Egypt: Interrogating the terrorist Scott Long

"Source of inspiration," cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, November 2016. Sisi: "A true pasha, by God."

“Source of Inspiration”: cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, November 2016. Sisi says: “A true pasha, by God.”

I hadn’t meant to write about this. It’s small compared to what many Egyptians face, or fear. But a few Egyptian friends have urged me to record it, partly because accounts of recent State Security interrogations are somewhat rare (people used to say that to meet the secret police was to go “behind the sun,” to disappear); partly because it illuminates what is on whatever passes for the dictatorial regime’s mind. Recent events, too, make me believe there’s a need, in the United States and elsewhere, to remember some things. I’ll get to that. Let me begin at the beginning.

The beginning is an ending. I left Egypt in March. Most likely, I will never be permitted to return. I had lived there for three and a half years, and for the last three of those I did not cross the borders at all. After the military coup in July 2013, it became increasingly clear to me that when I left, I would be denied re-entry; and that meant I delayed my departure until – when? I told myself: until I had finished everything I came for, or until there was nothing more to do.

For a long time – since 2005 – I’d been stopped at Cairo passport control every time I came into the country; taken aside, held for an hour or two, detained once in a locked room in the airport that had the forlorn graffiti of Palestinian refugees scrawled across the walls: then finally admitted. No questions asked, no explanation given. It was obvious I had been on some sort of list for years, that the state did not quite know what to do with me when I applied for entry. (US citizens do not need to buy visas in advance to enter Egypt; as a result, each of my arrivals took officialdom by surprise.) That was all back in the comparatively louche eras of Mubarak and Morsi. After the coup and Sisi’s seizure of power, the fact of being on a list seemed much more serious. In Cairo, I went underground — though it hardly felt so dramatic. I avoided contact with officialdom; I did not renew my entry visa. When necessary I blustered my way through ubiquitous checkpoints, never showing my passport. I bribed my building’s doorman not to register my presence with the police. And, toward the end, I moved to parts of Cairo where foreigners rarely went; I was far from inconspicuous there – some days, probably the only blond person within a kilometer or two — but in terms of what the police might expect I was off the edge of the world, off the books. For the last eight months I lived in Faisal, a vast warrenlike semi-slum stretching westward, and ultimately I settled in an “informal area” there: Cairo’s equivalent of a favela, streets not paved or named or usually shown on maps. The buildings, six or seven stories tall, were erected by the residents who migrated there, brick by brick and floor by floor; the first and generally last sign that you were in an informal area was that you never had to pay an electric bill, since all the power was siphoned from the official grid. I felt oddly safe there, as if I were curled in one of Kafka’s burrows, a dead end.

The Embaba quarter of Cairo, looking very much like the Faisal neighborhood where I lived

The Embaba quarter of Cairo, looking very much like the Faisal neighborhood where I lived

It’s difficult to describe my last six months in Egypt. Depression settled over everything in the country; no change seemed possible any longer, and you felt your imagination being buried in cement. Many people I cared about simply stopped leaving their homes. At last, I was invited to a conference in the US in March – organized by friends who, I think, had constructed a giant hook to haul me out of there. I knew if I went, it would be my final departure.

Leaving Egypt, the hard way

Leaving Egypt, the hard way

I talked to human rights lawyers after my ticket was booked. Overstaying a visa is a crime usually incurring only a minor fine at the airport, the equivalent of $30-40 US (at the time). The work and the writing I’d been doing put me in a different position, though. The lawyers told me I would be interrogated; the passenger manifest would ensure State Security was alert to my departure. I should get there early, keep their numbers on my phone, be prepared for possible arrest.

I spent my last night ever in Egypt crying, encrypting my hard drive, and uploading sensitive files to the cloud. A dear Egyptian friend drove me to the airport in the clean air of dawn, almost six hours before my flight. At passport control, they sent me down a hallway to pay the visa fine. I shelled out money to a civilian in a little office (one lesson: in Egypt, the government makes sure you settle your outstanding debts before they arrest you). “Wait a moment.” A man in a leather overcoat came in and told me to follow.

There is vertical power and horizontal power. I suppose in the US we are used to power revealed in perpendicular terms: skyscrapers, helicopters, bombers, drones. In Egypt, as in many other countries where I’ve worked, power is horizontal, shown not through height but through ambit, remoteness, segregation. I was led down an even longer corridor, so long that it seemed I was going to another terminal, or to some other place outside Cairo altogether, a hell not subterranean but suburban. Generalissimo Sisi plans to build Egypt a new capital city, far from protesters and ordinary people, distant in the desert; I imagine it linked to Cairo by a single interminable hallway.

Then: a small office, two wooden desks, two men: one in mustache and leather jacket, seated; one standing – an assistant, in short-sleeved shirt and tie. On Mustache’s desk was a stack of paper: perhaps 300 printed-out pages from this blog. A smaller stack was a printout of my Facebook page; another seemed to be news articles that had quoted me. A computer on the second desk was unplugged; hence, I guess, the hard copy. I sat down, asked their names, was told those were not “relevant.” No further explanation. The questions started.

Mustache did the asking, in English, while Necktie, now sitting at the other desk, took Arabic notes. There was no Good Cop/Bad Cop, only Talking Cop/Writing Cop, the two tasks apparently too complex for a single cop to master. We started oddly. Atop the pile of blog posts was one I wrote in 2013, comparing Sisi the dictator to the late Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary – known as “Sissi,” and commemorated in many blearily romantic Romy Schneider movies. It was labored and unfunny, but it had annoyed somebody. Mustache: “What are you saying here about our President? Are you saying that our President is a woman?”

This is not the President of Egypt.

This is not the President of Egypt

I really don’t remember what I answered, except that President Sisi’s rampant masculinity would surely only be underscored by a judicious comparison with Romy Schneider. It was fitting that the interrogation began with gender, since I’d stressed the he-male obsessions of the Egyptian state in much of what I wrote. Beneath that post in the pile, though, was one on life in death-racked Cairo in the days after the August 2013 Rabaa massacre; and then the politics peered through. Mustache: You write that you were walking around the city in that period. Were you not aware there was a curfew? Who allowed you to violate the curfew? Did you violate the curfew in order to meet with criminals?

First notable fact: They knew my online life thoroughly, at least its non-password-protected part: any writer would want such a devoted audience. One or two questions suggested they might possibly have intercepted e-mail (though I’d tried to use Tor) or phone calls. But they seemed to have no idea where I’d been living physically for the last year. They asked me repeatedly, and I gave fictional addresses (I truly hope they were fictional, that no actual 233 Mohamed Moussa Street in Faisal gave its inhabitants a disagreeable surprise). Necktie noted down the invented domiciles with stoic docility. The attraction of online surveillance for indolent secret police is that it’s a desk job.

Second: They never asked me explicitly about homosexuality, mine or anybody else’s. Mustache leafed through my posts on the subject (You feel a great freedom to criticize the culture and the values of the Egyptian people. Who gives you that freedom?) but avoided touching the topic directly as if it were contagious. (What Egyptian laws have you violated? he did demand repeatedly. Please name the Egyptian laws you have violated while in Egypt.) The closest he came was asking me, while gingerly fingering blog pages, whether I had a “website” on Grindr — pronounced to rhyme with “slender.” (Truly, I did not.) Mustache also inquired, upon Necktie’s prompting, Have you downloaded pornographic information over the Internet? One thing chilled me when I recollected it in tranquillity: Mustache asked, Have you ever assisted a person with mental health problems? Have you provided psychological advice to troubled persons? I said no, and only afterward did I remember that, the previous summer, I got repeated emails from an anonymous gay Egyptian who said he was depressed and wanted help finding a psychologist. I offered him contacts; but he kept insisting on seeing me face-to-face, proposing meeting places too close to my local police station for my comfort. (Police at that station, in Doqqi, were entrapping victims almost weekly over the Internet. Lazy as always, the cops steer their prey to meet at points in walking distance of the jail.) He made me very uneasy, and I finally stopped answering him. I felt ashamed of succumbing to suspicion. And who knows?

Third: What they did care about was politics, and a particular kind of politics. The real question – never exactly framed, but implicit in most everything – was whether I would say something to tag myself as a terrorist.

Sex interested them mainly as a division of, or gateway to, larger fields of violent subversion. Particularly telling was when they got round to a legal advice manual for Egyptian LGBT people, in Arabic, which I had agreed to host on my blog. For whom was this written? Mustache demanded, holding up the pages. I stared back blankly. The post said, in clear Arabic, that it was meant for LGBT people. “It was written by Egyptians for other Egyptians,” I said. Mustache replied, as Necktie’s pen scrawled softly: So it was written to benefit people who are planning violent acts against the state?

Our back-and-forth lasted four hours. Almost every question came up again and again – to trip me up, obviously. It was like being shipwrecked in a whirlpool, and watching flotsam from other wrecks whirl by, and circle, and then swirl by again, and realizing this can only end when you drown. A week later, I jotted down some of the questions I remembered. I didn’t record my answers, so if you’re looking for hints on how to fence verbally with secret police officers, you won’t get them here. But the basic rule, as always with repressive power, is to say “no” to everything. Perhaps, in the age of iron to come, that monotonous “no” is the only mark of selfhood that will survive us.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Edgar Allan Poe's "A Descent Into the Maelstrom"

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent Into the Maelstrom”

  • Why did you overstay your visa? (I pulled out all the medical documents from my two stints in hospital in Egypt; I had been too sick, I said, to violate any Egyptian laws or download porn, much less board an airplane or get my visa renewed.)
  • How have you spent your time while living illegally in Egypt? (Writing.) Writing what? (What you have in your hand.) Who pays for your writing? Do you write libellous statements about the leaders of other countries, or just about Egypt? (I do recall my answer: “I’ve written about many countries. The only person who ever accused me of libel was a very vain Englishman.” They didn’t ask who.)
  • Mustache paused at two other blog posts near the top of the stack. Have you ever been imprisoned in Jamaica? Have you ever been imprisoned in Tunisia? For what crime were you arrested in Tunisia? (I have never been in Tunisia.) Who do you cooperate with in Tunisia? Why do you insult the Tunisian state? Who were you arrested with in Tunisia? 
  • Inevitably: Have you visited Israel? Then: Have you visited Iran? Why do you write about Iran? Who do you cooperate with in Iran? Have you visited Syria? Have you visited Libya? Have you visited Qatar? Who do you know in Qatar? Who do you cooperate with in Qatar? When did you visit Qatar? Who visits you from Qatar? What money have you received from Qatar? (I’ve never been near Qatar, though I’ve been quoted often by Al Jazeera — I believe Mustache had printed out samples. But the Doha regime, which supported the Muslim Brotherhood, is Sisi’s special bête noire.)
  • Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are effectively banned in Egypt.  My onetime tenure at HRW weighed on their minds. What is your current function with Human Rights Watch? What information do you transmit to Human Rights Watch? And: How do you receive your salary from Human Rights Watch? (Courier pigeon.)
  • Where did you receive information on how to hide things on the Internet? (Mustache was fascinated by posts I’d done on Internet security, several of them in Arabic.) Do private companies make these things, or foreign governments? Are you paid by these private companies? You are in contact with which criminal groups who use these en-cryp-ti-on (carefully pronounced) methods? Also on technology: Which firearms do you own? (Gun ownership is legally restricted in Egypt. I have never even held a gun.) We know Americans love firearms, where have you purchased firearms in Egypt? Who in Egypt gave you firearms? Where do you keep your firearms? 
  • They asked me about my “connections” with three individuals. First was Hossam Bahgat, the activist and journalist who is now banned from travel in an investigation into “illegal” NGOs. (I said, accurately, that we were were busy people who hadn’t spoken much in years.) Next was Alaa Abd El Fattah, the revolutionary activist. (I said, accurately, he’d been imprisoned on false charges for most of the time I was in Egypt.) The third was an Italian who’d been entrapped over the Internet and deported in 2015. (I said, accurately, we barely knew each other.) Mustache seemed about to produce more names when a phone call interrupted him, and after that the interrogation moved to other things.
  • But they did care about organizations. Which unregistered organizations do you belong to? Have you used your home for meetings of illegal organizations? Which illegal organizations have you given money? Do you have an Egyptian bank account? Which Egyptians use your foreign bank account?  When did you last receive money from abroad? Have you received money for Egyptians? For what Egyptians have you received foreign money? What Egyptians have you given money? No, no, none, no, none, never, no, none, none; then half an hour later, Are you a member of ….
  • But the most sinister questions were about places. Have you ever lived in Heliopolis? Have you ever worked in Heliopolis? — a district in eastern Cairo. Then: Have you ever visited Sinai? I said truthfully I never had, but Sinai kept coming up over and over at intervals, like a brightly painted barrel in the maelstrom. When was the last time you visited Sinai? Where did you go in Sinai? Have you ever been to Sharm el-Sheikh? To Dahab? When were you in El Arish? Who has travelled to Sinai with you? Who did you meet in Sinai? Later Heliopolis bobbed up again. Who are your connections in Heliopolis? Do you belong to organizations in Heliopolis? How often did you visit Heliopolis during the summer of 2015? And: Which days were you in Heliopolis in June 2015?

