Deport me!

gallery_1238284997So they’re going to deport gay foreigners from Egypt. My phone started ringing a few mornings ago, reporters wanting comments: solicitous but always with a subtext of What’s going to happen to you?

I don’t know. The case involves a Libyan student whom police expelled from Egypt in 2008, after a complaint that he was gay. From back in Libya, he sued. This Tuesday, after seven years – the alacrity typifies Egyptian justice — an Adminstrative Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior did the right thing, under its power to”prevent the spread of immorality in society.” In fact, then, this isn’t a new policy. The court reaffirmed authority the state always had. Two years ago, for instance, a Polish citizen was vacationing on the North coast here with his Egyptian partner. The Pole grew seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. The nurses found their relationship suspicious and called the police. After several days under arrest, the Egyptian was freed; police deported the Pole, who was still in agonizing pain. I heard all about it at the time, but there was nothing we could do.

Things are much worse these days under Sisi. I sometimes seem insouciant about threats in Egypt, but I’m not. iI’s just that the atmosphere of threat is general here. It affects every corner of your personality, yet it’s hard to take it personally, so wide is the danger spread. Here’s a story. Yesterday, talking with a reporter in the usual seedy Cairo café — a place I’ve always considered safe — I saw a well-dressed man at the next table listening intently. Finally he interrupted. He gathered I was interested in human rights, he said. What did I do? Did I work for Freedom House? Freedom House is, of course, a banned organization, its local office raided and shuttered by the military regime back in 2011. I said no. He added, almost enticingly, that he himself had been tortured, and offered to show me his scars. I gave him my contact information and told him to call me. That was simple responsibility – you do not refuse a torture victim anything you can give; but afterwards I cringed inside. It’s how things are in Egypt. Other people, foreign passport-holders among them, have been arrested for “political” conversations in public places. You don’t know if the person who approaches you is victim or violator, survivor of torture or State Security agent; or both.

That suggests more clearly than any headline how Sisi’s regime is achieving totalitarianism – something Mubarak’s clumsy and inept authoritarian rule, his iron fist of five thumbs, never managed, perhaps never imagined or tried. I see now that totalitarianism is less comprised in how the state controls your private life than in how you do. Ordinary emotions such as sympathy or compassion cease to be modes of solidarity and become dangerous betrayals, self-revelations to be regulated with sleepless scrupulosity, as though they, and not the people you suspect, are the real informers. Mistrusting yourself comes first. Mistrusting others is merely the consequence. But the self-hatred self-suppression brings – and I hated myself for my fear – demands other objects, a wider field of play. To be foreign to yourself is to apprehend foreignness all around you, to fear the stranger in the land of Egypt.

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Still: this story, the deportation story, went viral abroad. It’s strange because LGBT Egypt has not been in the international news much for months. When you deal with the media, you get used to its collective movements, puzzling as tidal motions when it’s too cloudy to see the moon, or the startled shuddering of gazelles racing in unison through tall grass. But other terrible things happened here recently. A man acquitted on charges of homosexuality tried to burn himself to death in despair. Police arrested an accused “shemale,” splaying her photos on the Internet. Egypt’s government threatened to close a small HIV/AIDS NGO because it gave safer-sex info to gay men. None of these got such press. The contrast is striking.

I learn three things from all this. First: our attention span isn’t what it used to be.

The world is everything that is the case, said Wittgenstein. These days we can click instantly on every fact about the world. When everything is the case, nothing might as well be; the excess of fact turns fantastic, the surfeit of reality becomes unreal. The LGBT arrests in Egypt had their moment of fame late last year, but the spotlight moves on; nothing is ever serious enough to make it halt. I’m not complaining about the press. In fact, many reporters have written about LGBT Egyptians both repeatedly and well (Lester FederBel Trew, and Patrick Kingsley have helped keep pressure up, among many others). But the attention span of news consumers, and activists among them, shrivels; and that’s a problem.

I often think of the long international campaign throughout the 1990s to repeal Romania’s sodomy law. A few Romanian friends and I started researching the fates of people arrested under the law after I moved to the country in 1992 (it was some of the first human rights documentation ever on the persecution of LGBT people). Bucharest finally repealed the law in 2001. Over those nine years the Council of Europe and the EU exerted pressure; so did international groups like IGLHRC and Amnesty; and so did activist circles from Soho to Rome. The agitation was steady, so persistent that every time a Romanian politician visited Western Europe he was sure of facing a noisy protest somewhere. It would be simply impossible to keep a decade-long campaign like that going today. Nobody has patience. These days, if the law didn’t disappear after a single summer of sign-waving, the anger would evanesce like early frost.

Consider the transient 2013 furor against Putin’s homophobia: with its boycott calls and Stoli dumps, the campaign survived all of seven months. None of its self-proclaimed leaders even remember it anymore. Abstaining from vodka for a few weeks had absolutely zero chance of making the Russian state back down. Seasonal activist infatuations are doomed. Repression doesn’t cower before fads. Change takes work, and work means the long haul.

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Dec 2013

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia (while dabbling in transphobia) in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis, AP

There is of course the well-known malady of “compassion fatigue,” a multisyllabic way of saying boredom. There’s been so much news from Egypt since the 2011 Revolution, so many twists in the plot, that even the most rapt listener gets lost. And isn’t the Middle East mixed up anyway? Six months ago, the enemy was the demon ISIS in Iraq. Now it’s the demon Houthis (who?) in Yamland or somewhere. Even the demons can’t keep themselves straight.

In fact, the confusion of cable news feeds the wiles of statesmen. “Compassion fatigue” serves a political end. Empathy, souring into self-pity about how overstrained it is, ignores inconvenient crimes. Egypt, by publicly killing “terrorists,” has planted itself on the side of the West. It’s best for all concerned to have minimal publicity about Egyptian state terror. After all, ISIS is worse — though they may have slain fewer civilians than Sisi. The Houthis are worse — though don’t they sound like they’re from Dr. Seuss? (And the distinction between being killed in Tikrit and killed in Tahrir Square may well look like the narcissism of small differences if you’re the one dead.) You might possibly remember Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Activist, journalist, poet, mother, she was murdered by security forces in Tahrir in January, while trying to place flowers in honor of the now-expired Revolution’s martyrs. A photograph of her dying in a friend’s arms broke through the wall of indifference; the story briefly travelled worldwide.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Last month the state pressed criminal charges. No, not against her killers. Against the witnesses who testified to prosecutors about her killing — because they’d joined an “illegal demonstration.” They could face five years in prison, for being there when Shaimaa was shot. Did you know that? No. The story’s over; we’ve moved on. It’s better you don’t know, because after all, your compassion might get tired; wiser to tend your valetudinarian emotions than defend exhausted dissidents, or the memory of those already murdered and past help.

Another lesson is: some people don’t count. Sex workers, for instance. I hate to say this, because it seems to give the Egyptian government a pass – but the idea that governments can exert moral controls at the border is not a Middle Eastern peculiarity. The US still denies entry to anyone involved in sex work. The American immigration bar on “moral turpitude” uses almost the same language as the Egyptian exclusion. Most gay Americans have no idea of this: because the American gay movement couldn’t give a shit about sex workers.

And then there are trans people. Most of the Egyptians arrested in the crackdown since 2013 were transgender. The government explicitly says it’s going after “she-males,” sissies, mokhanatheen. Nonetheless, most coverage by Western media – or by Western NGOs – talks about an anti-“gay” crackdown, as though sex were everything, gender irrelevant, and trans folk distractions from the main event.

The Egyptian arrests that got the most publicity were ones that did involve cis men: working-class clients of a bathhouse, or respectable bearded types doing the gayest of gay things in Western eyes, getting wed. In Egypt, as a colleague of mine points out, these gained extra-large headlines because they showed “perversion” at its most dangerous, infecting people like us, not just the pre-emptively anomalous. But they became poster boys in the West for similar reasons, because these were people gay readers could identify with, muscular and married, “normal.” Trans people doing sex work are neither nice nor news. Who gives a damn? Getting arrested is simply their destiny, their job.

In 2013 the Western press started reporting that the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – were going to test and expel “gay” people at the border. There was a storm of stories about how dumb this was. Silly Arabs, setting up gay detectors in airports! Then it turned out the targets weren’t gay people (or Western visitors) at all. Kuwait had proposed chromosome tests for migrant workers, to determine if their genes and their IDs conformed. They meant to expel trans people coming from countries like Nepal (a major exporter of exploited labor to the Gulf) that now permitted them treacherously to change their passports. This wasn’t silly; it was scientific, and a much worse invasion of privacy than an imaginary gaydar machine.

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days.  From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days. From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

And with that, the stories stopped. Nobody cared about trans people – or poor Nepalis. The Human Rights Campaign, the US gay behemoth now going international, still claims in a recent report that the tests were meant to keep out only “gay” people. This isn’t a mere mistake; HRC knows better. But their members’ empathy, and donations, won’t get revved up for trans Nepali domestic workers. Purely hypothetical Western gay businessmen facing persecution, blond boys flying first class and unfairly driven from Abu Dhabi like Sarah Jessica Parker, are way more likely to stimulate the cash flow.

Bad migrants vs. good: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); Sex and the City 2 girls in Abu Dhabi (actually filmed in Morocco; bottom, if you didn't guess).

Bad migrants vs. good ones: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); the Sex and the City II girls in Abu Dhabi (bottom, if you didn’t guess).

And that shows a third lesson. Some people do matter. Some stories do break through. There are more important travelers than migrants or refugees. This story has legs because it implies that tourists, innocent people from the West, can be swept up in Egypt’s series of unfortunate events.

