I misremember Iraq

1369847707_4085_memoryEveryone misremembers something. We mostly draw our lives’ meaning from the private world, so we tend to misremember sex: doing it better than we did, with somebody sexier than they were. Many of my own mismemories involve the media. I’ve a vivid visual memory, for instance, of walking down a car-free Fifth Avenue around 10:15 on a Tuesday morning in September 2001, eyes numbly fixed on an billowing void at the tip of Manhattan where the south tower of the World Trade Center had been (somebody running past told me it had gone down, but I didn’t believe it); the north tower was burning alongside and then I watched it collapse, thundering down slowly while dust and smoke blossomed like a flower on fire. Except I didn’t watch that. Just before it crumbled, I turned onto 27th Street, to a hotel where some of my employees visiting town were staying; that’s why I was on the avenue — racing to make sure they were all right; and a girl rushed into the lobby and gasped that the south tower had fallen. The image of the collapse, replayed on TV for weeks, imposed itself on what I actually witnessed like a double exposure; something a camera saw for me, scrawled in a palimpsest over what I saw.

518-pjpegThings like this give me sympathy for Brian Williams. You all know: the newsman claimed repeatedly that, during the Iraq invasion in 2003, enemy fire downed his helicopter. “We landed very quickly and hard and we put down and we were stuck, four birds in the middle of the desert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans. … Our captain took a purple heart injury to his ear in the cockpit, but we were alone.” So vivid; such grunty language; not a word true. His helicopter wasn’t hit, one way ahead of him was. Williams was safe and sound.

 Williams tells his tale on the David Letterman Show. Italian subtitles apparently added in case he wants to seek Papal indulgence.

I feel for his confusion. If my own memories get mixed up with what the media tells me, then what about the media’s own memories? Those talking heads are conduits for all the stories the public knows. So don’t all the stories become theirs, part not just of their talk but of their heads too? Don’t American anchormen contain multitudes, like Walt Whitman — their lives absorbing by imperial osmosis all the unused experience around them, trivial and forgettable until filmed and told? I remember (I think) a story about Lyndon Johnson, Caesar of another of our imperial wars. Setting off to Camp David, striding the White House lawn toward a line of helicopters, he headed for the wrong one. A nervous Marine intercepted him: “Mr. President, that’s not your helicopter.” Johnson draped his arm around the soldier’s shoulder. “They’re all my helicopters, son.”

What I don’t get is why this is an issue. Williams made up a story. But he was in the middle of the most fantastic made-up story in American history. The Iraq war, written by Bush with a little help from Tony Blair and Micronesia and Poland, was a gigantic fiction, as beautifully told and expressive of the moment’s cultural mythology as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or A Million Little Pieces, or Three Cups of Tea. The reasons were fake, the goals were fake, the triumph was fake. Nothing was true except the dead people, who aren’t talking. The war countered imaginary threats and villainies with imaginary victories and valor. Williams added his embroidery in the spirit of invention. Why are the other tale-spinners turning on him now?

Authorized American history of the Iraq war

Authorized American history of the Iraq war

The story of Williams’ little story is all personal now, background blacked out: it’s not about the war or the news business, it’s about Brian Williams. This is consistent with Williams’ career, built on the purely personal trust you can repose in words escaping that imposing lower jaw. The New York Times says he 

long had been considered one of the most trusted people in not only in [sic] the news business but in the country as a whole. He was trusted by about three-quarters of consumers, making him the 23rd-most-trusted person in the country.

But where does that confidence come from? I remember (I think) reading a terrifying linguistic analysis of Iraq war TV coverage, terrifying because its prose made the analysis sound like a high-tech military campaign. (“Activating the partition, that parameter becomes the pivot from which further exploration can move, that is, we can make comparisons within the corpus on the basis of the selected parameter” …) One chapter was: “The news presenter as socio-cultural construct.” Here I brightened. My sexuality and gender are already social constructs; will Katie Couric join them? Alas, all this means is that “the news presenter creates a socially acceptable persona.” But buried in that bland description is the reality. Williams, like the modern news business, is a construct of his audience. He challenges nobody: he sensitively serves up fictions they long to see and hear.

Why is it a scandal when Williams admits misrepresenting himself, but not when NBC admits misrepresenting the world? Why isn’t the scandal that NBC’s Tim Russert said, before the Iraq war, ‘‘I’m a journalist, but first, I’m an American. Our country is at war with the terrorists, and as an American, I support the effort wholeheartedly’’?  Why isn’t the scandal that CBS’s Dan Rather promised, ‘‘George Bush is the president. As just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where’’? The belief that war journalism was about fealty, not fact, came to infect every sentence said on air. The same linguistic study analyzed CBS broadcasts during the Iraq invasion, and here are snippets to set the mood:

They [US soldiers] gave the last full measure of devotion to their country. We honour their memories and send our condolences to their families … (March 21, 2003 CBS)

Just ahead on the CBS evening news, ties that bind: fathers and sons, duty, honour, country and war … (April 1, 2003)

When President Bush sent American servicemen and women to war, the entire nation went with them … (April 4, 2003)

We dedicate this broadcast to our fellow Americans who have died fighting in the war so far … (April 7, 2003)

The scandal is journalism’s complete submission, as the “war on terror” raged, to the fantasies of patriotic allegiance.

War boy: Dan Rather doing his duty

War boy: Dan Rather doing his duty

Some of us remember this capitulation (or think we do) and we’re likely to blame government pressure. And the Bush administration did lean hard on the press. Just a month after 9/11, they reprimanded TV networks that had dared to air videos from Al-Qaeda. David Dadge, in The War in Iraq and Why the Media Failed Us, writes that Condoleezza Rice

placed a conference call with the media executives of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News Channel, and NBC. Rice told the executives that security personnel were worried at the inflammatory language of the videotapes and feared that they might contain hidden codes with which to direct other attacks on American soil. … At that point, Rice withdrew from the conference call allowing the media executives to discuss the matter on their own.

In their discussion, the media executives agreed that, in future, the videotapes would be heavily edited and greater context would be provided. … The President of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, said, ‘‘This is a new situation, a new war, and a new kind of enemy. Given the historic events we are enmeshed in, it’s appropriate to explore new ways of fulfilling our responsibilities to the public.’’

Strategic insight. Tactical solutions. Useful lies: Website of the Rendon Group

Strategic insight. Tactical solutions. Useful lies: Website of the Rendon Group

New ways! … Meanwhile, the administration had its own propaganda machine, untraceably intricate. According to James Bamford’s book on Bush-era abuses of intelligence, “a shadowy American company, the Rendon Group” was “paid close to $200 million by the CIA and Pentagon to spread anti-Saddam propaganda worldwide.”