North Sinai harbors the largest, ISIS-affiliated insurgency against Sisi’s rule. Heliopolis, though, is mainly for shoppers. I rarely went there, and not till later did I speculate on why they cared. Possibly they wanted to connect me to some illicit gay ring in the suburb. Memorably, though, a bomb blew apart Hisham Barakat — Egypt’s prosecutor general — in Heliopolis on June 29, 2015. The insistent dates made me wonder if they were looking to build some insane link to his murder. (I had said extremely harsh things about Barakat in e-mails to non-Egyptians after his killing — if death can be deserved, he deserved it.) The final fact, though, was: for them, perverted sex cases and security fears were becoming the same.

aya_hegazi_0

Aya Hegazy

Possibly all this was meant just to scare the hell out of me; if so the ludicrousness interfered with the lesson. But the narrative weaving through the interrogation was no more ludicrous than most of the terror trials Sisi’s security state has put together. It’s a state that holds more than 40,000 political prisoners. Famously, in 2013 three Al Jazeera journalists were arrested, then sentenced to years in prison on “terrorism” charges. for reporting on Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo. Their camera tripods and studio lights were held up on TV as terrorist equipment. From Mustache’s manner and intensity, I’m fairly sure State Security was ready to concoct some such case against me, if I’d answered enough questions wrong. Being a foreigner is no longer a mark of safety in Egypt: the Al Jazeera case sucked an Egyptian, a Canadian, and an Australian citizen into the desert gulag, clearly meant as a message that passports are no protection. A US citizen, Aya Hegazy, has been held in pre-trial detention, along with seven Egyptian colleagues, for two and a half years. She had founded a Cairo NGO housing and rehabilitating street children; she’s facing highly dubious charges of sexual abuse — and of luring susceptible kids to enlist in the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorists.” It’s widely seen as another brutal warning to civil society (and a way of punishing homeless youth, who I can testify were among the bravest and fiercest demonstrators against police repression, under Morsi as well as Sisi, from 2011 on). I don’t mean for a second that imprisoning foreigners is somehow worse than imprisoning Egyptians. But it marks a regime that no longer feels any restraint, whose fears and fantasies drive it to ever more sweeping and unstoppable measures of control. The US has done almost nothing to protest Aya Hegazy’s persecution. (Hillary Clinton asked for her release during a September meeting with Sisi, according to Clinton’s campaign.) On January 25, about six weeks before I left the country, security forces in Cairo kidnapped a young Italian student named Giulio Regeni. He disappeared from a street near where I often stayed at night. His savagely mutilated corpse turned up in a ditch a week later. That did arouse international anger — because of the horrible mercilessness of his torture, because his family demanded justice. Possibly the blowback from Regeni’s slaughter contributed to a decision not to arrest me. State Security may have felt it wasn’t worthwhile to risk extra chiding from abroad. I bear the spectral guilt of having profited from another person’s death.

Street children in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, early 2013. Photo by Reuters

Street children in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, early 2013. Photo by Reuters

The interrogation in the airport office droned on and on. About 45 minutes before my plane was due to leave, I said, more or less: “If you make me miss my flight, I assume you are arresting me. In that case, I want to call a lawyer now.” (The idea of “calling a lawyer” is lunacy in that context; at best you send a text from a cellphone hidden in your sock.) Mustache and Necktie whispered for five minutes. Mustache left the room. I was sweating.

Ten minutes later he came back. “Go,” he said. They physically shoved me out the door.

Since I left — escaped? — Egypt, I’ve often been asked why I stayed so long. It is difficult to explain. One way to say it is: something not just disorienting but morally vitating inhabits the way “international” human rights work is done; the rhythm of parachuting in, polevaulting out of “troubled places,” absconding with information from one country, processing it into useable fact in another, perpetually at multiple removes from the people whose stories you record or the actual workers who help you record them. In this realm, too, power is remoteness, distance. I stayed in Egypt after the arrests began because I wanted not to distance myself. I wanted to stay and work with my friends. At least we would share some of the burdens together.

If I had a clear function in our informal division of labor, it was to get the word out to the foreign world about what was happening in Egypt’s crackdown, to mobilize movements to answer. I failed. Undoubtedly there were many reasons I failed, personal inadequacies to start. One reason, though, was the way Sisi’s regime has taken up “security” as its identity and purpose. Despite the self-destructiveness and ineptitude of nearly all his anti-terror measures, Sisi has sold himself to the West — as well as to Saudi Arabia and Russia — as a bulwark against the numinous, universal threat. As a result, no ally will criticize him seriously and no leader will spurn his embrace. Newspapers and even human rights groups prefer to focus on abuses elsewhere, more congruent with the unwritten battle-plans of the endless war on terror. This isn’t just for foreign consumption. In Egypt, the language of security is all-pervading. It infects everything, and as a result everything becomes a security threat, even a blog or a Facebook page, even a few people having sex in a decrepit flat. The anti-terror machinery terrorizes itself.  Fear is everywhere. It just induced the United States to elect a maniacal thug as President, and Sisi’s government proudly announced that Sisi was the first foreign leader whose call Trump took. I wanted to tell this story partly as a reminder that the fear is absurd but the fear has consequences. But of course this will fail too, because we already know.

Donald Trump meets with President Sisi at the Plaze Hotel during the UN General Assembly session in New York, September 19, 2016. Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP

Donald Trump meets with President Sisi at the Plaza Hotel during the UN General Assembly session in New York, September 19, 2016. Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP

As I say, there was nothing exceptional in my experience, except that I walked away. Thousands around the world face the machinery of security every day, the manifold terrors of counter-terror, and I have nothing to offer but one small piece of advice. Remember: The police are stupid. In the end, that’s the main hope for our own iron age. The cops are studded with guns and sealed in Kevlar, but they have no minds.

The he-men in the airport office knew barely more about language, technology, life in its intricacy than a dog knows about a train. And their stupidity is only a distilled version of the larger stupidity of the state. (A victim entrapped over the Web whom I interviewed in 2003 told me: “All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor] — knew nothing about the Internet. The deputy prosecutor even said, ‘I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it? Do people just talk around with men?’ They knew nothing about how the things I was charged with actually worked.”) The state is an empty skull. The parasites in it spy and pry, but they cannot turn mere facts into knowledge. Their stupidity intimidates and oppresses, but it is also our strength. I learned a joke 25 years ago in Romania, and I still tell it, because it gives me comfort:

Q: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, the intelligent policeman, and the stupid policeman are eating Chinese food together. Who eats the most?
A: The stupid policeman eats it all. The other three are imaginary.

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Cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr: Get in / إركب

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Trump

“Weeping,” a South African anti-apartheid song, sung by Vusi Mahlasela

Donald Trump was was not elected despite universal disbelief that it was possible. He was elected because of universal disbelief that it was possible. The most crucial factor in his resistible rise was the profound faith that it couldn’t happen here. I shared this; I was as punch-drunk as anybody by midnight Tuesday. But the blitheness had been almost everywhere; and what kind of unreal vision of the United States, and of our strange moment in history, did it show?

There are thousands of examples but I’ll restrict myself to the field of punditry. Back in February, Jonathan Chait — who now, accurately, says “Collaborating With Donald Trump Is Doomed to Fail” — wrote that liberals should “earnestly and patriotically support a Trump Republican nomination”

The first [reason], of course, is that he would almost certainly lose. Trump’s ability to stay atop the polls for months, even as critics predicted his demise, has given him an aura of voodoo magic that frightens some Democrats. But whatever wizardry Trump has used to defy the laws of political gravity has worked only within his party. Among the electorate as a whole, he is massively — indeed, historically — unpopular …

At that point, Trump was running 3.4 points behind Clinton in the Real Clear Politics polling average, not a number suggesting the ironclad historical inevitability of defeat. Come May, George Packer in the New Yorker wrote that “Democrats probably won’t need the votes of the white working class to win this year. Demographic trends favor the party, as does the bloated and hateful persona of the Republican choice.” When that appeared, Trump was 3.1 points behind, and gaining. And the day before the election, the New York Times devoted a long, detectably gleeful article to describing “Trump’s Last Stand,” painting the desperate “neediness and vulnerability of a once-boastful candidate now uncertain of victory.” Thirty-six hours later, the vulnerable loser was President-elect of the United States.

oct31-nov13_2016_trump-nocrop-w710-h2147483647

Too soon: Cover for New York Magazine‘s election issue (published October 31, 2016), by Barbara Kruger

The willful blindness, the willingness to treat a tiny and tenuous lead in unreliable polls as a promissory note for a future landslide, infected almost everybody — from journalists to diehard Democrats to disaffected non-voters to, possibly, Donald Trump himself. There was, clearly, a faith in the historical process, a belief that a country that elected Barack Obama twice had put itself on a certain course irreversibly. In fact, Dr. King’s overquoted assurance about how the arc of history bends might be valid for the longue durée, but it wasn’t a guide to betting on the elections of 1980, or 1994, or 2010. Even many right-wingers, though, saw Trump as far too radical a break from the going neoliberal consensus to have a chance. Then there was a very standard ignorance that people you don’t know might have a different take on things — thus the Times‘ Nick Kristof, completely unable to locate an actual Trump voter in the 10018 zip code, had to interview an imaginary one. Finally, there was a touching faith in the United States itself, in the goodness of its people and its institutions (“If you step outside the pall of the angry campaign rhetoric, you see that America’s institutions are generally quite strong,” David Brooks wrote, with Trump just six points down and rising). This was particularly poignant among the Left, often accused of hating America but in truth especially insistent that it could never go that wrong.

Which America, though? To call Trump a breach with the United States’ traditions is to lop half those traditions from the field of view.

"Through a Looking Glass Darkly" by Mr. Fish (www.clowncrack.com), 2013

“Through a Looking Glass Darkly” by Mr. Fish, 2013. (Please see comment below for some more information about the portrait’s source.)

Racism and rage are older than the Republic, and they’ve never been in hiding. They are only-sometimes-latent possibilities in American life, part of the permanent repertory of rhetorics that politicians and entertainers call upon, part of the cache of emotions for citizens to feel (and fear), constant forces waiting for circumstances to unleash them. The assumption that all this hatred shrank to inanition through some combination of Obama, Lena Dunham, and Will and Grace was self-defeating. Trump is not “unprecedented“; nor does he represent a past that, as Clinton kept saying, we “can’t go back” to. He’s part of us, then and now. In living memory, George Wallace struck nearly all the notes in the Trump octave, down to the strutting, preening, boorish machismo (his famous threat to give a recalcitrant judge “a barbed-wire enema” could have come out of Trump’s mouth). Wallace never made it near the Presidency. but he got 45 electoral votes. The man he helped make President, Richard Nixon, added to a subdued version of Wallace’s racism a deep paranoia, a passionate adoration of foreign dictators, and a profound reliance on the indigenous surveillance state. It’s hard to remember this now, but a lot of sensible Americans believed that the United States was careening toward fascist politics and authoritarian rule under the Divine Milhous in 1972 — and that only the Watergate scandal forestalled it. A good many on the Left have been comparing Trump to a “Third World dictator.” It’s an insult to a Third World that give rise to Thomas Sankara, to Nelson Mandela, to Salvador Allende, to Jawaharlal Nehru. (It also echoes Trump himself, who repeatedly said the United States was becoming a “Third World country.”) But it has a scrap of truth if you mean the kind of kleptomaniacal, deadly autocrats the democratic, idealistic US has inflicted on its hapless allies in the global South for decades. Trump’s corruption, his shadowy relations with an overweening foreign power, and his alliance with domestic security cadres like the FBI suggest a regime worthy of Cold-War Guatemala. And that’s not “un-American”; it’s of the Americas, of us. It’s our history, too.

I don’t underestimate Trump’s threat. Wallace was defeated by the limitations of his regional appeal, by a still-resilient Democratic Party, and by the need of a suburban bourgeoisie to take its racism in slightly more civil form. Nixon’s undoing was an opposition Congress. Trump faces none of these things. His lust for power is enormous. There’s very little to stop him — so much for those “American institutions.” The menace of fascist authoritarianism is very real. Trump is a perfect storm, where all the foulest impulses in the national life come together with no visible check or balance. There is a lot of talk now about the dangers of “normalizing” Trump, treating his Presidency as if it were business as usual. The real “normalization,” though, happened during the campaign: treating the daily life of the United States as though placidity, “conflict resolution,” and consensus were the way things always had been and should be. This is an insane thing to think about the country at any time, but particularly in a year when police violence was on full display, when Guantánamo was still a going concern, when just over the rainbow the state was killing people in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. We only start to understand Trump when we see these horrors as the unwritten constitution of the “normal.”

The US left is now in crisis yet again, this time arguing whether Trump’s victory should be ascribed to racism tout simple or to rage at the impoverishment of the white working class. It’s an important argument so far as it informs the question What do we do next? But it’s useless when conducted on Facebook where everything turns into either-or. Racism is not an abstract entity separable from historical circumstances. It is extremely concrete; the pressure it exerts on individual bodies, individual lives, is drawn from specific and immediate conditions that rouse it, shape it, use it, and give it strength. There is a long history in the United States of politicians channeling economic powerlessness into racist fantasies of power; local caudillos such as Tom Watson, or Theodore Bilbo, or Frank Rizzo knew exactly how to work this in their neighborhoods, on their streets. It’s better, though not entirely exact, to think of racism through the metaphor of latency again: as a set of possibilities immanent in the United States, waiting for the particular junctures where they can become not just potential but actual, can feed on blood. These are possibilities immanent in people, also, in the repertory of dreams and delusions available to every white person (and probably to many people of color). If Donald Trump sets up his Muslim registry, I can indulge the fantasy of marching to City Hall and putting my name on it, preferably while flashbulbs explode like excited Valkyries. Or I can fantasize about informing on the undocumented Pakistani store clerk who shortchanged me. Both fantasies are dangerous, in very different ways. Neither has much to do with reality — Trump’s registry is likely to be a subtler thing, specific to immigrants in ways that will obviate white-savior illusions, and less reliant on pliant informers than on invisible electronic surveillance. My point is, though, that the reality of unrestrained state power in which more and more of us will live, will oblige us to examine ourselves unsparingly, with a cold eye toward our motives and our dreams. An inner moral rigor resists power even as it runs the risk of reproducing it; it is the only recourse when everything else calls out for compromise. Trumpism will work by universalizing mistrust. Part of the necessary response is to mistrust oneself.

"Go Back to Sleep, America, Nothing to See Here," by Mr. Fish (http://www.clowncrack.com), 2016

“Go Back to Sleep, America, Nothing to See Here,” by Mr. Fish, 2016

But it’s not just personal. Economics counts, and a left that can’t address this isn’t a left. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 was probably the largest transfer of wealth from poor to rich in human history, a massive expropriation of the already-expropriated. We are still living with the consequences. (Despite all the pity accorded poor white people in the last week, the most acute suffering the collapse caused fell upon people of color. This doesn’t delegitimate the anger of the white working class, many of whose hopes and present realties were also destroyed. It does remind us again that racism divides capitalism’s victims not just from one another, but from reality.) What if, as Paul Rosenberg asks, Obama had taken even small steps toward tangible justice in his first year in office: prosecuting the culpable crooks in the financial industry, bailing out homeowners the way the Treasury did Wall Street, securing union rights instead of colluding in their destruction? Would the African-American as well as the white working class have felt a confidence that transcended the vicissitudes of identity politics, and turned out in sufficient numbers to defeat Trump? It’s not enough to say “We’ll never know.” People on the left know what is right. They shouldn’t allow the persistent sense that Obama is a decent man to derogate the certainty of what should have been done then, or to deflect from what has to happen now. Justice is not “normal” in the United States, but it needs to be.

