HRC and the vulture fund: Making Third World poverty pay for LGBT rights

marriage-equality-red blood copyThe Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest US gay organization, is going international. It’s just been given at least $3 million to spread the word of marriage equality to benighted countries that treat gays badly. Unfortunately, there’s a catch. Its chief partner and donor in this project wants the people in those countries, LGBT folk included, to starve – their economies wrecked, their incomes shipped abroad, their resources squeezed and stolen to pay off odious debt. HRC is receiving its money for gay rights in the Third World from the man who “virtually invented vulture funds”: a form of speculation that’s one of the worst contributors to Third World poverty ever.

But if you’re poor and getting poorer, look on the bright side (as long as river blindness hasn’t got you, that is). You can still have a nice white wedding; and you’ll save on the food bill if your nation has no food.

HRC is understandably happy about the sunny prospects opening up. It says,

The need to support LGBT advocates and call out U.S.-based anti-equality organizations abroad has never been greater. … At the same time, opportunities exist for a global equality movement as a growing number of countries are passing pro-equality legislation and recognizing marriage equality.  Seventeen countries around the world afford, or will soon afford, committed and loving gay and lesbian couples the legal right to marry.

One of the two big donors to this project is a little more explicit about how the enterprise relates to the projection of US power:

“Every day around the world, LGBT individuals face arrest, imprisonment, torture and even execution just for being who they are,” said Paul Singer. “Some of the worst offenders in this area also happen to be the same regimes that have dedicated themselves to harming the United States and its democratic allies across the globe. [Emphasis added] As an organization that has been at the forefront of the equality movement for over three decades, the Human Rights Campaign is uniquely positioned to work in tandem with NGOs to empower LGBT and human rights advocates abroad and help stop these abuses.”

Well, yes, except … this doesn’t quite sound like “human rights” envisioned from the high vantage of universality and internationalism. It sounds like LGBT rights uneasily painted into a picture of US interests.

Paul Singer (Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Paul Singer (Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

On the other hand, it’s natural to couch the project in terms of what the US will get out of it. After all, its two deep-pocketed benefactors are Singer, who runs a hedge fund called Elliott Management, and Daniel S. Loeb, who runs another called Third Point LLC. They’re both conservatives and huge donors to the Republican Party. Singer underwrote last year’s GOP National Convention with $1 million of largesse. One operative called himthe big power broker in the Republican financial world.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that 

He has given more to the GOP and its candidates—$2.3 million this election season—than anyone else on Wall Street, helping make his hedge fund … one of the nation’s biggest sources of political donations, the vast majority to the GOP.

My little man: Singer, with full-sized Mitt in front of him, for Fortune magazine

My little man: Singer, with full-sized Mitt in front of him, for Fortune magazine

The New York Times writes that Singer “believes in the doctrine of American exceptionalism and is wary about United States involvement in ‘international organizations and alliances.’” (Apparently HRC won’t be supporting the hundreds of LGBT activists and groups who fight for their rights at the vile, collectivist UN.) Singer is a nexus of con and neocon ties and tendrils; he chairs the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, and has served on the board of Commentary magazine, the national journal of Podhoretzstan. He’s ladled at least $3.6 million to the self-styled Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawksh outfit which Glenn Greenwald called “basically a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” Dan Senor — the glib apologist who served as authorized liar and TV personality for the Coalition Provisional Authority while the Bush Administration devastated Iraq — is one of Singer’s foreign policy advisors.

Na na, na na, na na, come on, come on, sticks and stones may break my bones: Loeb

Na na, na na, na na, come on, come on, sticks and stones may break my bones: Rihanna Loeb

Loeb, meanwhile, supported Barack Obama in 2008, but turned on him when the President ungratefully demanded that Wall Street let itself be regulated a little. In a celebrated email announcing his desertion he cast the President as abusive husband, with a bunch of submissive bankers as his bruised brides: “When he beats us, he doesn’t mean it … he usually doesn’t hit me in the face [so] it doesn’t show except for that one time … he’s not that bad really, unless he gets drunk (from power) …” Probably this was irony; I mean, a sheltered guy worth billions wouldn’t seriously compare himself to a poor woman living in a shelter, would he? By April 2011, Loeb had given almost $500,000 to the GOP, and he kept giving. In mid-2012, he co-hosted a $25,000-a-plate fundraiser for Mitt Romney in the Hamptons. Mocked for extravagance, the proceedings seem to have furnished Romney with the intellectual foundations for his later comments about the wrongly franchised 47%. A guest lumbering up in a Range Rover told the media that

“I don’t think the common person is getting it. … We’ve got the message,” she added. “But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies — everybody who’s got the right to vote — they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”

But all this GOP-ness isn’t the most interesting part. What matters isn’t where these guys give their money. It’s where they get it.

Curious how no one asks this. In gratitude for their generosity, HRC arranged for the two donors to feature in a puff piece yesterday by Frank Bruni, the New York Times’ designated homosexual.  “Elliott Management’s lofty offices in Midtown Manhattan look north, south, east and west across the borough’s thicket of skyscrapers …” The view was terribly distracting for Bruni, who probably lives, like most Times writers, in a windowless Bronx tenement where he makes matchsticks to pay the bills.

I sat in a 30th-floor library with the hedge fund’s founder and chief executive, Paul Singer, a billionaire who was one of the most important donors to Mitt Romney in 2012 … He’s wary of speaking with journalists, so much so that I’ve seen the adjective “reclusive” attached to his name.

The piece is all about Singer’s lavish giving for gay marriage, and it exhibits, if beneath the surface, the historical function of philanthropy: to silence annoying questions about where you got your fortune. “The battlefield” for gay rights “isn’t what it used to be,” Bruni wrote gauzily. “From the 30th floor, I could see that most clearly of all.” But there are other battlefields Bruni chose not to see.

Paul Singer runs a vulture fund. He makes his profits from the debt incurred by Third World countries — I won’t use the PC term “developing” countries, because the point of the debt is to prevent them from developing — and from the misery it causes their citizens. Of all the parasites in the global economy, of all the profiteers of poverty, vulture funds may be the worst.

Vulture funds operate by buying up a country’s distressed debt just as the original lenders are about to write it off  — usually, as the Guardian describes it, when the country “is in a state of chaos. When the country has stabilised, vulture funds return to demand millions of dollars in interest repayments and fees on the original debt.” In other words, you purchase the right to be a hardassed debt collector, and to harass and impoverish whole populations till you get your cash. Singer, says the BBC, “virtually invented vulture funds.”   A University of Pennsylvania expert on emerging-market debt told Bloomberg that Singer’s “actions are amoral,” adding that he puts the squeeze on “without worrying about the potential consequences for the country involved.”

That’s an understatement. Three examples of Singer’s work:

Peru. In 1996, just as Peru embarked on restructuring its massive debts, Singer’s hedge fund bought $20.7 million worth of old loans to the country — paying only $11.4 million, a huge discount. They immediately rejected the restructuring and sued Peru in a New York court, for the original value of the loans plus interest.  As the USA Jubilee Network explains, they “won a $58 million settlement and made a $47 million profit — a 400% return.”

Peru, however, couldn’t pay the sum. Instead, it put priority on paying back its other debtors, who had participated in the restructuring. Singer actually took out an injunction to keep Peru from repaying anyone else, thus shoving the entire country back toward default in the name of his own profits. Jubilee writes that “Elliott pioneered this litigate-into-submission strategy that allows these vultures to collect astronomical profits on countries in economic stress.”

Investigative journalist Greg Palast claims that Singer finally got his money when authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori had to flee the country in 2000.  Singer and his repo men, he says, put a lien on the Presidential plane before Fujimori could reach it — then demanded the full sum from the desperate dictator before giving it back. Singer piously defends his work as promoting “transparency” among foreign governments. Getting a corrupt leader to ransom away his country’s resources to save his skin hardly fits that description.

Vulture funds in Africa

Vulture funds in Africa

Congo-Brazzaville.  In the late 1990s, Singer’s Elliott Associates used a Cayman Islands-based subsidiary called Kensington International to buy, at a discount, over $30 million worth of defaulted debt issued by the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) — by some reports, paying only $1.8 million. It then sued the government for almost $120 million in repayments plus interest. That’s a 10,000% profit.

A UK court handed Singer victory in a succession of judgements in 2002 and 2003. The Congolese government couldn’t pay up, though: interest continued to accrue at a rate of $22,008.23 per day. Congo-Brazzaville’s GDP per person at the time averaged around $800. More than a quarter of deaths of children under 5 were from malnutrition. The country had, according to the Financial Times, “one of the highest foreign debts per capita of any developing country, estimated at $9 billion for a population of fewer than 4 million people” — and, following Singer’s model, private vulture funds hurriedly bought up about a tenth of that.

Singer and Kensington relentlessly chased Congolese assets in courts around the world. In 2005, another UK judge gave them partial satisfaction. He let Singer intercept and expropriate $39 million in Congolese oil sales to a Swiss firm. That’s still more than a 2000% profit, not bad when your only productive work is pushing paper. Other firms that have speculated in Congolese debts, though, continue hounding the impoverished country’s resources from court to court.

December 2001: Riot police and tear gas used against protesters in Buenos Aires

December 2001: Riot police and tear gas unleashed against protesters in Buenos Aires

Argentina. In 2001, Argentina had a revolution: citizens banging pots and pans in the public squares threw out a neoliberal regime that had driven the country into depression and stolen almost everybody’s savings. A new government of economic nationalists defied the Washington Consensus by defaulting on more than $80 billion in foreign debt and devaluing the currency. It worked: reasserting domestic control gradually revived the moribund economy.

That was the good news. Meanwhile, though, one of Singer’s companies called NML Capital Ltd. sniffed future profit. It bought over $180 million of the defaulted debt at between 15 and 30 cents on the dollar.

Impounded: Argentine warship Libertad, seized by Singer in Ghana, 2012 (Leo La Valle/EPA)

Unenduring freedom: Argentine flagship Libertad, seized by Singer in Ghana, 2012 (Leo La Valle/EPA)

In 2005, Argentina’s President, Nestor Kirchner, offered lenders 30 cents on the dollar to forgive its debts. The vast majority of bondholders accepted the offer; Singer rejected it and demanded full repayment. Argentina’s legislature passed a law that barred the government from raising the offer — a sign, if one were needed, that Singer’s demands flouted the democratic will of a nation of 40 million. Singer refused to budge. He took Argentina to court in the US and elsewhere. In 2012, he actually managed to impound an Argentinian naval vessel while it rested in an African port, demanding an extortionary sum to release it until the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea ordered it freed.

European judges have found against Singer, but in 2006 he won a judgment for $284 million in the U.S. (That would be at least a 500% profit.) The case is still in court. Singer’s pursued the same strategy he did with Peru, demanding that Argentina be barred from paying any creditors who joined the restructuring unless he‘s repaid in full. Either Argentina will be semi-bankrupted by his greed, or it will suspend its obligations indefinitely; in either case, that’s too much uncertainty for most lenders. Singer has pretty much singlehandedly kept Argentina an unsafe investment. The US judiciary’s willingness to buy his arguments has shaken Latin American financial markets, doubled the cost of Argentina’s borrowing, and pushed the country toward a new, disastrous default. Paul Singer is like honey badger. He don’t care.

Protestor outside the London offices of Elliott Management, Febuary 2013

Protestor at a Jubilee Debt Campaign demo outside the London offices of Elliott Management, February 2013

The World Bank has called on developed countries to put an end to profiteering like SInger’s. “Vulture funds are a threat to debt relief efforts,” its Vice-President for Poverty Reduction said.  “Their increasing litigation against countries receiving debt relief will penalize some of the world’s poorest countries.” George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary told Congress in 2007 that “I deplore what the vulture funds are doing.” Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, accused them of “perversity” and called them “morally outrageous.” I could go on and on — but so do Singer and his proteges. They don’t stop. The World Bank estimates that vulture funds have sued a third of countries receiving debt relief. Jubilee USA notes that

As of late 2011, 16 of 40 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) surveyed by the International Monetary Fund were facing litigation in 78 individual cases brought by commercial creditors. Of these, 36 cases have resulted in court judgments against HIPCs amounting to approximately $1 billion on original claims worth roughly $500 million.

Red sky at morning

Red sky at morning

And no wonder Singer buys up political influence so assiduously. Hector Timerman, Argentina’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote in 2012:

Vulture funds abuse the system, acquiring distressed debt in secondary markets to multiply profits at the expense of the poor and weak. As these activities are ethically repellent, well-prepared propaganda machinery keeps their lucrative business alive.

It’s not just propaganda. Singer needs his paid politicians to fend off scrutiny and guard the “lucrative business” from disruption. A bill to curtail vulture funds’ profiteering was introduced in the US Congress in 2009. The next year, Singer told his heavily funded Manhattan Institute they had to combat “indiscriminate attacks by political leaders against anything that moves in the world of finance.” Will HRC flex its legislative muscle to fight the Stop Vulture Funds Act as well?

It’s a sick irony that the money HRC takes to fund its new work in the Third World is made off the backs of Third World suffering. It’s even worse when HRC’s PR machine colludes with the New York Times to whitewash — pinkwash — Singer’s record of destruction. It’s politically disastrous for an LGBT group to operate this way. They’re sending a message to governments in the developing world that the US really does see LGBT people as a privileged class, and is willing to promote their rights while condoning the immiseration of whole populations. But it’s self-defeating also. LGBT people don’t want this kind of “help.” LGBT people are citizens, workers, children, parents too. HRC should know that they are as affected as anybody when a parasite like Singer enforces endless debt service on states, devastates the necessary services that governments provide, litigates countries into permanent submission.  What does HRC think it can give the victims, after Singer has stripped their assets and sold off their national resources? Is same-sex marriage supposed to be a consolation? I’m afraid HRC is acting like old honey badger, too. It just don’t care.

Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani

Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani

Since Argentina has been one of Singer’s targets, I went to an old colleague of mine, the great Argentinian feminist and sexual rights activist Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani. Alejandra has fought for the rights of LGBT people throughout Latin America for more than 20 years. She was sad but not shocked at the assembled ironies. She told me:

“International work” done “for” LGBTs (or women, development, girls, you name it) from the USA is, first of all, a great industry giving jobs to a vast majority [within the organizations] of USA citizens and also to a few privileged ones from the Global South (I was once among the latter, so I know what I am talking about). There are always a few good souls thrown in the mix, who normally can’t resist too many years. For too long our misfortunes (patriarchal social norms, authoritarian governments, condoned forms of violence, subordinated economies) have made the North rich, sometimes through jobs “saving us” and other times more directly, like in the case of the profits made by the vulture funds or the arms dealers. And they also serve to hide the existence of quite similar phenomena in the Global North itself and to keep the fragile national pride and self-esteem of our “saviours” intact.