Soon after the attacks of September 11, the company received a $100,000-a-month contract from the Pentagon to offer media strategy advice. Among the agencies to whom it provided recommendations was the Orwellian-sounding Office of Strategic Influence … apparently intended to be a massive disinformation factory.

In the 1990s, Rendon had helped create the Iraqi National Congress, the front for con-man Ahmed Chalabi to promote himself as Saddam’s successor. Come 2001, Chalabi called on a former Rendon employee — Australian journalist Paul Moran — to generate bogus news stories about “bunkers for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons research hidden throughout Iraq.” Chalabi wielded these stories to push any wavering Bush officials toward war. In other words, the administration was paying for propaganda to lobby itself.

Ahmed Chalabi, with completely inexplicable object

Ahmed Chalabi, with completely inexplicable object

Yet it’s a mistake to suppose state pressure was the main factor corrupting US media. The internal logic of news as business was what shut down their critical functions.

I remember (I think) a brief, brief window after 9/11 when some on-air independence was possible. I remember (I think) a broadcast on CBS, probably September 13 or 14, where an Afghan civilian displayed some of the devastation Clinton’s 1998 missile strikes caused. The message was that a history of violent action and reaction underlay the attacks; the implication, that Americans should also examine what their own government had done. I remember (I think) remarks on TV suggesting that the President’s September 11 speech, where he faced the camera panicked as a rabbit being fucked by a howitzer, displayed a lamentable default of leadership. These glimmers of critique shut down after Bush bestrode the ruins of Ground Zero with a bullhorn, hugging firefighters and walking tall. They shut down mainly because the proprietors of news saw, in that image of rejuvenated manhood, what sold.

Bullshit, with bullhorn: Bush in New York City, September 14, 2001

Bullshit, with bullhorn: Bush in New York City, September 14, 2001

They needed to sell. Broadcast media were besieged by the increasing popularity of cable news outlets, Fox first among them. Print media were beleaguered by the Internet and the near-impossibility of making web platforms pay. Competition didn’t cause better news-gathering. In keeping with the pattern of corporate restructuring in the neoliberal era, it prodded cost-cutting, not product improvement. Foreign news suffered most. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber write, “The time devoted to foreign coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC fell from 4,032 minutes in 1989 to 1,382 in 2000, rebounding only slightly following the 9/11 attacks to 2,103 minutes in 2002.” Cable news was even worse.

CNN by 1995 had a news-gathering network worldwide of only 20 bureaus, with 35 correspondents outside the United States—“only half of what the BBC has had for a long time to cover world events on radio and television” and “only a fraction of what the three largest international newswire services maintain on a permanent basis.”

From Network (1976): Arthur Jensen explains to anchorman Howard Beale how the business works

But if behemoths like Fox News were one kind of competition, there was rivalry from below. I remember (I think) all the laudatory screeds proclaiming blogs the new frontier of Truth — faster, fresher, interactive, untrammelled by editorial control. For “citizen media,” the citizen media told us back in 2004,

News is a conversation, not just a lecture. The story doesn’t end when it’s published, but rather just gets started as the public begins to do its part — discussing the story, adding to it, and correcting it.

The participatory ideal meant, of course, the blogger didn’t have to do her own checking or correcting. Fake facts would flood the world.

Dodging more imaginary bullets: The Village Voice on the right-wing blogosphere, 2008

Dodging more imaginary bullets: The Village Voice on the right-wing blogosphere, 2008

Back then, blogs were novel. Michael Massing wrote with astonishment in 2005 about a “technological innovation that, along with the rise of talk radio and cable news, has made the conservative attack on the press particularly damaging …. Internet Web logs, which allow users to beam their innermost thoughts throughout the world, take no longer than a few minutes to set up.… many of them are by adolescent girls writing their diaries on-line.” But some were influential, and most were conservative. One pro-blog blog speculated:

Imagine, say, the coverage of Watergate being treated in part this way. Rather than Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward being the sole storytellers, blog-influenced journalism would have had them in part leading a conversation about the scandal … I suspect that a Watergate investigation in the blog era would have come to a conclusion faster.

I remember (I think) the Nixon administration in its conceit and power, and I doubt a “conversation” would have done the trick. Unpaid bloggers would have given up, discredited or ignored. Citizen journalism didn’t usually fight the status quo. More typical was Andrew Sullivan, who thanked God for giving us George W, and famously inveighed against “terrorist fellow-travellers” and “the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts.” Blogs denigrated dissent with glib, factitious certainty, while forcing a cornered mainstream media to come up with low-cost, easy stories to tell.

“A disciplined and well-organized news and opinion campaign” brought the press to heel, Massing declared, “directed by conservatives and the Christian right.” Paul Krugman, in 2004, pointed to “the role of intimidation” in silencing criticism. “If you were thinking of saying anything negative about the president, you had to be prepared for an avalanche of hate mail. You had to expect right-wing pundits and publications to do all they could to ruin your reputation.”  I remember (I think) a short essay by Susan Sontag in late September 2001 that asserted simply:

This was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions … A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened.

Sullivan answered by calling her “contemptible” and a “pretentious buffoon”; others dubbed her “moral idiot” and “traitor.” The New Republic asked, “What do Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Susan Sontag have in common?” Historical awareness was an orphan in the new permanent now.

Terror threesome: Osama, Saddam, and Susan

Terror threesome: Osama, Saddam, and Susan

No one idealizes the hierarchical old media, but the faux-democracy of new media, where a thousand schools of thought supposedly contend, is in fact even more malleable to the market’s mandates. As war impended, the press ignored unpopular voices:

From Steve Rendall and Tara Broughel,

From Steve Rendall and Tara Broughel, “Amplifying Officials, Squelching Dissent,” Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), October 2003

While Williams dodged imaginary bullets in Iraq, his employers axed Phil Donahue’s talk show because, an internal network report warned, he presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. . . . He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” The show risked becoming “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” Meanwhile, the US dropped murderous cluster bombs, and laced munitions with poisonous depleted uranium. “These important stories,” writes Norman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy, “became known to many news watchers on several continents. But not in the United States.”

When CBS obtained the infamous Abu Ghraib torture photos, the Pentagon asked them to spike or delay the story; the network complied for two weeks. A CBS executive later explained, “We are like every other American. We want to win this war. We believe in the country.’’ When the pictures finally aired, right-wing media bayed in fury. ‘‘CBS should be ashamed for running the photos,” National Review’s Jonah Goldberg wrote: “What was gained by releasing these images now? CBS could have reported the story without the pictures.’’ (A decade later, the identical Goldberg complained that news outlets were not publishing the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons. “Running satirical pictures of Mohammed,” he intoned, “is now a requirement of news reporting — because those images are central to the story.”)