"Dead End," by Mr. Fish, 2016

“Dead End,” by Mr. Fish, 2016

We also need to scrap the palliative fiction that Trump’s populism, which turns economic fears into racist terror, is some sort of blow to neoliberalism or the “elites.” Divide and conquer is the classic strategy of capitalism in power, and that’s true whether the power rests with Ruhr industrialists or New York investment bankers. Trumpism is perfectly consistent with this. Fredric Jameson points out that “today, all politics is about real estate“:

Postmodern politics is essentially a matter of land grabs, on a local as well as a global scale. Whether you think of the question of Palestine, the settlements and the camps, or of the politics of raw materials and extraction; whether you think of ecology (and the rain forests) or the problems of federalism, citizenship, and immigration; or whether it is a question of gentrification in the great cities as well in the bidonvilles, the favelas and the townships and of course the movement of the landless — today everything is about land.

You can add Standing Rock, or Julius Malema; it’s absolutely true. The world is full. Capitalism has seized and commodified nearly all the land on earth, with the exception of Amazonia, some scattered areas of tribal or indigenous commons (now being stolen by police and the World Bank), and a few national parks. The space for expansion is gone; what’s left is to battle over what’s already branded, owned. No coincidence, then, that the most powerful engine of the world economy will now be ruled by a real-estate magnate, whose only skill is stamping his personal brand on things, a grotesque version of private property as pure performance. No one is better qualified than this idiot to wage capitalism’s war over control of space, to defend its hard-thieved acres and squirrelled-away square feet, to keep the rents too damn high.

Democracy in the United States was predicated, for its first two centuries or so, on land (once taken from its original users) being plentiful and cheap, and labor (at least in its free forms) scarce and expensive. These conditions slowly built a stable, somewhat contented working class who could bargain collectively, join the bourgeoisie, afford to own things. Since the 1960s, in the neoliberal ascendancy, there’s been an immense reversal. Land — or, more properly, space, whether farmland or a downtown loft — is in short supply and increasingly expensive. Meanwhile, there’s more than enough labor for the skewed new economy, and real wages have kept falling. This is how Trump made his indeterminate millions. It means an economy of massive inequality, misery, and hyperexploitation. It means the end of the apparent stability of the United States. The politics of such a lifeworld are inherently unstable. As Mike Davis has repeatedly shown, the burgeoning dispossessed will be a constant threat to the possessions of their dispossessors. The state will use more and more violence to protect the property of those who sustain it. Repression will become more and more continuous and constant; resistance will find fewer and fewer spaces to survive. Donald Trump is the ideal leader for this new world of walls and cowards. He is the ideal weapon.

We are in a violent new era, and we are not sure how to live. We will have to educate ourselves in many things we thought we knew. We will have to learn a different kind of speech: one that shocks but not mindlessly, one that has a purpose, one for those who are not our friends or our fellow believers. We will have to reach outside our arrogance and our need for comfort. We will have to relearn old lessons of patience, cunning, and endurance. We will have to humble ourselves before those who have fought this kind of fight before; suddenly, the lessons of Andijan or Mohamed Mahmoud Street may mean more to people in Seattle or Atlanta than they ever thought possible. For myself, I sit round thinking of Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
              (“Spain,” 1937)

Or Brecht:

It takes a lot of things to change the world:
Anger and tenacity. Science and indignation,
The quick initiative, the long reflection,
The cold patience and the infinite perseverance,
The understanding of the particular case and the
understanding of the ensemble:
Only the lessons of reality can teach us to transform reality.
                (“Einverständnis,” 1929)

 Or:

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Selling out: The gays and governmentality

gayflagviwojimaOn October 13, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej died. 88 years old and the longest-seated of the world’s shrinking stock of monarchs, he was almost uniformly revered by a grieving public. Certainly he embodied unity in a country riven by fractious politics and class struggle. It can’t have hurt his popularity, though, that Thai law punishes lèse-majesté with three to fifteen years in prison. Any criticism of the King, previous kings, the royal dynasty, members of the royal family, the monarchy in general, or the monarch’s fantastic wealth — he had more than US $30 billion in the bank — can land you in jail. Easy to get people to love you if the alternative’s a prison term.

Odd, then, when Outright International, the LGBT rights organization, whose Twitter feed is generally confined to issues of sexuality, suddenly retweeted a series of encomia to the late King. After all, no one’s threatening them with prison.

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These tweets were spawned in UN missions, and the stultifying UN-speak shows; a tribute that lauds someone as “a strong supporter of multilateral systems in sustaining peace” was written by bureaucrats, or is covering up for something, or both.

Mainly, King Bhumibol was a strong supporter of military dictatorships. Back in 1957, he helped engineer his first coup, encouraging a friendly general to rebel against an army-led government that had tried to restrict royal prerogatives. More recently, he endorsed the 2006 putsch that deposed populist prime minster Thaksin Shinawatra; in 2014 he similarly oversaw the overthrow of a cabinet led by Thaksin’s sister, installing the most draconian and brutal military regime the country has seen in decades. (In 2014, the dictatorship cemented its control by arresting dissidents under the lèse-majesté law; in 2006 the army justified the coup by claiming that insults to the King were surging, and only soldiers could safeguard the royal reputation.)  Even the King’s elected governments had his mandate to use a harsh hand: in 2003, Bhumibol supported Thaksin’s “war on drugs,” which smeared the country with the blood of almost 3000 extrajudicial killings. As the monarch’s American biographer wrote after his death, “King Bhumibol did not set out to build a representative democracy or promote the rule of law. For him, parliaments were impermanent, disposable … Democracy was never his goal for Thailand.”

Thai soldiers gather under a portrait of the king following the 2014 coup: EPA/Diego Azubel

Thai soldiers gather under a portrait of the King following the 2014 coup: Photo: EPA/Diego Azubel

So it’s interesting for a human rights group not known for engaging with Thailand to go out of its way in the late King’s praise. By contrast, Human Rights Watch, longtime critic of Thai governments (and the lèse-majesté law), posted just one neutral sentence on its Thailand page.

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And Amnesty International stayed decently silent. Two weeks before the King’s death, Thai police had shut down an Amnesty meeting in Bangkok, in order to ban the group’s report accusing the military junta of “a culture of torture.”

Those gratuitous retweets, though, had little to do with Thailand’s rights record — or “multilateral systems,” or “sustaining peace,” etcetera. They had to do with power: power at the UN. Outright International works extensively on LGBT rights at the United Nations (sometimes with good results, sometimes, in my view, not so much). For five years, Thailand has supported UN measures favoring LGBT rights. LGBT praise for a defunct and anti-democratic King is a low-cost way of lubricating that support. (Moreover, the Kingdom of Jordan’s UN mission, where one of the tweets bemoaning a fellow-monarch originated, has been making ambiguously positive noises about LGBT issues in official settings; they need encouragement. Retweeting them cozies up to two Kings at once.) An organization’s tweets don’t have much impact on the world. I fear, though, that parroting praise of the late King tends to set aside the language of human rights in favor of strategically satisfying a few diplomats. I worked for Outright for many years. I was its program director until 2002. There was no Twitter then. But if there had been, we wouldn’t have sent those tweets.

The tweets aren’t important, but the issue is. How do human rights relate to power? Surely the answer’s simple: Rights rely on governments’ power to realize and enforce them. Maybe the question is, instead: How do we, who defend human rights, relate to power?  Are we inside it or outside it? What will we do to get power’s attention, sustain its regard, enjoy its favors? And what does that do to us?

Gay Power, I: Protester in New York City, 1967. Photo: New York Public Library

Gay Power, I: Protester in New York City, 1967. Photo: New York Public Library

The questions are particularly acute for people defending LGBT rights. For a long time, in almost every country in the world, LGBT activists had no access to power at all. In the US, 20 years ago, we had trouble just getting a meeting with the State Department. When I lobbied the UN’s human rights meetings in Geneva back then, even diplomats from the most supportive states had to be persuaded that queers weren’t either a distraction or a joke. Now plenty of governments say they’re all in for LGBT rights. No doubt some are propelled by politicians’ sincere concern (if that’s not an oxymoron). Others want to appease voters back home; still others see a convenient way to pinkwash their national reputations. They approach the subject, that is, with the usual confused and chiaroscuro motives states show. Their ministrations, though, give LGBT activists the unfamiliar sense of power, even if the reality is still remote. They’re listened to, suddenly; the elixir of authority is sitting on the table, with three icecubes and a swizzle stick, and even the smell intoxicates. How do they accommodate themselves to this new condition? Many queer groups lack any history of negotiating their relationships to power — the history that feminist movements, for example, have accumulated through decades of harsh experience. Moreover, they are less and less inclined to listen to those other movements, or learn from their stories. Wounded by hate and vitriol, LGBT activists’ egos are often desperate and valetudiniarian. Who can say how well we’ll withstand the swift explosion of self-regard that comes when ambassadors and presidents, principalities and powers, bestow on us the swerving lighthouse beam of their attention?

Not well, I think.

But this goes beyond LGBT movements; the question afflicts the whole of human rights activism. Human rights have long had two sides, two Janus faces. In their international iteration they originated as, quite literally, powerless, a corpus of principles devoid of virtually any enforcement. Human rights, even as late as the post-World-War-II Universal Declaration, were pure critique untrammeled by practical authority: a criticism of the actual terms of national legal systems, a semi-Utopian vantage from which to look down on the existing norms of positive law and judge them. They were a language more for activists than lawyers, more competent to imagine a living future than to mandate it. Over time, human rights grew into a system of positive law in their own — er — right. They were embodied not just in demands and needs but in codes and treaties; increasingly the lawyers took over; and as rights became norms, they acquired, and their exponents desired them to acquire, power. This is necessary and, mostly, good. It’s good that rights are codified, good that they have clout, very good that some governments take them seriously. But to work in human rights is still to be caught between these poles, between the idea that rights criticize power and the idea that they should possess it. Should we confront the bearers of state power as opponents, or as partners? Did the late king of Thailand deserve our analysis and anger, with a history of abuses to be considered and condemned? Or was he, along with the government that commemorates him, a potential ally in cooperative work, in making rights principles matter to a thoroughly compromised world? Should we tweet our own understanding of his record, or retweet the Thai Mission to the UN?

Those tweets were trivial, but there are more serious cases. The Thai Mission is one thing, but what if you’re dealing with the hugely powerful government of the United States? What’s the right relation to that hideous strength?

The world is waiting: HRC's Chad Griffin and Susan Rice

The world is waiting: HRC’s Chad Griffin and Susan Rice

Here’s a story. On October 26, Human Rights First and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — the latter, for any non-denizens of GayWorld, is the richest gay group in North America — hosted a speech by Susan Rice in Washington, DC, on “Global LGBTQ Rights.” Rice was Obama’s first ambassador to the UN, and now chairs the National Security Council. Introducing her, HRC’s head Chad Griffin said that “LGBTQ people around the world are looking to us” to be a “beacon of hope.”

And at a time when extremists are throwing gay men off buildings, when transgender women are being relentlessly attacked in Central America, when laws are being passed to silence and marginalize LGBTQ people, they need American leadership now more than ever before.

This is telling the US government what it wants to hear: America is moral, America is exceptional, and America leads everything (even Honduran travestis march in line). Chad Griffin really believes this. Otherwise, why would HRC tweet these words to the world, oblivious that activists elsewhere might resent the picture of them pining for a US cavalryman on a white horse?

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Chad’s comments in fact were mocked in the dark recesses of the planet:

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But it’s not like the US, or the US LGBT movement, to care what the brown masses think.

Then there’s what Susan Rice had to say. Her speech recited what the Obama administration has done for LGBT folk, at home and out in the dark lands. She talked about Uganda; she talked about ISIS; but basically she made a pitch for Obama’s third term. It illumined the instrumental character of Obama’s international LGBT commitments, in large part keyed to solidifying LGBT votes in the homeland. One paragraph hit me in the face. Back in 2003, Rice says,  “One of my closest staffers, as a young Foreign Service officer, once asked if he and other employees could screen a documentary at the State Department about a gay nightclub in Cairo that was brutally raided by the Egyptian police. He was told no—it would be too controversial and too damaging to our relationship with Egypt. ” Look how far we’ve come! “Under President Obama …  LGBT people can serve openly and proudly throughout government—from desk officers to the NSC staff to eight openly gay ambassadors,” and so on.

On the rare occasions US officials acknowledge there are problems with Egypt, I take note. I do not give a flying fuck whether the US government screens gay films about Egypt for its employees. What I do give a flying fuck about is that the US government hands $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt annually, promotes the Sisi dictatorship as its partner, and sells LGBT Egyptians and all other victims of human rights violations down the river. Those eight openly gay ambassadors have done nothing to help keep queers in Egypt out of jail.

US Secretary of State Kerry meets with junta leader Sisi, Cairo, November 2013. Photo: US Department of State

US Secretary of State Kerry meets with junta leader Sisi, Cairo, November 2013. Photo: US Department of State

Arrests of queers in Egypt aren’t a quaint facet of the previous decade’s history. They’re happening now. Egypt has probably sentenced more LGBT people to prison since 2013 than any other country in the world. Neither Rice nor anybody else in the US government will discuss these arrests, much less condemn them. There are more than 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt; torture and death squads are rampant. The US refuses to raise these facts with its its Cairene client-tyrant in any consequential way — because “it would be too damaging to our relationship with Egypt.” For Rice to claim something’s changed because State Department staffers can now watch movies about handsome brown men being abused, and do so on government time — that is obscene. Screw the movie, Susan. Stop endorsing torture.