“Another thing that does not surprise me,” she writes,

is that a USA based “LGBT” organization accepts money from such a source … [P]articularly in the USA many/most LGBT activists have a hard time linking their issues to broader social, economic and political realities, as they are too self-absorbed in all their identity politics. I hope that not many people in the Global South will agree to do work funded with this extremely dirty money — if they know where it is coming from. But sometimes, people are facing such difficult circumstances that they can’t afford to be so principled.

She adds that “in some Global South countries, activists belong to social and economic elites (this happens particularly in the early stages of movements, as these are the ones that can afford to be out) and they are as ignorant or unconcerned about broader social issues as their USA colleagues, so anything can happen.”

Vultures and their masters: Argentinian cartoon

Vultures and their masters: Argentinian cartoon

Maybe she’s right, but here I’m inclined to differ. Most LGBT movements in the larger world aren’t in their early stages any more. They’re mature and politically sophisticated. They don’t need HRC; try telling someone in South Africa (where LGBT rights are in the Constitution) that they should “learn” from the US. Far more valuable to them are their connections with local civil societies and social movements that fight for people’s real rights and freedoms. They ally with groups that combat maternal mortality, defend the rights to health care and education, press the State to keep the social welfare system functioning, ensure that votes count and that people can decide their collective economic as well as civic future. That’s not what Singer stands for, and outsiders paid from his dirty money may get an unexpectedly cold welcome.

I forgot about Daniel Loeb. He too has a history of bold international interventions, it turns out. If you want to read about him, Vanity Fair has a long piece coming out in its December issue, less puffy than Frank Bruni’s by far. There’s a nugget about how, on a 2002 vacation in Cuba with the heir to the von Furstenberg money, Loeb ran down a child with his car. Cuban authorities held him in the country until — well, whatever. Perhaps he made some investments. A friend recalled,

“I truly felt so sorry for him when he told me he had found himself unable to leave the country, curled up in a ball on the floor of his room crying, promising God that he’d do anything if the Almighty got him out of his predicament. It wasn’t as if Dan had done it on purpose, and who really knows what ended up happening to the kid?”

A benighted country that’s not the United States, a rich guy, a poor child with tire marks on his back, and — who knows. Isn’t that what the new landscape of LGBT organizing is all about?

Forward to freedom, and fresh meat

Forward to freedom, and fresh meat

Boycott politics: Breaking out of the spaghetto mentality

rs_560x415-130927122711-560.barilla-pasta.ls.92713The same people who have been pushing to boycott a whole country turned on a dime last week, and switched all their eager energies to boycotting bigoted spaghetti. It’s getting hard to keep track. 72 hours ago it was still Boycott Stoli, or Stop the Sochi Olympics, because, they thrummed, there’s a genocide in Russia and we have to stop it! Then everything changed to Boycott Barilla pasta, because, uh.

To be precise, the head of the Italian food conglomerate said his company “would never do [a commercial] with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect but because we don’t agree with them. Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role.” He added that if gays don’t like Barilla and its marketing strategy, “then they will not eat it and they will eat another brand.” One confusing aspect is that while this is an awful thing to say, it’s awful in a very different way from what’s happening in Russia. Yet the rhetoric devoted to its awfulness was the same. Comparing the Russian situation to the Holocaust or apartheid makes me uneasy. But how am I supposed to feel when identical moral importance is slapped, one size fits all, onto a repressive government that restricts basic rights for millions, and the unrepresentative TV ads of a corporate tycoon? Even El Pais, usually a sensible newspaper, went analogy-mad over the Barilla contretemps, and

was powerfully reminded of the defenders of apartheid in South Africa, when they said they had nothing against blacks and just wanted to live apart from them. Or worse [sic], of those who demonstrate against equal marriage or adoption but then say they are not homophobic …

And what cause doesn’t come with a mini-Mandela attached these days? Here’s John Aravosis, who helped get the Barilla boycott going, explaining the campaign’s moral stature to kibitzers yesterday:

aravosis birmingham 2I don’t mind if people find a cause that makes them feel good about themselves while sitting and Tweeting, and even superior to others who sit and Tweet about other things. Good for them. And in fact, every time somebody launches a boycott call, there’s always a critic to belittle it, to ask: There are more important things. Why choose this one? This caviling goes on endlessly about the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli occupation right now — a campaign from which the anti-Russian activism is tacitly taking pointers, including the idea of cultural politics and carrying protest to the arts. Why are these people concerned about Israel when NorthKoreaSyriaSaudiArabiaChina is so much worse? You go after Israel because you’re a bunch of anti-Semites!

In truth, that relativism is the least relevant objection to any boycott. There’s always something worse in some way, somewhere in the world, always some other injustice crying for attention. To take the comparisons game too seriously is to condemn oneself to paralysis. The useful criteria are not so much what’s worst, but: On what issue can you move a critical mass of people to some kind of action? And can you achieve change this way – are the offenders susceptible to public and economic pressure? (That Israel feels the heat, that the boycott calls are working, is revealed most clearly by the noisy anti-boycott rhetoric, including the incessant claim that people should concentrate on something else.) In this sense — while there really isn’t a lot of North Korean kimchi on the shelves to bypass, and few countries have yet figured how to abjure Saudi oil — the Barilla boycott was a natural. You have a large constituency of gay men who oppose discrimination and are discriminating shoppers, while most international corporations now worry obsessively about their public image in different markets. It was child’s play to make Barilla capitulate and videotape an apology, almost within hours.

This raises a different question for boycotters, though. Is the goal (here, apparently, an apology) worth the effort: does it justify the expense of spirit, is it a waste of time? Take Aravosis’ second comparison. He means, I’m sure, the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955-1956, which helped launch the civil rights movement and the career of Martin Luther King. (A later bus boycott in nearby Birmingham was less famous, dramatic, and successful.) It’s true it was directed against another obstreperous private company (National City Lines, which operated the bus system on contract with the city). But come on. The analogy is grating. Those marches didn’t aim at some CEO’s offensive but non-binding comments, but at a policy of segregation, one that didn’t just symbolize but was intrinsic to racism and rightslessness enforced across the whole South. Women and men hitched or hiked for miles to get to work, gave up public transportation for 381 days to assert their dignity. This is a different order of politics from just extracting an overnight apology from some executive. It was change. What did changing Barilla’s mind change?

Men and women walking in the rain during the Montgomery bus boycott, 1956

Men and women walking in the rain during the Montgomery bus boycott, 1956

I’m old enough, at least, to remember some of the international campaigns whose memory is taken lightly these days – not Montgomery, indeed, but divestment from South Africa in the ‘80s, as well as getting Romania’s sodomy law repealed in the ‘90s and many more. And I have some reservations.

FIRST,  a boycott is just one tool. When it works, it’s almost always part of a broader, more difficult campaign. The campaign against apartheid could not have been carried out in Tweets. It would have used Twitter, if that were around, but it wasn’t just about getting some anomic individuals to press buttons on their iPhones: it meant mobilizing institutions, communities, movements.  This was partly because nobody succumbed to wild presumptions that South Africa would surrender overnight. It was essential to put pressure on them for the long haul, and that would entail action by as many partners and allies as possible.

A contrast with the various anti-Russia boycott actions roaming the West is instructive. These pretty much all focus either one event (the Olympics) or one product (vodka). At first, there was a tacit, prevailing illusion that punishing the good name of either entity would quickly bring Putin to his knees. “It ’s time to put a stop to it, with the means available. And for starters, that means hitting Russia where it hurts. And you can’t start with a better target than Stolichnaya vodka.” Perhaps the belief that the omnipotent United States was finally on the gays’ side encouraged these fantasies of immediate gratification and power. Well, it’s apparent Putin’s posture is more resilient than previously imagined. Even Obama, after saying all sorts of encouraging things on Jay Leno, dropped the issue – along with the rest of his human rights agenda in Russia – when the administration found it needed Moscow‘s help in Syria. Now we hear, from none other than racist intellectual Michael Lucas, that the boycott actually had other ambitions all along: “This is not about hurting Russia economically. We understand very well that we can’t do that. This is about telling the story over and over again and making sure that our Russian LGBT friends are not forgotten.” But if the Russian regime has shown anything in ten years, it’s that bad publicity doesn’t bruise it much. So what other weapons are in the arsenal? What’s Plan B? What’s next?

Gran Fury poster, 1988

Gran Fury poster, 1988

Many people propelling this work are ACT UP veterans and survivors. They remember, I think, a particular version of ACT UP, one canonized by the recent film How to Survive a Plague: that the queers, despised and rejected by everybody, went out and changed medicine, public health, and history pretty much on their own, with some vibrant messaging and a shared defiance of death. Aside from the defiance, this isn’t entirely true; alliance-building makes neither for dramatic memories nor enthralling documentaries. But even if it were, it was an exception to how causes succeed.  If you want to get things done, particularly in the long run, you need more than courage and catchy memes (and the anti-Russia visuals circulating on the Internet, by the way, are pathetic compared to the somber majesty of Gran Fury). You need a movement that can enlist co-combatants and partners. I’ve asked this before: where, in the US-Russia protesting, are the unions and the students? Both were basic to the anti-apartheid activism that everybody keeps citing without remembering. Nobody, though, seems to feel a pressing need for a much different, broader base of participants, or for reaching out through political networks rather than social ones.

SECOND, successful boycott campaigns keep an eye on the bigger picture. They’re not just asking for apologies or lip service, they want real change, because only social change, not small change, keeps an activist movement mobilized and committed. The Montgomery boycott was a beginning, not an end, because Southern segregation was the target, not the city government. A demand that Harvard divest from South Africa wasn’t just a request that Harvard students be able to keep their hands clean of dirty investments. It was intended to (and did) put pressure on Pretoria, with the ultimate aim of demolishing the apartheid system. This may seem obvious, but it bears repeating.

end-apartheid-nowBack to Barilla for a moment. An article in Slate by an Italian academic pointed out accurately that, for Italian LGBT people, this really is a big deal. The visible community of queer activists in Italy is small by European standards. I’d call them embattled; the author merely says there’s  “a general feeling of exasperation”:

Just a few days ago, the Parliament decided to respond to a rise in homophobic violence in the last years with an anti-homophobia law, but LGBT activists called it “useless” since it protects anti-gay speech within political, cultural and religious groups. The debate accompanying the law has been characterized by homophobic remarks from members of various political parties who continually spoke of a “right not to like gays” in terms of freedom of speech. So, when Guido Barilla shared his bigoted opinions, his comments became a casus belli to talk about how far the normalization of public homophobia can go.

I look up to you, ragazzo: Guido Barilla (L) and small, admiring bunga-bunga man

I look up to you, ragazzo: Guido Barilla (L) and small, admiring bunga-bunga man

The issues go even deeper, though. Guido Barilla himself is almost a consigliere to Italy’s corrupt heterosexual-in-chief, Silvio Berlusconi. This spring, celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of Barilla’s father, Berlusconi lovingly recounted the advice that founding paterfamilias gave him when he first contemplated becoming Duce (“You want to get your hands dirty in politics? They’ll paint you all colors.”) And the younger Barilla is recurrently rumored as a possible new leader of Berlusconi’s right-wing party if legal troubles ever pry the old man’s cold, dead fingers away from the steering wheel. The Barilla Group is not a huge satrapy as Italy’s feudal capitalism goes. Global revenues in 2012 were just under €4 billion, a pittance next to the €110 billion earned by petro-conglomerate ENI. But all these firms manage to sit at the heart of things. They all profit from the marriage of economic conglomerates and political power in Italy, wedded to advance a neoliberal agenda. It’s a very traditional union, but revamped for the 21st century, as Berlusconi’s electoral immortality suggests. According to the Wikileaks cables, for example, the obliging Silvio may have got millions in kickbacks for helping ENI arrange a gas deal with Vladimir Putin – all as yet unprosecuted.  As for the pasta firm, even the previous center-ish prime minister, dour banker Mario Monti, was given to quoting the elder Barilla’s bromides at various opportunities. “Go ahead, go ahead with all courage!” said the genius — words to live by.

Meanwhile, Barilla Inc. promotes old-time values as selling points the way its right-wing allies promote them as social norms. One blogger writes,

One of Barilla’s biggest brands is “Mulino Bianco” (White Mill). While the brand’s biscuits and snacks are obviously produced industrially in enormous factories, in the fantasy world of Barilla advertising they are made in the waterpowered White Mill, located in a landscape somewhere between Tuscany and Kansas, where Antonio Banderas, accompanied only by a hen called Rosita, makes all the goodies. These delicious, wholesome snacks (as long as you don’t read the list of additives on the packets) are eaten exclusively by perfect families with two children who live in charming country villas and enjoy leisurely breakfasts together every morning. So unrealistic is the image of family life that “very Mulino Bianco” is actually an expression for an idealized form of domestic bliss.

Everything is happy here, we love bread and the opposite sex and we especially love the Duce: From a Barilla commercial for Mulino Bianco

Everything is happy here, we love bread and the opposite sex and we especially love the Duce: From a Barilla commercial for Mulino Bianco

There is, of course, a long history of capitalism using nostalgia for pre-capitalist social relations, however repressive, to sell its products. Think of the way the black provider-servant was an icon in US ad campaigns for more than a century. You’re not buying pancakes, you’re buying a Hegelian master-slave dialectic that will affirm your higher Being and clean your house! The Barilla firm is as shameless as Aunt Jemima’s slavery-loving makers  in using antique miseries as modern marketing ploys. But the corroding effects of capitalism, its actual acid attacks upon traditional connections, also require the balm of practical, not mythical, conservatism to enforce belonging and keep people in their places. “Classic family” commercials morph into “pro-family” policies, the two-child fantasy translates to the slow roll-back of abortion. Image becomes ideology. White mill becomes white power.

Ad for Aunt Jemima pancakes, 1950

Ad for Aunt Jemima flour mix, 1950

All I mean by this long digression is that there’s more to Barilla than just the symbolic value of getting them to retract a stupid statement. There’s a bigger picture. They have a longstanding role in the corrupt copulation of business and politics in Italy, and the way that the resulting right-wing juggernaut sells conservative social as well as economic policy. That won’t change just because they’ve apologized for alienating one market sector.

OK, you’re not going to shift that overnight. But my problem with the Barilla boycott is that its US promoters think they’ve accomplished a big victory over Barilla, and they haven’t. In fact, if anything, they’ve reinforced two intertwined and dangerous ideas. First, that corporations can be “good citizens” if they just do formal obeisance to a vapid, verbal ideal of equality, while carrying on with the business of getting rich, exploiting people, and making inequality worse. Second, that the rest of us mainly exercise our “citizenship” as concerned consumers, or non-consumers, of what those corporations sell.

