I’ve lost interest in being gay. Not the sex; the slogans. This has been gathering over time — whose identity wouldn’t shudder under the dark suspicion it was shared with John Travolta? — but something changed when coming out stopped being a matter of self-affirmation, with its secret thrill of hedonism, and became a moral obligation. What’s the fun of being yourself if you have to?
Everyone must be out now; and it’s not enough to be out, you have to be out enough to affirm the community, uplift the race. Thus Guy Branum (“writer and comedian”) has reprimanded Nate Silver, the numbers man, who announced he was gay a couple of years ago. Silver topped off his moment of candor, however, with a demurral: “I don’t want to be Nate Silver, gay statistician.” Wrong.
Silver’s refusal to fully participate in gay identity is the real problem … We can’t behave like Nate Silver’s choice to distance himself from gay culture is just another choice. … We need to make it safe for a statistician to be gay and have it affect their work, because some people are gay, some people are black, some people are women and all of those perspectives can enrich all fields. Nate Silver being a gay statistician will help that. [emphasis added]
Just as Philip Roth had to be a Jewish novelist, and Toni Morrison had to be a black writer, constrained in the gated communities of identity, so “yes, Nate Silver, you have to be a gay statistician.” Coming out isn’t just a public act because it’s addressed to a public, but because it’s owned by one.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, came out this week, and oh the humanity. People didn’t just congratulate him; they hailed him as Moses or Martin Luther King, as if he hadn’t just written an op-ed in Bloomberg Businessweek but had revised the Bible.
“Tim Cook’s announcement today will save countless lives. He has always been a role model, but today millions across the globe will draw inspiration from a different aspect of his life”
— so said Chad Griffin of the Human RIghts Campaign. Apple is “a sponsor of the Human Rights Campaign” (“The work we do with these groups is meaningful and inspiring,” the company says). While it’s impossible to decipher how much money they ladle out, they give enough to make them an HRC “Platinum Partner.” HRC thus slobbers on the hand that feeds it. But some praise for Cook is unpaid. The unbribeable New York Times quoted the unbribeable Lloyd Blankfein, of Goldman Sachs: “He’s chief executive of the Fortune One. Something has consequences because of who does it, and this is Tim Cook and Apple. This will resonate powerfully.”
I love my Apple swag, and God forbid I should be cynical. Yet for days fulsome praise of Cook filled my Mac’s screen, and I resisted just enough to wonder where the enthusiasm came from. How will a rich executive’s painless revelation, offered at the apex of his career, change lives, even save them? What do you mean, it will “resonate” — where, with whom? What does it say about our ritual public confessionals? What does it say about us?
Start with this. The New York Times quotes “Richard L. Zweigenhaft, co-author of Diversity in the Power Elite: How It Happened, Why it Matters … who has closely tracked the progress of minorities in business.” For Zweigenhaft, Cook’s announcement inspired “the same feeling that I had back in 1998, when many were speculating about when the first African-American would be appointed a Fortune-level chief executive.”
It’s odd Zweigenhaft was speculating about that in 1998. The first African-American head of a Fortune firm dates back to 1987. (At least by some counts.) So much for “closely monitoring.” The man was Clifton Wharton, and he was CEO and chairman of the pension behemoth TIAA-CREF.*
Yet questions start. One is: How earthshaking is it for a minority to run an enormous corporation if you don’t even notice when it happens? Another is: Why didn’t African-Americans explode with joy? Thirteen black men and one black woman have headed Fortune 500 companies since then. The “African-American community” seems different from the “gay community” (and not just because the “gay community,” whenever you hear the term, seems to mean a klatsch of people who are exclusively Clorox white). African-Americans didn’t hold a vast potlatch of rejoicing back when Wharton got his job, nor when Franklin Raines took charge of Fannie Mae and Lloyd Ward took over Maytag in 1999. Nor are those successes lodged in some collective memory today. Wharton crops up, for instance, in a book called African American Firsts: Famous Little-Known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks. Perhaps that’s a warning to Tim Cook: you can go from resonator, life-saver to little-known, unsung in the time it takes to get a gold watch. Fame is a by-the-hour motel.