Yet the Human Rights Campaign condones torture; and so does the audience of professional gays who turn out to applaud Rice’s platitudes. Not that they’re bad people or malevolent organizations; far from it. They’d be horrified if they ever met a torture victim face to face. But they know the Obama administration is power, and they believe it’s on their side. They can’t contravene power. They see it has done good in places; so they can’t see or speak about places like Egypt where it’s done wrong. The convolutions of a state whose actions aren’t all categorizable under the same moral absolute are too much for them. And to raise their voices risks alienating that power. Then their own capacity for good, so invested in the authority of others, might slip away. So they let Rice drone on; they don’t confront her; they convince themselves that the government’s symbolic gestures — screening a film! making a donor an ambassador! – have a magical impact on the reality that rests in people’s lives. Nor does this blindness stop with Egypt.  Chad unctuously imagines poor Honduran travestis long for US “leadership” to free them. They don’t. They long for an end to the violent waves of social-cleansing killings that the 2009 coup d’etat, enabling right-wing death squads, unleashed. And they know the US (and Secretary of State Clinton) propped up the bloody post-coup regime. Guns we send to Honduras murder travestis in the street. Not to see the complexity of these relations, not to understand how the people you flatter are implicated in the abuses you abhor, goes deeper than sycophancy. It’s complicity.

Corpses of an unknown man and a trans woman dumped on a street, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 2010. Photo: Tiempo, via Blabbeando.com

Corpses of an unknown man and a trans woman dumped on a street, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 2010. Photo: Tiempo, via Blabbeando.com

There’s a point where human rights, entangled with the hunt for power, stop being human. I will lay my opinions on the table, as someone who has worked within the force-field of human rights for 25 years. Human rights are not just a body of law, but a pattern of thought: a way of criticizing things that are and their existing arrangement. Either they retain some quantum of their dissenting energy, their capacity for radical critique, for questioning equally the premises and practices of friend and foe – or they cease to be of use. Rights exist in opposition. I do not believe human rights activists should readily celebrate governments, or fawn over their representatives, or adopt their language and agendas. I believe human rights activists who do that stop being human rights activists, and become something else. As a mode of thinking, human rights must negate in order to affirm; only through undermining the reified authority of what is can they clear a space for the liberating fortuity of difference, of what isn’t yet, of an alternative. Adorno wrote: “The uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither superscribes his conscience nor permits himself to be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give up. Thinking is not the spiritual reproduction of that which exists. As long as thinking is not interrupted, it has a firm grasp upon possibility. Its insatiable quality, the resistance against petty satiety, rejects the foolish wisdom of resignation.” Only by abandoning the false positivities that power always posits, and pursuing the relentlessly negative logic of that thought, can the discourse of rights change anything that needs to be changed about the world.

I called this essay “selling out.” Sometimes we activists indeed can sell out friends, allies, even those we call our own kind — sometimes without seeing it; queer Egyptians, say, sold by the US to sustain the deadly dictatorship. There’s another meaning, though. Sometimes we sell our very outness to the holders of power. To keep proximity and access, we hand them our presence and our visibility to exploit. We’re here, we’re queer. We’re useful.

Gay Power II: UN Ambassador Samantha Power discusses LGBT rights with a man and his demonically possessed left arm outside the Stonewall Inn, New York, 2016. Photo: US Department of State

Gay Power II: UN Ambassador Samantha Power discusses LGBT rights with a man and his demonically possessed left arm outside the Stonewall Inn, New York, 2016. Photo: US Department of State

Think (on the first point) of the arguments this year among LGBT movements about creating a new special mechanism at the UN, to research and respond to violations. These discussions were divisive. Many wanted a mechanism to deal broadly with diverse issues of sexual rights: for instance, connecting “sodomy laws” to other laws that control sexual freedoms. Others, including leaders of many LGBT organizations, wanted their own mechanism, in effect — one focused on a particular identity. I was in Geneva while the UN debated the mechanism; I was struck by how advocates of the narrower mandate reacted when I asked why the rights of sex workers were excluded from it. The general response was: sex workers had nothing to do with LGBT communities. They weren’t relevant, useful allies; and sex workers within queer populations seemed no longer to exist, like Neanderthals or moderate Republicans. I heard this even from people who I know perfectly well have paid for sex with queer sex workers, apparently in episodes of absent-mindedness. The end result? The narrow mandate won. Laws targeting sex work – laws that imprison thousands of LGBT people — were excised from the public ambit of LGBT concern. Invisible sex workers were sold out; visible and respectable LGBT activists acquired a UN post. So it goes.

And think how the World Bank loudly declared, in 2013, that it was going to adopt LGBT rights as a priority – pretty much its first-ever human rights priority; a project it launched by invoking Uganda’s anti-LGBT legislation to cancel a loan targeting maternal mortality. Health and reproductive rights in East Africa are easy to sell out; they lack a DC lobby. American NGOs, the Obama administration, and Democrats in Congress could see Ugandan LGBT people, but not Ugandan women. (The two, again, don’t overlap.) But there was another aspect to the bargain; the Bank’s pronouncements on LGBT rights had the effect – perhaps not planned at first, but obvious afterward – of enlisting vocal, visible queer activists in powerful countries to support the institution and its leaders. (Jim Yong Kim, the Bank’s embattled president, even dropped in on BuzzFeed’s offices while pushing for a second term, to remind its gay readership how gay-friendly the Bank is: not the sort of campaign stop previously common on the commanding heights of the world economy. Imagine Alan Greenspan advertising the Federal Reserve by parading in Pride.) Even LGBT activists in powerless countries — the countries the Bank lends to, and often destroys — have their usefulness. Although no policy changes and no new programs have come out of the Bank’s well-publicized concern, it does annually fly LGBT campaigners from the global South to its Washington HQ to sit round a table, be consulted, and be photographed. You can see the Bank’s calculus; these are economists, after all. Surely every activist tempted with the fleshpots of DC means one less activist who’ll join a rally against structural adjustment or debt or the Washington Consensus. Why protest outside when you can sit inside with a per diem? With enough time, LGBT politics around the globe will don the values of Davos and shuck off those of Porto Alegre. That may or may not happen: the Bank has never figured out how activists really tick. But In a decade when many LGBT movements actually do have increasing influence in their domestic politics — and are increasingly resourced by the US government, which runs the Bank — it’s a reasonable bet to make, if not a sure one.

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Imagine

Michel Foucault employed the idea of “governmentality” to describe the multiple means, from the sweeping to the microscopic, by which institutions create, mold, control, and discipline subject populations. Foucault also showed that to participate in governmentality, to share in the play of power, is equally to be shaped, to be controlled, to be disciplined. Power is exercised not only through, but within, the powerful. The conscious agent is also the inadvertent victim.

The more LGBT movements appropriate their portion of power, they more they risk becoming its subjects and servants. The more HRC stakes its claim to participate in US foreign policy, for instance, the more it constricts its vision. The seductive project of building an “LGBT foreign policy” disciplines LGBT Americans — and HRC itself — not to think of foreign policy in a critical or complex or comprehensive way.

Governmentality is an academic concept, of course, arcanely argued over by scholars. In fact, I can describe that entanglement and complicity simply: in a monosyllable, even. Sometimes giving a thing its proper name is analysis enough. But I’ll repeat it a few times; in speaking of power and the powerful, one should make the word sound polysyllabic, important.

Shame. Shame. Shame.

Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman's Skammen, 1968

Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s Skammen, 1968

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The UN, seen from Khayelitsha: Guest post

Khayelitsha, Western Cape, South Africa

Khayelitsha, Western Cape, South Africa

On June 30, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva passed a resolution establishing an independent expert (a special investigative mechanism, a slightly weaker title than the more usual “special rapporteur”) on sexual orientation and gender identity. Although you wouldn’t know it from most of the news reports, this move was controversial within LGBT movements. Some pressed for UN action against a wider range of abuses, for a recognition that issues of sexual and bodily autonomy are difficult to disentangle or to fit into convenient identity boxes. The final outcome occasioned celebration even as it raised questions. What are our movements’ relations to power? When are we agents, when are we patients, when are we acted upon and when are we actors in our right? What happens to us and our own autonomy when we derive our power from the agendas of “friendly” governments vastly and more malignly powerful than ourselves? How will the power we experience in the rarefied air of Geneva actually help those outside?

A post by Gabriel Hoosain Khan, a South African human rights activist and artist, dealt with some of these questions. I am publishing it here with his permission.

I am bewildered by the myth of Cape Town. As I drive on the N2 towards Khayelitsha – I know that the pretty green boulevards and the old Victorian houses will soon erode into an endless plain of informal settlements. I forgot that truth (again) during the previous night as I ate Bobotie and sipped wine in Observatory – the truth that Cape Town is not that pretty city on the southern tip. It is easy and gross privilege that allowed me to forget. Cape Town instead runs far up along a spine towards Somerset West, with dirty lungs on either side of the highway – letting the city inhale a poor black workforce every day, and roughly exhaling these workers every eve.

It is this binary which tints my perception of the recent vote at the UN on SOGI. This binary between the facades we sell about cities and processes and resolutions; and the realities of the communities on the ground that don’t taste the pleasures of the façade. In Cape Town, Camps Bay, Claremont and Seapoint are pretty and some of the safest areas in South Africa; while tens of kilometres away Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and Nyanga have limited access to sanitation and remain some of the most dangerous areas in South Africa (and the world). In Geneva it might be possible to celebrate a human rights gain – but that gain seems far removed from the room in Khayelitsha where I met three LGBTI youth groups last week. The beautiful paneled ceiling in Geneva (which I have seen in pictures) is unimaginable from the crèche where we meet – a zinc structure with no electricity, little furniture or flushing toilets.

Main meeting chamber of the Human Rights Council, Geneva

Main meeting chamber of the Human Rights Council, Palais de Nations, Geneva. No one has ever explained to me what the ceiling, an apparent emanation of the Borg, is supposed to mean (SL)

In writing a reflection on the latest resolution on SOGI at the UN – I in no way seek to denigrate the good work of colleagues and comrades engaging that space. I acknowledge that work at the UNHRC and with other international bodies is needed. The hard work of colleagues, the self-reflexive strategies, the guidance given to me and others by those working at the UNHRC, and their patient willingness to engage that space is acknowledged. That being said, I have been uneasy: uneasy with quick celebration, unconvinced with activist praxis at the UNHRC and other international spaces, uneasy with an LGBTI-politic which is not truly intersectional.

While I acknowledge the importance of being visibly queer at the UNHRC – foregrounding particular and unique experience as LGBTI people – I wonder what it means to separate that from the rights of women, sex-workers, the unique challenges associated with race, and class – or the realities of culture, geography and poverty? For example, what does an independent expert mean to a black gender non-conforming woman tortured by police in Zimbabwe? How do we separate out a colonial era law from contemporary arbitrary detention; how do we separate out practices of torture from the unique gendered violations?

While I acknowledge the standard-setting power of international bodies, I wonder whether these standards ever trickle down to states, and more so whether domestic standards ever trickle down to those communities who are most vulnerable. For example, how has UNHRC resolution 17/19 [the first UN Human Rights Council resolution devoted to sexual orientation and gender identity, passed in 2011] affected change at a domestic level on the African continent – do we have evidence that it made things better? If these resolutions and even treaties are not binding – what is their utility? What is the relationship between a document approved by states at the UNHRC and an individual who may not have knowledge or understanding of that council?

While I acknowledge the need for an international standard which protects the basic rights of humans (as manifest in the UN declaration of human rights), I notice how this standard is used in a manner which is unbalanced. For example, while much focus of the UNHRC often lingers on states in the global South, the actions of states like the USA, UK and others remain unscrutinised and their leaders not held accountable for their gross human rights violations. How do we hold to account states in the north with equal vigour for their contemporary and historic crimes (cough: reparations for slavery and colonialism).

In a strange way, the human rights context is similar to the myth of Cape Town. Whilst we may celebrate a human rights gain which mandates an independent expert to maintain focus on SOGI at the UNHRC in Geneva — in the same breath, in Baghdad, two hundred people die in a car bomb attack. I wonder what our wins at the UNHRC mean in the context of Syrian refugees, or landless Palestinians, or the 10 years of violence in Iraq. What do our SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans strategies (as linguistic, interventionist and economic practices) achieve at the Palace of Nations, when the constituencies we work with (in Khayelitsha, in Gugulethu, in Nyanga to name just 3 localities) remain in circumstances largely unchanged? I remembered this poem:

amidst the new-fangled fallacies
of sexual and racial freedom for all
these under-informed
self-congratulating
pseudo-intellectual utterances
reflect how apolitical the left has become
– Staceyann Chin

Asiyi eKhayelitsha (We will not go to Khayelitsha), 1985 poster protesting forced removals. CAP Collection, UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

Asiyi eKhayelitsha (We will not go to Khayelitsha), 1985 poster protesting forced removals by the apartheid regime. CAP Collection, UWC – Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

I might be a little cynical here – we have seen positive changes on the continent – but these have been slow. I guess I am keen to reflect on the political implications of human rights strategies which centre efforts in a language palatable to the global North. I muse on Fanon’s words — “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World” —  as a guide: to the way human rights as employed reinforces the metaphorical normativity of “Europe” or “the west” or “the global North” as a white, liberal and civilized measure of humanity. I guess I am trying to examine SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans strategies as practices (linguistic, interventionist and economic) which do not trouble the normativity of a human rights discourse that leaves colonialism, racism and global north exceptionalism largely unchallenged.

In using human rights without examining the racist/colonial/exceptional manner in which it is employed:

  1. we too divide our struggle through employing SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans as a singular palatable thing – rather than a queer, feminist and anti-colonial resistance; and
  2. we continue to reinforce an expensive international system which does not help those who most need these mythological human rights.

In a way this myth of human rights has little to do with the messy colonial, racial, gendered, sexualized, classed realities of humans.

It says we deserve a piece of this myth whilst only affording this myth to a few bodies, and leaves largely unchallenged the global colonial/racist systems which perpetuate gross human rights violations (on and beyond LGBTI bodies). I wonder if we can challenge this normative trap of human rights . A normative trap which allows states like the US to talk loudly about human rights, whilst the indigenous peoples of that state and their leaders still do not have representation in that same UNHRC space? A trap which allows the Syrian government to have space and power at the UN whilst that same government has killed 12044 civilians in 2015? A trap which led me to think about SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans issues in Khayelitsha as somehow separate from access to sanitation, electricity, quality education, public safety and street lights? I find this all very troubling.

Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO), June 16: Viva the Youth. Ca.1986commemorating the anniversary of the Soweto uprising. CAP Collection, UWC - Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO), June 16: Viva the Youth. 1986 (?) poster commemorating the anniversary of the Soweto uprising. CAP Collection, UWC – Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

I take a sip of my caffeine-filled cappuccino and feel a little guilty (I am meant to give up caffeine for Ramadan). Last week in Khayelitsha I met with youth groups using creative methods to empower LGBTIQ youth. One group used drama to document the history of local words and stories about LGBTI identities. Another, called Cape Inspirations, was a choir – they used song to build confidence in LGBTI youth and build community among vulnerable youth. Ikhewezi youth group used theatre – they performed a play inspired by the violence in Orlando; their play explored local experiences of homophobia and violence against women. In Mannenberg, I met two groups providing safe space for LGBTI people in a neighbourhood with high unemployment rates, plagued by gang-related violence. The Reach for Life Foundation provided much-needed shelter and psychosocial support to LGBTI youth; Behind the Red Door highlighted the prevalent and interconnected struggles of drug and alcohol abuse, HIV and homelessness among LGBTI youth. I visited both on the day the vote at the UN was being negotiated. Neither knew about the resolution, neither engaged the UN in any manner and neither had strong opinions about the vote. More importantly, neither were consulted by LGBTI organisations about what they wanted.

This highlights a limitation when it comes to our praxis as SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans organisations. In attempting to engage with these international bodies – what do we lose? Lose in our purpose and mode as civil society actors; actors who unlike states should be giving voice, opportunity and space to those who are most vulnerable? If these positions do not represent the groups or ideas of those who are most vulnerable – or even engage those who are most vulnerable – whom do these positions represent? I wonder about this practice of negotiating at the top (for things we supposedly need or don’t need; for language we supposedly use or language with limitations) in a manner which does not engage the modes and ideas of those we still position at the “bottom”?

In South Africa – we too were easy to celebrate: our new constitution in 1996; which enshrined non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the laws which followed (in quick succession) moving LGBTI from identities criminalized before the law – to legal equality. Even with these changes – I wonder who enjoys that freedom – the suburbs which have always been safe and affluent cupped in the bosom of Table Mountain – do enjoy some semblance of freedom that is coloured white and affluent and gay. But those in Khayelitsha and Mannenberg live a reality in many ways similar to before those laws passed. LGBTI people in Khayelitsha and Mannenberg complain of the same issues thet faced before the first SOGI resolution passed at the UNHRC in 2011. I am trying to make sense of this binary.

The Bagdad bombing — when over two hundred people died in a commercial district in Baghdad — marked a somber closing to the month of the 32nd UNHRC sitting, but also to the month of Ramadan; a month marked by violence, from the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, to the bombing of Istanbul’s Ataturk international airport. It is in this context of gross violence that I locate the actions of the latest UN Human Rights Council. It is in this context that I would locate the broader struggle for the rights of LGBTI people. It is here that I ponder about the resolution on SOGI.

for all the landmarks we celebrate
we are still niggers
and faggots
and minstrel references
for jokes created on the funny pages of a heterosexual world

the horizons are changing
to keep pace with technology and policy alike
the LGBT manifesto has evolved into a corporate agenda
and outside that agenda
a woman is beaten every 12 seconds
every two minutes
a girl is raped somewhere in America

and while we stand here well-dressed and rejoicing
in India
in China
in South America a small child cuts the cloth
to construct you a new shirt
a new shoe
an old lifestyle held upright
by the engineered hunger and misuse of impoverished lives
– Staceyann Chin

Medu Art Ensemble (designer: Judy Seidman), The People Shall Govern, screen print poster, Botswana/South Africa, 1982.

Medu Art Ensemble (designer: Judy Seidman), The People Shall Govern, Botswana/South Africa, 1982.

Oppose the UK – Jamaica prison deal

Jamaica-Prison

Activists in the UK are mobilizing against the Cameron government’s proposed diversion of foreign aid to build a new prison in Jamaica, and open a transatlantic export trade in inmates.

public meeting to discuss opposition to the plan will be held Thursday, November 5, from 7:00 – 8:30 PM (SOAS Russell Square campus, room 583, London WC1H 0XG: map here). On Friday, November 6, there will be a 10 AM demo in front of the Jamaican High Commission (1 Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BZ: map here), to kick off a London day of action against the prison-industrial complex.

This is all part of a November 2-8 week of actions across the UK, aimed particularly at Cameron’s plan to build a new super-prison in North Wales that would be the second largest in Europe.

Prisoner transfers — forced deportations of convicts — are a point where paranoias over crime and paranoias over migration meet. With Europe and North America more and more dominated by prisons and barbed-wire border fences, this intersection is ominous.  Luke de Noronha writes movingly about some of his experiences with Jamaicans deported so far:

Many of the deported persons I have met lived in the UK for over ten years, built lives for themselves, started families, picked up regional British accents, and began to call the UK home. When they are forcibly returned, many land with a few tenuous family links at best, some with none at all. Some have to be housed in homeless shelters …

As one young man told me, he has only taken two flights in his life. The first, a flight to England to join his mother, aged 15. The second, and perhaps his final: a flight to Jamaica, in which he was restrained in handcuffs on a chartered plane from the UK, in November 2014. With tens of other black men, handcuffed to their seats, escorted by security agents, he was flown, against his will, to a country in which he had no support or resources. If this image does not feel uncomfortable, then we really are in a place where historical amnesia rules. A place where wrenching somebody from their home is a matter of justice for the “British tax-payer,” where bodies and lives are forcibly transported to honour racially inscribed citizenship policies, and where, ultimately, deportations are celebrated while reparations are ridiculed.

You can read more here — or, of course, on this blog. 

Storming of the courthouse during the Morant Bay Rebellion, by Barrington Watson (1931 -). British authorities slaughtered rebels protesting the use of criminal law to preserve the structures of slavery three decades after its ostensible end. Jamaica celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Rebellion last month.

Storming of the Courthouse During the Morant Bay Rebellion, by Barrington Watson (1931 -). In 1865, British authorities in Jamaica slaughtered rebels protesting how criminal law preserved the conditions of slavery three decades after its ostensible end. Jamaica commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Rebellion last month.

Slavery’s ghost: Prison imperialism, Jamaica, and the UK

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from www.garyschapman.com

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from www.garyschapman.com

This essay is dedicated, in humble gratitude, to the memory of Dr. Robert Carr.

David Cameron is in Jamaica as I write. Undoubtedly the British prime minister was expecting difficult questions on his visit: from Jamaicans, about reparations for slavery, which their government demanded he discuss; from gay men back at home, about homophobic violence on the island, which they wanted him to combat. (Jamaican LGBT advocates themselves don’t necessarily want the leader of the former slave power doing a lot of shouting on their behalf; but that’s a preference of which Peter Tatchell and his comrades take no heed.) Plus there are the questions about sex with dead pigs. Yet Cameron, far more deft than his daftly pink-cheeked Bertie Wooster mien suggests, had a distraction ready.

Once in Kingston, Cameron announced that the UK is taking £25 million (about US$ 38 million) from its foreign aid to Jamaica to finance a vital development need: a new prison. This puts Jamaica in a small, select class of nations: the UK can force prisoners to go there. It’s worth considering what this promise means. A commerce in prisoners is spreading round the world, sometimes following the almost-erased tracks of the old slave trade. Cameron’s offer reveals the hidden economics of the traffic in human bondage.

Prisoner transfer agreements — by which two countries stipulate that citizens of one who are convicted of a crime in the other can be sent back home to serve their sentence — have been around for a long time. Usually, though, they’re voluntary agreements; they require the prisoner’s consent. And many Jamaicans, Nigerians, or Albanians serving prison terms in the UK won’t consent to return to carceral systems that are overcrowded, underrresourced, and by reputation brutal. So Cameron’s administration has been trying to bully or cajol countries into agreeing to compulsory repatriation – to take their imprisoned citizens back whether they want to go or not. One difficulty has been the usual devil-in-the-details, human rights. Experts have condemned conditions in Jamaica’s prisons for failing international benchmarks: UK prisoners facing forced repatriation there could challenge it in British courts, pointing to the threat of inhuman treatment and abuse. The UK’s solution is to build Jamaica a prison that will seem up to snuff.

No sudden moves. I'm surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

No sudden moves. I’m surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

The government of Jamaica calls the deal a “non-binding Memorandum of Understanding” (it still needs parliament’s ratification) and makes it sound extremely nice: the goal is “to improve the conditions under which prisoners are held in Jamaica, consistent with best practice and international human rights standards, through the construction of a maximum-security prison in Jamaica.”  It’s true that “international human rights standards” and “maximum-security prison” are phrases not always thought seamlessly compatible, but let that pass for now. The UK government’s statement drops the happy talk and non-binding bit, and stresses that it wants a 1500-bed facility, which will house 300-plus prisoners now serving long-term sentences in Britain, with more to come in future. “The prison is expected to be built by 2020 and from then returns will get underway,” says Downing Street. “The Prisoner Transfer Agreement is expected to save British taxpayers around £10 million a year.” Cameron added that

It is absolutely right that foreign criminals who break our laws are properly punished but this shouldn’t be at the expense of the hardworking British taxpayer. That’s why this agreement is so important. It will mean Jamaican criminals are sent back home to serve their sentences, saving the British taxpayer millions of pounds but still ensuring justice is done.

That the agreement will, in his words, “help Jamaica, by helping to provide a new prison – strengthening their criminal justice system,” seems a bit of an afterthought.

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009. By RasMarley from flickr.com

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009: photo by RasMarley from flickr.com

The announcement did not go down well in Jamaica. The leader of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) wondered in parliament why this was coming out of development funds, saying that “building schools contributes much more to the growth agenda than building prisons.” The youth wing of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) also condemned the agreement, pointing out that the UK is only funding 40% of the cost, the rest to be covered by Kingston; and that once the prison is built, the burden of keeping and rehabilitating the prisoners — which they estimate at J$ 365 million (about US$ 3.1 million) per year –would also fall on Jamaica’s treasury. (In fact, the Jamaican government claims, but the UK doesn’t mention, that Britain would give “a further £5.5 million towards the reintegration and resettlement of prisoners.” Anyway, if true, that would presumably be a one-shot offer.) The real discomfort about the deal in Jamaica, though, seems far deeper: drawing on the anger that rose in the reparations dispute over a past of slavery and oppression, a persistent demand for justice that shadowed Cameron’s tour. Symbolically, what does it mean for the British government to buy from Jamaica the right to export its prisoners? Are servitude and its machinery still commodities for sale? Comments on Jamaican newspaper articles ran like this:

So the communist are suppose to be the evil people. The Chinese build highway, Cuba build colleges and high school, the (former) slave masters return to build prison.

And I saw the same spirit in threads on the Facebook pages of Jamaican friends:

We dont need a prison from England. We can get a prison from elsewhere. England owe us more than a prison.

Its a damn shame and height of disrespect to our people….after dem slave we already, all dem can com offer us is prison … fuck dem bloodcloth off!!!!!!

(“Bloodcloth” is a Jamaican obscenity that I wouldn’t translate even if I thought I could.)

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

There is truth in this; prisoners are commodities. We live — so the rich remind us — on a globe that has been globalized, where everything travels and is trafficked. People travel; they become prisoners; then they travel back, under state supervision. This process is now so common that the UN has proposed a “Model Agreement on the Transfer of Foreign Prisoners“; the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) offers a manual on the subject; there is a European treaty on prisoner transfers, and the EU has promulgated regulations for member states. One theme pervades these documents, that “rehabilitating” prisoners is a key motive behind transfers. The EU framework decision even phrases this as a “should” — a requirement of transfers:

Enforcement of the sentence in the executing State [that is, the country receiving the transfer] should enhance the possibility of social rehabilitation of the sentenced person. In the context of satisfying itself that the enforcement of the sentence by the executing State will serve the purpose of facilitating the social rehabilitation of the sentenced person, the competent authority of the issuing State [the one that passed the sentence] should take into account such elements as, for example, the person’s attachment to the executing State, whether he or she considers it the place of family, linguistic, cultural, social or economic and other links to the executing State.

That provision only applies to transfers among EU member countries, but it indicates a more general justification. Thus the Jamaican government promises that “The new facility will be designed and constructed with a focus on rehabilitation, which should reduce the high rates of recidivism that now occur.” Similarly, the UK prisons minister has said forced transfers “mean that these prisoners will be closer to family and friends.This helps to support prisoners’ social rehabilitation and reintegration into society.” It’s generally true that proximity to family can ease a prisoner’s re-entry after release. But of course, many Jamaican prisoners in Britain have closer family ties in Clapham than in Kingston, and are more culturally at ease in Brixton than Montego Bay. This is also “globalization”; yet the British government shows no disposition to ascertain where anybody’s “family, linguistic, cultural” and-so-on affiliations lie. The truth is, social benefits to the prisoners are the last thing on most governments’ minds in transfer policies. What matters is simple: politics and money.

And in the UK, politics means immigration. Mass mania over migration drives the whole UK political process.  A poll last month showed 56% of Britons named immigration as a major concern. For years, the percent of Britons calling it the most worrying concern has been three to four times the average in other countries.

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

Fears of criminality always seed anti-immigrant feeling. (Think Donald Trump and those Mexican rapists.) Though capitalism mandates mobility more and more sweepingly, mobility as spectacle and spectre rouses deep terrors about stability and safety. British newspapers thunder about “foreign prisoners” constantly. You might think them less of a menace, because they’re in prison; instead, they’re vital to immigration paranoia. They’re countable; they make dread specific.And the ones already imprisoned prove all foreigners are a threat. “The number of foreign prisoners is growing and attempts to remove them are often futile”! “Foreign inmates outnumber British nationals in a UK prison for the first time”! “Every time Britain manages to deport a foreign prisoner another one takes their place in jail”! They’re making “the UK a permanent safe haven for the world’s killers, rapists, drug-dealers and other assorted scum”! In fact, while the number of foreign prisoners doubled in twenty years, so did the number of prisoners in the UK overall. You can debate whether a crime wave, harsh sentencing, or more repressive policing caused this. But the proportion of foreign prisoners has barely risen at all.