Sometimes tourists are victims of rights violations, and that must be condemned. But the most effective condemnations draw connections. What Westerners endure can bring attention to what others suffer.

In mid-2013, after the Egyptian coup, queer Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and his colleague Tarek Loubani were arrested in Cairo. They were “tourists” in a broad sense, passing through on their way to work in Palestine. The paranoiac regime, which treats all real or imaginary opponents as terrorists, accused them of conspiracy. The international campaign to free them, politically astute, brought into focus the violent repression Sisi also inflicted on many others, including massacres of Muslim Brotherhood adherents. (A mark of how successfully Greyson’s and Loubani’s case illuminated Egypt’s whole human rights record was how they pissed off Canada’s equally terrorist-obsessed right wing.) And Greyson has passionately kept on doing so since his release.

On the other extreme, I have miserable memories of the embattled gay pride in Moscow in 2007. A flock of foreigners came, European politicians and minor celebrities, many hoping to garner a little publicity for the cause and themselves: get arrested briefly, spend an afternoon in jail, give a press conference. It was no more intrinsically offensive than taking selfies at Bergen-Belsen. They inadvertently drew the media away, however, from the young Russian marchers arrested at the same time, sent to jail in the Moscow outskirts with no cameras attending. They also monopolized the lawyers; the young Russians had none. I’m afraid the Moscow Pride circus is more typical of what happens when Westerners get involved than was John Greyson.

Nicholas Kristof, white-savior-in-residence at the New York Times, has written how nobody cares when he just describes foreign brown folks and their strivings. It takes a “bridge character,” “some American who they can identify with,” to “get people to care”:

It hugely helps to have appealing and charismatic characters … Often the best way to draw readers in is to use an American or European as a vehicle to introduce the subject and build a connection.

But it never works. Read Kristof and see: all the sympathy goes to the span itself, to the charismatic white connecting hero. Nobody’s attention makes it to the other side. Whatever happens to me, in Egypt or anyplace else, God save me from being a bridge to nowhere.

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

And here’s the heart of the matter. The context for this latest case is twofold. Egypt’s government has been cracking down on gender and sexual dissent for a year and half. But it’s also been whipping up xenophobia, fear of foreign influences, hatred of foreigners themselves. Now it’s figured out how to make those two kinds of incitement meet.

Westerners have been targets of Egypt’s xenophobic campaign, painted as conspirators against the country. Michele Dunne, an American expert on Egypt, was turned away at Cairo airport in December in retaliation for her criticisms of Sisi. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch was expelled last August. Last month the government announced it would stop granting visas on arrival to most Western visitors, requiring applications in advance instead. It was a move to keep unwanted critics out. But Egypt understands how vital its already-moribund tourist industry is, and how restricting visas might scare the last few pocketbooks away. The measure was “postponed.”

Although this deportation case dates back seven years, the way the government is publicizing it now – while it’s arresting alleged LGBT people on a massive scale – suggests they have new plans to put these powers to use. The truth is, though, that Western tourists won’t be the easiest targets. Those who’ll suffer most will be from poorer African or Arab counties, those who don’t spend dollars, whose embassies won’t lift a digit to defend them: or – still more defenseless — suspected trans or gay people from Egypt’s communities of refugees.

Some Middle Eastern states have been welcoming to refugees. Syria – though one of the poorest countries in the region – took in waves of displaced Palestinians from the nakba till now, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis after the Bush invasion. Egypt has not, on the whole, been on the hospitable side. The national identity inculcated since the 1950s is intolerant of ethnic difference and of influences from outside. The state has accommodated refugees – Sudanese since the 1990s, Iraqis and Syrians now – but reluctantly; it harasses them, denies them political rights or permanent status, and insists it’s only a transit point for loiterers who eventually must move along. And ever since Sisi took power, refugees have been vilified by state-promoted xenophobia. Syrians and Palestinians are especially singled out. But every refugee in Egypt lives in anxiety. There are plenty of LGBT folk among them. (Last fall a cohort of plainclothes security forces raided the apartment of a gay Syrian refugee I know. They searched his papers, computer, phone, and noted all the gay-related documents and photos. They didn’t arrest him. They just wanted him to know they were there.) This publicized decision will only sharpen their fear.

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

The fate of refugees in Egypt is not just abstract for me. It’s bound up with guilt. In 2003, working for Human Rights Watch, I lived in Cairo for several months. Two days after I arrived, police began arresting refugees, mostly African, in sweeping raids in neighborhoods where they clustered. Such harassment is recurrent; most were freed in days; but, covering the raids and talking to the victims, I got to know some of the community leaders. In the next months, they organized many meetings for me with refugees in Cairo, so I could hear their stories. I thought perhaps the documentation could push Human Rights Watch into reporting on the situation in detail.

Most of the people I talked to were South Sudanese, survivors of the civil war raging there for 20 years. We met in their cramped flats; in the dusty courtyard of All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek, an asylum where police rarely intruded; or in rundown Coptic churches in Shobra, where fellow Christians had afforded the South Sudanese some space.

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Cairo was and is one of the slowest in the world.  It could take UNHCR years — it still does — just to schedule an intake interview. Until the UN formally recognized them as refugees – three, five, seven years after their arrival – the displaced had no legal rights in Egypt at all; after that, they had to wait more years for the UN to resettle them in a third, safe country. Some had been in Egypt for well over a decade. Meanwhile, they endured constant harassment, joblessness, humiliation. Nobody outside the community had listened to them before. Women working for a pittance as maids told me about sexual harassment and rape. Some men sold their organs to survive. Police picked them up off the streets, beat them, ignored the UNHCR’s hapless interventions to protect them; there were stories that some refugees, randomly arrested, had been driven south and deported illegally back across the border, to Sudan and death. The waiting and fear drove some people mad. One courtly man of about fifty took me aside at a church meeting. He had been tortured in Sudan; he showed me a scar on his arm. He had many narratives of persecution, but most embarrassing now, he said was an unbearable rumor circulating all across Egypt that he had a tail. He showed me medical documents, testimonies elicited from doctors in English and Arabic, painfully certifying that he was tailless. He also gave me a typed personal statement, in English. “Among the many crosses I am compelled to Bear, in a long Journay and much Torture, the widespread libel that I am a Tail Wizard is completely Unfounded.” Others at the meeting treated him with deference, as if they envied the relief in his delusions.

I began to feel uneasy about these meetings. My presence was an implicit promise that I would do something, and there was nothing I could do. In February and March Egypt’s security state moved on to arresting and torturing hundreds of leftists opposing the Iraq war. I had to document that, and gradually my meetings with the Sudanese lapsed. Human Rights Watch, its refugee program stretched thin, never produced a report on these abuses (though in recent years they’ve documented, in harrowing detail, the monstrosities traffickers inflict on desperate African refugees in Sinai). I still think of my inability to provide some concrete assistance as one of the worst failures in my twenty-five year career, and I can’t remember it without shame.

Now there’s another basis, inscribed in law, for harassing some of them.

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Some refugees tried to speak up about their endless agonies. Two and a half years after I left, in September 2005, Sudanese started a sit-in before the Cairo UNHCR offices, demanding faster processing of their claims. The UN treated the protest with contempt; one staffer accused them of wanting “a ticket to go to dreamland.”

Three months passed; then UNHCR called in the authorities. On December 30, 4000 police surrounded and shot at the unarmed Sudanese. At least 27 died, including eight women and between seven and twelve children. Thousands were arrested; among those, hundreds who had not yet been given refugee cards by UNHCR faced deportation. The first dozen Cairo planned to deport included three women and a child. “Egypt has dealt with the sit-in of the refugees with wisdom and patience,” the country’s foreign minister said.

A Sudanese removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

A Sudanese man removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

Ten years later, this massacre is forgotten in Cairo. It never figures on the list of Mubarak’s crimes. Nobody bothers to remind UNHCR of its complicity in the killings. Refugees don’t matter.

The massacre did merit brief mention in a text that’s become a Bible for right-wingers warning about the Muslim peril. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West is a 2009 book by conservative American journalist Christopher Caldwell. Seemingly ignorant that the demonstrators were Christian, he uses the protest to press his case — distorting it, insulting the dead in the process:

3000 Sudanese camped in front of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo to seek refugee status. What was bizarre was that many of them already had refugee status in Egypt. So these were bogus petitioners in the sense that what they were really seeking was passage to some country more prosperous than Egypt. The sad ending to the story, though, shows that the line between “real” and “bogus” calls for help is not always easy to draw: in the last days of 2005, Egyptian riot police attacked the encampment, killing twenty-three [sic].

Bogus vs. real migrants: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

Bogus person vs. real one: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

That’s not true. Either Caldwell, who claims to be an immigration expert, doesn’t understand refugee law, or he’s just lying. I think he’s lying. Egypt doesn’t grant anybody “refugee status.” It has no national asylum procedures at all. It gives people whom the UN recognizes as refugees (the status most of the the protesters were still waiting for) a limited right to stay, but only temporarily, on the understanding they will eventually be resettled elsewhere. The dead Caldwell defames were not “really seeking” someplace “more prosperous.” They were asking the UN to do its mandated job, to find them a country that would give them the legal right to live.

Caldwell is a fool, but he’s right on one thing: this is all about the bogus and the real. It’s about belonging. Egypt’s government is now deciding who belongs or not, who’s a real or bogus person. The gays are fake people, void of the authenticity and weight that might entitle them to stay.