It’s not that those people’s strivings and stories aren’t important. But they haven’t fed the same hyperbole that Cook has among the gays. It’s’s presumptuous to generalize — yet African-Americans seem to have different priorities for celebration. Conservatives have, of course, a long history of condemning “black cultural pathology”: they cherish what Michael Eric Dyson calls “an updated version of beliefs about black moral deficiency as ancient as the black presence in the New World.” For the Right, this refusal to deify the capitalists in your community would be a prime case study. If ghetto kids only read Ayn Rand and Horatio Alger, as infant gays do, then we wouldn’t have to gun them down! Lamenting the lack of a black John Galt is wrong in many ways. It neglects the obvious fact that capitalism has appeared in African-American history more as pathology than cure. John Galt himself, copper-haired and green-eyed, might have had a complicated relationship to private properties if his color made him one. There’s plenty of room for asking: How, if a system’s past is entwined with enslavement and exploitation, can it suddenly start strewing opportunity? Where’s the catch?
Cornel West has written how the “nihilism” he excoriates in black communities stems from “the saturation of market forces and market moralities in black life.” Yet Lloyd Hogan, the African-American economist and theorist of black empowerment, had a slightly different take. That negativity wasn’t just what the market left behind after scouring out all other values; “nihilism” abjured superficial hope, but could nourish a sustaining culture of resistance.
“Legally stolen African-American labor, transformed into non-Black material wealth,” long spelled “the physical death of the African-American population,” Hogan wrote. But there is also an “African-American internal labor to overcome the ravages of death.”
A significant component of that internal labor is indeed the development of a consciousness within the Black community to eradicate the social source of its exploitation.
Inherent in the internal labor of the African-American population is the … creation of a surplus African-American population above and beyond the exploitative needs of capital. This is reflected in the growing absolute magnitude of unemployed African-Americans, who represent the “freeing-up” of African-Americans from the binding forces of the capitalist market mechanism. Unemployment among members of the African-American population could be part of a process that portends growing liberation of these people from direct capitalist exploitative mechanisms.
There’s a touch of the smugness of the Marxist longue durée here. The not-so-Marxist point is, though, that a liberatory consciousness doesn’t just arise through labor within the system. The working classes aren’t the only potential rebels. Being shut out from the system can emancipate you from its terms. The “internal labor” of developing that freed consciousness is a work of culture. A disparate range of cultural phenomena, seen in this context, start to make sense together. You can recognize the gangsta celebration of gain unredeemed by even the faintest hint of productive purpose, which reveals money for what Brecht and Proudhon said it was — a glint of bling decking the fact of theft; you can recall an exaltation of bodies driven by defiant needs, in dance or sport, no longer drilled and regimented by the factory ethic. These sensibilities deny the nostrums of triumphant capitalism; they form an ungoverned undercurrent in American culture, otherwise bound to the wheel of Work and Progress. To see them as freedom takes only a slight shift in vantage — though something enormous is required to shake white folks away from the heritage of Horatio Alger. Resistance isn’t just rejection; it’s the creation of visions of life alternative to what the prevailing economy has on offer. African-American experience has been rich enough in the legacy of these not to wallow abjectly in the rubbed-off pride of a few singular success stories.
Didn’t homosexuality stand for something like that once? To claim the flesh is designed for desire and fun, not just assembly lines and breeding, was more subversion than self-indulgence. It formed a dissent and an alternative to the work-and-win compulsiveness of American life. It rebelled against the body’s subordination to morality and economy alike, its subjection to an imperative of production. Back in the Sixties, before Grindr or Lady Gaga, a lonely homo might spend a Saturday night reading Paul Goodman or Herbert Marcuse. For Marcuse, homosexuality “protests against the repressive order of procreative sexuality.” The “repressive organization of sexuality” by culture parallels the repressive organization of creativity by capital:
The sex instincts bear the brunt of the reality principle. Their organization culminates in the subjection of the partial sex instincts to the primacy of genitality, and in their subjugation under the function of procreation. … This organization results in a quantitative and qualitative restriction of sexuality…. it is turned into a specialized temporary function, into a means for an end.