As far as the first goes, here’s a prefab recommendation to Barilla that went mildly viral over the weekend:

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This is a classic call to good corporate citizenship. But if the pasta kings say “we’re sorry!” to Illinois Unites for Marriage (a campaign for same-sex marriage in the state) — which in practice would mean giving a tidy sum of money — how does that help LGBT Italians? Does it change Barilla’s support for Italy’s right wing, or its coziness with Berlusconi, or the heterosexual agitprop it broadcasts hourly during the breaks on Italian TV? This kind of appeal to philanthropy to solve everything is the polar opposite of politics. It’s an escape from politics. It lets Barilla off the hook unexamined, the system it feeds on still uninterrogated. It lets the campaigning stop before it’s even started getting at the serious questions. Maybe that’s all the gays have energy for in the busy US, but to compare this to the struggle against South Africa’s racist state is insulting.

This food is HOMOPHOBIC, and no one should ever eat it

This food is HOMOPHOBIC, and no one should ever eat it

But if the campaign is apolitical, it’s because the gays are apolitical. And if the gays stay apolitical, it’s because campaigns like this encourage them to think of their beliefs, values, and political actions as consumer choices. The idealistic myth that you can “hit Russia where it hurts” solely by switching to a different brand of vodka, without a lot of longer work being done, is of a piece with the myth that you can do something tremendous for equality if you chuck your lasagna boxes in the trash. Photos like this, of pasta in the garbage can, started circulating Friday from folks who wanted to show the world they’d done something good — rather offensive, given that if you’ve already bought the stuff, you might at least tear yourself from the computer and cart it to the food bank so that somebody hungry could eat it. That won’t happen, though: indolence, indifference, and privilege lurk not far beneath the surface of easy boycott activism. It’s a caring that stops when you’ve clicked “Like,” and doesn’t take trips to the soup kitchen. But what about your own kitchen? No sooner did Barilla become a pariah pasta than gays started explaining you could still get good fettucine, even better fettucine, if your care and energy went to the consuming cause. A comment from Dan Savage’s blog launched itself into a sort of anguished gustatory moral debate; you can’t just switch to American pasta, because

there are differences … Italian pasta is popular because their semolina wheat simply develops differently. Even when you grow the same variety in America, it’s not the same. (It’s also why Indian basmati rice is much better than American.) Of course, the way wheat is ground into flour makes subtle differences, as does the actual pasta recipe, as well as the final cut of the pasta. Try a few different brands of the same pasta (anything you like, as long as it’s the same noodle and prepared the same way – e.g., boil it for the same time regardless of how long the label instructs you) and you’ll note some very real differences.

Anyway, Barilla is far from the only good Italian brand that’s readily available in America. I go for De Cecco myself, although the last time I needed lasagne noodles, Barilla was the only decent brand I could find. I’ll have to cast a wider grocery net the next time, or hope my preferred store wises up and carries more brands.

Is this kind of boycott politics really politics? Or is it a boycott of politics, evading the responsibilities and demands that politics impose on us for an easy cyber-way out? Does our consumer power — that $800 billion gays spend annually at being gay — really make us stronger, more potent citizens? Or does it makes us less citizens, shut us into ghettos where we become what we do or do not purchase with our power? Does it foreclose more generous identities, more onerous but meaningful commitments, larger and more human solidarities?

Sometimes these militant calls to action, with their military metaphors (“fight back! to arms!”) up front, sound as if they come from deep insecurity that our consumer lives are making us decadent, less virile, weak with surfeit. Man up, people, unless you want to turn into Chelsea Manning or Johnny Weir! A century ago, William James feared that pacifism would fail unless it found some other animating purpose that could inspire and mobilize a citizenry, some “moral equivalent of war” to provide “war’s disciplinary function” amid the “pleasure-economy” and its “unmanly ease.”

But of course, mini-boycotts and web petitions that die down when enough clicks have been collected aren’t even that. There’s not enough stick-to-itiveness in them for a proper war. They’re the moral equivalent of a Mongol raid, a cattle-rustling foray that brings back just sufficient booty to keep you morally sated for a day or two: a useless apology from some powerful straight guy, a corporate donation to some gay board of directors or to HRC. They remind me of Thomas Love Peacock‘s wonderful “War Song of Dinas Vawr,” a poem which, he said, contained “the quintessence of all the war-songs that ever were written, and the sum and substance of all the appetencies, tendencies, and consequences of military glory”:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.

We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them.
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.

boycott_stoli

© Not Gran Fury

Eric Ohena Lembembe: Not again, or never again?

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They found Eric Ohena Lembembe’s body four days ago. He had a title and he had attracted praise before, and more has accrued to him now that it does no good. He was executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, and he fought not just for the right to health but for the other rights of people vulnerable to the virus, LGBT folk among them. He was brave, he was visible, he was gentle, he was outspoken. If you have ever seen a tortured body, you know how little this language signifies against the violence of somebody’s flesh being broken.  They discovered him at home; he had been missing for two days. The door was chained, but, staring through the window, his colleagues saw his corpse. His neck was snapped. The murderers had used a clothes iron to burn his limbs and his face. When I think of him I don’t think of his titles or his bravery. I only think of him suffering pain: intense pain, perhaps coming in sharp blows or perhaps in mounting waves, pain large enough to extinguish everything else in the world. The measure of how nobody deserves that is exactly that nobody can understand that. The pain blots out explanation or description. It is necessary to say something, in the end, but first one must think of the pain.

A necessary thing to say, once words restore their hegemony, is: It’s not the first time. I had the same thoughts of pain when David Kato’s body was found in Uganda in 2011. David was a slight, almost breakable-looking man: when he got excited, which was often, his body shook like an aspen with the intensity of expressing himself. The killer had beaten his head in with a hammer. There is a great, long poem about the First World War; toward its end a soldier reflects, in a moment when pain makes time stop, on the shell that has just struck him:

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering
the fragility of us.

The violence is out of all proportion to our human weakness. Yet the killings keep coming.

David Kato

David Kato

One thing that struck me when David died was that, while human rights defenders and anti-Museveni dissidents in Uganda had faced harassment and persecution for years, he was the first in a long while to be murdered for his pains. Country after country, of course, defenders die in retaliation for all kinds of offenses against the powerful. In Russia, you can be shot in an elevator or murdered on the road for the articles you write; in Egypt, you can be tortured to death for talking back to the police. Still, in much of the world, activists working on gender and sexuality are among the most endangered defenders. I used to say: those who talk about the body and its rights face revenge upon their bodies by those who hate them. Perhaps that’s too pat, but there is something in it. The torture Lembembe underwent is what forensic examiners sometimes call “overkill,” defined aseptically as “wounding far beyond that required to cause death.” In many jurisdictions it seems to typify murders of LGBT people. The standard explanation is that hate drives the surplus violence. But a more excruciating economy than that is probably at work. You make your body support a politics; make your body suffer pain, and die of it. Isn’t that what they were trying to say not to, but through Eric Lembembe?

Lembembe died in Africa, of course. But there was nothing uniquely African about his death. Western press coverage falls back almost instantly on “African homophobia” as an explanation, painting the whole continent as one entity with a single culture that is unvaried, implacable, and impervious to history or distance. It’s “a notoriously homophobic continent.” “Gay rights face an uphill struggle throughout much of Africa,” Time intoned (click Time’s link and you’ll find that Africa is largely about dead gays, mass murder, elephant poaching, and Mandela). This is hardly new. A few weeks ago an American paper was warning of “An African Epidemic of Homophobia” (add epidemics to Time’s list). And so on.

Jayaram, a meti who survived a murder attempt on the street in Kathmandu, 2004

Jayaram, a meti who survived a murder attempt on the street in Kathmandu, 2004

But Lembembe didn’t die of something both diffused across all Africa and distinctive to its “culture,” any more than Mark Carson, gunned down in New York City in May, died of a cultural pathology infecting all the rotten traditional communities of North America. For years reporters have been asking me what is “the world’s worst place to be gay.” The expected answers usually are a) all of Africa; b) all of the “Muslim world”; c) Jamaica. The question isn’t just reductionist, it’s racist. It assumes that all gay people’s experiences in a country are alike and can be assembled for insertion somewhere in a sliding scale. It assumes that homophobia is uniform across particular countries or cultures, and that you can rate the places like the Rough Guide. It takes a picture of monolithic and exclusionary cultures that Russian nationalists, African traditionalists, and American fundamentalists could all go jismic over — and combines it with a nineteenth-century race theorist’s facility in ranking all these on a ladder, leading up to white liberals in pith helmets on top. (There’s even a poll out now asking fools what they think are the world’s least gay-friendly countries, with Iran victorious by virtue of bad publicity.) But any place –Stockholm or Amsterdam or San Francisco — can be terrible if you are gay and poor, or gay and a member of another group that people don’t like. And Kingston, Teheran, and Yaounde are perfectly safe for plenty who have power, position, or money. No “culture” has slapped a copyright on the idea of murdering LGBT people. It happens in Kathmandu and in Montreal.  Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death should not blind us to other horrors, less conspicuous and less known although — or perhaps because — they may be closer at hand.

Moral panic: Stanley Cohen's definition (1972)

Moral panic: Stanley Cohen’s definition (1972)

What’s happened in Cameroon for more than seven years is a moral panic: a moment when social and political anxieties — usually fears about rapid change — grow too intense to find release through argument, and turn to a hunt for scapegoats. Moral panics are not “cultural” eruptions from primeval magma. They’re always political. They enlist political actors (journalists, pundits, religious leaders, intellectuals, police, politicians themselves); almost always politicians instigate them, or try to manipulate them. This is especially true of panics around sexuality and gender. “Panic,” Gayle Rubin wrote a long time ago, “is the political moment of sex.” Sex is a charged question everywhere. It’s an easy way for opportunists to define their enemies. In Cameroon, the furor arguably dates to 2005, when a few newspapers launched a campaign to expose a homosexual “conspiracy” in high places, outing allegedly deviant celebrities. There was obscure political scheming behind the defamations. It created a miasma of public uncertainty and fear, though, in which stripping away secrecies became a civic duty. The ensuing years have seen mass arrests, trials, blackmailing, threats, violence, and now murder.

The most “African” thing about the long panic in Cameroon is precisely its political side. Public figures since Robert Mugabe in the early 1990s have figured out how to wield homophobic rhetoric for distraction, division, and support. Cameroon is only one more country (think Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal and more) where whipping up fears of sexual corruption has become a collective sport.

When the first shock of Lembembe’s killing recedes, it’s easy to let the repetitiveness dull you. There’s the recurrence of homophobia: the same political gesticulations and demonizing sounds, the same gibbering scarecrows set up to appal. And there’s the recurrence of death. A lot of us have our private mourning lists unscrolling in our minds: Fanny Ann Eddy, David Kato, Lawrence King, Vanesa Ledesma, Cynthia Nicole, Ebru Soykan, Daniel Zamudio. About now is the time some people get orotund, and say sententiously: “Never again.” Another voice in the mind, though, between exhaustion and despair, wheedles instead: “Not again. Not this again.” As though you know it will be this inevitably, again and again. More death.

Fanny Ann Eddy, Lawrence King, Cynthia Nicole, Daniel Zamudio: RIP

Fanny Ann Eddy, Lawrence King, Cynthia Nicole, Daniel Zamudio: RIP

My question is: What can we do?

That “we” has two sides. LGBT movements worldwide are divided in resources and perspectives. There’s a difference between the groups that say they work “internationally” — mainly meaning they are based in North America or Europe and identify themselves by their synoptic view — and groups that, even if they work extensively across borders, don’t look quite so international because based in the South: Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East. They have different capacities, monies, and power. In preventing violence and murder, they have different responsibilities.

I’m interested in the internationals, because, of course, I’m one of them. I worked for IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch for almost twenty years. I have a fair idea how international groups think. They’re like anybody else: a triumph happens – a sodomy statute struck down, or discrimination banned — and they’re more than happy to assert their share of credit. When a catastrophe takes place – an activist murdered, a bad law passed – they condemn, but don’t guess whether they might have done something different. You know what people say. Victory has a thousand fathers. Defeat is a Russian orphan; the law bars gay groups abroad from adopting it. 

Almost from the beginning of the panic in Cameroon, international organizations descended on the country. (Many had paid limited attention to Cameroon before the gay issue came up.) Human Rights Watch did joint letters with Amnesty, IGLHRC, and other organizations, including Doctors of the World and Physicians for Human RIghts. in 2010 a joint report came out, authored by Alternatives-Cameroun and l’Association pour la défense des droits des homosexuels (ADEFHO), together with HRW and IGLHRC. Earlier this year HRW produced another report, with ADEFHO and Alternatives-Cameroun, and Eric’s organization CAMFAIDS. Amnesty International featured Cameroon in its recent analysis of homophobia in Africa. All Out announced petition campaigns, and praised itself for their impact. IGLHRC has its own roster of letters and press releases on the country. Surely, then, one should be able to say what this accomplished. I stress that I was involved in much of this — I oversaw HRW’s early interventions in the situation, including the research for the 2010 report. So any critique must criticize me.

But has this been a great success? If it were, Eric Ohena Lembembe would not be dead. The murder of a leading movement figure — and the brutal “overkill” with its message of revenge and loathing — means, whatever else we may have accomplished around the edges, we’ve failed at something. Something central.

The questions for me are twofold: how does the discourse change, how does the discussion shift, when you internationalize a situation like this? and what does “security” mean when your whole work is about making human rights stories — and activists and actors — more visible and exposed?

First, international actors worked in Cameroon, of course, at the request and by and large under the guidance of domestic activist groups. The 2010 and 2013 reports in which Human Rights Watch joined were if anything unusually collaborative for an NGO that is used to going it alone. Our partners, ADEFHO and Alternatives-Cameroun, were extremely clear in setting out what they did and did not want us to do. The problem was not with the terms of the relationship (ADEFHO and Alternatives, of course, might disagree), and certainly not with the guidance we got. My question is rather whether international groups’ engagement carries hidden costs — ones that can only be seen by testing whether their agendas, the terms in which they frame things, are really responsive to other realities.

For example, there’s the idea of “equality,” which comes up again and again in the responses to Eric’s murder. “Eric’s activism paved the way for a society based on equality and nondiscrimination,” says Human Rights Watch. “The global movement for love and equality is poorer for the loss of Eric Lembembe,” says All Out. “Equal rights” was an important term in Eric Lembembe’s advocacy, as well. But did it mean the same thing?

Shut up and like it: This is all you need

Shut up and like it: This is all you need

There was a time — as little as ten or fifteen years ago — when the LGBT movement as a whole talked about “equality” in a constellation with other values like privacy, and dignity; when it also talked about specific rights, like expression, association, and assembly, as well as the rights to health or livelihood. That’s over. The big gay gurus now rattle on about “equality” as if it subsumes them all. It’s a master key that explains everything we apparently want, and you don’t have to descend to talking about specific rights at all. In fact, the internationals know what equality means: there’s a road map hidden in the word, with a general understanding that it leads through anti-discrimination laws toward relationship recognition and marriage. Never mind that marriage is exactly the prospect that inflames the intensest opposition in large quarters of the world, and that foreigners throwing around “equality” language in those precincts may be juggling with Molotov cocktails. “Equality” has become the be-all and end-all of LGBT aspirations in North America and Europe.