TV viewers got plenty of patriotic music, though.

MSNBC joined Fox in using the Pentagon’s own code name for the war—“Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The logos featured fluttering American flags or motifs involving red, white and blue. … Promos for MSNBC featured a photo montage of soldiers accompanied by a piano rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Then there was “embedding,” cementing friendly journalists in military units. Thrilling as Space Mountain, it kept reporters secure in the propaganda cocoon. Michael Massing devastatingly dissected the work of one embeddee, the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable. “I quickly became part of an all-American military microcosm” in Fallujah, Constable wrote, with the Iraqi enemy “invisible” and the residents “frustratingly beyond our reach.”

Local informant: Constable cradles Apache, a dog she rescued while embedded with Marines in Fallujah. Photo by Chris Borouncle

Local informant: Constable cradles Apache, a dog she rescued while embedded with Marines in Fallujah. Photo by Chris Borouncle

I strained to listen for signs of humanity in the darkened city. I imagined holocaust—city blocks in flames, families running and screaming. But the only sounds were the baying of frightened dogs and the indecipherable chanting of muezzins, filling the air with a soft cacophony of Koranic verse. … We knew people were running out of food, and we heard rumors of clinics flooded with the dead and wounded. But the few Fallujans we encountered were either prisoners with handcuffed wrists and hooded heads, or homeowners waiting sullenly for their houses to be searched, or refugees timidly approaching military checkpoints with white flags … Sometimes on patrols, people approached us reporters and pleaded for help in Arabic, but there was nothing we could do.

Massing commented:

Al-Jazeera, by contrast, had a correspondent and crew inside the city, and several times a day they were filing dramatic reports of the fighting. According to their accounts, the US bombing was causing hundreds of civilian casualties plus extensive physical destruction. As for what Constable took to be the Koranic chantings of the muezzin, Arabic speakers could tell that these were actually urgent appeals for ambulances and calls on the local population to rise up and fight the Americans. So while Arab viewers were getting independent (if somewhat sensationalized) reports from the field, Americans were getting their news filtered through the Marines.

Embedded, of course, is what Brian Williams was during his fantasy brush with death. This illumines the last key tool in the propagandization of US press: personal melodrama replaced analysis. If Al-Jazeera sensationalized the situation, US media sensationalized the individual story. There was no big picture. The war was a pointillistic canvas of feel-good or feel-frightened tales, politics and context painted over.

Still from video of special forces

Still from video of special forces “rescuing” Private Jessica Lynch. Image: Associated Press

One story is still emblematic. In March 2003, Iraqi troops captured Private Jessica Lynch, a 19 year-old from Palestine, West Virginia. American officials claimed she was wounded in a heroic fight, firing her weapon down to the last bullet. US special forces rescued her eight days later from a hospital in Nasriyah; dramatic footage of the mission was broadcast worldwide.

Newsweek cover, April 14, 2003

Newsweek cover, April 14, 2003

Except, as David Dadge writes, “Lynch had not been wounded, she had not been tortured, and the raid by the Navy Seals was staged for the cameras. Indeed, her injuries were entirely consistent with a road traffic incident.” It took the BBC, not US media, to unravel the story: “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.”

Witnesses told us that the special forces knew that the Iraqi military had fled a day before they swooped on the hospital. “We were surprised. Why do this? There was no military, there were no soldiers in the hospital,” said Dr Anmar Uday, who worked at the hospital. … “They cried ‘go, go, go’, with guns and blanks without bullets, blanks and the sound of explosions. They made a show for the American attack on the hospital — action movies like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan.” …

The Pentagon had been influenced by Hollywood producers of reality TV and action movies, notably the man behind Black Hawk Down, Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer advised the Pentagon on the primetime television series “Profiles from the Front Line”, that followed US forces in Afghanistan in 2001. That approached [sic] was taken on and developed on the field of battle in Iraq.

Surreally, the movie that became news became another movie. Networks besieged Lynch to buy the rights to her story. CBS came in for especially harsh criticism for chasing a film deal while seeking a news interview — giving them a vested interest in not unearthing the truth. The onetime sacrosanct news division shrank to an extension of the entertainment arm. Even Lynch’s hometown newspaper objected: “The need for journalistic independence should be self-evident. Reporters have a hard enough time trying to get to the truth without having to worry about spoiling a book deal.” The military version, debunked, still became an NBC TV movie: Saving Jessica Lynch.

Based on the not-true story

Based on the not-true story

All the elements of  Brian Williams’ fable are there: danger, rescue, rhetoric. It’s as if Williams took Lynch as a pattern for his lie.

Williams himself has been central to transforming news into personal narrative. He’s expert at making himself the story, assiduously chasing celebrity. He’s vital to NBC’s brand, even the entertainment division – think his cameos on 30 Rock. The “ultra-viral supercuts of Williams’s newscasts” that his pal Jimmy Fallon sets to hip-hop tracks have “viewer metrics that rival Williams’s marquee hard news interview with Edward Snowden.” Walter Cronkite polled as the most trusted man in America (22 notches above Williams) back in the 1970s. But it’s hard to imagine him playing himself on Family Guy.

Then and now. L: Walter Cronkite reports on space exploration in the 1960s. R: Brian Williams reports on Peter Griffin's accidental space shuttle launch.

Then and now. L: Walter Cronkite reports on space exploration in the 1960s. R: Brian Williams reports on Peter Griffin’s accidental space shuttle launch.

Williams is a Jay Gatsby for our condition, taking over a self and story nobody else was using, to compensate for the vacancy of his own. But precisely because of that you mustn’t make his fable his personal fault. What matters isn’t the man but the environment that made him, where news isn’t fact but a superior sort of fiction, a compound of inflated personalities and imagined stories, a mirror to reality TV. That should be the scandal.

The Iraq war was a turning point, when news dropped even the pretense of informing people. In fact, news about the war left them even less informed than before. In late 2003, for instance, a study found that 69% of the mainstream media audience believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11; 57% believed Iraq was closely tied to Al-Qaeda; 22% percent believed weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. And these delusions couldn’t just be blamed on liberals’ usual bogeymen. 71% of CBS viewers held one or more of these fictions as gospel — only slightly behind Fox News viewers, at 80%.