Homosexuality portends a polymorphous sexuality liberating physical existence from the factory floor, fantasy unshackled from the demands of realism. Our future hinges “on the opportunity to activate repressed or arrested organic, biological needs: to make the human body an instrument of pleasure rather than labor. … The emergence of new, qualitatively different needs and faculties seemed to be the prerequisite, the content of liberation.” The great mythic figures who embodied that perversity, Orpheus and Narcissus, “reveal a new reality, with an order of its own, governed by different principles.”
Those were heady days, when through the thickets of even the densest prose flickered glimpses of an erotic Eden; naked in the undergrowth, Marx and Freud copulated under a fringe of green leaves. The gays were tutelary spirits of this verdant wood, dissidents by definition.
And now, no more. The gay movement put on its pants and wandered in a different direction. Nobody’s interested in liberation anymore; least of all those who praise placidly zipped-up, buttoned-down Tim Cook. Brittney Cooper wrote a few days ago about the gulf between black and white feminisms in the United States: “White women’s feminisms still center around equality … Black women’s feminisms demand justice. There is a difference. One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.” It’s tempting to say that here’s the distinction between the gay politics we practice now– the pursuit of belonging — and other movements that retained a tingle of radical aspiration, of transformational edge.
But does the gay movement even believe in “equality”? This is what the Tim Cook carnival makes me wonder. How can you praise equality when your poster boy is worth $400 million?
That’s an undercount. In 2011, Apple paid Cook $378 million, and his price has surely gone up. Business Insider notes that, although “compensated handsomely,” Cook
chooses to live a modest lifestyle. Cook lives in a modest, 2,400-square-foot condo in Palo Alto, which he bought for $1.9 million in 2010. He’s quoted as saying in the book Inside Apple: “I like to be reminded of where I came from, and putting myself in modest surroundings helps me do that. Money is not a motivator for me.”
The threefold refrain of “modest” is sweet. It’s true that most Americans spend much more than 1/200th of their annual income on a house. It’s also true that most don’t spend two million dollars. Cook is too poor to show up on Forbes’ list of the country’s very richest. But that’s OK; he’s Number 25 in its rankings of the most powerful people on the planet, “our annual lineup of the politicians and financiers, entrepreneurs and CEOs, and billionaire philanthropists who rule the world.” That’s an interesting list. It’s not about opportunity; it’s certainly not about democracy. Among the first 25 only five — Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Narendra Modi, François Hollande — are political leaders elevated in reasonably fair elections (unless you count the Pope). The rest are dictators or businessmen. It’s their world. We just die in it.
The gay movement talks about equality all the time. LGBT groups across the country sport it in their names; you could play a lethal drinking game with it cropping up in speeches; and then there are those damn equality signs, and the profile pictures. But how equal is it when your role model — “trailblazer,” “hero,” “an American Dream story” — has power and money to which no American can aspire? It means your idea of equality has gone off the rails. “He serves as a shining example that you can be who you are, you can be gay, and become the CEO of the most valuable company in the world.” No, he doesn’t. In this century of spreading poverty, in this country of oligarchy, in this economy of injustice, no sane gay kid can or should grow up with the delusion that the path to infinite acquisition lies open.
What underpins this is the American gay movement’s firm, longstanding belief in a trickle-down theory of culture. We’re not trying to change realities, just opinions. A few well-placed examples at the top of things, a few powerful promoters of tolerance, and enlightenment will leak and dribble down to the mind-starved masses. We don’t need to tinker with the system, we don’t need to ask what keeps patriarchy going, we never need to think about money, we don’t need to wonder how poverty shapes masculinity or limits women or deforms childhood, and remember: race and militarism and the Gulag of mass incarceration have zero to do with sex or gender. All it takes are role models. The obsession with role models makes gay politics seem like a nonstop casting call. Celebrities — LGBT and out, or non-LGBT and approving — are the movement’s moral leaders; it’s as if Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy were the whole March on Washington. It’s all justified by the children — the kids who don’t need child care, or recourses from domestic violence, or protective laws, or better schools and textbooks, or homes for that matter, and who are never black or Latino or poor or anything except gay; they just need a wealthy gay man or occasional lesbian to look up to, otherwise they will commit suicide. In fact, children don’t kill themselves because of the absence of Tim Cook (unless, of course, they are Tim Cook’s children). They kill themselves because their families or communities fuck them over, and it takes more than a Silicon Valley executive to fix that. Cook may be a decent man, but Chad Griffin only calls him a “lifesaver” because Chad Griffin is unable or unwilling to think about the structural changes that might actually save children’s lives.