The US State Department, for instance, has set up a public-private partnership “Global Equality Fund” to govern its giving to LGBT causes. This is christened after the Council for Global Equality, an NGO set up by excellent friends and colleagues of mine to lobby US diplomacy for … well, equality. “Equality” is the only term in which the most powerful government in the world envisions LGBT rights.

Predators don't play in Peoria: Drones for me but not for thee

Predators don’t play in Peoria: Drones for me but not for thee

It would be hard to say that the USG has a vision of global equality, though: at least, one that extends to the percent of the world’s population who, not being LGBT, aren’t eligible for the fund. US foreign policy is not based on reciprocity among global citizens. We have, after all, a world order where the US can send drones to kill Pakistanis unimpeded, while Pakistan certainly can’t do the same to the US. But even if you think (as most people in the US surely do, myself included) it’s a fine thing not to have Pakistani flights laying waste to Peoria, one still might question a global order in which the governments of Pakistan, and Yemen, and for that matter Poland and Romania, are too enfeebled, dependent, and submissive to the United States even to protest when America wants to slaughter their citizens, or spy on their diplomats, or set up torture camps to brutalize victims on their soil.  It may be an orderly and stable world. It may be a grand Pax Americana. But equal it isn’t.

And one needn’t turn to Great Game geopolitics to wonder what “global equality” is about.  Take the question of humanitarian aid from rich countries to poor –which a number of governments and international organizations would like to see tied to whether the poor countries treat their LGBT people equally.  Of course, humanitarian aid is itself a function of an unequal world, a way of palliating its inequalities. Tying that aid to political conditions is a stark reminder of the political inequality between peoples. And enforcing those conditions and cutting the aid will make economic inequality worse. From an African’s perspective, it might look suspiciously as though rich governments are willing to make some people less equal in the name of making others more so.  How did those folks get to be the favored beneficiaries of equality, whereas these aren’t? Obviously some are more equal, or at least more global, than others.  You can understand why most African activists have rejected aid conditionality as a way of achieving rights. But leaders like David Cameron keep babbling about it. And as long as they do, resentment over why the gays get this extra dollop of equality denied to others will multiply: not because of what African activists themselves are doing, but because of how their international friends try to help.

Nor is it just government policies that raise doubts about what “equality” means to the West. Non-governmental organizations create similar confusion. All these groups believe enthusiastically in formal equality before the law. When it comes to economic equality, or even to the social conditions that make legal equality real, they sometimes stare slack-jawed as though they have no idea what one means. Human Rights Watch used to have particular insecurities about approaching economic rights.  In a famous or notorious article, Ken Roth, the executive director, suggested back in 2004 that poverty was not a structural problem at all: “poverty and severe deprivation is [sic] a product less of a lack of public goods than of officially promoted or tolerated policies of social exclusion.” In other words, the difficulty is not with the recipe for the pie, or the men who bake it, or the oven in which it’s made. Nothing about the economic structure in which the pie is produced keeps it small. Other bakers aren’t monopolizing the ingredients. The pie is fine. It’s just that somebody is dividing this mini-pie up wrong, so that one group or another doesn’t get its negligible bite.

It's fine. Fine.

It’s fine. Fine.

The result was that Human Rights Watch committed to dealing with poverty – in rights-ese, the denial of economic and social rights – not as an economic issue, but as a matter of discrimination. Poverty was bad if some people were deliberately made poorer than others. In this model, you could talk about the right to education if certain kids – children of ethnic minorities, for example, or children living with HIV/AIDS—were denied schooling. You couldn’t talk about policies that threatened all, or nearly all, children’s access to education, though: policies like privatizing schools, or the school fees or exorbitant textbook prices that international lending institutions loved to impose on Africa. Because those applied across the board, they weren’t issues of “social exclusion.” The pie was simply made that way, that’s all. In fairness, almost the entire organization tacitly rebelled against this argument. Human Rights Watch’s reports on kids’ education back then, for instance, reveal researchers finding all sorts of ingenious ways to urge that school fees were excessive, or unnecessary, or should be “reconsidered,” or lifted in nearly all cases, without actually writing that school fees were wrong. This kind of casuistry helped salvage the organization’s reputation in many places, including Africa. But the economically uninformed picture of poverty that underlay it hardly went unnoticed. It pointed up the fact that “equality” meant something different to HRW than to almost every activist in Africa. And the problem is that the more your agenda as a local activist got identified with HRW’s, the more your own articulation of equality got subsumed beneath this partial and impoverished one.

I have some experience with LGBT rights activism in Africa. And I find the way its diverse goals are represented, not just in the media but by its international partners, often reductive and distorting. There are a great many LGBT activists who don’t see some broad “equality” agenda as standing for their struggles. They want specific things: the right to privacy, say, represented by repealing sodomy laws; the right to associate, represented by registering an organization; the right to expression, enjoyed when you can give an interview to a radio station without fear of reprisal. The nebulosities of “equality” as Westerners bloviate about it aren’t nearly precise enough. There are activists who see formal, legal “equality” in the Western sense as simply a cover for neocolonial forms of segregation and domination, a substitute (as arguably it’s been in South Africa) for deeper, radical social transformation. There are activists who feel that “equality” in relationships can only be achieved by exempting them from the patriarchal state’s regulation, not getting them a far-off seal of repressive approval. And there are a lot of activists who would say that it’s destructive to talk, for example, about “LGBT equality” in access to health care when nobody has access to adequate health care. “Equality” for them does not mean some particular protection for LGBT people; it doesn’t just mean remedying “social exclusion”; it means changing the rules of the game. It means comprehensively redistributing goods so that all sectors of society can obtain them. It doesn’t imply privileging those groups who can make “discrimination” claims that Western actors will recognize.

Equality, an African view

Equality, an African view

These are only a few of the positions out there. All these disputes take place at a time of extraordinary economic flux and chaos in Africa. What Achille Mbembe wrote (in On the Postcolony) is still true: there is a “crisis of the taxation system, shortages, and population movements,” and it often looks like “simply a struggle among predators.”

Meanwhile, below the state sphere new forms of belonging and social incorporation are gestating, with the formation of “leagues,” “corporations,” “coalitions,” and so on. There is no doubt that most of the religious and healing movements proliferating in Africa today constitute visible, if ambiguous, sites where new normative systems, new common languages, and the constitution of new authorities are being negotiated.

There is a “heteronomous and fragmented conception of the ‘political community.’ The basic question, of the emergence of a subject with rights, remains unresolved.” But exactly because of this ferment and uncertainty, assuming the Western vision of formal legal equality encompasses a solution is both stupid and premature.

However. It’s very hard for this fertility of ideas, which so informs what happens in African movements, to filter into what international organizations do. There’s no mechanism built into their board-governed systems to listen or respond. My fear is that, because the internationals have the discursive power, what African (and other) activists are doing will get further identified with their HRC-sticker agendas. It’s easy to predict two results. The internationals’ interventions will be ignored — unless they grow addicted to relying on Western governments’ economic leverage, which will only discredit LGBT issues still more. And many African LGBT movements will look more isolated from their countries and peoples, rather than more integrated into the collective pursuit of justice. There is still time for the internationals to enter into a dialogue with Southern partners with a view to more open and flexible definitions of a rights agenda. It’s not happening yet. If it doesn’t, I can tell you what the consequences of isolation and stigma will be: More blood. More pain.

Moral entrepreneur: Ghanaian newspaper, 2011

Moral entrepreneur: Ghanaian newspaper, 2011

Second: Visibility leads to violence. It’s a lesson that (to return to what’s happened in Africa) twenty years’ experience should have enforced on everyone. Again and again, the first time somebody came out or was outed or made a public statement about LGBT identity in a particular country, a ferocious backlash followed; lives were destroyed. Zimbabwe! Zambia!  Uganda! Kenya! This didn’t happen (to repeat) just because of some cross-continental cultural pressure for conformity. It happened, by and large, because some players knew how to exploit the spectre of sexual difference, and gin up fears for political ends. They had models for doing this, furnished ready-made from Mugabe on down. The dynamic of panic is reproducible. As with an earthquake, it’s hard to tell exactly when the backlash might break out or the violence begin. But as with an earthquake, you can predict that, precise dates aside, it’s coming.

From the beginning — with Mugabe’s attacks on the Zimbabwe Book Fair and GALZ in the early 1990s — international organizations have largely intervened to publicize these episodes, which started with publicity, still further. That’s the main thing international human rights groups do, after all: their work is predicated on faith that shedding light and telling stories are the foundations of change. A cycle of publicity starts, with exposure leading to more exposure. The victims and the local activists both become more public. I could hardly claim to see this with disapproval. It does, however, place a responsibility on international activists. Having shed the light, they are liable for the consequences. Their obligation is, as far as humanly possible, to ensure the safety of those they work with. It’s particularly salient because most international human rights organizations claim special expertise on issues of security, transcending local knowledges about safety and defense. They talk about it regularly. They raise money for it.

I’ve seen international groups promising to protect the security of LGBT activist partners for twenty years now.  We’ve done a shamefully incompetent job.

Some things improved in recent years — there is more funding for security, there are more experienced organizations involved. Some individuals devote their time to helping with security concerns. But these small marks in the ledger haven’t stopped the deaths. If they had, Eric might be alive. Human Rights Watch used to say that defending the defenders was at the core of its mission. When did this become defending the defenders after they’re dead?

Everybody agrees vaguely that LGBT activists face distinctive dangers in many places. But no one, so far as I know, has even tried to analyze systematically what those dangers are, how they’re different, or what can be done. As for the risks endured by “ordinary” LGBT communities, not just rights defenders: the serious studies of how they could be countered can be counted on one hand.

And there is thinking about this that goes on among local groups!  Just this afternoon I sat with a couple of Egyptians who brainstormed innovative approaches to provide some protection for people who look funny — not “masculine” or “feminine” enough — in downtown Cairo. There’s more imagination there than the big human rights groups have evolved in years. For most of us on the “international” side, the reflex reaction when confronted by an activist in danger is: Get her out of the country. Escape substitutes for protection. The asylum system –unwieldy, prejudiced, deeply flawed — serves as the nearest thing we have to a security plan for the international LGBT movement.

Asylum is so easy

Asylum is so easy

Asylum is necessary. Asylum is a human right. The incessant efforts by governments to restrict it are intolerable. This afternoon I’m also finishing an affidavit for a gay Egyptian seeking asylum in Europe. The contortions the authorities undergo to deny him are amazing; if they could find an expert to testify that the man’s buck teeth proved that he was heterosexual, and thus ineligible, they’d jump at the chance. People who work full-time on asylum and refugee concerns are tottering on the brink of permanent despair. I profoundly respect them.

On the other hand, half the time when I hear LGBT people from North America or Europe talking about LGBT asylum, I want to pound somebody’s head, possibly but not necessarily mine, against a well-built wall. The subject brings out the worst fantasies in Western gays’ imaginations. All too often they feed on the needs of asylum-seekers, for a vampirish, sanguine satisfaction. There is, on the one hand, the dream of being a savior without going anywhere, of staying securely at home while rescuing some helpless subaltern from her own society. There is also the sheer pleasure of seeing one’s own country exalted, as the abode of freedom and the goal of others’ aspirations. The rhetoric can be Dickensian in its mawkishness, and patronizing to the point of racism. “We helped save a 19-year old Iranian!” Or: the poor victim “has NEVER been accused of a crime, except leaving his homeland to come to America. He was shunned by a society that wants to kills gays. He is an orphan and has no one.” Lucky you: “We can give one gay man … the gift of freedom.” That some asylum-seekers are desperate is beyond doubt; that emotional excess can energize an appeal is at least arguable; but reducing them to emblems of abjection only redoubles the humiliation they have already suffered. That this self-indulgence also lets people suppose they are doing something constructive for the security of LGBT movements around the world is hard to bear.

Image from the "Save Pegah" campaign (the asylum-seeker's name was publicized apparently without her permission), 2007

Image from the “Save Pegah” campaign (the asylum-seeker’s name was publicized apparently without her permission), 2007

Particularly self-congratulatory is the rhetoric that asylum for LGBT people — or anybody — “saves lives.” Just for the record, it doesn’t. Asylum can often save biological life: one reason why it’s absolutely necessary. But that’s not the same as saving lives, saving the way people live as connected and implicated beings in their cultures, contexts, communities. It’s exactly this that exile destroys. Asylum can keep your physical existence going at a distance from those who want to kill you, but it can’t give you back that connectedness and system of meaning, that way of living. To the contrary. Almost any asylee will tell you that exile is a social death, and there is no easy way to rebuild a lost vocabulary of values or a syntax of belonging in a new country. Asylum is suffering, not hope. This is why hardly anyone ever seeks it casually or lightly, and why so few claims actually are fraudulent. Who would inflict such an amnesia and amputation on himself with so tenuous a prospect of recovery, unless there were absolutely no alternative?

And it’s this social death that — contemplating the dangers LGBT movements face around the world — we hold out as a security program.

We, and by “we” of course I mean the international segment of the LGBT movement, have to do better. Much better. Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death should make us do more than mourn, and calls us to condemn more than state inaction. We need to examine ourselves, what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.  International organizations need to return to their Southern partners for analysis and critique, with a much-made and superannuated promise to listen and learn: not just about strategy and method, but about the meaning of rights talk itself, what needs it stands for and how it performs in the open politics of movements as well as in the chambers of law. I’m not too optimistic that this will happen. But the alternative to patiently educating ourselves is either becoming irrelevant, or a lot more pain.

Cairo diary, December 2012: Walls, women, rape, fear

Tenting tonight in the old campground: In Midan Tahrir, November 27

Tenting tonight in the old campground: In Midan Tahrir, November 27 © Scott Long

I was detained at the airport coming into Cairo this time. When the woman at the control desk swiped my passport through the computer, a startled look filled her face below the hijab. She waved me down to the far, last lane: a place where Palestinians and stateless people congregate, in that limbo between borders where one is at the government’s mercy without having any claim on it. I lingered there an hour or so, generally ignored, and then an officer led me off to a remote room, somewhere past the lost-luggage desk. He locked the door behind me.

This was a dispiriting chamber, flat under faint fluorescent light, with empty chairs and graffiti on the walls: “Gaza” recurred over and over, with different dates, expressive as a scream. Another man sat there, Egyptian. He worked in Africa, had lost his passport there, and was trying to enter on a consular document. “Did they turn the key?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Shit on these shitholes. I hope their shit eats shit and dies of it,” he said, matter-of-factly. “They should die in the shit that they shovel onto others. How are you?”

It took three hours, and it mostly consisted of waiting. If I’ve learned anything from dealing with state officials, as investigator or victim, it’s that it’s pointless to ask questions. Silence elicits information as well as anything does; it makes them do the asking, and that tells you what they don’t know. In my case, they didn’t know why they wanted me. “You are on a security list,” an officer finally told me.

“Why?” I ventured.

“We’re not sure, but we have to check you for security.”