Writing this, I’ve immersed myself again in the non-events, the fake history, between 9/11 and the fall of Baghdad, and I find it horrible anew. The years were a delirium when hardly anything you heard was true. The war was like those lost seasons of Dallas or Roseanne; like Pam, we dreamed it all, and Williams’ dream was only a segment in the greater reverie. Yet while we were dreaming, others were dying. Why aren’t we scandalized by that? They died because we could not endure opening our eyes. Estimates of “excess deaths” among Iraqis in the war years range from 100,000 (for the war’s first 18 months) to 650,000 (by 2006). Those include deaths from disease and deprivation; one figure for those who died by violence alone is 150,000. That is thirty times the mortality of U.S. troops in our violent dreamtime. Our dreams had no responsibilities. Are we awake yet? “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?”

US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

I didn’t watch US news often during the 2003 war. During the months of buildup and the war itself, I remember (I think) being in Cairo, working for Human Rights Watch. I remember (I think) going to weekly demonstrations, at Sayyeda Zeinab or Cairo University, where a few hundred brave people protested the wars: students, leftists, Nasserists, Islamists. I remember (I think) cordons of Central Security police and intelligence officers around the demonstrations, helmeted, black-clad, armed, outnumbering the protesters ten to one. I remember (I think) the day the war broke out; I remember seeing Edward Said in the garden of the Marriott Hotel, gaunt and sick, amid an atmosphere too grim for me to dare approach. I remember (I think) the smell of tear gas drifting across the garden. I remember (I think) how forty thousand people gathered against the war in Midan Tahrir that afternoon, a presage of the revolution eight years later; I remember (I think) how Mubarak’s police beat them back, broke bodies, arrested thousands of leftists and tortured them. I remember (I think) spending the next week with lawyers day and night, going to police stations, collecting names and testimonies, documenting the brutality of America’s Egyptian proconsul. I remember (I think) the night that Baghdad fell. I was in the Greek Club, the ancient gathering place of Cairo’s intellectuals; a funereal somberness hung over the place, because the dictator had fled, and that should be an reason for rejoicing, but no one could see anything to come of the manner of his overthrow but violence, vengeance, division, death.

I remember they were right.

I remember something that did not happen. Late in 2002, while war talk crescendoed, I had a dream. I dreamed I was in a house somewhere on the American coast, I think in South Carolina (one of the most militarized states in the Union, fat with factories and military bases). A highway intervened between the house and the grey ocean. In the dream, I heard a rumble as of something monstrous on the move; I looked out and the road was thick with a long convoy of tanks, of armored personnel carriers, of trucks loaded with anti-aircraft guns and missiles, with armaments I couldn’t even name; they thundered by endlessly, more and more and more. I asked what they were and a disembodied voice said, “They are going to Iraq.” They spent hours passing while I tried to sleep, an incessant cavalcade, as if all the destruction the world was capable of were amassing somewhere and could not be stopped. They drowned the surf under the grind of wheels. I huddled in bed, terrified. When I say that didn’t happen, I mean it was a dream; it wasn’t true. But it was more real than any of the news I saw over the long years since.

Remembering 9/11, by Pat Linse

Remembering 9/11, by Pat Linse

Obama, marriage, race, rights

I had brunch today with the kids who changed the President’s mind. If you’ll remember, when Barack Obama ten days ago declared his support for same-sex marriage, he cited “members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.” There was one member of the White House staff during the presidential term who was both queer and a parent — she even took the bairns to meet the Leader of the Free World and get their pictures snapped — and this shining Sunday, she and her partner entertained. The twins in question are extremely self-possessed toddlers, who could probably persuade me of anything given the chance. I hope no one informs them of their role in history for some time yet. To have succeeded at so much at so young an age could drain them of the ambition to get through kindergarten.

Everything has already been said about what Obama said. Consider this:

President Barack Obama’s May 9 announcement that he favors same sex marriage led to a huge spike on YouTube … YouTube is owned by the online search giant Google, which [also] saw a 458 percent increase in national searches for “Obama” and “gay marriage” between 10 am and 6pm the day Obama disclosed his views …

Matthew Nisbit, a professor of communications at American University who studies the intersection of politics and social media, said online videos and an interest in gay rights were a natural pairing. “The heaviest users of video are people under the age of 25, and gay rights is one of the few political issues young people feel passionate about,” Nisbit said. “And the gay community was an early adopter of social networking—the technology was a good fit for people of minority status looking for like-minded others.”

Following Obama’s announcement, more videos with the key words “gay marriage” were uploaded on YouTube than ever before, drawing more than 3 million views and 100,000 comments.

Am I the only person who finds that terrifying?

Anyway, I can add nothing but point to a couple of interesting consistencies in all those images and words.

What am I pointing at? Huck and Jim on the raft, by Thomas Hart Benton

You might call one of them the Persistent Sexiness of Race, or Raciness of Sex. Put simply: sex and race are the two authentic American obsessions. But so close are they to every American’s pulsing heart that proximity induces blindness, and natives of these territories have considerable difficulty telling them apart, or deciphering where, when, or how they interrelate or -twine. On one day, your average white American will go from believing that sex was invented by non-white people — carried to this shore to sap the moral rigor of austere Puritans who reproduced by spores — to supposing that non-white people are fierce enemies of sex in general, paralyzed by their primitive inability to appreciate orgasms, orifices, or online porn. When it comes to homosexuality, there are thus two versions. Either black people are responsible for it, because they got the gender roles all wrong (“Come back to the raft ag’in, Huck honey!” cries Jim in the one true, classic narrative of the American Dream, and surely the white boy’s comparative health is figured in the fact that his name rhymes with “Fuck” as any proper man’s should); or black people are going, by their weird and regressive goetic magic at the ballot box, to forbid loving white people from enjoying the rightful dignity of gay marriages in jurisdictions from Palo Alto to High Point.

It’s inevitable, then, that the first African-American president’s support for LGBT people should be read through these antinomies. Even before Obama took the plunge, the Washington Post warned him:

African Americans, one of the main pillars of the President’s political coalition, remain decidedly skeptical about gay marriage. In the last year’s worth of Post-ABC [polling] data, just 42 percent said they support legalization while 55 percent oppose it. … Coming out in support of gay marriage … would clearly thrill a portion of his base (gays and lesbians) but it could alienate — at least in parts — another portion of his base (African Americans) that he desperately needs to win reelection this fall.

Now, there is plenty of counter-evidence of sympathy and support in black communities. Just yesterday the executive board of the N.A.A.C.P. — the country’s “most prominent civil rights group,” as the New York Times notes — overwhelmingly passed a resolution declaring that “We support marriage equality consistent with equal protection under the law provided under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.” The legendary African-American activist Julian Bond told the Times that the vote “proves that conventional wisdom” about black opposition to marriage equality “is not true.”