Foreign_prisoners_UK_jails_v2

Graph from FullFact.org

Facts don’t matter, of course. Within six months of taking office in 2010, Cameron’s coalition government tried to placate the panic, by vowing to deport the foreign prisoners: to “tear up agreements that mean convicts cannot be returned home without their consent.” It didn’t work. In fact, in Cameron’s first term the number of deportations actually fell.

foreign criminals chart

From the Daily Mirror, 2014

Cameron needed agreements, despite the talk of tearing them up; and few countries were willing to sign them. Moreover, even criminals who had finished their sentences (presumably easier to deport, because you didn’t need a foreign prison system to agree to take them) were fighting removal in the courts, successfully.The government was reduced to creating a team of pop-psych mavens, tasked with visiting prisoners to talk them into self-deporting. “The unit uses psychological techniques known as ‘nudge theory’ to help people make better choices for themselves.”

Expert: Would you like to leave the country?
Prisoner: No.
Expert: What if I give you money?
Prisoner: How much money?
Expert: It’s a hypothetical question.
Prisoner: No.

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

In 2014, Dominic Raab — a young, telegenic, misogynistic, Europe-hating, ultra-right Tory back-bencher (the son of a Czech Jewish refugee, the husband of a Brazilian bride) — led a rebellion against Cameron. He proposed to grease the ejection seats for “foreign criminals,” stripping power from the courts and giving the Home Secretary final say. He boasted that “only one case every five years” would qualify to stay in Britain. The government’s response “was a mess,” one conservative pundit wrote, “first giving him a wink of encouragement only to declare his idea unworkable at the last moment.” Raab invoked the ultimate terror and temptress of the Tory right: UKIP, the extremist UK Independence Party, which every Conservative dreaded could drain their votes if they didn’t stay hard-line enough. To block his measure, Raab warned, “would be a bow-wrapped gift for UKIP.” 85 MPs joined him in revolt; Cameron only beat back the proposal with Labour’s help.

UKIP, obsessive on the subject of immigrants and crime, press-ganged everyone rightward. They demanded immediate deportation for “foreign criminals,” and damn the law. Prison Watch UK graphed their monomania:

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

UKIP came in third in the 2015 election, winning one seat — but almost 13% of the vote. If the Tories could lure away enough UKIP voters, they could dream of a permanent majority. In his new government, Cameron named the onetime rebel Raab an undersecretary in the Justice Ministry, with the title of “minister for human rights.”

Where does the money part come in? In the story of how Cameron pursued expulsions — and here you need to burrow back a bit. One of the first model prisoner-transfer agreements the UK reached came in 2007 under Tony Blair, who set the pattern for the Conservatives in so many ways. It happened in Libya, and it happened because Muammar Qaddafi wanted one particular prisoner back: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, serving a life sentence in Scotland for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Blair, meanwhile, wanted an oil contract for BP. In the “deal in the desert,” Tony flew to Tripoli and offered up al-Megrahi, concealing the gift under a comprehensive prisoner transfer accord — without consulting the Pan Am families, or his pet Scottish government. Qaddafi then gave the petroleum giant exclusive rights to drill in three vast blocs the size of Belgium and Kuwait together: trading territory worth billions for the inmate. Al-Megrahi was transported to Libya to live out his term; he had become the most expensive human being ever bought and sold, dearer than Diogenes or ElizabethTaylor. Petropounds lubricated the exchange. They also inaugurated Blair’s post-Downing Street career as dealmaker to dictators, a globe-trotting cross between Armand Hammer and Austin Powers.

BP batty bwoys: Blair and Qaddafi share secrets, 2007

Austin Powers (L) and Goldmember share their secrets, 2007

Subsequent prisoner transfer agreements have been similarly mercenary. But the cash has flowed the other way. Downing Street says that, in addition to Jamaica, “Compulsory transfer agreements are also in place with Albania, Nigeria, Somaliland, Rwanda, and Libya.” Except for Libya (where a once-respectable GDP has plummeted since the Royal Air Force’s little 2011 incursion) these are all poor countries. (Nigeria has oil but the per-capita GDP is barely one-fourth of what Libya’s was in 2007.) Cameron persuaded a paltry four impoverished nations to take their prisoners back, by paying them.

With some countries (particularly those where tiny prisoner contingents are involved) the effect can be achieved by dangling small amounts of apparently unrelated aid or benefits before the recipient government. With Nigeria, according to the Nigerian press, it involved a £3 million “annual fund to rehabilitate prisons.” This money wasn’t mentioned in the UK government’s announcement of the Nigerian deal (though the Daily Mail had indignantly warned of it long before); in fact, at least two years of payoffs, to facilitate Abuja’s acceptance of voluntary transfers, appear to have preceded the compulsory-transfer signing. The funding thus seems devoid of the monitoring mechanisms usual to bilateral aid programs. Given Nigeria’s high place on the global corruption index, it would be anybody’s guess where the cash wound up.

Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and Seychelles

Triangular trade: Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and (lower left) Seychelles

Somaliland stands out on that list, because it isn’t a nation. It’s a breakaway region claiming independence from fragmented Somalia. The formerly British part of a country stitched together from British and Italian colonies, Somaliland runs a competent PR machine in London, apparently with enough cash to rent some would-be politicians. (UKIP is a great supporter of Somaliland’s contested statehood, as is Peter Tatchell.) But clearly it could use more. Its place on the roster has a complex backstory that unveils the colonial essence of the prisoner-transfer enterprise.

The deal traces back to Britain’s concern over piracy off Somalia’s coasts. That piracy, made immortal by a Tom Hanks movie, affected plenty of developed economies moving goods through the Suez Canal — by early this decade annual losses exceeded US$ 6 billion. But it took place in international waters, and none of the surrounding states were eager to prosecute captured pirates. Britain helped prevail on the Seychelles — a tiny island nation that was a UK colony from 1810 till 1976 — to take on the job.

Seychelles mainly contributed its name and territory; in “a scheme funded by the Foreign Office and the United Nations,” to the tune of £9 million from Cameron’s government, Britain then controlled the trials and the jails. The UK sent its own prosecutors. One struck the proper colonial note in a BBC interview, describing Somali captives as a “cheerful and reasonably intelligent lot.” The UK also built a maximum security prison — a “paradise” behind “15-ft high razor wire” that housed 100 Somalis by 2013 — and contributed its own warden. There were too many Somali convicts coming out of the courts for the facility to hold, however. So Britain also brokered a compulsory transfer agreement between Seychelles and Somaliland for the latter to absorb the overflow.

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Somaliland thus opened a “pirate prison,” with £1 million from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (and presumably more from Britain); by 2012 it held 313 Somalis. Prisoners were shunted from shore to shore like backgammon counters. (A Brit working for UNODC in Seychelles joked to the BBC “that most Somalis are happy to be sent [to Somaliland] to escape the prison diet of rice and tuna.” In Somaliland, prisoners told the Guardian that “The food here is not good. We get rice, tomatoes and only a little bit of meat. In Seychelles the food was better.”)

Familiar colonial problems dogged the whole process. The British prosecutors knew no Somali nor Arabic; they couldn’t understand what the people they sent to prison were saying. “We didn’t have lawyers and we didn’t know the language,” a Somali inmate told the Guardian about his Seychelles trial, claiming he was merely fishing when gunboats arrested him. He got 10 years. A British barrister complained of “a marked inequality of resources between the prosecution and defence which was capable of producing injustice.” Moreover, flouting their basic rights, prisoners sent to Somaliland were stripped of any ability to appeal their convictions in Seychelles. But the point was, some pirates wound up behind bars, and piracy declined, and oil flowed through the Gulf of Aden. Seychelles was, of course, an old slave colony, familiar with involuntary transits. And Somaliland was desperate for official acknowledgement, and willing to sell itself as a prison camp to get it. (The head of Somaliland’s Anti-Piracy Taskforce “said the funding, and Somaliland’s increasing usefulness in the fight against piracy, would help the enclave’s bid for international recognition of its independence.”) Exploiting these two weak and dependent territories, Britain built a regional economy of prisoner transfers around its own needs. It was like a miniscule Indian Ocean version of the Atlantic triangular trade.

Inmates at the Hargeisa

Inmates at the Hargeisa “pirate’s prison” in Somaliland, 2012. Photo by Tony Karumba for AFP/Getty Images

WIth all this going on elsewhere in the world, Jamaica knew there was money in the prisoner-transfer business, and drove a hard bargain. The deal Cameron announced had been in the works since at least 2007; but it’s easy to infer that, as Kingston saw other countries profiting, its own price went up. Britain paid to import chained humans to its territories for several centuries. There’s a certain justice that, as the whirligig of capital brings round its revenges, it must now pay to export them. Of course, for the humans in question, “justice” may not be the right word.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

One thing must be clear. Bilateral aid to improve developing countries’ prison systems should be a good, needed thing. People who claim aid must focus on “nice” projects like schools or hospitals ignore the fact that prisoners have needs and rights — rights that governments disdain and deny. Suggestions (by the PNP’s youth league, for instance) that foreign donors should leave prisons alone adumbrate a dangerous nationalist antagonism to human rights altogether.

But whom will Britain’s Jamaica project help? To begin with, you have to note that the UK’s attitudes toward foreign prisons are hopelessly discordant. When it’s a question of a British citizen incarcerated abroad, those places are primitive hells — “terrifyingly alien,” a barrister wrote of Jamaican jails; “the cells are the size of a  typical one-car garage.” When it’s a question of shipping a non-citizen back to his homeland’s prisons, those receptacles are fine, fine. Torture? What torture? As Dominic Raab said, it’s horribly wrong when “We have innocent British citizens being carted off … to face flawed justice systems or gruesome jails abroad. But we can’t send foreign gangsters back home.” In other words, surprise! — Britons worry about prisons abroad when it suits their interests.

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women's prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women’s prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

There are deep human rights problems in Jamaica’s prisons. The country has an incarceration rate about the same as England and Wales (a third of Russia’s, a quarter of the United States’); but the system is teeming and ill-maintained.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared in 2012 that “Detention and prison conditions in Jamaica are generally very poor primarily due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of sufficient medical care.” A 2010 investigation by the UN special rapporteur on torture determined the country’s two main prisons “are not suitable for modern correctional purposes, including rehabilitation and re-socialization.”

But here’s the problem. Every country wants a prison system because every country thinks it’s the answer: to crime, to excess population, to immorality or poverty. But nobody wants to pay for it it. It’s true in the US, in the UK, and in Jamaica. There is no constituency in Jamaica for spending tax money to improve prisons, or aid money for that matter. (The current government has dabbled with bringing in private, for-profit prison corporations, but couldn’t find a taker.) Part of popular mythology around prisons in Jamaica is that they’re too luxurious, not harsh or primitive enough, lenient leisure clubs that drain men of manhood and leave them batty bwoys. Real abuses like rape that make imprisonment unendurable instead become the spoor of pampering. Clovis, the notoriously homophobic cartoonist for the Jamaica Observer, rams home the point:

(L) A child sees his father's killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says

(L) A child sees his father’s killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says “Put convicts to work!” (M) Vybz Kartel, the dancehall artist convicted of murder– famous for his “effeminate” ointment-bleached skin — is dragged to prison. (R) A perpetrator of domestic violence gets his desserts.

(It’s sobering to compare this with the UN expert’s report: “Homosexuals detained at St. Catherine and Tower Street correctional centres were held in the ‘vulnerable persons unit’ as a protective measure. However, their separation led to a loss of privileges of a punitive character, such as work and recreation, including the use of the library and playing field. In the security section in the Tower Street centre, detainees were locked up in dark, solitary cells without a toilet or water, and had nobody to call for help.”)

It’s improbable that the UK money will do anything to change overall prison conditions in Jamaica, much less the beliefs and policies that produce them. It’s not meant to. At best, Cameron’s bargain will create a two-tier prison system: lucky UK exports will enjoy the cutting-edge prison’s comparative comforts, along with privileged dons and barons who can pay for it, while everyone else swelters in the old inferno. And this is fine with Britain. Given the UK’s desperation to slough off unwanted inmates, there’s little chance they’ll seriously inspect even the new facility’s standards. It’s fine with Jamaica too. Already the government is talking about this not as a rights issue, but a real estate one: the possible superannuation of one old penitentiary means that “Downtown Kingston will have the opportunity for a large redevelopment on the 30 acres of waterfront land now occupied by the prison,” the National Security Ministry told the press. “A similar opportunity for redevelopment would be provided in Spanish Town.”

Spanish Town Adult Correctional Facility, Kingston. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

St. Catherine Adult Correctional Facility, in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

This is a story about commodities. It’s a very contemporary one. When people lose their freedom and their rights, they become objects; but under triumphant capitalism, an object can only be a commodity, must bear a price. These days, the unfree are destined to be bought and sold.

The UK is building a market in prisoners; it exports the problem of prison to other states, and pays them to take it. The idea of the price of individual prisoners permeates the discourse. “The average annual cost of a prison place in the UK is £25,900,” Downing Street declares. The Daily Mail envisions a more upscale product, like free-range chickens, and pegs them at “around £40,000 a year.” The aggregate numbers are what counts in interstate relations — the “£25 million a year to keep 850 foreign prisoners behind bars,” the “£35 million every year” spent “locking up Poles” who strayed our way — but the single prisoner remains the nominal unit of exchange, like the lone dollar or pound whose abstract value in its minute oscillations can set unimaginably vast capital flows in motion.

Fear of an actual planet

Fear of an actual planet

Yet this is the nativist language of an economy in recession. The UK’s reasoning is clear: if we have to spend that much on prisoners, which we don’t want to, let’s spend it on our own, not foreigners. “Deporting foreign criminals would free up prison places,” says a UKIP politician, letting us abuse and humiliate more of our own kind. There’s no reason the logic should stop there, though. Already the UK is figuring out ways to scrap the formality of a trial; Cameron’s government has come up with “Operation Nexus,” to simplify deporting foreigners charged with crimes but not convicted. And isn’t there a deeply buried message: Look. We would deport our own citizens if we could. Can a mere ID deter ostracism and eviction? With a West desperate to export crime and get rid of immigrants, why is birthright belonging more than a friable, disposable defense? Donald Trump already wants to scrap it. If the UK could find a penal colony, a Botany Bay, to take its suspect and unwanted nationals, how long would it cling to them over legal sentimentalities? As non-citizens become criminals, an insidious mirroring begins; the possibility — the fissure — of turning criminals into non-citizens opened, after September 11. The United States now can kill its own nationals without trial. It can pry in their doings as if they all were foreign spies. Correspondingly, zones of statelessness are starting to spring up, like weeds in the cracks of a formerly seamless planet. Guantanamo was the first, but not the last. Somaliland “enjoys relative peace and stability,” writes Reuters, parroting its Cameronland informants, “and analysts hope it might be a good site for more incarcerations in the future.” There you go — “peace and stability” now simply mark out promising lands for prisons, the way a geologist looks at a glittering slope of schist and sees oil. But the analysts don’t come to Somaliland for the quiet. Its draw is that it’s not a state; human rights treaties and duties don’t apply. Because such places are, in a global sense, lawless, states can set up laboratories there to make their own law. It’s not so much the fact that such small, silent interstices are appearing, in a world that used to talk of legality and freedom. It’s the fear that in those interspersed crevices and ruptures, our terrifying future is being born.