I’m not certain either what “checking me” entailed — Googling me? calling my parents? In any case, they finally released me into mother Egypt, not long after my sans-papiers colleague. (“Goodbye,” he said, “enjoy the shit.”) The whole episode explained why I had been similarly stopped (minus the cell and the locked door) the last three times I entered the country — previously, I’d supposed the controllers simply appalled by my ragged and decaying passport, relic of too many sweaty days and back pockets. But apparently some bureaucrat actually has put my name down with a permanent interrogatory beside it: What is he doing here? I feel flattered: not so much at being imputed a fake importance, but because the State and I are finally asking the same question.

Borders leave scars here. Nine years ago, in Cairo, I interviewed an Egyptian who’d lived for years in the US — he’d claimed asylum there as a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group that Mubarak’s government suppressed savagely. 9/11 happened, and Hizb ut-Tahrir lost its credit with the US authorities. A few days after, police in his Connecticut suburb took him into custody. Never mind his pending asylum case; never mind the American woman he’d married. After a year in jail, they deported him to Egypt. As he came into the Cairo airport in chains, a US immigration officer handed his case file to the passport police. It was the same as saying, “Torture him, please.” State Security held him for several weeks, and they went through the standard repertory: cold water, beatings, electroshock to the genitals. When I met him he still had memory lapses, lacunae that themselves bore witness to an interrupted life.

That happened because he crossed the invisible line of an imperial power. I represent the imperial power (“Permit the citizen/national of the United States to pass without delay or hindrance,” my brand-new passport says). And so I’m used to crossing borders free of fear. That said, the first thing you notice, coming back to Cairo after a year, is the sheer proliferation of borders. The boundary has decamped from the country’s edge, and now divides its center.  I’m staying near the much-feared Ministry of Interior, and morning and night I walk through two barbed-wire barricades on either side of it, past milling and listless Central Security troops, and a soldier manning a rifle atop an armored personnel carrier.

Walls have risen all around the government quarter, to keep the people from reaching it. Take any side street, and you’ll run into a rampart. Here’s one across Qasr el-Aini street, one of the main entries to Midan Tahrir:

The smile was added later

The smile was added later:  © Scott Long

Here is a barrier protecting the security forces’ headquarters — you can see the Interior Ministry’s sinister radio tower looming in the rear:

Don't walk this way: © Tyler Huffman

Don’t walk this way: © Tyler Huffman

The graffiti is a Quranic verse, and it’s aimed at the State: “They will not fight you, except in fortified townships, or from behind walls. Their belligerence is strong among themselves. You would think they were united, but their hearts are divided: That is because they are a people without wisdom.”

The walls don’t dice up the city in any coherent way.  They’re just meant to prevent protesters from accessing the State’s most sensitive points. But they stake out a symbolic division between the Revolution and the government: still at odds after two years and two elections. And, like most borders, they mark where people died.

47 people died a year ago along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a green avenue leading from Tahrir. That’s a long story, like most in Cairo. In November 2011, the government decided to clear out the ongoing opposition sit-in from the main square, and Central Security Forces [Amn el-Merkazi] tried to use Mohamed Mahmoud as their route of attack. Protesters set up a defense line there. Security retaliated by building a wall. Five days of battle followed. Security gunfire blinded many demonstrators — the marksmen aimed straight at their eyes. Hundreds were injured: there’s no exact count. No one has been punished for the blindings or the deaths.

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Ruins of Lycee Horreya, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

Mohamed Mahmoud also figured in the chaos of the last three weeks, which I hardly have the ability to summarize, though I’ll try. On November 19 protesters gathered on the street, to commemorate the previous year’s deaths. The Interior Ministry used tear gas to disperse them; in the ensuing days, clashes spread to the other margins of Tahrir Square. At least one young man was killed. Central Security holed up in a lycee on Mohamed Mahmoud — the Lycee Horreya, Freedom School (Cairo is beyond irony) — firing on the protesters from above and throwing rocks at them.  Soon the school was almost completely torched.

Amid all this, on November 22 Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader narrowly elected President five months ago, issued a decree. Morsi has been ruling by decree ever since he was inaugurated. There’s nobody else to make laws; days before the presidential vote in June, the Constitutional Court disbanded the Parliament elected last year. (Since the Muslim Brotherhood were the dominant force in Parliament, many saw that move as Mubarak-era judges striving to deprive political Islamists of power. If so, though, it backfired, since the election promptly handed sole authority to an Islamist President.) Morsi’s new decree cemented his own decreeing power. He made his decisions immune to judicial review, until a new Parliament sits in some unspecified future. He also exempted the Constituent Assembly from judicial oversight. In effect, he decreed himself dictator.

Mubarak used to pick judges specifically for their willingness to jail Brotherhood members. Morsi and his party therefore loathe the only-supposedly-independent judiciary, something that seems both reasonable and requited. The Constituent Assembly, though, is what’s at the center of this mess. The now-dissolved Parliament had chosen the Assembly to write a new constitution for Egypt. Predictably, since the Brotherhood ran Parliament, they picked a Constituent Assembly that they ran too. Nearly all secular and liberal representatives had already withdrawn from it in protest. Most people expected the Constitutional Court to decide, in a pending case, that the Assembly itself was illegitimate. Morsi’s decree forestalled that, giving the Assembly (and hence the Brotherhood) fiat over Egypt’s future.

Crowds off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

Crowds off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

When I arrived on November 23, the lemony tang of tear gas constantly drifted south from central Cairo, and the thud of bursting cannisters punctuated night and day. Protests had broken out in cities across the country. There was  impotence in the anger, a rage at everything going wrong. I went to Mohamed Mahmoud the next night, just under the lycee where Central Security had their bastion. Teenagers with rocks and Molotov cocktails were tearing apart a parked car, for no apparent reason except they couldn’t get at the killers four stories up. A few days later the cindered car still sat there, beneath a scraggle of graffiti that said “Happy Birthday.”

Youssef el Guindy Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud, November 27. Among the graffiti: "Long live the prisoners'   intifada"; "Glory to the workers of Egypt": © Scott Long

Youssef el Guindy Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud, November 27. Among the graffiti: “Long live the prisoners’ intifada”; “Glory to the workers of Egypt”: © Scott Long

After Morsi’s decree, the Assembly scurried to submit a proposed Constitution, and Morsi scheduled a rush referendum for December 15. The protests have continued: here’s a scene from a massive opposition march on November 27, as the crowd stops to jeer in front of the headquarters of Morsi’s party downtown.

It’s not that the draft Constitution is unspeakably worse than the existing one; it’s not even that it offers some instant blueprint for Islamist rule. Neither, despite the melodrama opponents indulge, is true. (A comparison of the two Constitutions is here; an analysis of the more controversial new provisions, here.) The rage is rather that the Revolution was thwarted from producing something better: and that Morsi is forcing down this ploddingly inept document by the old means of extralegal rigging. It’s also anger at two years in which the State has consistently brutalized its own people rather than answer their demands. Whether under Mubarak, the military, or Morsi, the government chose to build barricades against its citizens — and shoot them, to kill.

As an outsider, the anger concerns me more than the Constitution; I can feel the first, while the second is an abstraction. I don’t even know how to write about the rapes, except you have to, because they’re everywhere. My first day here, the office where I’m working asked me for information about rape kits; two women had come to them after they were raped near Tahrir. That night, I went to a friend’s flat; her neighbor had been gang-raped along with another woman, dragged into a dark side street in the vicinity of the Square.

Sexual harassment, the show of men’s physical power over women in public space, has been a political issue in Egypt for several years. Yet no one was prepared for sexual violence on this scale. Some activists have claimed the Muslim Brotherhood has gathered roving mobs to rape protesting women; in the UK, the Daily Mail has blazoned this rumor eagerly. No one actually knows, because no actual people have been accused or caught. Central Security only comes near Tahrir to taunt or shoot protesters, not to protect them. For anybody else, there’s virtual impunity in much of downtown.

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Anti-police graffiti near the Ministry of Interior: “He learned his job by bribery.” Two images of Revolutionary martyrs are on the right. © Scott Long

A vigilante spirit roams Egypt. The police largely disappeared after the Revolution. There are just enough traffic cops at intersections to maintain the show of somebody being in charge. But for nearly all Egyptians, the police were the government’s most corrupt, intrusive and abusive visage: everybody had to deal with them, everybody despised them, and they were the one part of the State that, in the chaos of regime change, had the self-preserving sense to melt away. In many neighborhoods now, officers wouldn’t dare show their faces on patrol if you tripled their pay. Central Security Forces are supposed to fill the gap. These are ill-trained army recruits, mostly from the provinces, deputed to urban policing tasks that they have no clue how to fulfill. One reason so many demonstrators have been slaughtered since the Revolution is simply that Central Security has no experience in crowd control. State Security [Amn el-Dawla], Mubarak’s dreaded secret police, at least knew how to contain a dissident gathering, up to a certain size; but they’re officially defunct (meaning they’ve gone underground). The raw boys of Central Security carry only the fears fed them by their superiors, and their guns.

In this environment, communities themselves — the neighborhood, the extended family — take up the responsibility for “security.” Communal cooperation is part of the Egyptian genius. Yet the immediate result is to make outsiders suspect by definition. I’ve seen this first-hand: last year, trying to get to a demonstration near the Defense Ministry in the Abbasiyya quarter, I found myself amid a mob of local residents running to attack the intruders, armed with large knives, all convinced that their streets and homes themselves were under attack from people who didn’t belong. (Since I fell in that category, I count myself lucky that I don’t have more pieces of myself to count.) I can easily imagine the rapes as product of a nightmarish moral vigilantism: the work of men convinced these women aren’t proper Egyptian women, that if not controlled they will invade our streets and our places, that they must be punished.

Even beyond the stories of rape, something ominous is afoot. It’s hard not to feel that the Revolution has actually reinforced patriarchal control of women: not the way you might think, by reinstating religion, but rather by making men identify more deeply with an ethos of protection. I talked in recent days with Egyptian researchers doing ethnography in two working-class and conservative neighborhoods in Cairo. The men and women they’ve interviewed alike have stressed their fears about safety. Everyone’s heard rumors about the rapes. Moreover, everybody subsists in terror of a crime wave, even if they haven’t actually seen crimes. And men have locked stricter controls on “their” women, their wives and daughters, in response: restrictions on going out unaccompanied, walking alone, staying out at night. Women lose not only mobility but social cohesion if they can’t meet one another freely, and economic independence if they can’t make it to market or work (as many do) as street vendors. Men, meanwhile, gain power in reclaiming a traditional role as guardians. (It’s at least some compensation for the lost jobs of a collapsed economy.) There are political implications to these shifts, although they’re hard to read. As a guardian State slowly reasserts its legitimacy, incarnate in a patriarchal figure like Morsi, will men identify with it, or resent its encroachment? Or both at once?

Stand by your man: Male protesters form a ring around women marchers, Talaat Harb Street, November 27

Stand by your man: Male protesters form a ring around women marchers, Talaat Harb Street, November 27 © Scott Long

Vigilantes patrol on both sides now, in fact: the bad vigilantes cut hair and enforce modesty, and the good vigilantes protect their women from all that. You can see the guardian role in all manner of places — among the middle class, for instance, in last Tuesday’s mass opposition march, where men formed a cordon around women protesters to safeguard them. (There’s even a Twitter account for this now, @Tahrirbodyguard, “A collective effort to ensure safety in Tahrir, especially for women” –oddly, it’s all in English.) The thing is, it’s a little hard to be caught between all these protectors. If you want to see the dilemmas this poses for feminism, consider this anti-sexual harassment graffiti, from Mohamed Mahmoud Street:

Up against the wall, motherharassers

Up against the wall, motherharassers: © Scott Long

The central two panels are about women empowered. The top one says (roughly) “If he calls you a hot slut, use a weapon”; the bottom, “No matter how much of my body shows or doesn’t show, it’s free and can never be humiliated.” But the bottom left carries a different message, and it’s not for women at all: “Be a man! Protect her!”

This call to be a man is heard quite a bit in Cairo. Masculinity itself seems to be at stake, in the brutal clashes where the walls stand. ¿Quien es mas machoWhich side holds the monopoly on manhood? What does being a man mean, anyway? Here’s graffiti I saw a year ago, from the Association of Detainees of the Revolution, calling for a sit-in:

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“Man up! Take to the streets with us, your Revolution has been stolen!” And the chant rang out at rallies against the army — a reminder that our side is more manly than the soldiers, even: “Man up and shout! The military’s time is ending soon!”

But manhood is at stake because manhood is in question. It’s a wounded, brutalized manhood, aware of its vulnerability. Two years of incessant violence have both mutilated it and shaped it. It’s in pain, and it lashes out.

That’s the thing I apprehend most of all, this time in Cairo: the exhaustion, the hurt, the pain. I don’t think one can underestimate how these years of killing have brutalized a society. The grinding gradualness of it all has been part of the effect (as well as the break with the enforced placidity of the Mubarak years before). Of course, one doesn’t speak of the whole society ground down. Most of Egypt is still the Party of the Couch, with windows closed against the tear gas. Two of the culture’s naked extremities, though, seem to have been most exposed, and left most clotted with rage: the poorest and the not-quite privileged-yet, the underclass who feel they’ve nothing left to lose and the young intellectuals and students; the utterly dispossessed, and those who possess nothing but their promise. I have no inclination to sentimentalize either, and I usually resist both organic metaphors and those vertical ones that claim to arrange social classes in their natural elevations. Still and all, it feels like killing a society at the root and at the leaf.

A street child sifts through rubble on Mohamed Mahmoud Street:  © Scott Long

A street child sifts through rubble on Mohamed Mahmoud Street: © Scott Long

A friend who works with street children reminds me that they’ve been in the front lines of the clashes for months: kids as young as eight or nine making Molotov cocktails and pitching them at Security forces along Mohamed Mahmoud.   There are tens of thousands of homeless children in Cairo. They’re enraged; and many of them have already lost friends to the government’s bullets. These martyrs of the Revolution mostly aren’t counted, and they tend to end up in unmarked graves. Their despair, though, replicates that of traumatized middle-class kids in a different key. A 21 year-old student told Al-Ahram earlier this year that “Since the revolution began, with the exception of the month of August, I’ve lost at least one friend every month.”

Some of the consequences of this brutalization show through the powerful street art that has been painted on the walls along Mohamed Mahmoud Street. These pictures are secular icons, a record of the Revolution’s martyrs, but also a symptomography of the body under the State’s pressure. It’s a kind of political lexicon of pain.

Some portraits of the martyrs are deliberately benign, unphysical, the dead as spiritualized angel. This one says only, “Mostafa Metwally: 1994 – 2012.” (Metwally died at 17 in February’s “football massacre” in Port Said.)

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The angel here is flecked with blood: “The Martyr Mohamed Seri. By Kamal Abdel Mobdy.”