But isn’t that how we readers, sympathizers, citizens use these stories too, to separate the wheat from chaff? We winnow the fit objects of our concern from the unwanted ones, from those whose sufferings don’t ring true because we don’t recognize ourselves in them. Tourists count, not migrant workers. White travelers count, not brown refugees. Gay, yes; transgender, no. We each mistrust the incomprehensible stranger, you as much as I do. We were all strangers once in the land of Egypt. But we forgot.

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

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Government by moral panic

A separatist militiaman looks at  the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

A separatist militiaman looks at the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

I met Pim de Kuijer once or twice, perhaps, and Martine de Schutter once, I think. He lobbied in the Dutch parliament on behalf of Stop AIDS Now; she fought for universal access to HIV prevention at Bridging the Gaps. They were both smart and young and full of enthusiasm, and they are both now dead somewhere in a field in eastern Ukraine. The enthusiasm is what I will remember. You can rebuild expertise, reconstruct lost formulae of scientific knowledge, but whatever you do you can’t recapture that intangible spirit which wants more than anything for the world to change. It seems to me that the loss of that spirit alone has set AIDS activism, which has never had much time to lose, back years.

Martine de Schutter

Martine de Schutter

Still, the mourning for them and other colleagues who were on the way to the 20th International Aids Conference in Australia was disserved and distracted by a numbers game. Less than 24 hours after Malaysian Air Flight 17 crashed, a Murdoch paper reported:

More than 100 AIDS activists, researchers and health workers bound for a major conference in Melbourne were on the Malaysia Airlines flight downed in the Ukraine.

It is believed that delegates to the 20th International AIDS Conference, due to begin on Sunday, will be informed today that 108 of their colleagues and family members died on MH17.

International media have been tossing this figure around for days, The airline has released the flight manifest, and there’s no sign that anywhere near a third of those aboard were actually bound for the Melbourne conference. The figure may have come from an interview with a single person, in shock but with no direct knowledge of who was on the plane:

images cIn a slower era, journalists might have checked what he actually knew before reporting, but this is the age of short attention spans. In fact, the International AIDS Society (IAS) has identified six passengers as traveling to the conference. More may be named in time, but those deaths will certainly be “an order of magnitude smaller than what has been reported,” as Chris Beyer, the IAS’s incoming president, said. This is one of many confusions in the speculative fog. (Fox News, for instance, reported that 23 US citizens died; in fact there was one holder of dual US and Dutch passports.)  It’s minor; except it means that some chronicler of AIDS activism, looking at the real toll of six dead against the initial reports of eighteen times that, will say, “It wasn’t so bad.” An ersatz relief, impossible without the initial extravagance of error, will blur the real gravity of the loss: a small affront to the dead, to what they did, to their incendiary enthusiasm to do more.

Nearly everybody believes that Russian separatists using Russian weapons shot down the plane: everybody, it seems, except for the Russian media, its readership, and regular viewers of Russia Today. Unanimity is itself cause to preserve a sliver of skepticism. We still don’t have absolute proof, and the forensic investigations haven’t even begun. (This is largely thanks to the separatists: they’ve moved the bodies, tampered with the wreckage, seemingly looted the site, and held investigators at bay.) Nearly all the evidence points that way. But David Remnick, in the New Yorker, keeps the focus on what we do know:

What’s far more certain is that Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control.

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Remnick interviewed Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser who broke with the boss in 2011. If a parasite could guide you through the guts of its host, it couldn’t speak with more exactitude than Pavlovsky does of the Russian security state and its intestinal windings. He knows Putin’s interests in Ukraine well. Remnick delicately omits this, but back in 2005 leaked tapes (possibly doctored, possibly released as part of a Kremlin power struggle) implicated Pavlovsky in the poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, dosed with lethal dioxin midway through a campaign in which he condemned Russian interference. But let Pavlovsky speak:

Pavlovsky said … Putin has “created an artificial situation in which a ‘pathological minority’—the protesters on Bolotnaya Square [two years ago], then Pussy Riot, then the liberal ‘pedophiles’—is held up in contrast to a ‘healthy majority.’ Every time this happens, his ratings go up.” The nightly television broadcasts from Ukraine, so full of wild exaggeration about Ukrainian “fascists” and mass carnage, are a Kremlin-produced “spectacle,” he said, expertly crafted by the heads of the main state networks.

“Now this has become a problem for Putin, because this system cannot be wholly managed,” Pavlovsky said. The news programs have “overheated” public opinion and the collective political imagination.

“How can Putin really manage this?” Pavlovsky went on. “You’d need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can’t quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down.’”

Putin has been running a historically unusual sort of government: government by moral panic. He promotes pandemics of fear, viral outbreaks of outrage at imagined enemies. And he doesn’t conjure threats to security or values just to boost popularity, but as a basic tool of governance.

You could say that dictators and demagogues do this a lot, but Putin’s different. Hitler kept up an unceasing propaganda war against the Jews. Stalin’s ferocious demonology exorcised enemy after enemy – Social Revolutionaries, engineers, Trotskyites, German spies, eventually the Jews too, always with some overlap between them. But totalitarian ambition subordinated public outrage to state power. The occasional “spontaneous” pogrom in Germany, like Kristallnacht – carefully stage-managed, in fact — quickly gave way to the action of the police, the Gestapo, the forces of order. The anger enabled but never displaced the task of expulsion and the ultimate end of genocide, which only a dispassionate bureaucracy could efficiently commit. Meanwhile, under Stalin, in 1930s Moscow, anybody holding a spontaneous, unauthorized protest against enemies of the State would have been declaring himself an enemy of the State too: here I am, a Kautskyite deviationist, Kolyma here I come. It wasn’t just that Stalin was an “amazing conductor.” He shot the orchestra members one by one, while the audience stayed frozen in their seats, hands on the armrests, humming patriotic songs in unison, no sudden movements allowed.

Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, alleged gay Uzbek, July 2013, from a social-media page

Russian Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, allegedly gay “Uzbek,” July 2013, from a social-media page

Putin’s panics, on the other hand. whether about evil Ukrainaians or subversive homosexuals, aren’t meant to efface other movements and players, to erase other institutions in a coordinated exercise of power. They enlist the Church, the neo-Nazis, school administrations, nationalist intellectuals, diasporic allies in the near abroad — but without subordinating them. It’s all chaotic. The government’s bloodthirsty rhetoric charts a general direction, but everybody is set loose to follow it as best they can. This is in the best tradition of moral panics, which offer wide scope for what the sociologists call “moral entrepreneurs,” opportunists of anxiety, to stake out arenas for action and go after enemies in their own way. The anti-homosexual legislation may be the best example. Draconian though it is, almost nobody has been prosecuted since its passage. The State hasn’t actually done much. Rather, the law encourages everybody from priests to foreign “pro-family” ideologues to right-wing gangs to launch their own campaigns. It asks them, in fact, to support the State, which desperately needs their help in rooting out perversion. In its weird way, it’s thus an instrument of that most stereotypically American of political practices – coalition-building, uniting disparate interests into a party of shared goals. The dictatorial law seems almost democratic in the way it works.

Or consider Putin’s strategy in Ukraine. Pundits and politicians compare it to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland and its ethnic Germans. Yet what’s missing in Russia is the triumphal confidence that State power can always prevail. Look back at Nazi propaganda during the Sudeten crisis; it showed German might irresistibly smashing the country cousins’ chains:

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Or it depicted Hitler as savior to little blond Sudeteners dreaming of deliverance:

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

By contrast, Russian propaganda on Ukraine has a pathetic stress on victimhood. There’s a genocide going on in the potato fields, Russians are being exterminated, but Russia seems powerless on its own to prevent it. (The #SaveDonbass hashtag campaign, which started on Twitter a couple of months ago and showed ostensible ethnic Russian victims, almost exclusively exploited images of sheer wide-eyed helplessness.)

images

Hence the reliance on militias, generously armed but semi-independent rebel groups, uncoordinated actions compensating for what the State can’t do. Neither Stalin or Hitler would ever have tolerated this wild welter of assistance. The Gestapo would have rounded up the anti-gay thugs with their vigilante delusions, and the insurgents would have been handed not missile launchers but tickets to the Gulag. Something’s changed.

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

You could point to many things, but one is overriding. Russia is a nuclear power and a near-dictatorship, but it’s a weak state. This is paradoxical given the overweening authority Putin manages to project, but it’s true. Putin has full authority over the security establishment, but that is no longer enough to endow unquestioned solidity upon the state he built. For one thing, Russia is no longer an isolated command economy. It’s been integrated into the capitalist world. While Putin has bullied the unruly Yeltsin-era oligarchs into submission, that still doesn’t help him control the country’s livelihood, dependent instead on international vicissitudes of supply and demand. This is particularly true since a single commodity sector — energy — dominates everything, and prosperity rides on fluctuations of markets out of the government’s hands. You can police dissidents, but you can’t police the price of natural gas abroad. If the old Soviet economy has been “privatized” — more precisely, in neoliberal fashion, parcelled out to a bunch of ill-coordinated players — so, too, have other parts of Soviet power. Corporate conglomerates, a military-industrial complex, rich and insecure churches, noisy social movements (more of them on the Right than the Left), local governments carving out their own extortion zones, and many more mini- and mega-oligarchies multiply. As happens when a once coherent power is privatized, each tries to establish its own small dictatorship over whoever it can influence. This Russia, one scholar says, is ” a highly corrupt state that still cannot fully control its borders, monopolize the legal means of violence, or clearly articulate its role in the contemporary world.” For all his shirtless preening, Putin is no muscle-man able to wield top-down control. Instead he must exhort, scare, cajol, and distract the rest of society till he gets his way.

Government by moral panic is a way of governing when the government fears impotence, as in a morning nightmare where your legs won’t move: its power shaling into paralysis, its strength sloughing off like sand.