Still, where there are divisions, as many people have pointed out, the tenor of white LGBT activists’ advocacy bears a substantial share of the blame. Last week Andrew Sullivan (who wept when his “father figure” affirmed his marital authenticity) wrote a piece for Newsweek, speculatively borrowing Obama’s racial identity in service to Sullivan’s own gay one:

Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet. He had to discover his black identity and then reconcile it with his white family, just as gays discover their homosexual identity and then have to reconcile it with their heterosexual family.

It’s not the same, you want to scream. Experience is not to be expropriated like that. Assimilating race to sexuality, as though both were purely defined by internal awareness and “discovered” the same way, is likely to put off plenty of non-gay African-Americans, and possibly some gay ones. Moreover, Sullivan has an unerring instinct for finding ways to be more alienating.  It’s an article of his faith that he invented the campaign for gay marriage, and that it’s a right-wing idea. (How Sullivan continues to call himself conservative, when he dissents from the right on every issue from Obamacare to Israel, is one of the present era’s greater mysteries. The only leftists he appears to dislike are the gay ones, perhaps more from sour memories than ideology.) “Marriage equality started out as a conservative revolt within the gay community,” he wrote: “Gay conservatives and Republicans helped pioneer gay marriage as an issue.” And in a rather pissy-sounding email to Gay City News (capable of making anyone pissy, to be sure), he added:

[I]t was a struggle to be heard above those on the left arguing for employment protection, hate crimes, and economic ‘justice’ as core priorities… Without the emergence of the gay right, I don’t think we would have come as far as we have.

Those quotes taloning “justice” are the giveaway. They show how little a perspective informed by Sullivan would make sense to many African-Americans, for whom material inequality and economic reality are the urgent facts of politics.

It’s true that “civil marriage is a civil right and a matter of civil law,” as the N.A.A.C.P’s president said; and as one former N.A.A.C.P. official informed the TImes, the resolution entailed “coming to a very civil rights understanding of marriage equality versus a theological understanding of marriage.” Does that make marriage “the new civil rights movement,” though? Does that make Obama’s embrace the equivalent (as Jonathan Rauch suggests) of LBJ adopting MLK’s language and intoning, “We shall overcome”? Uh, no. Marriage is a civil right, but not a political right. Being deprived of it marks out “impaired citizenship,” in Gayle Rubin’s phrase; but it doesn’t mark you as deprived of entry, respect, resources, or decision-making throughout the entire public realm.  The laws and prejudices that did isolate LGBT people in that way have, in the US, largely receded over forty or fifty years, thanks to the long labors of people living and dead; it’s only possible to talk about marriage because those more terrible impediments have eased.  Imagine living your lifetime without the right to marry, and then imagine living it without the right to vote. You’ll understand what I mean, and maybe see why the uncritical comparison to the civil rights movement is, for some African-Americans, annoying.

Huey P. Newton, 1942-1989

That said, African-American history has confronted the denial of both rights — slave marriages, of course, had no status in law, and African slaves were unable to make a legal contract. There are several things to draw from this, but one is that the “outreach” model — where white gay activists troop out to teach African-American communities why the marriage battle is important — is crazy. Too much experience and wisdom about having your rights curtailed lie on the other side. Listening and learning are a better stance for marriage activists than presumptuously leaping to the parallels. And a deep African-American engagement with the issues we would now call “sexual rights” goes back centuries –certainly way farther back than the movement activist Bayard Rustin, a true civil rights hero who seems, all the same, to be the only black gay man some people can name these days. (Obama has now put a tribute to him on his campaign website.) In my perverse way, I prefer to cite  Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, who on August 15, 1970 gave a speech on “The Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements”:

Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion. I say “whatever your insecurities are” because as we very well know, sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth, and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid that we might be homosexual; and we want to hit the women or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not have to start with.

We must gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people. … Remember, we have not established a revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing it.

Now, that’s honest.

The second consistent note of the Obama commentaries is what I would call the Politics of Premature Ejaculation. It consists of announcing, midway through any controversy,  that it’s over, all over — even though the fat lady has neither sung, nor shivered, nor even opened her mouth. Liberals, acolytes of Enlightenment and its pre-ordained triumphs, are particularly prone to this. Thus the American Prospect proclaimed the war over marriage equality “is over,” the opposition a “lost cause.” “Support for marriage equality has crossed the halfway point, and no one in their right mind could think there will be some reversal in that trend.” Yet conservative David Link also contended, “As a national matter, today we can envision as a reality the last days of government discrimination.”

This contention is a bit weird, since national polls don’t decide the issue. In 31 states, it’s already decided. That’s the number that have added amendments to their constitutions banning recognition of same-sex marriages, all since the marriage wars began.  North Carolina passed the latest, the day before the President’s announcement. Unless a certain four justices of the US Supreme Court all perish of salmonella from eating Nino Scalia’s calamari, and Obama gets to replace them, most of these bans will take decades to reverse, either by votes or courts.

everything that rises must converge

Nonetheless, two successive Gallup soundings have now shown a thin majority in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, a far cry from the nearly two-thirds opposed a decade and a half ago. This is neither final victory nor the tidal inevitability of Progress, but it is no negligible fact, either. The commentariat is busy trying to explain the sea-change: is is the neighbors? is it the TV?

Did popular culture bring us here –  … Ellen Degeneres and popular sitcoms like ABC’s “Modern Family”? Or is our liberalized attitude just a cumulative effect of the straight community having more contact with “out” gay couples who, like them, just strive to form loving families and raise well-adjusted kids?

I have a different take. Opinions changed on marriage because marriage didn’t change anything.

the weather in Sodom: maybe we should move the wedding inside

For all the apocalypse predicted when Massachusetts went off the deep end into Gomorrah in 2004, the impact of eight states opening civil marriage to same-sex couples has been pretty much nonexistent. For the couples themselves — those who availed themselves of the opportunity — it’s been nice enough, primarily in terms of symbolic recognition (all at the local level; federal rights, which include immigration and income-tax benefits, of course are still debarred.) But nobody else has been inconvenienced in the slightest. Nobody else’s marriage was devalued or changed in any way. Most people didn’t even notice. Of course, Pat Robertson and preacherdom can fulminate that brimstone impends: “In history there’s never been a civilization ever in history [sic] that has embraced homosexuality and turned away from traditional fidelity, traditional marriage, traditional child-rearing, and has survived.”  But eight years after avenging fires should have crisped us, the polity continues as if nothing had happened at all.