© Scott Long

The accompanying poem tries to tie him to earth by weighting him with national history:

The first country and first people we are
Seven thousand years old we are
Night comes to our country and turns to light through us
The greatness of pyramids tells who we are
The rooted ancient people we are …

But other figures seem too dense with their own particularity, and the terrible fact of their loss, to need the ballast. On the left: “Karim Khozam: An icon of moral commitment: 2-12-1992” (he also died in the Port Said massacre). On the right: “Alaa Abdelhady: One of the martyrs of the Cabinet clashes” (a medical student, he was shot near the central government building almost a year ago).

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

Some images emphasize mutilation. This shows Ahmed Harara, who lost one eye during the January Revolution, and the other while fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street:

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© Scott Long

And some images bloat with pain till they terrify. These could be by Francis Bacon:

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

A line above them reads: “And to the State, it’s God’s will. Meaning, they owe nothing for your death.”

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The figure at left below is a version of the tortured body of Khaled Said, killed by police in Alexandria in 2011. Here, its deformation pushes back at the formalities of perspective.

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© Scott Long

The figure at right seems haloed unbearably in its own exploding head.

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The line above the images reads, “If the picture is not clear enough, believe me: The reality is uglier.” The pictures, though, are part of the reality, of a body politic at extremity. If they are hard to look at, imagine living with –or in — them.

Tarek Mustafa, Maysara Omar, Ramy Youssef, and Nada Zatouna helped me think through aspects of this post.

Resources for the unbelievers, on aid conditionality and LGBT rights

Aid received per capita across the global South, 2007: From wphr.org

I’ve been working desultorily (a beautiful word: say it slowly: it seems to capture being lazy but just alive enough to claim you’re still doing something) on an article on aid conditionality and LGBT rights.

This all comes, of course, from the controversy launched last fall by David Cameron’s declaring his government would cut development assistance to governments that committed violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This statement was idiotic in the pure, Greek sense: Cameron was, in essence, talking to himself. It came without any prior consulting with activists in the countries in question, and was an ill-planned effort to get domestic voices in the UK to shut up and stop pressuring the PM.(They did, obediently.) The ensuing backlash, across Africa and elsewhere, proved exceedingly discouraging about the idea. However, Hillary Clinton’s announcement that LGBT rights were a new US global priority gave new life to the project, and US advocates have urged the Obama administration to enlist American foreign aid money in the cause.

Northern governments have ben conditioning development aid on other issues for a while, especially in the last 30 years– usually affixing economic strings (hire our consultants! buy our goods! privatize your hospitals, if you want our aid!), less often political or rights-related ones.  I’ll raise specific questions in my article about whether something around sexuality- and gender-related abuses makes them peculiarly resistant to being stopped by such linkages. There are also legitimate concerns, though, about whether such linkages ever work the way they’re meant to, or are ever justified. I’m skeptical they do, or are. I’d like to get some discussion going as I finish the article, and so I’ll share some resources here for others who are skeptical, or in favor, or undecided, in hopes you’ll argue or respond. Respond! Use the comments section, or write me directly.

1) First off: here’s an interview with Radhika Balakrishnan, of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, that lays out some of the concerns with conditionality clearly.

2) The October 2011 statement by dozens of African activists opposing aid conditionality in the LGBT rights sphere is here. Hakima Abbas’s “Aid, Resistance, and Queer Power” expands on its points; her essay can be found in this booklet from Sexuality Policy Watch (pp. 16-19) along with “Aid conditionality and respect for LGBT people’s rights” by Luis Abolafia Anguita (pp. 9-15).

3) An especially important paper you should examine is this report by AWID (the Association of Women in Development), succinctly called Conditionalities Undermine the Right to Development. It sets out a wide range of facts and arguments on the issue. Because it’s 128 pages long, I’ll try in the following points to summarize some of the background with which it deals.

4) A lot of people (including many of those pushing for aid conditionality) don’t know about the political negotiations in the last 10 years over the issue of how aid works, or doesn’t. By “political” I mean: Northern and Southern governments have actually discussed the subject, sometimes with each other! In 2005, a major ministerial-level meeting produced the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, responding to a wide perception that aid wasn’t being … well, effective. Over 100 countries joined to affirm five pillars of meaningful assistance: Ownership, Harmonisation, Alignment, Results and Mutual Accountability. (OHARMA?)  OK, enough buzzwords. The key commitment under “Ownership” was that conditions on aid, if any, should be jointly owned. Donors should

draw conditions, whenever possible, from a partner’s national development strategy … Other conditions would be included only when a sound justification exists and would be undertaken transparently and in close consultation with other donors and stake holders.

Pragmatically, this recognized that conditions imposed from outside simply weren’t being met. Three years later, another high-level forum in Ghana produced the Accra Agenda for Action (AAA, a way better acronym). This proclaimed, “We will continue to change the nature of conditionality to support ownership” by developing countries. It mandated donors to “work with developing countries to agree on a limited set of mutually agreed conditions based on national development strategies,” and to “document and disseminate good practices on conditionality.”

Both these documents can be found here, and straightforward summaries are here and here. It’s important to see that the emphasis on joint commitments, as opposed to taking aid hostage, severely limits how far donor governments should use aid to enforce rights goals that aren’t fully shared (or aren’t integrated into development strategies). Do we want LGBT rights to be the basis for backtracking on these principles?

Anti-Debt Coalition activists protest an Asian Development Bank (ADB) meeting, Jakarta, 2009 (Reuters)

5) Civil societies and social movements engaged intensely in the lead-up to the Paris and Accra meetings, as well as a further gathering in Busan, Korea, in 2011. And while you might suppose that women’s movements, for example, would want aid more conditioned on rights policies — since they were urging women’s rights and gender equality as core components of development planning — almost exclusively they called for less conditionality. Part of their reasoning involved the possible devastating effect of slashes in aid. They also saw that conditions foreign governments imposed actually prevented civil society in developing countries from being part of the rights discussion: everything turned into an argument between the donor and recipient governments, with domestic voices ignored. A broad coalition of feminist and gender-equality groups in 2011, for instance, called on donors to

[m]ove away from policy conditionalities towards consistent application of concepts of multiple responsibility, accountability and transparency among both donor and developing countries. This could be advanced, for example, by supporting democratic scrutiny of development goals, policies and results. Policy conditionalities can have negative impacts on people, particularly on women and girls. They undermine the principle of ownership and contradict the right to development and self-determination.

Similar criticisms can be found here.

6) The Paris and Accra documents have come under considerable fire for not going far enough. This (briefer) briefing paper from AWID summarizes some of the critiques. And this analysis by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute looks at the debate over aid effectiveness “through the recipient lens,” by talking to officials in governments that get aid. One criticism is that the Paris-based language doesn’t put sufficient stress on “predictability” of aid — states and societies need to know that money isn’t going to go away when the givers shift their whims. Conditionality is a prime generator of unpredictability in aid. The fact that many Northern donor governments don’t have a cross-party consensus on LGBT rights worsens the prospects in this particular sphere. What happens if Obama imposes conditions on development aid based on getting rid of sodomy laws; then Romney defeats him, and suddenly sodomy laws are OK; then Hillary Clinton gets elected in four years, and abruptly the conditions are back on again? Manic roller-coaster swoops and swerves in the terms of assistance don’t just leave governments confused; they mean that anti-poverty, health or infrastructural programs in country after country can’t plan on future funding, or their own existence. That’s a heavy responsibility for LGBT rights to bear.

7) When advocates talk about “conditionality,” often they mean the set of economic — or combined economic and political — strings that donor governments started attaching to aid in the 1980s and 1990s. International lenders, the World Bank and IMF, were even more radical and reviled movers in this. But surely human rights conditions are a different, friendlier thing altogether?

never in history have so many owed so much to so little money from so few

No. What’s happened for 30 years is that donors tie human rights into a bundle with something called “economic freedom,” or maybe “good governance,” conceived as governing the economy with a particular set of virtues that will make particular classes rich. After all, they’re all “freedoms,” right? Rights thus get bound up with the infamous “Washington Consensus”: Privatize everything!  Shrink the state! Down with protection, up with free trade! Deregulate!  This neoliberal “reform” brings wealth to people who are plugged into global flows of capital. It impoverishes pretty much everyone else — women, minorities, unpopular groups even more than others. When human rights get wrapped up with its strictures, they lose their popularity as well. LGBT rights are already seen, in many places, as imports from the insidious Outside. If wedded to imposed neoliberal policies, their street cred likely shrinks to zero.

A fine example is a United States concoction called the “Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)” This strange being, set up by the Bush presidency in 2004, reveals how fake-friendly you can make aid conditionality appear, with the right rhetoric. It’s a foreign aid agency with a ton of US money, and a mandate to give it out only based on supposedly clear standards and criteria. If LGBT rights are going to be integrated into US giving, the MCC is one place it will start — and advocates are already targeting it to establish LGBT benchmarks for giving.

The MCC grades developing countries on 17 indicators; they must exceed a median score on a number of them to be eligible to apply for money. One set of indicators is called “Ruling Justly,” and includes “civil liberties” and “political liberties.”  This is the human-rightsy side. Another is called “Economic Freedom,” and includes “trade policy,” “inflation rate,” and “fiscal policy.”  This is the telling part. The “trade policy” benchmarks, for instance, come directly, explicitly, from the Heritage Foundation: a right-wing Washington think tank whose mission — self-described — “is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

MCC is all about eliminating trade barriers and denuding countries of defenses against foreign purchase and foreign sales. This means ending protective, import-substitution policies for building strong domestic industries: policies that have been the main means, in the last hundred years, for poor countries to develop. It means prying markets open to invasions of US goods, while eviscerating local producers. (The US government’s cabinet-level Trade Representative, statutorily responsible for doing the prying, sits on the MCC’s board.)  It’s striking, too, that one of the absolute rather than relative indicators the MCC demands is “inflation rate,” where it insists on a strict maximum of 15%. This restricts countries’ power to devalue their currencies and stimulate their economies. It locks the receipients of MCC aid into the same austerity trap that Eurozone nations are writhing against today.

A: Because of all the gay cruise ships that will visit

Even the most humane of the MCC’s indicators — the “Investing in People” silo, evaluating public spending on things like health and education — tends toward the lowest standards (and doesn’t pay even lip service to the concept of economic and social rights). The MCC is mainly a brass-knuckle enforcer of neoliberalism, with some salving concessions to human rights in the form of “Ruling Justly” (a bizarre phrase in itself).   Despite its cheerful visage, it’s a sinister strategy. Some serious caution is called for before letting LGBT rights be part of its package. To tie them to a project likely to inflict penury on subject populations could well be disastrous.

I’m not the only one who says this. For some detailed critiques of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, check out the three articles — by Maurizio Carbone, Emma Mawdsley, and Susanne Soederberg — here. (Because these texts are Rapunzelled in behind academic firewalls, I’ve uploaded them and let down their hair so you can read them. If the authors object, fine, but then they’re bad leftists.) And if you want to find out about your own country’s relations with the MCC, that information (the agency is at least transparent!) is here. My advice: Watch out.

But the difficulty transcends the MCC.  The donors most likely to give a friendly hearing to LGBT-rights conditionality are donors already practicing conditionality based on “economic liberalization or “open markets”: conditions that, steeped in neoliberalism, are abhorrent to most peoples of the global South. 

“Symptoms of Neoliberalism”: Cartoon from Mexico, by El Fisgón

8) My real problem with the arguments for aid conditionality goes deeper. It’s that the advocates stay confined within a tightly limited and lopped version of human rights, very different from the one most people in the world believe in.

Proponents speak as if, on one side, there were human rights lined up neatly: free expression, freedom from torture, freedom from sodomy laws, and so on. Then on the other, there’s development money. The only relation between the two sides is that, if a country respects the rights, it should get its development money. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t get any. Or not as much.

You would never imagine, hearing these folks promote this vision, that development is itself a human right. The UN General Assembly adopted its “Declaration on the Right to Development” in 1986, stating:

The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.

The Declaration and Programme of Action of the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights also dealt with the issue extensively: “Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing,” it affirmed. And:

States should cooperate with each other in ensuring development and eliminating obstacles to development. The international community should promote an effective international cooperation for the realization of the right to development and the elimination of obstacles to development.

Imagining that human rights are largely unconnected to development, except to legitimate restricting it, fits with a certain Anglo-American perspective in which economic and social rights don’t exist. But if you do believe development is a right, then to endorse conditionality as part of the standard human rights toolkit is, needlessly and destructively, to pit human rights against each other.

The “Quezon City Declaration on AID” — a 2007 manifesto by a coalition of Asian movements and NGOs — states that

The kind of aid we want must be premised primarily on a recognition of the history of colonization of countries across Asia, a history that persists in the continued exploitation by the North of the South, particularly the peoples of Asia and the region’s biodiversity. From this lens, aid becomes a matter of global redistributive justice, a just righting of historical wrongs.

In this light — and from the perspective of development as a human right —  it’s notable that, in 1970, donor countries pledged to devote 0.7% of their GDP to overseas development assistance. Almost none of them do so. In 2010 only five OECD countries met that mark; the US stood mired at less than a third. Surely the first priority of US and European advocates, including LGBT rights advocates, should be to increase their countries’ overall giving to meet their human rights commitments. They shouldn’t use LGBT rights as an excuse for governments to fail their pledges and give less.

It’s only by understanding development as a right that you can see how the Quezon City statement can both call on states to reject conditionalities, and

enjoin both donors and national governments to adopt a rights-based approach to aid giving, which means ensuring that human rights standards and social development principles guide all development cooperation and programming in all sectors and in all phases of the programming process. Right-holders and their supporters such as human right NGOs should be included in decision-making processes relating to aid money and allocation. Attention must especially be given to those whose voices are at risk of being silenced or marginalized vis-à-vis aid: women, children, and adolescents, or non-citizens such as in/formal migrant workers, indigenous peoples, small farmers and fishers, etc.

A “rights-based approach to aid giving” means not using rights to justify cutbacks, but using aid actively and creatively to promote rights, including funding decision-making and participation by the most marginalized communities. The mounting calls for aid conditionality in the LGBT sphere suggest a failure of imagination, an unwillingness to think through creative ways that aid can further rights, not curtail development. We can do better than that.

The drone at the window and your pregnant credit card: Notes on privacy

A great South Park episode once featured panicked parents, terrified of child abductors, forcing their kids to wear “Child Tracker” helmets that made them look like crosses between Marvin the Martian and a 600-channel satellite dish. Technology has gotten sleeker, if not simpler, since those innocent days. Now, if it’s 10 PM and you wonder where your child is — what opium den or white slave ring she’s wandered into — you can check the data your personal, aerial drone is feeding you.

