran, so many Western activists laugh — ha, ha! — at the idea that Iranian men might rape other men. That’s impossible. It’s allotting Them too much power. Iranian men (remember those small penises!) probably aren’t able to rape Iranian men: bottoms bomb, rather literally, when they try to top. Even if They can rape, We won’t allow Them to. As the Pride photo shows: that’s Our job.

Death, with toupee

“About Hitler,” the great Viennese writer Karl Kraus wrote as his life neared its end in  the 1930s, “I have nothing to say.”  It’s hard to feel there’s much to say about Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi’s death either, though that will not stop anybody.  A regime that lived by violence and died by violence immured itself in an element that, as Hannah Arendt repeatedly maintained, is absolutely inimical to words.   Few outside Libya would disagree that it would be preferable if legality had prevailed, if he had been taken alive, if his crimes could be analyzed and proven in the verbal extravaganza of a trial.   Still, when he was seized by angry and loosely-organized men with guns, hundreds of whose comrades he had killed in a nine-month war, it is hard to imagine how any adjective could apply to the remainder of his life but “short.”  The transitional council, if it wanted him tried (as is not clear), could perhaps have sent more orders — more words — to its military to keep him living.  It’s clear from the shouting men in the existing videos of his capture that they knew there were such commands. But it was as almost-inevitable as in Chekhovian dramaturgy that someone in the scene who had a gun would use it. 

I am still not quite sure what I think about the Western intervention. I want to know — a figure still undetermined — how many Libyans died in what was supposed to be a surgical incursion, and turned into a prolonged civil war. Still, while it is easy to identify virtually any industrialized-world action in the Middle East as motivated by oil, in fact this one seems more disinterested.  Ever since the West decided Qaddafi was a decent fellow to deal with, oil had flowed from Libya quite placidly; the cheapest and surest way to ensure its unabated egress would have been to ignore the rebellion tacitly, and let Qaddafi win. And — despite the hilarity of Qaddafi’s claims that bin Laden was feeding hallucinogens to the rebels — it was true that al-Qaeda affiliates had for more than a decade been among the opposition to Qaddafi, making unseating him something of a risk from the perspective of US obsessions. Foreign policy, particularly US foreign policy, is never altruistic. But this looks like a decision in which some kind of moral calculus competed with political calculation.

Back when: the dictator, billboard-sized

Meanwhile, everyone is struck in an Aristotelian way by the depth and disorder of his fall: the figure who loomed as a giant in his own propaganda for forty years shunken to a dusty figure, clown-puffs of dishevelled Bozo-hair ballooning from his temples, dragged from a drain. The sense of tragedy is tempered by how silly he looks waddling into the face of death, the absolute deprivation of dignity as the last humiliation. They almost always seem this way at the end; people whose lives are made up of power find they have nothing left when stripped of it. (Among the fallen autocrats, or servants of autocracy, in this century, the only ones I can recall who regained some independent if ersatz dignity in the end were Göring and Milosevic. The former was detoxed by his generous captors after they jailed him, allowing him to stand up at Nuremberg as something more articulate than a morphine-addled wreck. The bureaucratic pettiness and endlessness of the latter’s trial in the Hague made anyone who spoke with passion come off better for the cameras — and Milosevic did, although his essays in mass murder had been paradoxically passionless, a bloody form of paperwork.)

Khaled Said before and after: iconic images from the Egyptian revolution

I gave a paper last week on, among other things, body politics in the Arab Spring.  Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself to protest Tunisia’s dictatorship, and Khaled Said, tortured brutally to death by Mubarak’s police in 2010, became vital figures animating the respective oppositions. Their bodies, burned and mutilated, themselves turned into symbols of resistance to the state’s power.

Down he comes: the poseur deposed

And the palpability of their deaths stood in contrast to the vast, metastasized images of themselves that the dictators pasted everywhere. On every corner were gargantuan posters of Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi looking Botoxed to an unbelievably embryonic youth, stylized idols more airbrushed than a L’Oreal ad. Those were phantasmagoric bodies, suddenly confronted by the tangible bodies of tangible people that rose to depose them. Ghost faces against real faces; the unreal and duplicitous against the living and the dead; a ghost corporeality against human demands and needs. Fake existence faded before the weight and strength of actual lives, whose final mark of actuality was their vulnerability to death. Of all the surrounding newsbits that came with Qaddafi’s killing, my favorite was the announcement that when the transitional council tried to determine for certain this was his corpse, by DNA-testing hair samples, it didn’t work. Even in the last extremity, huddling in degradation in a drain, Qaddafi couldn’t be wholly real. He wore a wig.