Trickle-down culture is a retreat from both “equality” and “justice.” It lures the gay movement into a never-never land where images fix facts miraculously, and a magic charisma conveyed by gods through their chosen paparazzi withers all wrongs like blighted figs. Trickle-down politics is a politics of pure recognition, where persuading the powerful to acknowledge your existence with a gesture or a sign calls for an abased, degrading gratitude, and substitutes for getting anything that counts. Trickle-down culture is the perfect entryway to trickle-down economics, the belief that the rich, like the famous, bless us by their mere existence. Contagious success is a lie. “Leaning in” doesn’t help those whose backs are against the wall. But while we beatify Cook as gay gazillionaire, that old Horatio Alger horseshit becomes part of America’s new gay ideology.
We are ruled less by ourselves than by the rich, and everybody knows this, and the organized gay movement isn’t fighting that, just trying to get the rich on our side. This isn’t a job for activists, but for courtiers. Most other social movements in the US have figured out this won’t work, and why. They know by heart what Brecht said: “When everyone’s pursuing happiness, happiness comes in last.” If any African-Americans ever needed a lesson in the failure to trickle down, they got it in Franklin Raines, who became the first black CEO of Fannie Mae. What kind of role model was he? Raines enthusiastically drew the lending giant into the subprime mortgage business. His motives aren’t clear; perhaps, like many others at the time, he genuinely wanted to get the very poor invested in the economic system by making them homeowners. Or perhaps he wanted to raise his corporation’s short-term earnings, because his pay was based on them. (His creative accounting ended up overstating the earnings by more than $6 billion anyway, possibly in a conspiracy to inflate his bonuses.) Plenty of African-Americans took out mortgages and invested in the system, and when the system collapsed in 2008 it left them destitute. The money went to Raines and the banks. It trickled up.
I’m reasonably sure Tim Cook is a good man, personally. I fear the possibility he’ll be the gay community’s Franklin Raines. Apple makes beautiful things that gays love; but amid the euphoria, isn’t it reasonable to ask just what else the corporation does for us? Cook has tried to lever up Apple’s philanthropy, including to the Human RIghts Campaign. (“Unlike cofounder Steve Jobs who thought his company should focus on maximizing shareholders’ value so they can donate their own wealth, the new boss is adamant that Apple must do more.”) In 2011, the corporation gave away $150 million, against $100 billion it had in the bank. This generosity takes on a paltry cast when you realize that, though now valued at more than $118 billion, Apple pays only a pittance in taxes. Anywhere. It’s one of Earth’s biggest tax cheats. For instance, Apple may seem to you like a Silicon Valley firm; on paper, though, it’s settled itself in Ireland, a notorious tax haven. It routs its international sales — 60% of its profits — through dummy companies in Dublin. From 2009 to 2012 it attributed net income of $30 billion to another offshore subsidiary which “declined to declare any tax residence, filed no corporate income tax return and paid no corporate income taxes to any national government for five years.” It’s as though Apple were a spaceship. A Congressional report estimates Apple evaded $9 billion in 2012 US taxes. Forbes, not usually a a Marxist rag, blasted the “vanity and contempt for government … amply displayed in Apple’s tax figures.”