They’re not just for repressive governments (and human rights organizations!) anymore. The new thing is the DIY drone — for “do-it-yourself”; rhymes, I think, with “die.” Forbes magazine, a great promoter of cheap consumer technology, cites a Canadian technie waxing enthusiastic about the little devils’ potential:

People are often most frightened by the state’s growing interest to monitor what we do online. Here in Canada for example, the government has proposed a law that would require telecommunications firm have the ability to record, and save, everyone’s online activities. But technology to monitor people offline, in the physical world, is also evolving. More importantly, it is becoming available to ordinary citizens. …

The neat thing is that, instead of a telescreen giving the State a window into your private life, you can have a hovering camera outside your neighbor’s window to watch theirs.  The work of keeping tabs on thoughtcrime is thus not only decentralized but, in conservative fashion, privatized. “It is entirely conceivable,” he writes,

that, in 5-7 years, there could be drones that would follow your child as he walks to school. You can of course, already choose to monitor your child by giving them a cell phone and tracking the GPS device within it, but a drone would have several advantages. It would be harder for someone to destroy or “disconnect” from your child. … This may all seem creepy to you, but if such a drone cost $100 dollars, how many parents do you think would feel like it was “the responsible thing to do.” I suspect a great deal. Even if it was only 5% of parents, that would be a lot of drones.

And of course there are thousands of other uses. Protestors might want a drone observing them, just so that any police brutality could be carefully recorded for later. Cautious adults may want one hovering over them, especially when going into an unfamiliar or unsafe neighborhoods.

Drones (upper R) classical style: Put those clothes on, young lady! Your mother can see you!

In fact, why wait till you go into a neighborhood?  Why not keep the drones hanging constantly, like Saruman’s White Hand, over doubtful places where darker people live? I don’t know how it is up placid Toronto way, but in the Big Apple white people are tired of that flaming sword of fear preventing them from entering Bed-Stuy to price the housing.

For some years New York City civil libertarians have been diligently at work (presumably observed by the FBI and other notekeepers) recording where surveillance cameras in Manhattan operate. As this map they’ve produced reveals, there’s a wealth of such devices downtown, but a distinct dearth north of 125th Street.  This means, reassuringly, that white folks in lower Manhattan are protected from Harlem’s poorer tribes attempting an incursion across the Great Wall; but when it comes to knowing what the barbarians are doing over their own campfires, no one has an idea. A few drones whizzing over Lenox Avenue and Sugar Hill could put this to rights.

If you think back 20 years ago and told someone you were going to give them a device that would enable their government to locate them within a few feet at any given moment, they would likely have imagined some Orwellian future. But this is, functionally, what any smart phone can do. Looking forward 20 years, I ask myself: would my child feel monitored if he has a drone helping him get to school? Or maybe he will he feel unsafe without it? Or maybe it will feel like his Hogwart’s owl [sic], a digital pet?

I never trusted those goddamn owls. Satanic.

An expert on privacy and robotics (another thing you wouldn’t have seen outside a sci-fi novel 20 years ago) observes that while “you might think [private citizens’] drones would already be ubiquitous,” the Federal Aviation Administration has slapped restrictions on  unmanned aircraft systems. However, police and other “public agencies” are lobbying to rolle these back.  “Recently the state of Oklahoma asked the FAA for a blanket waiver of eighty miles of airspace.” (What the hell could be going on in Oklahoma?) “The FAA faces increasing pressure to relax its restrictions and is considering rulemaking to reexamine drone use in domestic airspace.” Meanwhile,

Agency rules impede the use of drones for now; United States privacy law does not. There is very little in our privacy law that would prohibit the use of drones within our borders. Citizens do not generally enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, nor even in the portions of their property visible from a public vantage. In 1986, the Supreme Court found no search where local police flew over the defendant’s backyard with a private plane. A few years later, the Court admitted evidence spotted by an officer in a helicopter looking through two missing roof panels in a greenhouse. Neither the Constitution nor common law appears to prohibit police or the media from routinely operating surveillance drones in urban and other environments.

Dead diva: Easier with a drone

The author argues that drones’ noisy intrusions will actually galvanize the law into acting against all these violations. They’re just too extreme: “Drones may help restore our mental model of a privacy violation. They could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.” But I wonder; especially if, as he indicates, the media get involved, and TMZ and Perez Hilton have their warring aircraft locked in on the radio frequency of Lindsay Lohan’s ankle bracelet. You may be offended when it’s your own intimacy that’s invaded, but fascinated when it’s somebody else’s.

The National Enquirer infamously printed a photo of Whitney Houston’s corpse last month, and while sales figures haven’t been released, you can bet — judging by the fact that CNN got 10 times its usual Saturday viewing audience just for showing mourners’ minked backs trudging into the funeral — they spiked. Consumers want the famous, live or dead, splayed for inspection. Incidentally, Forbes separately tells us that  a hanger-on beautifully named Raffles van Exel snapped the doleful photo, and apparently hawked it to the Enquirer for six figures. If you were an editor, and could get the same shot cheaper from a birdbot spying through a stained-glass window, cutting out the middleman in the process, wouldn’t you jump?  And how many would buy it!  The economics are not on the side of indignation.  What, too, if Peter Tatchell got his hands on a drone?  Run for your reputations, sexually healthy civil rights heroes! Not even Martin Luther King would be safe. I can see Peter proclaiming that he caught Martin masturbating to Rawhide in his grave.

Forbes also carries more sceptical approaches to the DIY drone question. Venkatesh Rao, an aerospace engineer, worried in its pages three weeks ago that the current bubble is a bit weird. Although he admits that “Heck, my wife is now insisting that I help her build one,” he says: “I don’t get it. What exactly do people expect to do with their own private drones?” In addition to the Superpaparrazo idea, he cites some other options:

  1. Start a revolution. If drones are the new guns, and the burgeoning political movement to ensure a “right to bear drones” succeeds, you and a few hundred of your friends can secretly build a drone swarm. …
  2. Attach guns to drones. There is absolutely nothing stopping drone hackers from doing this technically, and there is almost no conceivable scenario where this will ever be legal, but if you’re on the wrong side of the law already, for murder say, what’s one more charge for “attaching gun to drone”? The mayhem possible with a bunch of armed drones would make Columbine look like a kid’s tea party.

And he’s not very sanguine about the idea that citizen drones offer people a liberatory way around the government:

[The] only advantage the world of private citizens has over the military-industrial complex is sheer numbers. If, as some commentators speculate, drones are going to be citizen weapons to act as a check-and-balance to absolutist police-state tendencies, it will be through sheer numbers. A handful of extremists maintaining serious drone capability could be sneezed out of existence by any modern military within minutes. The trend only becomes serious if drone ownership becomes as common as gun ownership.

Great. Every Minuteman will have a Minuteman; every band of lunatics, its own Luftwaffe. The universe of Mad Max, where they only had trucks to fight with, will seem the Peaceable Kingdom by comparison.

Drone (upper R), classical style: My eagle doesn't like what you've been doing

Surely the government will restrict the technology before then — not for the sake of privacy, but for safety. (Not ours, its own.) The real question, though, is what will happen to our intimate lives when not just the state but the corporate order have vastly expanded their abilities to spy. Business, after all, equally surely has its (remaining non-mechanical) eye on this new opportunity both to collect information on citizen-consumers — by camera, infrared, and any other legal means — and to commodify it in its turn. For whether the subject is a celebrity or an ordinary credit-card holder, information is power, and power is money, and somebody will pay.

Forbes, once again, has a story (via the New York Timesthat’s not so much a cautionary tale — who will be cautioned by it? shoppers never beware — as an allegory of the age. Target, the US megastore, hires its own statisticians devoted to “consumer tracking.” The firm “assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address, that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources.”

Marketeers pant particularly damply for the new-parent demographic, eager to get them hooked early, before “they turn into rampant — and loyal — buyers of all things pastel, plastic, and miniature.” Babies need so many things these days; the last time a new mother stayed with me, the neighbors thought an army regiment was moving in.  And Target’s 50% revenue growth from 2002-2010 may partly be owing to statisticians “helping the retail giant corner the baby-on-board market.” The nerds used Science. They

ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but [they] noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc.

They identified “about 25 products” that, taken together, added up to each shopper’s “’pregnancy prediction’ score. More important, [they] could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.”

Unfortunately, this sometimes backfired: not by being wrong, but by being more right than the humans. One teenage girl’s father reacted with rage to the coupons his daughter was getting. She had to tell him she was pregnant — not a confession she’d planned.

Target is in retail, not the revelation business. This wouldn’t do. So, a store statistician explains, they got cannier — “started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random.”

We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. … That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons.

“So the Target philosophy towards expecting parents is similar to the first date philosophy?” Forbes comments. “Even if you’ve fully stalked the person on Facebook and Google beforehand, pretend like you know less than you do so as not to creep the person out.”

We’re all on blind dates with the information buyers these days. And stalking, far from being criminal, is studied in business school.

... is you.

Egypt: Aid and outsourcing

It's big business: US dominance in global arms sales

A bit more on the Egypt aid-and-repression quandary. Shana Marshall in Foreign Policy explains one reason the junta seems so confident that their anti-nonprofit antics wouldn’t result in a serious cutback in US assistance.  The aid isn’t just a feeding trough for the generals; it’s one for US weapons manufacturers too, since through it, the US government  effectively subsidizes Egypt to buy from them. Moreover, companies are using Egyptian cheap labor to make their weaponry. Why break such a profitable relationship?

In the United States, the aid program provides a large and predictable source of demand for weapons exporters, while in Cairo, collaborative military production with U.S. firms help subsidize the army’s commercial economic ventures.

Although domestic interest groups are rarely invoked in the debate over military aid to Egypt, the $1.3 billion in annual assistance represents a significant subsidy to U.S. weapons manufacturers. For instance, the General Dynamics manufacturing facility in Lima, Ohio where the M1A1 Abrams tank is built will not have more work orders from the U.S. Army until 2017 when the current M1 tank fleet is up for refurbishing. Egypt’s latest $1.3 billion order of 125 M1A1s (Cairo’s 11th order since the late 1980s) will keep those production lines open until 2014 building knock down kits that are then shipped and assembled in Egypt. Although shipping fully assembled tanks to Egypt would employ more U.S. workers, without the contract the Lima plant (in a crucial electoral swing state) would shutter its doors and General Dynamics’s bottom line would take a serious hit. Looming reductions in the U.S. defense budget have made General Dynamics and other defense producers even more concerned with keeping such funding channels open.

Egypt’s current Minister of Military Production Ali Sabri now boasts that over 95 percent of the M1A1 assembly takes place in Egypt’s military factories. While it’s true that most of the actual assembly takes place in Cairo (rather than Lima, Ohio), in the contemporary era of outsourcing the precise location of production is relatively unimportant from the defense firms’ perspective. The increasing indigenization of production in Egypt may imply the loss of U.S. jobs — but it is shareholder value (not work-hours for blue collar Americans) that dictates General Dynamics’s corporate planning. Transferring more work to Cairo likewise ensures that the Egyptian Army remains heavily invested in the project and continues to dedicate its aid dollars to procuring more tank kits. In fact, weapons manufacturers prefer contracts with such outsourcing components because they increase the per-unit price of equipment, and therefore also the firms’ revenue.

Let’s remember the international configurations of the security state, as well. The US transfers low-paying jobs to Egypt. It also transfers the means to control and repress workers, the unemployed, and the discontented. Those tear-gas canisters fired at demonstrators in Mohamed Mahmoud Street this autumn came from the US. Amnesty International found that, between 2005 and 2010, the US sold Egypt $1,658,994 in small arms, $4,131,033 in ammunition, and $2,446,683 in tear gas and riot control equipment. It was Egypt’s major supplier of the latter.

Tear gas in Cairo: (L) protesters point to "Made in USA" label on a canister, November 2011 (AFP/Khaled Desouki): (R): tear gas canister with 1990 expiration date, found by Mary Danial in protest area in Cairo (@bigpharoah)

(Hat tip: Issandr el-Amrani)

Egypt and the aid backlash: Lessons for the rest of the world

"Really, our aggression is just aid we offer poor countries that are always complaining about overpopulation!" 1970s cartoon by Ahmed Hegazi

Here at Harvard Law School, eleven out of ten students will wind up in corporate practice, meaning they may never even see the inside of a courthouse. They’ll drift from office to conference room for the rest of their working lives, sucking down money like baleen whales. A few young things will end up dabbling in criminal law — mostly to defend the corporate lawyers’ clients who skimmed a bit too much krill from the till. They’ll stand before the blind, full-breasted figure of Justice in rituals as precise, time-honored, and orderly as a French bedroom farce. I envy their innocence. But you can’t comprehend Justice in its full majesty and power from the statues; you need to see it dancing half-naked on a table like a Nevada stripper bitten by a tarantula. I’d love to take those kids by the hand and lead them into an Egyptian courtroom.

lady, come to Cairo and get down and jive

The first time I stepped into one, more than ten years ago, the contrast with my procedural expectations was considerable. The court of my imaginings was a sort of competitive petting zoo. This was a fight ring full of honey badgers with rabies. Everyone was screaming. Women ululated the zaghrata till the blood froze. The defendants stood in a cage to one side; the judge’s demeanor seemed modelled on Commodus at the Coliseum.   Was that sweat darkening the dust underfoot, or someone’s blood? I was not at all surprised when a friend of mine hurled himself at a reporter and tackled him to the floor. An hour more, and I’d have done the same myself.

It seems to have been pretty much like that Sunday, when the Case of the NGO Workers went to trial in Cairo.  43 defendants, employees of five foreign nonprofits — 16 Americans, 16 Egyptians, along with Germans, Palestinians, and others — faced charges of undermining Egypt’s sovereignty: operating organizations without a license, bringing in money from abroad, and sending information to foreign countries.  Oh, yes, and a plot to dismember the country, since police found a map in one office that daringly showed Egypt divided into four zones. (It came off Wikipedia.)  Spectators and reporters mobbed the court. Fifteen lawyers showed up — out of that chaotic nowhere that usually means some prosecutor’s pocket — to claim they represented Egyptian citizens harmed by whatever the nonprofits had done. Half the audience chanted against the military regime. The other half, Salafists, demanded the foreigners be held as hostages till the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman is freed from his American dungeon. The judge postponed the whole show and shebang for two months, till April 26. Nobody left happy.

all Egypt will be divided into four parts: the traitors' map, courtesy of http://inanities.org/2012/02/exclusive/

This case has been captivating everybody since the police raided 10 NGOs at the end of December, carting off computers, financial records, phones, and cash.   It captivates the US media because Americans were on trial. Unthinkable: Americans. While nine of the 16 accused US citizens got out of the country, seven –including an Obama Cabinet secretary’s son — huddled for refuge inside the American Embassy.  The resultant rage in Washington threatened the US’s massive aid package for Egypt, and the two countries’ longstanding alliance. Today, Egypt backed down, releasing the seven to a chartered flight at the airport, while pocketing as much as $300,000 each in bail. (The judges trying the case recused themselves in response, claiming improper political pressure.) This pretty much placates the United States, and the aid spigot is likely to turn on again; never mind the Egyptians still facing prison terms, or the Egyptian organizations raided and intimidated.