We’re going to see more of this. We live in an era of weak states. The most authoritarian among them can’t muster half the authority its ancestors did. The neoliberal state has big biceps to flex, but it hobbles along on crutches. How can a leader feel secure in his position when foreign bankers who price your bonds can make or break your popularity, your ministers, your country?

Vote if you want to, it won't make a difference: Thatcher's mantra of neoliberalism

Vote if you want to, it won’t make a difference: Thatcher’s mantra of neoliberalism

More and more, continent after continent, governments are promoting moral panics as ways to govern. These conflagrations of fear can convulse society, but they convince people they need the state again, for all its frailty and fecklessness. Look at Egypt, where a military regime reestablished control over a fractious country through a year-long campaign of demonizing (arresting, shooting) Islamists,and journalists, and refugees, and Palestinians. Or Israel, where Netanyahu’s administration hid and lied about the deaths of three Jewish teenagers to aggravate a fever of popular panic and rage, and stoke pressure for a saving intervention by the state’s favorite instrument: its troops. Or, for that matter, the United Kingdom, where a weak coalition government (the first of its kind in almost a century) keeps looking for bogeymen to justify its existence. It’s tried Muslims and Romanians so far, with limited success, but there are more to come.

Or the United States. America is always different — exceptional, they say; it’s the home of private enterprise, after all. And the panics are privatized too. Occasionally, true, you get governments whipping up people’s anxieties. (Remember those color-coded terror alerts of the vigilant Bush years? Today my Fear is Orange, Mr. Ashcroft!) But just as often you see entrepreneurs drumming up the fear and loathing for their own ends.

Increasingly the US is a classic weak state, a casualty of neoliberalism in its several forms. Years of right-wing amputations whittled its government down, and now conservatives committed to a big-business version of Russian Nihilism refuse to allow the legislative process to exist. Its politicians still praise it as the “indispensable nation,” but it governs itself like Somalia. Like any weak state, it falls prey to warlords, though they have offshore accounts and paid talk-radio pundits rather than weapons caches. Usually they stir up panics to pressure the government into deploying its dwindling powers on one of their pet causes. It’s a competition: to get what’s left of the state on your side. Immigration is a wonderful source of panics, all in this entrepreneurial spirit. The goal almost always is to get the government to abandon its remaining responsibilities to people inside the border (food, jobs, health care, those vague things called civil rights) and devote all its energies to policing the border itself. Imagine you have a plot of land, and a limited number of bricks. You could waste the bricks building a house to live in, or you could put up a nice thick wall around the whole vacant lot. The answer — Who needs a roof, anyway? — becomes more obvious as the panicked voices keep shrieking, Do something! They’re walking on the lawn! 

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

Moral panics come in many kinds, but one feature is consistent. They always have victims. Scapegoating is intrinsic to the package. Governing by moral panic means governing by exclusion.

Immigrants, minorities, the irresponsible and perverted, sex workers and trans women, the sick and susceptible, wayward young or useless old: somebody’s going to suffer. As our states get weaker, those marked for marginality multiply. In a kinder, gentler, more condescending era, states justified themselves by providing for people’s welfare. In the neoliberal age, states will justify themselves increasingly by their capacity to exclude. Legitimacy will derive from the quantity of victims.

i started with the fog of speculation shrouding a terrible disaster, uncertainty created by the compulsory celerity and fake urgency of the Internet. These days, rumors have wings while facts slog in leaky galoshes. This, too, makes government by moral panic possible. Strong states survived on facts. How large was the grain harvest? How many gallons of water in the reservoir? What is the average height of army conscripts from the southern province? Only that kind of exactitude made their interventions, whether for welfare or security, work. In the world of moral panic, facts disappear. What’s left are speculations; and governments that want to rule, politicians who want to keep their power, learn to surf the waves of supposition, like a traveller in a dream who realizes the road has become a river.

Everything that’s solid melts. Those floating numbers of the dead– six? eight? 100? 108? — are a symptom of our fluid and oblivious condition. They speak of a world of nameless panics and unattributable terrors, inaccessible to the consolations of proof, where the one thing certain is that there will always be more victims.

Ethnic Russian self-defense units stand guard at of  local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Ethnic Russian self-defense units at local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Population panic: Homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-feminism, and the new right-wing politics of birth

“Concerning Race Suicide,” demographic warning from Puck (US), 1903. The posh upper-class people to the left are having too much fun to have babies, while the degenerate immigrant working-class mob on the right keeps the storks busy by screwing and spawning.

LGBT people are used to suffering from bad science. The versions are stale by now: the I-can-change-your-sexuality cliché, the you-can’t-raise-children chestnut, the majority-of-pedophiles delusion.  A new kind of international bad science is afoot, though. It’s a Grand Theory that lets the right wing link many of its disparate but potent demons: its opposition to homosexuality and to women’s reproductive rights, its racism and its fears of immigration and Islam.

Myths about demography are the key. You can gauge something of what’s happening by the news that Paul Cameron, the lunatic American pseudo-scientist and favorite of the US religious right, will visit Russia this month. Cameron is famously extreme – so much so that even Russia Today, Putin’s pet TV channel, has made fun of him; he’s claimed that gay sex makes people “malevolent,” and urged quarantining practitioners, if not (well, maybe not) killing them.  But his mad, bad rhetoric is taking a more mainstream direction, one specifically tied to what’s happening in Russia. There’s a story here.

Is that Kirchick over in the corner? Take off those rainbow suspenders, boy! Paul Cameron on Russia Today, 2012

Is that Kirchick over in the corner? Take off those rainbow suspenders, boy! Paul Cameron on Russia Today, 2012

I. Where the US religious right failed

The connecting flight from Vienna to Budapest lasts about an hour, but sometimes that’s enough to cross to a different hemisphere. I found myself on it back in 1994, when I lived in Eastern Europe—I was returning from Albania, where I’d documented the situation of LGBT people under one of Europe’s last sodomy laws.  Sitting next to me was an 18-year-old boy from Texas, flying to Hungary to do missionary work for his church. For him, this was a passage to the legendary obverse of the Iron Curtain; for me, a foray into a geography I’d almost forgotten after I left Virginia at his age, the world of Christian fundamentalism.  When I told him I’d inhabited Budapest, that satrapy of Satan, for years, he was full of questions: Do they still put Christians in concentration camps?  Are there any church buildings left? He asked me to tell him when we crossed into Hungarian airspace, and when I surmised we had, somewhere above Visegrad, he leaned over to look down; “It’s so green,” he said. “I never knew a Communist country could be so green.” At the airport consternation seized him, and he grabbed my arm: “Do I need a passport to get in here?” Somehow he’d stowed his documents in his checked luggage back in the US, and now he had to go through passport control before he could reach the baggage claim.  I’m afraid I left him in that Catch-22. Sometimes I dream he’s still there, almost 40 now, trapped forever in a stateless limbo like a Spielberg character or the Wandering Jew; except that Jesus is by his side as consolation.

There’s been huge attention in recent years to US evangelicals’ role in exporting homophobia to other countries. What we forget is how stupid and inept they’ve often been — and how much local conditions have determined their reception.

My poor Texan friend was part of a great explosion of evangelical energy in the 1990s.  Two new fields for US conservative churches opened: the former Soviet bloc and Africa. Gorbachev and the 1989 revolutions pried the first ajar, of course. Paradoxically apartheid’s end made the second invasion possible. Most Christian fundamentalists in the US had supported the white South African regime, and were ideologically disinclined to visit its continent-wide opponents; many had telltale South African visa stamps in their passports, which made travel to much of independent Africa impossible.  Now all that was out the window. They tackled the rest of Africa with a vengeance, as if inheriting the colonial mission that the white tribe at the continent’s tip had abandoned in surrender.

Missionary disposition: Higher, boys, higher, I'm praying for you

Missionary disposition: Higher, boys, higher, I’m praying for you

In Eastern Europe, missionaries were everywhere by the mid-‘90s. I ran into them in parks (which they didn’t know were cruising areas) passing out leaflets, in railway stations (ditto) singing hymns, sharing my train compartment from Baia-Mare to Bucharest (where a family from Alabama eyed me reading David Greenberg’s The Construction of Homosexuality, and rebuffed my attempts at conversation as if I planned to use that Jew perversion to drive nails in Christ’s cross). They didn’t seem to have prepared for the trip, beyond reading the Biblical passages about Gog and Magog. They always looked disappointed. Things were too green, the openings for martyrdom too limited, and despite what they assumed were decades of enforced atheism almost everybody already had a religious tradition, and felt no urgency to change.  They longed to be triumphant emissaries of Cold War-winning America, but the America the locals wanted was Madonna and Melrose Place instead.

Only later, when I visited southern Africa, did I see the contrast. African Christianity had been a ferment of demotic, enthusiastic homegrown sects for decades. Locally powerful, they were still poor and isolated, looked down on by the mainline denominations, the Anglicans and Roman Catholics. They recognized American Pentecostals and other evangelicals as rich but sympathetic cousins, and potential sources of support.  Your average missionary got treated like the hero he wanted to be in Zambia or Uganda. Moreover, these churches (far from being refuges for the down-and-out) were often vehicles for an ambitious, entrepreneurial middle class, lending evangelical outreach a dynamic social face.

In Romania or Hungary, however, the missionary was held at arm’s length. There were few upstart  religious groups there to provide a base. The existing churches – Orthodox, Catholic, Uniate, and Calvinist – were centuries old, and believers rarely traded away loyalties they saw as key to communal identity. The prelates treated these Alabamans and Coloradans as competitors, not siblings.