Apple’s philanthropy redistributes to private causes what it robs from public coffers — a tiny mite of what it robs, anyway. Instead of paying its dues to democratic governments, where disposing the proceeds would be a shared decision (you vote on what to with tax money), Apple gives what and when it wants to whomever it chooses. That’s neoliberalism in action. Here it’s the gays who profit at the public’s expense. I don’t grudge them. But LGBT groups could get other donors to support their battle against bullying in education; whereas dwindling tax dollars are the only thing that supports the education. End school bullying. Don’t end the schools.
One area where Apple did something nice for the gays at last, after a string of mistakes, was privacy. True, it took long enough: years of bad publicity and stonewalling before the corporation showed it was truly serious about information safety. Data protection is vital to LGBT people for obvious reasons; not everyone is out, and cops and blackmailers in many jurisdictions would love to learn who isn’t. When Apple issued a new, sweeping privacy statement last month, promising not to share information with either marketers or governments, it was especially important to those customers. For sure, it’s part of the corporation’s branding:
Apple has always tried to build an emotional connection between its devices and customers. With its increasing focus on privacy, it’s clear that Apple not only sees privacy as important to maintaining this bond, but as a means of differentiating itself from the competition.
It’s also imperfect — cops can seize information even if it’s not handed over — and Apple needs to answer many more questions. (Why does the Mac operating system still send Apple keystroke-by-keystroke data on what you do?) Yet the protections will let vulnerable users rest a bit more easy.
“Privacy” is an interesting idea, though. It was a key theme in Tim Cook’s coming-out op-ed, a month after Apple’s your-data’s-safe-with-us campaign started — suggesting he saw his honesty through the same lens, perhaps as part of the same PR. “Throughout my professional life, I’ve tried to maintain a basic level of privacy,” he intoned, but “my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important.” Could this be a way of saying, Listen, geeks, there are bigger things than your selfish insecurity about your silly secrets? What’s certain is: Cook is willing to forgo his personal obscurity and become a news story and symbol; but Apple, by contrast, protects its corporate privacy to the death. Literally.
On July 16, 2009, Sun Danyong, 25 a Chinese factory worker for Apple’s manufacturing supplier Foxconn Technology, killed himself by jumping from the window of his 12th-floor apartment. Three days earlier, he’d told the company he’d lost a prototype model for the next-generation IPhone. Foxconn security forces searched his home, interrogated him, and beat him. Two hours before he died, Sun texted his girlfriend:
“My dear, I’m sorry, go back home tomorrow, something has happened to me, please don’t tell my family, don’t contact me, this is the first time that I have ever begged you, please agree to that! I am so sorry!”
And he wrote to a friend: “Even at a police station, the law says force must never be used, much less in a corporate office. … Thinking that I won’t be bullied tomorrow, won’t have to be the scapegoat, I feel much better.”
Sun’s death drew attention to the human consequences of Apple’s obsessive concern with secrecy. It also pulled back the veil on working conditions for those who make your IPhones and IPads. In 2010 alone, 18 Foxconn workers attempted suicide, and 14 died. Mic.com describes Tian Yu, a17-year-old migrant from rural China:
Her managers made her work over 12 hours a day, often without a day off for up to two weeks, and attend unpaid work meetings on top of that. Tian Yu’s demanding work schedule in Foxconn’s sweatshop-like conditions forced her to skip meals and accept the manufacturer’s restricted toilet break policy.
The company finally sent her on a bureaucratic run-around to get the meager monthly wages of just over $200 it owed her. She bussed from office to office in a futile quest: “Why was it so hard to get what I’d earned? Why must they torture me like this?” she asked a reporter later. That day, she jumped from her dormitory window, and barely survived.
A Hong Kong-based watchdog investigated working conditions at Foxconn, and found its factories were more like military labor camps. A Hong Kong professor, Jack Qiu, made a powerful short film on Foxconn’s sweatshops:
A former Foxconn manager told the New York Times that “Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost. Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their interests.”
Apple promised audits and produced its own figures, but showed angry indignation that anyone dared impugn its motives or inspect its claims. Tim Cook said in a company-wide email that he was “outraged”: but by the abuses, or the reporting?
Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple’s values today … We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. …. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. … For the many hundreds of you who are based at our suppliers’ manufacturing sites around the world, or spend long stretches working there away from your families, I know you are as outraged by this as I am.
What stands out is Apple’s fierce concern not just for its customers’ privacy, but for its own. Corporations are people too, and they have their intimacies. If they enjoy the full rights of free speech, surely they’re entitled to keep the state out of their bedrooms. Would you fuck somebody — the workers, in this case — with a whistleblower watching?
Apple’s philanthropy is a good investment. By buying up shares in US civil society, they ensure noisy activists will side with them, and ignore the nameless foreign workers. Apple donates to HRC in part to give itself a, well, righteous gloss. How could a bigtime patron of the Human RIghts Campaign flout human rights?
But all this exposes still another scandal: The complicity of US social movements with corporate abuse.
There’s nothing new here, and it’s not unique to Apple. In 2012, Bil Browning revealed how “One day after several leaders from LGBT orgs met to talk about American Airlines’ anti-union activities and how it’s been affecting their LGBT employees, the Human Rights Campaign sent out an email urging their supporters to purchase airline tickets from the company.” American Airlines is another big donor to HRC; just like Apple, it’s a “Platinum Partner.” Effectively, these companies pay the gays to pinkwash them, to do their PR work. Purchasing social movements through philanthropy is remunerative traffic for the Fortune 500, and the gays come cheap. All I can say is: when onetime activists for liberated desire become hired flacks for the profiteers of sweatshop abuses, we’ve come a long, long way from Marcuse.
Coming out is so complicated! I began by citing somebody’s demand that Nate Silver come out as a “gay statistician.” What is a “gay statistician?” Presumably it means you deal in gay statistics. And what are those? If you’re gay, or black, or Jewish and a novelist, I get how you may write gay, or black, or Jewish novels — a novel tells stories, and the teller’s identity is free to enter. But how professional is it to pass pure numbers through the sieve of self? Or maybe it’s all about the subjects you research. Should gay Nate Silver serve us up statistics about the gay community, then? Yet that might include statistics the gay community’s leaders wouldn’t like us to hear. You know — figures like:
- How much does Apple pay the Human Rights Campaign to advertise for it?
- How many praise-filled Tim Cook-related press releases were funded by Tim Cook-related money?
- How much money do groups that rate corporations’ “gay-friendliness” take from corporations?
- What percentage of the US LGBT movement’s funding comes from corporate donors, or donors high-placed in corporations? And on what terms?
- What percentage of LGBT groups taking cash from corporations have ever criticized the human rights record of those corporations?
No, that won’t do. I’m sure the Human Rights Campaign prefers fewer, not more, gay statisticians.
I have nothing against Tim Cook. I wish him well. We spend too much time looking for individuals to blame for the horrors we dimly discern in the world; it diverts us from thinking about the system that dictates individuals’ acts, and constrains their desires. Cook’s coming out, I think, is an attempt to be a personality in a career that provided few chances for it: to claim a little corner of real, old-time personhood, not the corporate kind, inside a structure where selves subordinate themselves to shareholder value. (Even Steve Jobs, as quirky a figure as any leader in US life, tried with Zen obsessiveness to erase and efface himself down to desireless degree zero.) But if being gay can be bought and sold, it’s not a realm of self-expression anymore. Rebellious soul and body dwindle to a market niche. Cook at least has a distinctive prose style: “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick,” he wrote in his op-ed. “This is my brick.” But where is that stone cemented? Is it the yellow brick road? Or another brick in the wall?
* NOTE: TIAA-CREF has always been enormous, but it doesn’t seem to have appeared on the Fortune 500 list until 1998, I suspect because the magazine tweaked its rules then to include non-profit corporations. It’s been on there steadily ever since. So does Wharton’s 1987 accomplishment count? Was TIAA-CREF technically a Fortune company in 1987, since it was later? In any case, Wharton lists himself as the first African-American Fortune 500 CEO: here, for instance, and here. Either the Times didn’t acknowledge him as it should, or Wharton shows how CEOs — perhaps including Cook as well — are not to be trusted to measure their own importance.