Some years back, when a Red Sea vessel sank and 1200 people drowned, the Colonel Blimpish right-wing writer John Derbyshire thought at first it might be a cruise ship packed with tourists. Then, “I learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.” While it’s natural to take an interest in your own, few things are more contemptible than how Americans (and cranky Brits) notice history only when it’s happening to them.  Since a lot of history goes on elsewhere, this means that tourists and other travelers are its main protagonists, in the American view.  The Big Events are like dinner-theater performances where you come to watch and then get to join the show.

What happened to Lara Logan –raped near Tahrir more than a year ago — was terrible, but the fate of an assaulted American didn’t reveal some inner truth of Egypt’s revolution. And the US press reported the assault not to illuminate the sexual violence Egyptian women face, but to erase it. I feel sorry for the Cabinet secretary’s son, but Egyptian NGO workers have stared down state harassment for two decades. The 14 defendants who actually showed up for the trial are all Egyptian; but the US coverage is all about the absentees. (Meanwhile, by the way, John Derbyshire’s Stateside reputation easily bobbed back up despite his ballast of callousness. Last year, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ most boring and conservative columnist, cited him as an authority … on Egypt.)

Abul Naga: Personally, I only want this much aid, no more

But Egyptianstoo, find the Americans’ plight captivating. It feeds the favorite cafe pastime: conspiracy theories. What the hell was the government thinking? The case was cooked up by Fayza Abul Naga, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, one of the few holdovers the military junta kept in place directly from Mubarak’s last government.  A neatly coiffed figure vaguely resembling Meryl Streep’s latest Oscar-winning role, Abul Naga harassed NGOs under the previous regime, and is delighted to carry on under the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).  The current campaign has lent her a frenzied popularity as  a militant for Egypt’s sovereignty. She and the prosecutors have jabbed at all the xenophobic buttons, accusing the NGOs of “pandering to the U.S. Congress, Jewish lobbyists and American public opinion.” The malleable Muslim Brotherhood, the dominant party in the newly elected Parliament and an occasional SCAF antagonist, endorsed what it calls her “nationalist position” (despite the fact that it’s never opened the books on its own election funding, allegedly ponied up by Qatar).

Few Egyptians, though, see the logic to SCAF’s apparent support of the anti-US campaign. It endangered the aid trough at which the military has been feeding for more than thirty years.

Adapted from Jeremy M. Sharp, "Egypt in Transition," Congressional Research Service, 2011, at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33003.pdf

The graph shows the disproportion between US economic aid, which has been shrinking for more than a decade (with a short spike in 2003, to reward Mubarak for his effective support of the Iraq War), and military aid, which has stayed constant. The military assistance, since the late 1970s, has been a massive bribe to Egypt not to use its military — particularly against the obvious object, Israel.  Since only so much money can be spent on unusable weapons, much of the aid greased the internal security apparatus — or lined the generals’ pockets, not just through direct embezzlement but by investment in a vast network of businesses under uniformed control.

Researchers estimate that the Egyptian military controls 25 to 40 percent of Egypt’s economy. Military firms dominate key sectors, including food (olive oil, water, pasta), cement and gasoline, vehicle production (joint ventures with Jeep to produce Cherokees and Wranglers), and construction.

The money oiling this empire would disappear if US aid dried up. Some speculate that Abul Naga has gone rogue, Sarah Palin-style, persecuting without SCAF’s permission. “This is a country of separate islands now,” one lawmaker said.  “The Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Parliament, the generals of the military council — everyone is his own island.” Yet the Cabinet serves at the military’s pleasure; it’s hard to suppose a minister could attack their wallets without retaliation. Others, therefore, see a darker, Byzantine design on SCAF’s part.

The venerable Richard Falk sheds some light. Employees of five organizations were charged in Egypt: the US-based National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, Freedom House, and International Center for Journalists; and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation. All the Americans work for the first three.  Falk points out that the NDI and NRI get all their money from the US government; Freedom House takes 80% of its funding there.

Sometimes these entities are even referred to by the media as “civil society institutions”, which reflects, at best, a woeful state of unknowing, or worse, deliberate deception. Whatever one thinks of the activities of these actors, it is simply false to conceive of them as “nongovernmental”, or as emanations of civil society. It would be more responsive to their nature if such entities were described as “informal governmental organisations”. (IGOs)

Perhaps this is in fact the key to what’s happening. From one perspective, the fact that it’s effectively US government cash that SCAF is criminalizing– a little frosting on the big $1.5 billion birthday cake they get handed every year — makes their actions seem even stranger. But SCAF probably has a different fear: that the IGOs’ activities mean more and more US assistance will go to civil society, and less and less directly to Egypt’s rulers. Fayza started her campaign last March, when the US announced $65 million in aid to pro-democracy groups in Egypt. You can easily see SCAF wondering, not just: will that largesse be used against us? — but: is that coming out of our budget? (The minister reportedly told US officials that support for the civil society sector shouldn’t exceed $20 million.) The trial is a way of warning the US: We want things the old way. The money comes to us.

No, it's not. Stay home. We'll monitor YOU.

Falk calls attention to the Cold War roots of all three organizations, and warns of “disguised intrusions by a foreign government in the internal politics of a foreign country with fragile domestic institutions of government.” A U.S.expert concurs: “How would we react if a foreign country came here to teach us how to conduct elections?” Living in eastern Europe from 1990 to 1996, I saw IRI’s and NDI’s work at first hand. Together with the big German party foundations (Adenauer for the Christian Democrats, Friedrich Ebert for the Social Democrats, and Friedrich Naumann for the liberals — the Greens’ foundation was not yet hyperactive), they normalized politics in the countries where they operated. I don’t mean this in a good sense. Funding and training forces ideologically in line with their own preferences, they helped impose a Western-style left-right divide on societies that, in the wake of revolution, had been open to less stereotyped possibilities: anarchist parties, youth politics, environmental and feminist movements. (They didn’t succeed in stifling far-right extremists, given how far “normal” conservatism in the region had traditionally tended in a fascist direction.)  Undoubtedly they’ve tried to do the same in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s election triumph, though, has the paradoxical effect of ensuring Egyptian politics won’t be a simple left-right affair for some while. Free-market and socialist tendencies flourish on both sides of the secular-religious divide. This tends to muddy the economic arguments most urgent to a poor country; but it also makes the alleged foreign interference seem not sinister, merely ineffective.

Falk also recognizes the ominious implications to the Cairo case: that

the Egyptian government, although admittedly long concerned about these spurious NGOs operating within its territory even during the period of Mubarak rule, is itself seemingly disingenuous, using the licensing and funding technicalities as a pretext for a wholesale crackdown on dissent and human rights, so as to discipline and intimidate a resurgent civil society and a radical opposition movement that remains committed to realising the democratic promise of the Arab Spring.

This is the explanation favored by the bien-pensant liberal in Egypt. Khaled Fahmy, professor at the American University of Cairo, writes:

The real target of Abouelnaga’s crusade is not foreign NGOs receiving foreign funding. Her real targets are human rights organizations that have been campaigning to defend basic freedoms before and after the 25 January revolution. The reason is simple: it is human rights organizations, more than official political parties or even the press, which have uncovered cases of police brutality under Mubarak’s dictatorial rule, which have defended helpless victims in numerous cases of outright injustice, and which have raised public awareness of basic and constitutional rights. … it is they who have sued the SCAF for allegedly conducting the notorious virginity tests on protesters; it is they who have been pressing the SCAF to restructure the security sector; and it is they who have highlighted and documented the SCAF’s bloody practices in Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cabinet Street, and Port Said.

This is true as far as it goes, yet flawed on two grounds.

First: I speak as a human rights activist: human rights groups’ work shouldn’t be exaggerated.  They document; they don’t mobilize.  The  abuses that brought Mubarak down, such as the killing of Khaled Said, were atrocities that exceeded the ambit of human rights documentation altogether, and became the iconic objects of popular campaigns.  Those campaigns did the hardest work. And without masses struggling and dying in Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Suez, there would have been nothing for the groups to document. Masses made the revolution. Documentation was a tool toward revolutionary ends, but not more than a tool — just as the middle-class methods of Facebook and Twitter didn’t cause the revolution, any more than Angry Birds.

There’s been a tendency (particularly fostered by foreign non-participants in the Arab Spring, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty) to expropriate last year’s revolts as “human rights revolutions,” suggesting neither “impure” political motivations nor insistent economic demands played their part. This is absurd.  If “civil society” as Fahmy describes it here had been tasked alone with overthrowing the former regime, Mubarak would be preparing for immortality in an official pyramid, and his son would be readying his coronation as the old man’s steward on Earth. Civil society — a concept argued and idealized from Hegel to Havel — is a vital force. But it’s not revolutionary, it’s regulative.  It guards the transparency and flexibility of an open political system; it criticizes the occlusions of a closed one. It lacks the strength, though, to turn a system upside down. Only social movements can do that. It’s understandable for academics, who spend most of their time in offices, to delude themselves that other people who possess offices are the unmoved movers of the world.  (Human Rights Watch, my old employer, subscribed to similar illusions; its leaders would no more have understood a social movement that they would have invited the cleaning ladies to dinner.)  But power is in the streets; a revolution is a moment when the disenfranchised and the wretched of the earth can seize authority, however ephemeral, from those cosseted by educations and air conditioners.

Second, pointing to the undoubted virtues of rights organizations doesn’t help explain why — as Abul Naga’s sudden popularity reveals — so many people hate them in Egypt.  Rights activists themselves seem startled by the fact. After all, they defend the poor and vulnerable; why, when the cash is down and the police are knocking at their doors, does much of the population treat them as alien interlopers? But what is left out of Fahmy’s analysis is the dirty little secret of Egyptian liberalism: class. Unspeakable yet irresistible as a nasty French postcard, it’s everywhere present but nowhere discussed.

One has to weed out myth from reality. Human rights activists in Egypt, as in most places, are overworked and underpaid. Some organizations, such as the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (offering legal support to victims of violations) and the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (offering help to torture survivors) transcend both their express mandates and the old victim/savior dichotomy, are explicit in their political commitments, and see part of their labor as mobilizing people to act and struggle. Aida Seif el-Dawla of the latter said to me once, more or less, “Sometimes the best rehabilitation from torture is to fight back.”

1% on one side, 99% keep to the other

Still, most Egyptians regard “civil society” as a place of privilege and inanition, far from the burdens and terrors of daily life. And from the poor’s perspective, they’re right. How many workers sit in a comfortable chair in an office paid for by the US? Moreover, civil society itself — overwhelmingly staffed by the middle and upper-middle classes — reinforces the image. Many of its leaders have no idea how to speak to the lower orders, except to order them to clean something. The condescension of authority and the inflection of command come naturally. And each large desk or air conditioner produces its own pasha, sure of his superiority to those who sweat.

The two failures are connected, and are not just a matter of attitude or tone. Salaried civil society activists in Egypt don’t know how to relate to other classes; and this reinforces their difficulty in dealing with social movements, with people mobilizing for change. For most of them (there are, of course, treasured exceptions) the language of mobilization is a tongue Rosetta Stone doesn’t teach. This tongue-tiedness extends to many of the young, middle-class activists who populated Midan Tahrir. It was telling that this past summer, when it became clear that SCAF threatened all the Revolution’s achievements, their main answer was to return to the square and try to reinvigorate, on their own, the dream of classless commonality there. The effort was beautiful — I was there, in July and August, and the idealism of it was both exasperating and deeply moving– but it was remote from the rest of the country’s reality. At the same time, Muslim Brothers and Salafists were busy organizing among workers and peasants, doling out food and identifying voters. The voting showed the inevitable result.

What lessons can derive from all this?

One is: human rights are not enough. They can set the procedural norms for a changed society; but neither rights claims nor the activists who press them will, in themselves, achieve the changes that most need to happen — changes in the deep structure of societies and states, changes in how wealth is allotted and who allots it, who holds power and how. The spirit –no, not the spirit; the muscle and the nerve — of social movements is needed to accomplish that, and to amplify what rights activists do. Human rights groups have to learn to speak the languages of movements: not later, but now.

A second lesson is about aid and the dynamics of power it represents. It’s striking (and not a little self-defeating) how popular an anti-aid rhetoric is among Egyptians. Far from treating assistance as a just claim against a history of economic and political exploitation, they’re almost eager to forego it for a vaguer acquisition: dignity.

Al Azhar, the leading Sunni Islamic institute in Egypt, and a fundamentalist Salafist sheik, Mohammad Hassan, formed a group with the goal of raising up to $2 billion to replace any lost American aid. [No indication of how much would go to economic relief, and how much into the generals’ pockets.] Three days ago, the military-appointed Egyptian cabinet voted to support the effort, the Fund for Dignity and Pride, and many prominent Egyptians have pledged support. The fund has so far raised $10 million.

Some of this is the military’s vain gesturing, but some obviously strums a populist nerve. And the nerve twinges elsewhere too. The obvious analogue is the rhetoric roaring out of Africa, after the fiasco of David Cameron’s threat to tie aid to LGBT people’s human rights. The fiasco was disastrous. Loud promises to give up aid echoed from Tanzania to Zimbabwe. Legislators brought forward new and old bills against homosexuality in Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia. Cameron’s words backfired in a massive backlash — and worsened the hatred screaming against queers across the continent. The Egypt quandary further suggests that the link between aid and rights protection is complicated, requiring  tact and strategy. Aid can discredit rights movements as much as it can assist them.

We just wants the Precious for a little while. Just to make the nasty peoples stop!

As for “aid conditionality”: well, the nagging hypocrisy beneath human rights activists’ claim that they’re above practical politics is that, in fact, they love power.  They want it and dream of it in secret. Like Boromir lusting for the Ring, they know it can cause them the occasional inconvenience, but they’re convinced they’ll put it to good use. The fact they can’t acknowledge this love in public only makes the longing fester more. The fantasy of using aid leverage cleanly and simply, despite all the colonial implications and the economic impact, to make rights violations stop is one version of the festering. Instead of building and mobilizing a domestic constituency against the abuses, instead of struggling to create an international movement, the fantasy tells them that a few key governments on their side will put the squeeze on the abusers, and — like a pimple bursting — the evil will end. The extreme form of this is to invoke not money, but military might. Human Rights Watch campaigned hard for intervention in Libya last year, not so much because it seemed incontrovertible that otherwise a genocide would happen, but as a test case. If, for once, governments would bomb another state purely on the strength of  rights arguments, wouldn’t that show — for the first time and for all — that human rights had teeth? Wouldn’t it confirm that they and their exponents were a power to be reckoned with? A moral power, of course. Power almost always starts off announcing itself as moral. Then things change.

Human Rights Watch never much cared for achieving things by movement building. Its vision was always to get the right governments lined up on the right side, and go from there. That may work in certain places and for certain causes.  But in most of our lives and world, things happen through politics, and politics mean mobilization, and mobilization means cobbling together movements that voice and meet people’s needs in the concrete, not just the abstract. It’s a lesson a great many human rights groups still need to learn.

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.