All my children, I: Teoctist (1915-2007), patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, blesses a crowd

All my children, I: Teoctist (1915-2007), patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, blesses a crowd

Where the missionaries found a role in Eastern Europe, it was usually as supporting players in the older churches’ scripts.  Homosexuality was a big issue in Romania; by 1994 pressure from the Council of Europe was forcing the government to consider repeal of its sodomy law.  That year some minor American evangelical visited –unfortunately, I forget his name – to lend his hand in the Orthodox Church’s campaign to keep the law. He brought footage of the horrors of Gay Pride in the US, and Romanian TV played this for days, the lewd women in leather, the musclemen in skirts. My gay friends stayed glued to the news every evening in excitement, because nothing like had been broadcast before —  by the chaste standards of local emissions it was State-sponsored porn.  Such spectacles recurred, but they were hardly what what the missionaries dreamed of when they debouched from their planes, passports (I hope) in hand. Playing second fiddle in somebody else’s campaign was a poor substitute for the great revivals, the salvation tents, the millions won to Christ from devil faiths where priests wore dresses.

This note of unfulfilled aspirations and unwilling compromise has been consistent throughout the missionary experience in Eastern Europe.  In Africa, a figure like Scott Lively, marginal at home, was catapulted to rock-star status,  even helping to write homophobic legislation. In the old Soviet bloc, the US evangelicals have pretty much followed where others led. Contrary to their image as all-powerful manipulators, it’s taken them a long time to get the message right.

All my children, II: Elena and Nicolae Ceauşescu playing parents of the nation

All my children, II: Elena and Nicolae Ceauşescu playing parents of the nation

II. Putin as educator

Which doesn’t mean they haven’t learned things.

The US right wing and the evangelicals have been absorbing hard lessons from Eastern Europe — and especially from Vladimir Putin and his spiritual fathers, such as Nicolae Ceauşescu.

In 2006, in a famous “State of the Nation” address, Putin pointed to a “demographic crisis” as Russia’s gravest problem. Declining population posed an existential threat, he said, proposing measures to jack up the birth rate: higher benefits, better maternity-leave pay, an astonishing packet of rewards (including a gift of close to $US 10,000) for mothers who had a second child.

Natural_Population_Growth_of_Russia

Birth rates, death rates, and population growth/loss in Russia since 1950

Russia’s birth rate had fallen precipitously since Communism collapsed, propelled downward by poverty and an uncertain future. Predictions of catastrophe were rife; Sergei Mironov, head of the Federation Council (and of a small political party focused on promoting “life”) warned the population could dwindle by almost two-thirds, to barely 50 million, within 75 years. Yet as the graph shows, the death rate was the other contributing factor. It had ticked up sharply since 1990, and stayed stubbornly high – up to 50% higher than Germany’s.  Alcoholism, smoking, poor diet, and a miserable medical system were major causes. One lesson of demographics, though, is that while it may be easier to lower the death rate than raise the birth rate (people pretty uniformly don’t want to die, whereas they may or may not want to have children) governments like talking about the latter better. However pricey maternity benefits may be, they’re usually cheaper and more popular than health care for the unwanted old. Moreover, birth rates involve and invoke moral and political anxieties – about women’s freedoms and how sexualities are deployed – that call for State exhortation and intervention. Politicians who promote progeny both stand with tradition and expand their power. They like that.

Since Putin’s speech, the birth rate has spiked substantially, rising by about 10% after 2008  — though continued economic prosperity may rival his gift baskets as the reason. Indeed, Mark Adomanis , a regional analyst, suggests that the fears around population were always somewhat exaggerated. As the chart below shows, the vicissitudes of Russia’s birth rate differed very little from what happened in the onetime Soviet satellites, and over a thirty-year period settled around an average similar to Western Europe’s.

Chart by Mark Adomanis, Forbes, 2013

Chart by Mark Adomanis, Forbes, 2013

You could argue that Russia is experiencing its own crash version of the classic “demographic transition,” where both birth rates and death rates drop, usually as part of economic development; except the former is landing rather harder than the latter. Indeed, the genuine problem remains how often Russians die, not how seldom they reproduce. The death rate has inched down slightly, and now stands at 14.1 per thousand, against 11 in Germany. Yet this disguises the fact that Germany’s population is older, with lives prolonged by better health care –- but older people still die at higher rates, inflating the German figure. The truth is, German males live an average of 18 years longer than Russian males (the difference for women is around 9 years).  An overall life expectancy of just 66 years, lower than India, Indonesia, Egypt: that’s Putin’s real crisis.

But Putin keeps talking about the birth rate; much nicer than discussing death, and more likely to rally the Orthodox to his side. “We need to continue to save the people of Russia,” he said in a pre-campaign speech in 2011, announcing some $50 billion in “demographic projects” to encourage childbearing. It’s a bonanza for PR and for his political machine. Kremlin-sponsored youth groups organize group weddings, and strut round in T-shirts reading “I want to have three children.” Last year, Putin personally urged moms to up the household numbers:  “Demographers affirm that choosing to have a second child is already a potential choice in favor of a third … It’s important that families make that step.” This year, he summoned Boyz II Men to Moscow for a Valentine’s Day concert meant to set the mood for condom-free, procreative screwing. He isn’t just trying to seduce Russians into reproducing. There’s coercion behind the crooning. Putin is imitating Ceauşescu, who strove to make Romania great by making more Romanians. In the mid-1960s the dictator banned contraception and abortion and increased penalties for homosexual conduct, in a sweeping pro-natalist campaign. The longterm demographic impact was slight, but it massively strengthened the regime’s control over private life. This, too, may be Putin’s fantasy: State-sponsored horniness, a loudspeaker in every bedroom commanding heterosexual copulation, Barry White as Big Brother.

All my children, III: Putin with young Russian wombs, all ready for use

All my children, III: Putin with young Russian wombs, ready for use

Many non-Russian journalists and LGBT activists simply don’t understand where the recent homophobic panic comes from. To hear them talk, you’d think that a bunch of minuscule gay pride marches over the years somehow sparked Putin’s sudden, irrational decision to ban everything related to gayness. This is nonsense. There was a long buildup to the current legal moves; they grew out of the debate over the “demographic crisis.” And the crackdown started with moves against reproductive rights.

Lullaby, little fetus: Recent Russian anti-abortion imagery

Lullaby, little fetus: Recent Russian anti-abortion imagery

In response to Putin’s 2011 call for “demographic projects,” the Duma that year passed the first major restriction on abortion rights since Stalin’s death. The new law barred abortion clinics from describing the procedure as safe, and required them to devote 10% of their advertising to detailing its dangers. The initial focus on advertising is suggestive: it prefigures the later “anti-propaganda” law which would prohibit LGBT rights advocates from publicizing their cause at all. MPs have pressed for even stronger restrictions, and anti-abortion propaganda spreads. Former First Lady (and now prime minister’s wife) Svetlana Medvedeva leads the movement in cooperation with the Orthodox Church, and her vanity “charitable foundation” spearheads campaigns with names like “Give me life!” Meanwhile, the government refuses to promote contraceptive use (never popular in Russia) as an alternative to abortion. Many family planning centers established in the 1990s have closed, stripped of funding.

Simultaneously, at the UN Human Rights Council, Russia sponsored and and passed a resolution subordinating human rights to “traditional values.” It was a way of taking their anti-reproductive rights agitation abroad. At home, Putin’s bill that stopped all adoptions to the US was a retaliatory diplomatic move, but had a ready demographic justification – rescuing Russia’s precious children from an alien culture.  A Duma member warned that exported orphans might “be tortured, used for organ transplanting, or for sexual exploitation, given that there are 9 million same sex marriages in the United States.” From there it’s just a step to the bill banning any adoptions by foreign same-sex or unmarried couples. Then came the “anti-propaganda” law, protecting kids from all the blandishments of non-reproductive or “non-traditional” lifestyles.  The explanatory note to that provision describes “Family, motherhood and childhood” as “the values which provide for the continual renewing of the generations” — as well as the way the “population of the Russian Federation is safeguarded and developed. For this reason they need the special protection of the State.” Amid a political and religious panic over reproduction, that’s all the rationale you need.

Children and caregiver in a Moscow orphanage, 2013: Corbis

Children and caregiver in a Moscow orphanage, 2013

3. The new package

For some while, the US religious right has been flailing for arguments on social issues.  It’s part of a broader syndrome across North America and Europe: for societies that are increasingly secular and increasingly diverse, pure appeals to religious opprobrium have lost their sway. Just repeating that homosexuality, abortion, contraception are wrong is not enough. They’ve tried grounding their case in scientific arguments, but these are sometimes hard to grasp and easy to discredit. 

But when they look to Eastern Europe – a place where their conservatism should have fit but never quite did – they see something marvelous. There’s Putin, a powerful and successful leader, putting things together in a new package. He’s hit all the notes the US right has been straining for: morality, family, nationalism, cultural superiority, even economic independence. But he’s bolstered them with a demographic logic that‘s hard to argue down, and that links them all up in a new way.  What an exciting model!

Putin with child: I won't eat you, if there are more like you at home

Putin with child: I won’t eat you if there are more like you at home

At least since the turn of the 21st century, arguments grounded in demography have been floating around on the right wing.  The beauty of this science is that, unlike all those studies of child psychology or aversion therapy, it’s not technical or subjective. It seems mathematical, straightforward, and simple. The basic idea is this: societies that fall below a fertility rate of 2.1 – that is,  2.1 children born per woman – are doomed. This is called the replacement fertility rate, and the math is easy. To keep a society going at the same population numbers, every two parents must replace themselves with two kids. (The .1 is tacked on, more or less, to compensate for accidents of early mortality.) If you want population growth, you need an even higher rate, but 2.1 is the minimum for staying as you are.