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

No one likes to talk about the links between slavery and prisons, but they are real. Both Michelle Alexander and Loïc Wacquant show how the modern prison in America grew in response to the formal abolition of involuntary servitude; the reality and constant threat of incarceration forged new psychological as well as legal shackles around an ostensibly liberated population. The prison shared — and shares — many features with the model case of human slavery in the 20th century, the Nazi concentration camp. Here’s something I read recently that chilled me.

In the American South after the Civil War black convict labourers, leased out for dangerous, back-breaking work and subject to summary punishment and execution, sometimes had a mortality rate as high as 50 per cent in certain states. … Mortality among the tiny minority of white prisoners was around 2 per cent.

A 50% mortality rate for the imprisoned is roughly the rate for Hitler’s work camps (as opposed to the pure death camps, like Sobibór or Treblinka). The Gulag’s death toll, for example, was only half that. The enslavement of the human being; his reduction to a rightsless cipher; her extermination once her economic use was exhausted — these are extreme cases, absolutely not typical of all incarceration. But they’re possibilities inextricably latent in the modern prison: because buried under the prison is the slave camp.

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

What we’re seeing now is twofold. Imprisonment is no longer a reserve away from the economy where the unproductive can be shunted; it’s completely economized. And the prison economy is going international. This traffic in chained bodies is growing. It resuscitates the authority structures of colonial slavery with new legal forms, purposes, and names. It’s frightening to see even a few of the old slave-trade routes revived like grass-grown oxen tracks, running from Britain to Jamaica or the Bight of Benin, from the Indian Ocean islands to the East African coast — though sometimes the shackled people are borne in directions opposite to the map’s faded arrows.

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland, in 2011. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Hilary Beckles, the chair of Caricom’s Reparations Committee (and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies) published an open letter before Cameron’s arrival in Jamaica. It cited how the prime minister’s own clan had profited from Britain’s slave economy; in the 19th century, Cameron’s distant relations owned 202 slaves in Jamaica. Beckles wrote:

You owe it to us as you return here to communicate a commitment to reparatory justice that will enable your nation to play its part in cleaning up this monumental mess of Empire. We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal.

Cameron rejected all such calls. Jamaica, he told its parliament, should “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”

But how? It’s Cameron whose state policies summon the ghosts of the traffic in human lives. The only future that lies that way is inhuman.

Stereoscope slide marked

Stereoscope slide marked “Sugar Cane field hands, Montego bay, Jamaica, 1900,” from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/slavery/resource12c.htm. Although Jamaican slavery was abolished almost seven decades earlier, the conditions of plantation work were largely unchanged.

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New ISIS execution for “sodomy”: Attention, UN Security Council

These photographs appeared earlier today on a JustPaste page set up by the Islamic State’s province of the Euphrates (Al-Furat). The link has spread non-stop on Da’ish-affiliated Twitter accounts ever since. The headline on the page, and the caption under each photo, is “The execution of the judgment of God on the acts of the people of Lot.”

hij2-2-2hij2-2-4hij2-2-6hij2-2-7

Da’ish announced the formation of the “state,” or province, of the Euphrates in August 2014. It takes up parts of eastern Syria and westernmost Iraq; its proclamation was meant to show the Islamic State’s contempt for the old national borders — cocking a snook at Sykes-Picot, as the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights explained at the time (more or less).  The province centers on Al-Bukamal, better known as Abu Kamal, a dusty Syrian border town of some 60,000 along the Euphrates, as well the town of Al-Qa’im across the Iraqi line. My guess is that the execution took place in Abu Kamal.

Abu Kamal in relation to Syria and Iraq. L: Map of areas of control in Syria as of July 2014 (Institute for the Study of War, US); R: Map of the Syria-Iraq border at the Euphrates River (Wikileaks)

Abu Kamal in relation to Syria and Iraq. L: Map of areas of control in Syria as of July 2015 (Institute for the Study of War, US); R: Map of the Syria-Iraq border at the Euphrates River (WikiNews)

Da’ish’s Euphrates state has long been a busy source of propaganda. Isdarat — the ISIS imitation YouTube channel — put up a glossy video today, produced by the Euphrates state, on “messages from Muslims in the lands of the unbelievers.” Another JustPaste page today posted pictures from a Euphrates-state training session about “Lessons on preaching” (or “missionary work,” or “advocacy”), apparently for confronting the great unbelieving Abroad. No specifics about the agenda, but there’s an implicit parallel between enemies without and within. Some ISIS blogs show photos from the training session and the execution together, as though the participants went straight from the tutorial to the killing.

Probably they did. Reports of Da’ish executions for homosexual acts have accelerated, with a spurt in June and July (around the time of the US Supreme Court marriage ruling, a huge headline across the Arab world), then the unconfirmed murder of nine people in Mosul on August 22, two days before the UN Security Council’s notorious meeting on the topic. There are many things we don’t know: for instance, whether the killings themselves have intensified, or simply Da’ish’s publicity around them. In late July, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi forbade Islamic State groups from releasing exceptionally gruesome execution videos, apparently realizing such imagery was sullying the movement’s image. Still images weren’t covered by the ban; but each photo released now implies a certain calculation, someone in Da’ish’s chaotic structure deciding its propaganda value trumps disadvantages. The publicity itself thus politicizes death. It suggests that executing the “people of Lot” is morphing from a religious duty for Da’ish into a political tool, another mode of defying its enemies. And my strong feeling is that the Security Council’s noisy, impotent rhetoric can only make things worse.

What exactly was the point again of putting LGBT victims of ISIS under the symbolic protection of the United States, and invoking the UN Security Council to save them?  It only makes sense if there is something the US and UN can, and will, do. The Security Council has done nothing, nor are they going to do anything. America’s protean strategies on ISIS get rephrased, repackaged, and re-spun daily, but the lavish expense of words and money has no effect on anything that happens on the ground. Three reports this week indicate the depth of American uselessness. Intelligence analysts claim that senior military officials deliberately distorted their findings, to persuade Obama and those around him that the war on ISIS is going far better than it is. US airstrikes, the strategy of choice, continue to kill civilians in ISIS-controlled areas, alienating publics already primed, in many cases, to loathe and fear American action. And a $500 million Defense Department program to train 5,400 Syrians to take up arms against ISIS has only “four or five” fighters left in the field. The Obama administration talks about rescuing the gays, but it’s all publicity for a domestic audience. Those who suffer because of this self-indulgent charade are voiceless, voteless, and a long way away.

ISIS is a low-hanging wasps’ nest. Poking it with a stick is dangerous unless you have a clear plan for dealing with the consequences. This is no less true when the ones with the stick won’t be the ones stung.

Da'ish soldiers at a checkpoint in Abu Kamal, from a page of the Euphrates state at http://justpaste.it/hauajes4

Da’ish soldiers at a checkpoint in Abu Kamal, from a propaganda page of the Euphrates state at http://justpaste.it/hauajes4

Sarajevo

Francisco Goya, De qué sirve una taza? (What use is a cup?) Plate 59 from Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War), 1810-1820

Francisco Goya, De qué sirve una taza? (What use is a cup?) Plate 59 from Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War), 1810-1820

I remembered this poem today, though what it describes seems almost forgotten. If you do remember, and have read the newspapers, you’ll understand.

Sarajevo

Now that a revolution really is needed, those who were fervent are quite cool.

While a country murdered and raped calls for help from the Europe which it had trusted, they yawn.

While statesmen choose villainy and no voice is raised to call it by name.

The rebellion of the young who called for a new earth was a sham, and that generation has written the verdict on itself.

Listening with indifference to the cries of those who perish because they are after all just barbarians killing each other.

And the lives of the well-fed are worth more than the lives of the starving.

It is revealed now that their Europe since the beginning has been a deception, for its faith and its foundation is nothingness.

And nothingness, as the prophets keep saying, brings forth only nothingness, and they will be led once again like cattle to slaughter.

Let them tremble and at the last moment comprehend that the word Sarajevo will from now on mean the destruction of their sons and the debasement of their daughters.

They prepare it by repeating: “We at least are safe,” unaware that what will strike them ripens in themselves.

— Czesław Miłosz, “Sarajevo,” from Facing the River: New Poems, 1995

Enterrar y callar (Bury them and be quiet), plate 18 from Disasters of War

Enterrar y callar (Bury them and be quiet), plate 18 from Los Desastres de la Guerra 

 

Ahmed Seif al-Islam: In dark times

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human RIghts Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human Rights Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif al-Islam died one year ago today. I had meant to write something then, but I didn’t have the heart. No one had much heart in those weeks. I went to his wake at the Omar Makram Mosque three days later. Evening, like fusty crape, had settled on Midan Tahrir, five minutes’ walk away. It felt evident that this was also a funeral for the revolution, which had started there and dragged itself this short distance in four years, to die: a valediction not just to a person but to a history of dreams. Thousands of people filed through the small mosque; all of Egypt’s Left was there, but also students and graffiti artists and football fans and people who had only heard, but knew the significance of, his name. His daughter Mona received them, exhausted, by the door. His son Alaa had been released from prison to participate; he was beside her, wearing his prison whites, a garment which in Egypt always makes me think of pilgrimage. Inside, people looked down and said little, to the ebb and swell of the recited Qur’an. Hamdeen Sabbahi — the twice-failed presidential candidate whom Sisi had crushed in a rigged vote two months before — stood against the wall, with a tiny remaining entourage. His chin jutted; he was posing for invisible cameras; he reminded me how, even under dictatorships, politicians acquire the kinds of ego cultivated in our celebrity-sated media democracies, a self-regard that failure cannot shatter. (I’d learned this before in Egypt: in 2003 I met with Ayman Nour, a daring opposition MP who had the privilege two years of later of being similarly crushed by Mubarak in another gimcrack ballot. We were supposed to talk about some arrested demonstrators — he was their lawyer; instead he spent two hours talking about himself.) But no one paid attention to Sabbahi; the flashbulbs had flown like swallows. He’s a tall mountain of a man, but he seemed like hollow papier-mâché compared to Seif’s missing figure, friable and insignificant against the absent corpse.

11070278_981885211844003_7553989013040307034_nYou would have thought then, with the new dictator rigidly ensconced, that things couldn’t get any worse. But they did, as the autumn darkened. By October several of the most famous human rights activists in Egypt had to leave the country. Others were being jailed on pretexts, or banned from travel. I remember the months from then through January as a kind of delirium, when everybody I know — rights workers, journalists, café owners, gay men — believed we were all going to be arrested at any time. Things alleviated a little in the spring: perhaps because the state felt it had intimidated everyone enough, perhaps because the fear had simply become second nature; in any case, those are more or less the same thing.  In fact, the methods of repression only shifted. People were vanishing. Security forces disappeared more than 150 between April and June, pulling them off the streets or from their homes and dropping them (without trial, without hearing, without lawyers, without law) into the country’s immense Gulag. Sometimes they reappear, months later, in a security court; sometimes what surfaces are the corpses. There are death squads now. Torture used to happen behind bolted shutters in police stations; these days security forces will torture and kill you in your own house. Death does home delivery. The government wages a widening war against burgeoning insurgencies, and the insurgencies bomb and kidnap with spectacular impunity in the heart of Cairo. I remember lines by Edwin Muir:

                                                       We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.

That is Egypt in the summer of 2015.

All this makes thinking about Seif the more painful, if the more necessary, a year on. I need to remember him, to make sense of everything since. The obituaries and memorials back then recited the key facts. As a young Communist activist, he faced the first of many arrests in 1972 (at the age of 21). In 1983, the Mubarak dictatorship jailed him for five years. They tortured him: “I was turned into a wreck of a human being,” he told Human Rights Watch. “A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes.” Finally freed, he made the hard choice to change the methods of his dissent. He became a lawyer, defending everyone from labor activists to accused apostates. In 1999, he helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the main human-rights legal defense group in Egypt. He practiced an activism that transcended the usual insularity of the left. He worked with religious fundamentalists, with accused “terrorists,” with religious minorities, with liberals of all stripes, with LGBT people, with feminists. He constantly looked for common ground between disparate but cognate ways of resisting state control, digging for a deep politics where joint action could begin: in similar visions of social transformation, in congruent loathing of arbitrary power, in shared experiences of torture.

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R_ at Ahmed Seif al-Islam's wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R) at Ahmed Seif al-Islam’s wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

And then there is his family: his wife Laila Soueif, a mathematician and relentless political activist; his daughter Mona Seif, who has spent almost five years fighting military persecution of civilians; his son Alaa Abd el Fattah and his daughter Sanaa Seif, both now serving prison terms for protesting “illegally” — jailed, they could not join him at his deathbed. And his sister-in-law Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and activist (who chronicled some of the family history in her early fiction, In the Eye of the Sun); and her son Omar Robert Hamilton, who writes about the revolution, in Cairo and London. There’s something almost theatrical about a family life lived so intensely in public action; acting and activism are akin, after all, except the second comes without a script. At times they remind me, not exactly of the Barrymores, but of Ferber and Kaufman’s play about the Barrymores, The Royal Family — if it were somehow transported to the world of 1984. One striking thing (and one level, I suppose, of defying the surveillance state) is that, while they live in public, their private lives and loyalties are intensely rich and full. If you raise your kids to be rebels, almost always they eventually rebel against you. I’m sure Seif’s children had their moments of rebellion, but the other striking thing is that their father’s legacy is in their bones and they are unceasingly faithful to it. This is what happens when the political is also personal: a turn on a feminist adage that bears remembering.

I didn’t know him as well as many others. The best tribute I can pay now is to remember some things I learned from him.