If you believe, as many people now do, that marriage is the end point and goal of LGBT people’s liberation struggles, this is all remarkable. How many revolutions have succeeded by changing nothing? When in history has a people been granted rights long denied them, and left everybody else completely undisturbed? America is still grappling with the massive consequences and implications of African-Americans’ sixty year-old civil rights movement, even if it remained unfinished. Europe’s emancipation of the Jews in the nineteenth century still has echoes, heard alike in debates about the conduct of Israel and the identity of France. Most contemporary social movements — the ones the French call the révolution des sans — are defined by people wanting something others have. The sans papiers, the immigrants, want to break the borders; the sans emploi want jobs and benefits; the sans abri, housing. The enthusiasm and the resistance they rouse both reside in the struggle to wrest those things away from their accumulators, to redistribute possessions and prepositions, to turn “without” into a “with.” Is the movement of the sans épouses distinctive in that it doesn’t ask anybody to bother?

really a very simple request

You could argue that this means the gay movement’s inner meaning really is conservative, as Sullivan argues. If marriage is its core issue, then the movement has no positive demands to make on government, for benefits or protections. It just wants a little recognition; then leave it alone. It’s a very good movement, modest in its aspirations and quiet in its manner, leaving the peace unbreached and the indifferent untroubled. David Link writes, “However we get to marriage equality, I’m going to view that as the end of the line.  I don’t want the government discriminating against me, and once it doesn’t, my activist days will be over.” But he adds:

The left expects more of government.  In addition to not discriminating itself, the left believes government should also act to prohibit others from discriminating, and should do a lot more as well.

And beyond that, there was an old left dream of social transformation as well: an idea, often slipping toward the Utopian, that individual lives and their interconnections could be radically renewed. And should be. Changez la vie! Sous les pavés, la plage. And more.

I don’t think Link quite gets what the movement has really done.

My belief is: the sheer innocuousness of the success of marriage doesn’t mean the LGBT movement itself is innocuous. It means that the historic meaning, the larger impact, of the LGBT movement lies quite elsewhere. There is a radical change, partly accomplished and partly still to be fulfilled, that marriage misses. It’s not that marriage is an unimportant goal; but it is only achievable when the deeper, the more lasting and far-reaching challenges to reality as it was given us have been launched and felt. Some historian a century from now, I’d guess, would see the real effects of the movement not in wedding vows but in the widespread acceptance of a radical claim to everybody’s sexual freedom and bodily autonomy; the insistent assertion that customarily “private” acts have public and political relevance; the tectonic shifts in gender roles and the way they’re understood. When we — by we I meant the movement, or the movements — talk about marriage as our political terminus ad quem, we are a bit like Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities, contemplating courses that are perfectly plausible but somehow not quite authentic, not his life’s meaning, not himself. “But whatever destiny awaited him, he knew it must be something entirely different.”

N.B. For a collection of skeptical writings about same-sex marriage and US politics, see the resources here. 

On choice

Cynthia did not put adequate thought into the ramifications of her words

The Cynthia Nixon scandal roils on. I’ve stopped keeping count of who’s blaming her for what these days; the last I heard, she was responsible for kids being electroshocked in Tennessee. Loose lips sink ships; but it seems that Cynthia’s, like a Helen of Troy in reverse, have torpedoed a thousand of them. It all reminds me a bit of G.W. Bush’s press secretary, in the chilly first days of our War of Terror, warning critics that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”   I am not sure that Guantanamo has a cage or two for loquacious actors, but I gather some folks wish it did.

In discussing the affair, Andrew Sullivan graciously linked to my own post, and the question of what would happen if we treated sexual orientation like religion, “a decision so profoundly a part of one’s elected and constructed selfhood that one should never be forced to change it.” He added:

Of course, I don’t actually experience my faith as a choice, in the usual sense of the word. It feels as deep a part of me as my orientation.

Those two sentences rang true, and they pointed me to a basic question. What do we mean by “choice,” anyway?   There are certain cultural horizons that define people as much as any biological ones do.  And thinking about these things can make the concept of “choice” seem inadequate as a way of grasping how human beings act, decide, and are.

It’s inadequate, at least, if taken in the way we moderns tend to treat it, as a pure act of untrammeled freedom, occurring on an abstract plane vacated of constraints or pasts.  Andrew has stuck with being a Catholic despite the Church’s best efforts to make people like him pariahs. Is that courage, or acceptance? I would bet at some point he has expressed this as “I choose to be a Catholic because” … But I would also bet he has expressed it as “I can’t imagine not being a Catholic because…” Both seem to me equally valid ways of saying much the same thing – equally true pictures of the same situation, only seen from different aspects, like the blind men groping the elephant. We don’t always choose by making pure, existential leaps in the dark, like Kierkegaard or Lord Jim. Sometimes our freedom consists in staying rather than in going, though to stay means embracing the conditions that formed us and limit us. Sometimes we choose by being, not deciding.

For myself, though I am certainly not a practicing Christian, though I was not raised in an especially devout family, and though I believe virtually nothing of Christian dogma, when I’m asked about my religion I almost always describe myself as Christian – because certain aspects of a religion that in other ways I loathe form my horizon still. The myths of resurrection and redemption are deeply if inarticulately ingrained in me,  frames of hope and mercy through which I understand the world. (I have tried telling people I’m an “agnostic Christian,” but it nearly always makes everybody terribly mad.)  I confess to a mild, instinctive mistrust of people who convert from one whole religious tradition to another: Muslims who become Christian, or Christians who become Hindus, switches like that.  (I make something of an exception for Buddhism, since it is less a religion than a philosophical stance.)  At some gut level I feel you can lose your religion and become an atheist, but you can’t just take on a completely different tradition, with all its weight and taboos and cultural baggage. Such converts appear to me at times like followers of Gilbert Osmond, the cold-blooded collector of culture in James’ Portrait of a Lady, who said that if you happen to find yourself one day without a tradition, it’s incumbent on you to purchase a new one as rapidly as possible. But that won’t work!  I feel like shouting. You can scrap your original one, but that doesn’t mean the new one you try to own will own you.

Objectively, I realize this is completely silly. To change your beliefs in one compartment of your life doesn’t make you a luftmensch (a person of the air, as the Nazis called the supposedly rootless Jews). Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with being a luftmensch.  Air is healthy. My point is that I feel a weight, a drag, of resistance to the idea that choice is unconditioned, and I feel it in areas completely apart from the putatively destined, determined realms of sexuality or desire. There’s not some simple antinomy where genes decide a part of who we are, and all the rest is up for grabs. Everybody has their arenas where they feel freer, and others where they feel fixed. Our histories decide them, not just some biological allotment.