Now, it’s actually more complicated. The replacement rate varies widely. Naturally it is higher in societies with high infant or adult mortality – 2.1 is usually accepted as a figure for developed countries, but in Nigeria or Swaziland, for instance, replacement fertility stands at over 3.0.  On the other side, in developed countries, postponing childbearing reduces population size even if people dutifully reproduce at replacement levels. (It pushes the replacement effect into the future, so that at any given time there are still fewer people alive.) Immigration, of course, compensates for lack of population growth – the right-wing demographic argument against immigration treats it almost as an unnatural substitute for fertility, as creepily wrong as human cloning. The result is, though, that countries with fertility rates below 2.1 may not actually see substantial population loss.

We need more of these: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna, 1436

We need more of these: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna, 1436

Still, this doesn’t change the fact that in several developed European countries, fertility has fallen far below the replacement rate. Italy reposes at 1.4 children per woman, Germany, 1.41, Spain,1.48; Russia is better but still not growing, at 1.61. (The US is on the cusp of replacing itself, at 2.06.)  It’s important to stress that this is not just a Western and Northern issue. In 2004, researchers found that half the world’s population now lived in below-replacement regions.

Below-replacement fertility is far from being restricted to the developed nations. Europe, North America and the other countries of the developed world make up less than half of the more than three billion people whose fertility is below 2.1.

Other areas included coastal China (1.5), Brazil (2.01), and Thailand (1.91). But it’s in Europe that the anxieties have been most acute. The BBC warned:

When the muscular superpower across the Atlantic continues to enjoy steady population growth [sic], old man Europe is in danger of becoming a shrivelled shadow of its former self. When will Europeans wake up to the implications of consistently low birth rates? Well, in the words of one European professor of population studies, probably not until they are all in their wheelchairs and they suddenly realize there is no one left to push.

Really? In what sense are below-replacement societies dying, “doomed”? You would think, from the apocalyptic rhetoric, that God or destiny dictated there be an ironclad minimum of 61.26 million Italians, and any falling-off triggers Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, there have been fewer Italians than that for all of history until today. So what’s the problem?

Contemporary right-wing analysis of demography has gone in two directions. There’s an economic approach, where below-replacement reproduction becomes a rationale for neoliberal austerity. And there’s a cultural analysis, where it justifies xenophobia and racism.

Don't ask me to push your wheelchair: Elderly home in Catalunya, Spain

Don’t ask me to push your wheelchair: Elderly home in Catalunya, Spain

On the economic side, the major result of a below-replacement fertility rate is that a larger percent of the population is older.  This clearly puts strains on pensions, health care, and intergenerational relations in general, as a shrinking group of young people must help support more and more elders. One writer in Forbes, looking at Spain’s troubles (“What’s really behind Europe’s decline? It’s the birth rates, stupid”), explains they’re caused by “a change in values.”

A generation ago Spain was just coming out of its Francoist era, a strongly Catholic country with among the highest birth rates in Europe, with the average woman producing almost four children in 1960 and nearly three as late as 1975-1976. There was … “no divorce, no contraception allowed.” By the 1980s many things changed much for the better … Yet modernization exacted its social cost. The institution of the family, once dominant in Spain, lost its primacy.

You can’t get that old-time religion back, or that old-time Fascist repression, and it’s even hard to recover that old-time economics.

Essentially, Spain and other Mediterranean countries bought into northern Europe’s liberal values, and low birthrates, but did so without the economic wherewithal to pay for it. … an aging electorate is likely to make it increasingly difficult for Spanish politicians to tamper with pensions, cut taxes and otherwise drive private sector growth. 

Without a major shift in policies that favor families in housing or tax policies, and an unexpected resurgence of interest in marriage and children, Spain and the rest of Mediterranean face prospects of a immediate decline every bit as profound as that experienced in the 17th and 18th Century when these great nations lost their status as global powers and instead devolved into quaint locales for vacationers, romantic poets and history buffs. [emphasis added]

How awful. It’s hard not to draw the inference that, given low birth rates, upping the death rate a little wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Compañeros, the crisis in the pension system is now being solved

Compañeros, the crisis in the pension system is now being solved

We don’t fully know what will happen as developed countries’ populations age. First, though, we must note that high-fertility, high-youth populations also strain economies intensely, but at the other end. They demand schools and jobs, and get angry if they don’t get them. (“Arab street” is one term for this, and means: Young Arabs scare me.)  Second, while older people will at some point move out of waged, productive work, that doesn’t mean they will stop contributing to the economy — particularly if they’ve been paid enough in their lifetimes to invest, and continue investing. Meanwhile, an aging workforce will be less mobile, but more skilled – not necessarily a bad trade-off. Finally, the needs and dependency of growing numbers of the extremely old may actually strengthen intergenerational bonds of caring: a “conservative” effect that the conservatives neglect to mention. Society will change as it grows grayer, but that doesn’t point to breakdown.

On the cultural side, though, the doomsayers are even direr. Somebody has to replace all those missing Italians, and who will it be? Dark people. Aliens. Mordor. Fertility fears shade nicely into sheer racism.

The key article of faith is that declining population also means cultural decline and racial death. It’s “the end of the Italian race,” people proclaim, with pseudo-experts calculating the last Italian will be born in the year 3880. The immigrants will inherit the native earth.  “If the Italian population declines quickly, the immigrants will arrive and Amen,” an Italian demographer said.

But we cannot stop at this. I study Mayan civilization and just as I regret their disappearance, I can regret it if the Italian or European culture were to disappear.

Reproductive terrorism: Which is worse, the burka or the birth?

Reproductive terrorism: Which is worse, the burka or the birth?

Immigration and the threat of more dynamic societies with the capacity to grow: these are both staple fears of the modern right-wingers. They came to a head after 9/11, when the West felt itself facing both an overpopulated Muslim world full of anger, and the agents of rage inside our borders. In succeeding years demographic discourse started to take off. Popular post-9/11 books warned that Muslims would take over the West, if not by aggression, then through infiltration. Politicians picked up the panic. Relentless breeding in the Muslim world propelled emigration to Europe, they contended. Once there, migrants kept spawning. The result was reproductive terrorism:

Britain and the rest of the European Union are ignoring a demographic time bomb: a recent rush into the EU by migrants, including millions of Muslims, will change the continent beyond recognition over the next two decades,  … Europe’s low white birth rate, coupled with faster multiplying migrants, will change fundamentally what we take to mean by European culture and society.

“Muslim Demographics,” seen over 14 million times on YouTube, epitomizes the Muslim-birthrate scare. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana caused an uproar in 2012 by showing it at a Vatican meeting.

In his excellent book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Islam, Immigration, and the West, Doug Saunders sums up the research that debunks these war-cries. Population growth is uneven across majority-Muslim countries, but generally it’s falling. Dreaded Iran lies under the thumb of Lord Sauron himself; but the fertility rate is 1.87, and it can’t replace its orcs. Muslim migrants in Europe often appear to have high fertility, because families tend to have children soon after arrival; but the overall fertility rate across a woman’s lifetime is closer to European averages, and declining. Reliable projections show Europe’s Muslim population rising from 7% of the total now, to 10% at most. Some time bomb.

For the first half of the last decade, the demographic discourse mainly drew in neoconservatives: authoritarian and interventionist, forgiving of racism and xenophobia but disposed to a limited social liberalism. Several gay political figures embraced it, believing those multiplying Muslims were their enemies too. Peter Tatchell warned the gay press in 1995 that “Muslim fundamentalists are a growing threat to gay human rights in Britain. …There is no room for complacency. … homophobic Muslim voters may be able to influence the outcome of elections in 20 or more marginal constituencies.” Bruce Bawer, an American gay now living in Norway (and an intellectual influence on the mass murderer Anders Breivik‎) has shouted jeremiads about the Muslim threat for years, decrying “a continent whose natives are increasingly being tormented by Koran-wielding tyrants, and increasingly in flight.”

White Power: Anders Breivik in court

White Power: Anders Breivik in court

The “demographic crisis” talk only fully merged with right-wing social issues around the time of Putin’s 2006 speech.  That same year, Canadian conservative Mark Steyn published an influential essay, saying that “while Islamism is the enemy, it’s not what this thing’s about.
 Radical Islam is an opportunistic infection, like AIDS: It’s not the HIV 
that kills you, it’s the pneumonia you get when your body’s too weak to
 fight it off.”

The medicine was garbled, but the message was clear: Islam could only get you after the “progressive agenda — lavish social welfare, abortion,
 secularism, multiculturalism”— had done its work. That was “collectively the real suicide bomb.” Western politics lavished money on people’s selfish material needs, like food, but neglected “primary” concerns:

national defense, family, faith and, most basic of all, reproductive activity —‘Go forth and multiply,’ because if you don’t you
 won’t be able to afford all those secondary-impulse issues, like
 cradle-to-grave welfare…. The design flaw of the secular social-democratic state is that it 
requires a religious-society birthrate to sustain it. …

Europe by the end of this century will be a continent after the neutron bomb: The grand buildings will still be standing, but the people who built them will be gone.We are living through a
 remarkable period: the self-extinction of the races who, for good or 
ill, shaped the modern world.

Here was the culture war in demographic terms. Another prominent conservative (now close to the National Organization for Marriage) amplified his warning: her response was headed, “It’s the sex, stupid.” 