The first dates to the first time I met him, in November 2001. Most Western obituaries of Seif stressed how, staring down political and social risk, he provided lawyers for men arrested for homosexuality in the famous Queen Boat case and the years after. Seif himself never made much of this: certainly not because he was embarrassed, nor because he thought it unimportant (he knew how important it was to the victims) but because it did not strike him as extraordinary. At the time, I was program director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I came to Egypt that month for the verdict in the Queen Boat trial; Hossam Bahgat (then a 22-year-old university student) and I went to meet Seif in his office. I’d e-mailed and phoned him often from the US, but I wanted to thank him personally. (This was, it strikes me, one of the first times that Hossam had sat down face-to-face with Seif as well; they later became firm allies.)

I launched a little speech of gratitude for a difficult and dangerous decision. Seif listened, sucking his teeth ruminatively. This he often did. The mannerism seemed to have a deeper meaning, a way of coming to terms with an unpleasantness buried in life’s innards: as though the world had just given him something bitter to eat, a cosmic rotten quince or a transcendental grapefruit soaked in alum, and rather than spit it out, he was trying to decide what this implied about the universe. After I’d rambled on a while, he cut me off. “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I was startled. I stammered, we didn’t exactly, we were an LGBT group, but we understood the (fill in some words).

“No, no,” he said. “Really, I just want to know simply. Does your organization take a position on the freedom of Palestine?”

Well, not quite, it was not entirely within our mandate, but

Seif’s lips set. “I want you to know that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

Seif, in his office at the HIsham Mubarak Law Centre

Seif, in his office at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre

The next time I saw Seif, I was working for Human RIghts Watch — which did have a position on Palestine and Israel, though not one he respected. But he wasn’t looking for a final answer. He wanted me to understand that I was a political actor whether I wanted to be or not, and he was going to treat me as one.  He wanted me to understand that “universality” is a choice and practice, not a generalization. Principles weren’t the opposite of the quid-pro-quo he posited; it was principle that demanded we both widen our horizons. For Seif human rights weren’t Platonic ideas glassed in some abstract realm; they took meaning in the concrete world through politics. They are absolute values we work out in real life. Their reach becomes universal through the labor of arguing out alliances to make them so. Seif’s turn to the law hadn’t changed his basic beliefs at all. He worked for human rights, but he was a revolutionary, and he thought only radical change could make them real. And only through the give-and-take of politics would change begin.

This political precision also affected his attitude toward lawyering. Seif was one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Egypt. This meant he was expert at finding cracks in a document crafted for repression. He had little of the craven fetishism with which American lawyers approach their own constitution, hammered out in slavery times. He knew legal argument was a means to an end, and the end was change, not the reification of a text. “Do you believe in this constitution?” I asked him when we were talking about Egypt’s emergency laws. He smiled. “I believe in the tools we have.”

Seif

Seif at a seminar on “contempt of religion” laws, 2012

A second memory. I saw Seif in Cairo in the summer of 2011, when the military government — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — was deepening its grip on the country. I sat in on a meeting Amnesty International organized for human rights activists. There were some 25 people at the table, and we went through a round of introductions and saying what our “core concerns” were. Seif looked half-asleep. When his turn came, he mumbled something almost inaudible. Then suddenly, as if someone had stuck an electric wire in his spine, he jolted to life. “I will NOT,” he shouted thunderously —  slap of palm on table — “accept that the American government, or Amnesty, or anyone will tell me that I need to tolerate military dictatorship in order to avoid a takeover by Islamist people. I will not accept such false choices. Anyone who wants to dictate that should leave this country alone.” I don’t remember the rest of what he said, but I don’t remember a word of what anyone else said either.

And that was a second lesson about politics. You may compromise on strategies or goals. You don’t have to compromise on saying what you believe. Seif would sit with almost anybody on a panel if it advanced a just, joint cause — Salafi preachers or American human rights organizations; but not if he had to mince his words, or lose his capacity to be critical.  He would sign an open letter sponsored by Human Rights Watch one day, and start an open letter blasting Human Rights Watch (usually about Palestine) the next. Coalitions don’t mean abandoning all confrontation.

A third lesson. While I lived in Cairo for a few months in 2003, demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq wracked the city. The Mubarak government arrested over a thousand students and activists when the war broke out, torturing most of them. My work for Human Rights Watch was to document this; and so for hours every day I camped at Seif’s chaotic desk in the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, where, as I’ve written before, “He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest.”

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defense attorney in one of his son Alaa's trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defending his son Alaa in one of his trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Everybody who had been demonstrating, and their families, knew Seif. This was true of Salafis, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Nasserists, of every political complexion. The Hisham Mubarak Centre was on the sixth floor of a leprous Belle Époque building in Souq el-Tawfiqiyya downtown; the offices branched off from a common room with blue chipped-plaster walls, once a pasha’s airy and erudite salon, and that vaulted space was always available for any group to meet, anybody to hold a press conference or a debate, any agitators to plan their agitation. Seif had turned his headquarters into the crossroads of dissent in Cairo. I remember, during those desperate days, interviewing a hijabi woman of about twenty, a college student who’d been active in the demonstrations. One night at her parents’ home, she’d received a phone call from Amn el-Dawla, from State Security cloaked in all its terror, demanding she come in the next day for interrogation. I asked her what she did. She said, “I called Seif, of course.”

But my point, the lesson, is: never did Seif make himself central. He had no interest in advertising himself or “leading.” His work was about others, not himself. (One detail is telling. Seif taught his lawyers what he called the “bag rule,” which sounds like a Mafia custom but was quite simple. He ordered them never to neglect to look at the bags of documents that poor and working-class Egyptians carry around with them when they have a dispute with the government: scraps of forms and records that often they can’t even read. I’ve seen these bags so often. They don’t just matter because they might contain overlooked evidence of malfeasance. They matter because they matter to the people. To immerse yourself in their experience of their wrongs is to show them the respect they demand.)

The idea of having his role publicized would have appalled Seif. True, he lived a public life; he was always on a stage, in some sense, but he was never any kind of star. The picture at top is almost the only posed photograph of him I’ve ever seen. It’s from a photo shoot that Human Rights Watch hired Platon to do in Cairo in 2011, a rather silly series of images of key figures from Egypt’s revolution. You can see the handlers couldn’t talk Seif into changing the moth-eaten sweater he usually wore, which is why the picture is in such close-up. You can also see he looks — well, not uncomfortable, just resigned, as if he’s finally realized this is the firing squad, and you’ve got to face it. When the ordeal was over, he must have felt like Dostoevsky getting his unexpected reprieve from execution: Now, I have time to write. 

Seif -- I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

Seif — I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

The danger in dictatorship is not only its technology of repression. It’s the dictatorial personality it imbues — not just in its servants, but in those who fight it. Human rights activists, because so hard to criticize, are if anything especially vulnerable to this warping of ego and moral sense. Seif had none of it. Our strange postmodern confusion of celebrity and power, so insidiously tempting to so many activists, was alien to him. It is impossible to imagine him talking about himself to strangers; he repelled flashbulbs as if he’d sprayed himself against them. It’s impossible to imagine him on the cover of a magazine, or on a red carpet with Brad and Angelina, or Menna Shalabi or Khaled Abol Naga or anybody. It’s just as impossible to imagine him participating in the games of power, holding a press conference with a UN ambassador or a foreign minister, or basking in the shared, pale light of some ambitious politician. Even the pictures wouldn’t have come out. The power of his presence would have exposed those beings as incorporeal fictions — vampires, creatures who don’t show up on photographic film.

Alaa, Seif’s son, is serving a five-year sentence, for joining a protest in November 2013. Recently his mother interviewed him during a visit to Tora prison; she memorized his answers and passed them to a reporter when she emerged. You can read the exchange in Arabic and English. Because Alaa seems almost forgotten in the West now, I will quote at length. He said:

Prisons in our country are the embodiment of “violation.” For me personally I’ll quote my father when, shortly before he died, he said that my conditions were “a lot better than others’ and, on the whole, bearable in comparison with what the political prisoners from the Islamist movement suffer.”

The authorities are being totally intransigent, though, in forbidding me books. Not just political books — any books from outside prison, including books published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. … They’re trying to isolate me, intellectually as well as physically, from the community. …

I was in court recently [for an “insulting the judiciary” case, another charge he still faces] and they brought in Magdi Qurqur [from the Brotherhood-sympathizing National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy] by mistake. He was in really bad shape. He told me that the day the prosecutor general was assassinated, prison officers went into the cells in Tora’s maximum security prison and stripped them of everything — prisoners’ clothes and bathroom stuff, but also medicines, even medicines which are really dangerous to stop suddenly, like for chronic heart problems, for example.

He added:

There’s no hope at all in reforming the Egyptian state or any of its institutions, including the presidency. These institutions and their heads deserve a revolution….[But] there is no longer one revolution that would let us to talk about “its forces.” Now we have multiple revolutions, and we need to think carefully about what this means.

Seif was Alaa’s defense attorney, until he became too sick to go on. At a press conference about his son’s trial eight months before he died, he said: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son. But instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”

Ahmed Seif al-Islam speaking about his son’s trial at a January 2014 press conference

But that, of course, isn’t all. His legacy rests in a myriad small lessons — about politics, consistency, personal integrity, and more. These bear the seeds of multiple revolutions: some infinitesimally small at first, happening only in the circle of a few friends who decide on freedom, but with the capacity to grow. Egypt now is divided starkly into light and darkness. And these are dark times. “If it is the function of the public realm is to throw light on the affairs of men,” Hannah Arendt declared,

by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible govenrment,” by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Against this stands the illumination that “may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.”

These days I sit at home; I struggle against the heat; I think of past and future; and I read Brecht. Brecht wrote:

Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Born Later), 194o

And he also wrote:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Motto to the Svendborger Gedichte (Svendborg Poems), 1940

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam's burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam’s burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

New killings: ISIS answers the UN Security Council

Iraqi News wrote yesterday that one of its sources, in the occupied northern province of Ninawah (Nineveh), told them:

[G]unmen belonging to ISIS threw on Sunday nine civilians from the top of a high building in the city of Mosul after being accused of homosexuality.”

The source, who asked anonymity, added: “ISIS militants rounded up a number of citizens in the city to see the implementation of the judgment of the so-called Shariah judge.”

I can’t call this report “confirmed,” though “confirming” Da’ish horrors mainly means finding the self-advertisements on social media. However, Tweets like these, showing at least one person’s execution, started spreading from Da’ish-affiliated accounts on Saturday night:

Daish tweets

The tweets are nearly identical: “Applying the rightful judgment on one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot,” Left hashtag: #ProvinceOfNinawah. Right hashtags (roughly): #Shari’a #OurGod #Noor #ItRemains #ItSpreads #ItWillGainStrength #ByTheWillOfGod

Those photos were originally posted on August 22 on Justpaste, a site the Islamic State uses for atrocity advertising. The page says it belongs to Da’ish’s “Information office for the Province of Ninawah.” Here they are, full-size:

_________small

Caption: “Gathering of Muslims to see the judgment applied on one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot”

________2_small

Caption: “Applying the rightful judgment on one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot”

My guess is that either Iraqi News got the date wrong and the executions happened Saturday, or there were running executions (perhaps of more than nine people all told) from Saturday through Sunday.

If it’s true, nine people are a lot to kill. I believe it’s the the largest number that Da’ish has murdered at one time for “sodomy.” I don’t wish to read too much into furtive words, but Iraqi News‘ source seems to suggest the men were rounded up quickly upon some urgent mandate.  It’s hard not to suspect this wave of killing was a pre-emptive answer to Monday’s UN Security Council meeting on gays and ISIS — which was making headlines in both Western and Arab media fully nine days earlier.

My fear (I wrote two days ago) was that “the Security Council will only give more impetus to murder”: that ISIS, provoked by the ill-considered publicity around this move, would slaughter more people. I hope I’ll be disproven; I’d dearly love not to be right. But I’m afraid I am.

In any case, these killings show (as I suspect Da’ish meant them to show) that the Security Council can’t do anything to save lives. Which again raises the question: why bring this to the Security Council? Why take the risk, if there’s no benefit for those in danger? Before the meeting, the US promised it would “examine what kinds of protections are needed for LGBT individuals, what the international community needs to do to stop the scourge of prejudice and violence, and – related to this – how to advance equality and dignity, even in conflict zones”: as well as “the multiple political, military, and social lines of effort needed to degrade and destroy” ISIS. So far as I can see, none of this came up. “Change begins by working to stop attacks against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity,” US ambassador Samantha Power told the meeting, without any hints for how to jumpstart this in Mosul. Most states made the usual vague promises, bland and undemanding. People are still dying.

It’s dangerous to pretend we know what to do when we don’t.

The most substantive proposals to come out of Monday’s meeting were by Jessica Stern, the head of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). Jessica is an old colleague, of course, and she was at her analytical best here, but notice something about her five points:

  1. All UN agencies in Iraq and Syria must have tailored LGBTI programming.
  2. UNHCR and governments must continue to act with urgency for those most in need of relocation.
  3. The Government of Iraq should remove barriers to access to direct services and justice.
  4. The Government of Iraq must respect freedom of expression and allow independent radio stations to operate.
  5. Donors must fund initiatives by LGBTI Iraqis and Syrians and by their allies. Resources should support immediate needs, like safe houses and psychosocial support, and long-term rights-based initiatives and norm building.

These are important proposals, but not one is about people living under the control of the Islamic State. They’re addressed to the UN and the Iraqi government, which don’t and can’t operate in ISIS-controlled territory. These proposals (especially the recommendation to the High Commission on Refugees to resettle victims, something that needs to be said over and over and over) will help people who escape — but not those trying to survive in the territory Da’ish rules.

So we’re left with excellent ideas for the rest of Iraq, but no solution for the ISIS killings. Nobody has a strategy for ISIS, though some governments serve up feel-good stories that give the illusion progress is being made. And promising “security” when you can’t provide it — provoking Da’ish with publicity when we have no way to deal with the consequences — may be an inadvertent invitation to murder.

Da'ish fighter in Mosul after the group seized control of the Iraqi city in 2014. Photo by Reuters

Da’ish fighter in Mosul after the group seized control of the Iraqi city in 2014. Photo by Reuters