Another instance: I know I am and will always remain a middle-class American. Being rich or being poor, moving to another country, even changing my passport wouldn’t alter that. Wherever I’ve lived outside the US borders,  I’ve always eschewed the American expatriate scene. You don’t go abroad in order to make new American friends.  But from time to time, every couple of months or so, I found I needed to talk to my fellow countrypeople. Not to share political chat, or explore our economic interests, or voice some gross contempt for the locals: But because there was a subtler if more trivial common horizon of pop culture, of gestures comprehended and jokes understood, of TV commercials we watched when we were kids.  I needed that to remind me of who I was. Living in Romania, I might have a lover who was Romanian, and we might understand each other better than anybody else in the world did. But he still didn’t know why the silly rabbit could never eat Trix. Sometimes I needed to talk to people who knew that Trix was for kids.

It’s strange I should feel this about religion or nationality, by objective standards fairly contingent things, when I firmly believe we can change our genders. But gender, when it’s assigned to us at birth, isn’t given us with a history. As we grow up, it takes on all kind of symbolic meanings, but doesn’t necessarily acquire a past.   Being a “man” doesn’t require associating yourself with the whole history of manhood (some model figures, yes, but manhood itself doesn’t have a story). It’s forward-looking. You will become a man, fathers tell their sons, you will grow into manhood. Gender is a project, a perpetual becoming. It’s easier to abandon a future than a past. By contrast, faith and class are part not just of our personal histories, but of the immensely longer history behind us. Some people can liberate themselves from that history to greater or less degrees; some don’t want to.   But whether any one area of your life has been thus liberated as against another is, perhaps, a morally neutral question. What Kant called the project of autonomy, the task of ridding yourself of the vast weight of the given, is necessarily partial. No one can ever denude herself altogether. Recognizing that you can never place all your life under the dominion of choice, you must choose where you will strive to exercise your choices.

Our language around “choice,” and “freedom,” is terribly impoverished. By “ours” I mean “us Americans”: but also parts of the LGBT movement in many places around the world, which have got their vocabulary and a fragment of their worldview from an American definition. This is one consequence of being from a place where choice is so valorized, so elevated as the sole intent of life, that no one bothers to define or interrogate what it means. We either imagine that choice is completely free, untrammeled,  taking place in a vacuum –or that we’re completely constrained, controlled,  defined, overdetermined creatures of an implacable destiny. It’s obvious, and yet hard to articulate, that neither is true.  It’s telling that one side in the most extended U.S. political battle of the last forty years couches its advocacy in terms of the “right to choose.”  It’s never the right to choose something – to have an abortion or not, to carry a child to term or not. All that’s elided, as though “choice” summed up that and everything else that could be said. Certainly, this rhetoric was field-tested for palatability and persuasiveness, and I cringe to cavil at it. Equally certainly, controlling reproduction opens up for women a whole repertory of other choices that would otherwise be closed.  But insistently reiterating a right to unlimited choice must turn many a listener’s mind to all the things she never had a choice over: the hand-me-down clothes in childhood, the crappy carpet that came with the house, the job, the husband. And with that comes resentment, a feeling such choice is less a right than an invidious privilege.  Has this whole strategy worked out the way we planned?

The truth is that we choose; and we choose from a repertory that our pasts have given us; and we choose as beings who are already endowed with histories behind us, not sprung fresh and new from Jupiter’s head or the half-shell.  We bring our lives to our choices. What would they be worth otherwise?

Being in love is a bit like what I’m talking about.  There has to be an element of free will in it, otherwise nobody would want your love. To be sure, nobody in love feels entirely free. Nobody deludes themselves they’re in full command of their feelings. Yet who would wish to be presented with an attachment that’s just a bundle of involuntary drives? Who would like to be told, “Honey, my hormones selected you,” even if they get a bouquet of roses into the bargain? From one side it’s an unstoppable passion, but that’s not the only aspect. The side from which we can say we chose the loved one represents our respect, not just for them as deserving objects of desire, but for ourselves as reasonable beings who deserve to be desired back.    And yet, of course, it’s a determined choice. And of course, love opens up a Pandora’s jewelry box of further choices everyday: To stay or to go, to accommodate or argue, to speak or be silent, to share or not to share.  In our intimacies where we struggle most to be ourselves, choice and compulsion are inextricably intertwined.

Nixon in "Wit": The bald truth

Maybe we in the United States need a bit more Edmund Burke, to ground our sense of freedom in a context.  Burke understood that when we vote our ancestors vote with us: that we are inheritors of history, not just its inhabitants and masters.   But that knowledge is not just a property of the Right. Marx too grasped that our consciousness is conditioned, that history makes us before we can make it.

Nor do philosophers map the only road to realizing this. A poet or two has been there first. These days Cynthia Nixon is reading John Donne on Broadway (the New York Times, which exposed her heresy on “choice,” gave her a glorious review to make up for it).   Perhaps, in her private moments when the audience is gone, she also whispers to herself some lines from Auden:

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

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

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

 

Chronicles of “pinkwashing”: The hue and cry

roll with it

Probably most readers here by now have also read my colleague Sarah Schulman’s op-ed on “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing,'” which to its credit the New York Times published last week. If you haven’t, read it. Before I get to my point — which is the helpful additional documentation of Israel’s campaign that Schulman has since compiled — it may be useful to review some of the myriad incensed reactions the piece drew: to borrow Mary McCarthy’s description of the attacks on Hannah Arendt forty-five years ago, the hue and the cry.

Here goes:

1) The neo-conservative hair salon Harry’s Place argues that Schulman is wrong because, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood. Whatever you say about Israel there is, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood, and, you know, something. Obviously she is wrong, because of the Muslim Brotherhood. Really wrong. I told you so, and if. Just look. The Muslim Brotherhood.

Harry’s Place repeatedly republishes the writings of chronically inaccurate episodically accurate blogger Paul Canning, as well as inveterate liar speaker of power to truth Peter Tatchell, and some of their freewheeling ways with facts must be rubbing off, because Harry and his placemen blame me for Schulman too. I am, apparently, “one of the most active proponents of this strategy” (that is, enlisting the gays toward “ending Jewish self-determination in Israel”) even though I’ve only written about “pinkwashing” once, and nobody read it. It’s flattering to be admitted to the grand conspiracy. Minds as creative and sophisticated as Harry’s Place’s bloggers, back in the days when they found ready employment in the Okhrana, would have given me an honored role in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. To think I missed my chance as a literary character by little more than a century! Still, there’s hope. Harry’s henchmen well know that I’m a paid apologist for Iran, and just this morning I did my first PR work for the Muslim Brotherhood. With a little boost from David Toube and Brett (the wee racist who loves the phrase “ni**er balls”) Lock, I can look forward to a stint as the villain on the next iteration of 24. Gitmo, here I come!