But behind the problem of the West’s below replacement fertility levels, lies the problem of sex. Babies come from sex. The modern view of sex has created the demographic collapse of the West, and the human void into which Islamic fertility is rapidly flooding. … The natural purposes of sex, both procreation and spousal unity, have become strictly optional…. I submit that this view of sex is at the root of the West’s demographic death spiral.

You can see how this fed into what Putin was saying. The “demographic crisis” can’t be countered by salving its aftereffects — giving the elderly health care, or damming up immigration. You have to fight the permissive policies that make people want not to reproduce.

Stop that. None of that here. (Engraving from Michael Maier's Symbola Aureae Mensae, 1617)

Stop that. None of that here. (Engraving from Michael Maier’s Symbola Aureae Mensae, 1617)

It’s now a steady theme of demographic alarmism that sexual permissiveness paves the away for Islamic supremacy. Steve Mosher, of the Catholic anti-abortion group Population Research International, predicted that by 2100 Europeans would serve either beneath sex-mad secular dictatorships, or shari’a-ruled ones. “Either way, believers in once-Christian Europe …  will be living under regimes that punish, even persecute, them for their beliefs.” Another conservative lamented “lack of ideals, morality, and blatant debauchery among civilized society,” which meant that “Europe will eventually belong to Arabs and gypsies.” Philippe de Villiers, a right-wing French politician and sometime intimate of Nicolas Sarkozy, declared in 2009,

The reality is that we are headed for a crossover point [chassé-croisé] with, on one side, Europe and its mass abortions, its promotion of gay marriage, and on the other, immigration en masse … Europe refuses its own demographic future … In reality, there are two weapons being used by European leaders to kill Europe demographically: the promotion of gay marriage and mass abortions. And a third: the recourse to immigration that is 80% Islamic, in order to replace the people who are no longer there.

Farther east, Aleksei Ledyaev — who heads a Latvia-based Protestant church influential across the former Soviet Union, and who’s a close friend of Scott Lively –has written: “The first devastating wave of homosexuality prepares the way for the second and more dangerous wave of Islamization.”

Here’s where the World Congress of Families (WCF) started paying close attention to Russia.

Children of women: Sad times

Children of women: Sad times

The WCF is an offshoot of the caveman-conservative Rockford Institute, a think tank that achieved its greatest notoriety in 1989 when Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus broke relations, accusing it of anti-Semitism. Longtime Rockford president Allan Carlson left in 1997 to found the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society (these webs of interlocking groups remind one of Mafia fronts); the WCF was one of its first projects. On paper its main work is to hold irregular “World Congresses” assembling global “pro-family” advocates. In practice, as Kathryn Joyce wrote in 2008, it has been “a locus for heavyweight US conservative actors such as the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family — a Who’s Who of the American Christian right — to network with representatives from the Vatican, conservative Christians from developing nations and a smattering of Muslim groups seeking allies to fight gay and women’s rights at the United Nations.” As an anti-abortion organization with roots (through the parent Rockford Institute) in US nativist, anti-immigration, and racist tendencies, it found demographic thinking a natural match. It helped put together the 2008 documentary Demographic Winter, a horror film purporting to show humanity (with emphasis on nice white people) in numerical decline.

Demographic Winter”: Be afraid, be very afraid

Like many other US right-wing groups, the WCF benefited from the door-opening, diplomatic support of the Bush administration. As that neared its expiration with no conservative renewal in sight, though, Carlson and his Congress began casting for other sponsors. They noticed, Joyce writes, potential new fields for “extremist patriarchal ideas to bloom: in Eastern European countries new to democracy and more accustomed to totalitarian traditions and an ultranationalism born of fear, poverty and porous borders.” She quotes Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice: “When you have someone powerful like Putin talking to people in these circumstances about the necessity of Russian women giving birth, then you have to worry about it — how that could be turned into policy.”

The WCF spent years courting Putin, but the climax was a 2011 conference they organized in Russia: the “Moscow Demographic Summit,” which brought together US, European and some global South right-wing and anti-reproductive rights activists to support Kremlin solutions. The spectacle of former American Cold Warriors praising a Soviet successor regime was not without irony, but “Russia is ground-zero for demographic winter,” explained WCF managing director Larry Jacobs. “If civilization is to survive, we must … devise family-centered solutions to this global crisis in the making.” Alan Keyes, a Reaganaut and former US presidential candidate, elaborated from his Moscow hotel:

When I left the U.S. on Monday, fresh in the headlines was the New York legislature’s vote to legitimize so called ‘homosexual marriage.” That event recurred to my mind again and again as I listened to speakers who impressed upon pro-life and natural-family representatives from 65 countries the sombre facts that document the enervation of natural family life in Russia … and the threat it poses to the very survival of the Russian people as such. … none of them failed to note that abortion and the breakdown of sexual mores were among the key factors contributing to the trend toward depopulation in their country.

With the US drifting into decadence while Putin purged his decks of perverts, Keyes wrote elegiacally that “America and Russia converge as ships passing in the night.”

Look, Ma, I made it to the Kremlin: Janice Shaw Crouse of Concerned Women for America speaks at Moscow Summit

Look, Ma, I made it to the Kremlin: US anti-feminist Janice Shaw Crouse speaks at Moscow Summit

Yelena Mizulina, chair of the Duma Committee on Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs, and later a key sponsor of anti-LGBT legislation, praised the conference’s support for “consolidation of the family, raising moral standards, and studying all the factors contributing to a higher birth rate.” Surely much of the excitement for US participants, after three years of drought under Obama, came from feeling the warm endorsement of a powerful country. But the demographic arguments also gave the happy sense of having Science on one’s side. As Keyes intoned, “some Russians have apparently learned how to distinguish between intellectual integrity and intellectual cowardice in the application of scientific methods.”

It’s worth quoting from the Summit’s closing Declaration in detail. Significantly, it’s translated from the Russian — the main audience was domestic; but it also tried to reach beyond European constituencies. Some passages mimicked Kremlin language, echoing the “Traditional Values” resolution Russia was simultaneously pressing at the UN, with its crocodile tears for indigenous cultures:

Within next three decades, the total fertility rate will go down below the population replacement level all over the world. In reality, it can happen much earlier, thus making the whole world community face the unprecedented social and historical problem of humankind survival.

We express our deep concern about the dangers of the approaching worldwide depopulation. …. In the nearest historical period, the negative demographic trends can bring about extinction of whole peoples, destruction of States, and disappearance of unique cultures and civilizations.

But mostly it catalogued “social deviations” (including the simple refusal to marry or have children) demanding militant State intervention:

We are alarmed by the fact that the family institution is in a state of grave social crisis which consists in the destruction of universal family, conjugal and parental roles based on traditional family values; in the disruption of the reproductive function of the family; in an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, caused by the imposition of contraceptive thinking (in terms of safe sex) and destructive premarital and extramarital sex patterns; in widespread divorce; in the spreading of cohabitation without marriage; in increasing numbers of single-parent families; a wave of social deviations (abortions, homosexuality, pedophilia, drug addiction, refusal of marriage and childbearing (the child-free phenomenon), prostitution, pornography, etc.); disruption of the process of socialization of young generations; cutting of ties among relatives and alienation of different generations within one family, etc.

We call on the governments of all nations and on international institutions to develop immediately a pro-family demographic policy and to adopt a special international pro-family strategy and action plan aimed at consolidating family and marriage, protecting human life from conception to natural death, increasing birth rates, and averting the menace of depopulation.

Just like in the good old days, gathering around the icon after the pogrom

Just like the good old days, gathering around the icon after the pogrom

The WCF followed up in 2012 by formally establishing a Russian affiliate, its only branch outside the US. “FamilyPolicy.ru,” an “advocacy group,” lists the WCF as its main founder (one of the two others, the “Family and Demography Foundation,” is a Russian group also nebulously affiliated with the WCF) – though I see no evidence that it’s been forced to register as a “foreign agent” under Putin’s repressive anti-NGO law. Its President, Aleksei Komov, is a former management consultant with his finger in many blinis. Late the same year, the Population Research Institute wrote that — after Putin’s administration held “discussions with pro-life and pro-family groups” — Komov had assembled “hundreds of pro-life and pro-family organizations, together with large families and activists from all over the Russian Federation” into a “National Parents Association (NPA)” with him as CEO. These weird pro-Putin front groups keep multiplying. Meanwhile, in Slavic solidarity, the WCF trotted the super-busy Komov off to Belgrade last month, to drive protests against a planned Serbian gay pride march. (”Russians also represent WCF as goodwill ambassadors to the UN and European structures,” the organization writes.)

But most of what the WCF’s Moscow affiliate does is political organizing for Putin. And here’s a big time irony: a US extreme right-wing group is busily doing its bit to build a Russian strongman’s political machine.

Aleksei Komov

Aleksei Komov

The WCF’s Russia arm is all over the place. They organize spinoffs of their Moscow triumph: an “Ulyanovsk Demographic Summit,” “also a WCF regional event,” at which “the World Congress of Families and the Ministry of Labor and Social Development of the Russian Region of Ulyanovsk signed a historic Protocol of Intent pledging to work together to support the family and provide solutions to Russia’s well below replacement fertility rate.” These help motivate cadres of conservative Putin backers in the provinces: and almost certainly they’re a cover for Russian government money to fund the WCF. The hard-working minions also support the Kremlin’s international agenda in the near-abroad, drumming up “civil society” support in neighboring countries. Even before its incorporation, the FamilyPolicy.ru boys engineered a “Saint Petersburg Resolution on the anti-family trends in the United Nations,” with 126 pet NGOS from Russia and Ukraine condemning the “destructive aims” of “authoritative international organizations.” This June, they helped steer an “International Parents Forum” in Yalta, for groups from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova. The closing declaration took up Putin’s concern with defanging rights-based criticism: “We feel anger and indignation at the fact that the most fundamental and genuine human rights, the rights of family and parents, are being destroyed under the pretext of the protection of ‘human rights’” – adding, in a dig at Western kibitzers, “We are also concerned to see that freedom of believers is infringed in some countries of Europe.”