2) Dwarf reporter Jamie Kirchick fulminates intensely in a high-pitched voice. Schulman and her allies refuse to “acknowledge the suffering of Palestinian gays,” who suffer constantly from being forced to be Palestinian, and who, in addition to being the only Palestinians Jamie Kirchick likes, are the only Palestinians who suffer at all; the rest of Palestinians either rest happily in the knowledge that their lands are being well-tended by Jewish settlers, or agree with Kirchick that they never existed in the first place. Rightly indignant, Kirchick flails his tiny fists against the wall:

Schulman and her ilk are in fact using the issue of gay rights to forward an ulterior agenda. So consumed are they by hatred of Israel that they are willing to distort the truth about the horrible repression of homosexuals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. … Schulman ends up making excuses for people who kill homosexuals… [She] lays bare the delusion, paranoia, and cynicism of the Jewish state’s most earnest detractors.

Although Kirchick’s article has gone largely unnoticed in the United States, many dogs and hamsters in Australia, driven mad by the shrill, distant whine, threw themselves into the Tasman Sea.

3) Andrew Sullivan, who is still recovering from an interview Schulman subjected him to in 1999 (“I think you’re not a leader who has emerged from the community; I think you’ve been selected by the dominant group”) attempts his rhetorical revenge:

Schulman is a hardcore gay leftist, and her argument is as preposterous as Jamie notes. … What you see in Schulman’s ideology is actually a distrust of gay advancement if it isn’t simultaneously part of some grander leftist ideological agenda, and subordinate to it. Hence the gay left’s historic opposition to marriage equality and military service and their reluctance to accept that AIDS has gone from a plague to a disease in the mid-1990s for the affluent West.

These are all the things that Schulman grilled him on in 1999, and clearly if only she had agreed with him then that uxoriously married gay staff sergeants on expensive triple therapies represent the only hope for survival of the human race, she would not now be going off on these radical kicks. Queer Palestinians a) can’t marry; b) have no regular army; and c) mostly can’t afford triple therapies. Losers! Forget the bastards.

4) It’s a relief to move from these people to someone I’ve never heard of. Of course, if I were a more knowledgeable anti-Semite I would probably recognize that David Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, and moreover that he describes himself (people always write their own online bios) as:

one of the Jewish people’s leading advocates and most eloquent spokesmen. The Executive Director of AJC since 1990, he travels the globe meeting with world leaders to advance the well-being of Israel, combat anti-Semitism, monitor the condition of Jewish communities, and promote intergroup and interreligious understanding.

I leave evaluating the full force of his eloquence (as against Moses Mendelssohn, Rahel Varnhagen, Heinrich Heine, Paul Celan?) to others. Here he is, though, dazzling us like Demosthenes, and wondering why

Amidst all the turmoil going on in the world today, the editors chose to publish a column entitled “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing.'”

Yes!  The turmoil in Israel (and “Palestine”) is trivial compared to all the turmoil elsewhere; unless, of course, someone actually criticizes Israel, in which case they’re worth at least a column in the Huffington Post. With practice pebbles filling his mouth, the orator goes on:

Were I a gay activist today, would my one shot at reaching the Times‘ global readership be devoted to Israel’s alleged misdeeds, even as I could live freely there and celebrate my lifestyle without hindrance?

We all get our fifteen minutes; we each get one op-ed in this easy-to-waste life; so use it wisely!  If you’re gay, do something for the gays. Celebrate your own lifestye. Don’t fritter those precious paragraphs away on other people.   When, after all, did any of “the Jewish people’s leading advocates and most eloquent spokesmen” ever worry about universal ethics, universal rights and liberties, or the general condition of the human race? From Spinoza to Levinas, the modern Jewish intellectual tradition has been one of a much-needed insularity and inwardness, as my fellow authors of the Protocols certainly knew. In any case, David Harris has done his bit this week to advance the well-being of Israel and combat anti-Semitism. He can probably miss a meeting, or even two, with world leaders, and take a long weekend. The gays can also thank him for taking a moment to celebrate their lifestyle. It’s generous of him to notice.

All that said, you should take a look at Schulman’s chronicle of how Israel’s campaign to enlist international LGBT support has developed. The details are here. I disagree with a few particulars, but the overall point is clear: the campaign has been explicit and acknowledged by the Israeli government. It’s no secret. It’s not, from Netanyahu’s perspective, any shame. They know what they’re up to and they’re fairly open about it. We see again the peculiar disconnect between what can be said in Israel about Israel, and what can be said about Israel in the US: things that almost every Israeli knows are denied to the last breath and rendered unmentionable by its American defenders. It’s a weird dynamic. But it’s all the more reason that, for all their hue and cry, the minuscule Kirchicks and the huff-and-puffing Harry’s Placemats are not just duplicitous but self-deceiving, and can and should — safely and for the sake of one’s own sanity — be ignored.

P.S.: In the comments, Ben Doherty points out some resources on the subject of “pinkwashing”: http://www.pinkwatchingisrael.com/ and http://electronicintifada.net/tags/pinkwashing, and http://www.bdsmovement.net/ (search for pinkwashing).

One additional point is worth making. These writers don’t just attack Sarah Schulman’s position on Israel/Palestine. They delegitimate her (to use one of their favorite words) as an LGBT rights activist, because (and never mind the question of how issues intersect!) she has other concerns as well. Thus it’s not enough to say she’s wrong about Palestine. She cares about non-gays, and therefore she wants to kill homosexuals, which is more or less what Jamie Kirchick claims. I’ve been through this before with these people, on one of their favorite obsessions, Iran; they apparently believe that the very idea of the universality of human rights is somehow lethal to the gays, as they also believe —  more rationally — that it’s dangerous to the policies of the state of Israel. If there’s one thing that’s ridiculous, it’s having to defend Sarah Schulman as a queer activist. As somebody who lived and worked and fought and never gave up through the worst years of AIDS in the US, she knows considerably more about the lives and deaths of gays than Kirchick or David Toube ever will. I must acknowledge that when I started as an activist (I presume this places me firmly in my century) her novel People in Trouble was one of my inspirations. I bought a number of copies and left them in Romania, where I was working at the time. I hear they still give direction to some young activists there, in a country where people have also seen the darkness and the light, and know more about human rights than most of these dismissible scribblers in the US and the UK possibly can.