It’s a sign of how intimately they shelter under the Kremlin’s wing that the “World Congress of Families VIII,” the next big international confab, will be held in Moscow in September 2014. It’s like a cat proudly carrying a collection of international mice to its owner Putin. Larry Jacobs of WCF central says, “We’re convinced that Russia does and should play a very significant role in defense of the family and moral values worldwide, Russia has become a leader of promoting these values in the international arena.”

4. Putin as patron of the Right Wing 2.0

Americans are taking guided tours of Moscow all the time now. Brian Brown of the US’s “National Organization for Marriage,” it’s just been revealed, travelled there in June along with French right-wingers, to meet Duma members and express support for homophobic legislation. Scott Lively, of Uganda fame, was loping across Red Square last week. The lunatic preacher and Holocaust revisionist has longstanding ties to Russia — he serves a predominantly Slavic congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts. But what’s he doing there now? From his blog:

I participated in the planning meeting for the World Congress of Families VIII, which will take place September 2014 here in Moscow.  There were representatives from several countries, all there to help the Russian planning group to ensure their conference is a success.  About half the group was from the U.S., but Mexico, Spain, Italy, Serbia, Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela and France were also represented.

Scott Lively at St. Basil's: My European vacation

My European vacation: Scott Lively at St. Basil’s

It’s convenient for Americans to imagine that their right-wing compatriots are somehow running the show in Russia, as they may have in Uganda — laying out the basics of hate and telling Putin what to do. It’s a version that satisfies our narcissism.

But it’s not true.

Putin’s the patron here. He’s helped bring the demographic argument to the frontlines of right-wing thought. He shows how to mesh campaigns against feminism and sexual rights with xenophobia, racism, and anti-immigrant hysteria. He’s stepping in to provide State patronage that US social conservatives lost when Bush stepped down. He has money and power, and he doesn’t take directions.

I mentioned Paul Cameron at the outset. Cameron is crazed — but his rhetoric for decades was largely driven by wild theories about the individual homosexual. In recent years, though, he’s shifted. His discourse draws more and more on demographic fears. This was clear during a Moldova lecture tour in 2008. An Orthodox priest quoted him later:

It is necessary for every woman of a nation to give birth to 2.1 children, so that that nation may perpetuate, while in the Republic of Moldova, every woman gives birth to 1.3 children. In this way, the population of Moldova will be halved in 35 years. Among the factors that have brought us to this demographic disaster, it is so-called “woman’s emancipation” …

… and so on. Some time later he produced an extended tract, “Saving Society from Demographic Suicide.” It had his characteristic, charming overreach (“Does this mean that the voluntarily childless are stealing from their neighbors? Absolutely”) but otherwise it was indistinguishable from the Russian line: birth rates, fertile women, bad abortion, bad gay marriage, and all that. This language will meet a warm reception when the man makes it to Moscow at the end of this month, at the behest of a Russian Pentecostal group. (“How to Escape Demographic Murder?” Moskovskij Komsomolets headlines his junket.) If this synthetic rhetoric can penetrate a concrete bunker of a mind like Cameron’s, it can go anywhere.

I predict these arguments from demography will spread, and that women’s movements and LGBT movements everywhere will face them. It’s bad science, but — even more than conversion therapy and they-want-your-children — it’s seductive. And it lends itself to fertile new coalitions with other fear-based movements.

Come with me to the Kremlin: Whispering sweet nothings in infant ear

Come with me to the Kremlin: Whispering sweet nothings in infant ear

True, the approach, with its Islamophobic implications, may endanger the alliances with majority-Muslim governments that US conservatives painstakingly forged against sexual rights over 15 years. But Putin’s regime is far more powerful as a patron than Pakistan or Egypt. Seen from Rockford, Illinois, losing the latter to win the former isn’t a bad bargain. True, too, the origins of the argument are Eurocentric, and may prove off-putting in Africa or Asia. But Russia, with its “traditional values” rhetoric at the UN, is already trying to position itself to lead a socially conservative bloc of States in international venues. If you were Scott Mosher or Allan Carlson or Austin Ruse, you’d trust Putin with the hard work of getting Southern countries on board. Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin has already suggested this is a global duty for Russian diplomacy: “Recent events abroad have shown us the acute nature of the issue concerning the defense of traditional values. We must assert our point of view in international discussions. After all, we’re speaking on behalf of the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens.”

In the New Right 2.0 that has Putin as patron, groups like the WCF are loud — but subordinate. They’ll make their noises, but they’ll do what they’re told. When Brian Brown or Scott Lively trek to Moscow, they more and more resemble minor Soviet-era satellite dictators, a Husák or Rákosi or Gomułka come to fawn over the top dog and do obeisance. They can strut and posture and piss over the territory back in their own back yards, but they know who leads the pack.

The population panic and the argument that demography-is-destiny aren’t new. We’ve seen them before — not least as a large component of Fascist ideologies in the ’20s and ’30s. Again these anxieties are stirring in a time of economic misery, social unrest, and fear. Again they have a Great Power propagandizing for them. And again they’ve collected a motley crew of fellow travellers, not in brown shirts but in black cassocks or suits and ties. It’s a dangerous time: not because humanity is dying out, as the woman-hating doomsayers claim, but because human values of diversity, cooperation, and understanding are yet again under threat.

Time to fight back.

Good motherhood; Cover from Frauen Warte, Nazi women's magazine, 1937

Good motherhood; Cover from Frauen Warte, Nazi women’s magazine, 1937

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Kuwait’s “medical screening for gays”: Truth, fiction, and why it’s not a “gay” issue

"Illegals" -- foreign violators of Kuwait's labor and residency laws -- under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

“Illegals” — foreign violators of Kuwait’s labor and residency laws — under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

I first noticed it yesterday on Pink News, the UK’s G-and-sometimes-LBT news website: a new horror from the Persian Gulf. “It was revealed that Gulf Cooperative Countries introduced new rules to ‘detect’ and ban gay people from entering the country.” It doesn’t take long for any story about Arabs and sex to go viral. In this case, given that Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup, the headlines hitched a ride with anxieties over the Sochi Olympics, and turned into warnings about threats to sports. Peter Tatchell leapt in headfirst, proclaiming that “FIFA now has no option but to cancel the world cup,” because “gay players and spectators will be banned from attending.” The story was soon in the Daily Mail: “Gulf states to introduce medical testing on travellers to ‘detect’ gay people.” Russia Today picked it up (probably hoping that they could lure Jamie Kirchick to move his strip show to Al Jazeera). Of course it spread all over Twitter. Tommy Robinson, the leader of the UK’s thuggish and Muslim-bashing English Defense League, should have been thinking happy thoughts on his very own special day – he was collaborating with the Quilliam Foundation, a doubtful British affair that calls itself “the world’s first counter-extremism organization,” to announce his departure from the Fascists and conversion to tolerance and understanding. But he wasn’t too busy to send out a Tweet suggesting that his about-face, like the Qulliam Foundation itself, was a bit of a put-on. Islamophobia dies hard:

What about this story? Some of it is true, but only sort of. Some of it’s grossly distorted.  Let’s try to unpack what the truth is.

FIRST: Are there “new rules”? Not yet. It’s still just a proposal.  It comes from Kuwait, not Qatar – specifically, from the Director of Kuwait’s Department of Public Health, Dr. Youssef Mindkar, who discussed it with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai yesterday. He said a new proposal

aims to discover the “third sex,” “gays” [al-mithliyeen], during the clinical medical examination procedure upon arrival, to prevent the entry into Kuwait and the Gulf of those certified as “improper” [ghair la’eq]. Mindkar spoke to Al-Rai of “strong measures to be included in Gulf regulations on employment screening, especially in respect of the third sex.”

So let’s be clear: this is a matter of employment screening – of people coming into the Gulf to live and work, people who already have to undergo medical testing on arrival. It’s not a screening for every arrival at the airport. It does not mean, as Tatchell claimed, “that gay players and spectators will be banned from attending the football world cup.” Whatever Dr. Mindkar has in mind, the sacred anuses of fans and footballers will be exempt, unless they plan to settle down and get jobs as gardeners or drivers in the Gulf after the games are through.

Trust me, you won't feel a thing: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

Trust me, this won’t hurt a bit: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

SECOND: Who decides on this? It’s not clear.The first Al-Rai article quoted Dr. Mindkar as saying “the project will be proposed during the meeting of the Central Committee of the Program on Expat Labor [of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC], which will take place on 11 November in Oman with a view to amending the regulations.” The Gulf Cooperation Council is a 22-year-old organization for economic and political cooperation between BahrainKuwaitOmanQatarSaudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It tries to develop common policies on everything from patent regulations to labor policy to crushing and killing dissidents (its Peninsula Shield Force invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down demonstrations). The Oman gathering will address the second concern: how to treat foreign workers. One recurrent issue is health – that is, protecting the region from diseases that migrant labor supposedly carries. Already, incoming workers must undergo medical screenings on entry; Mindkar is suggesting the meeting could recommend adding some new procedure.

Al-Rai is a newspaper close to Kuwait’s government. So it’s interesting that it followed up next day with an article interviewing Kuwaiti parliamentarians about the idea. This suggests they don’t feel it’s just a simple tweak of medical procedure – it’s a visa policy change that might need legislative action, in which case it would only apply to Kuwait, not the rest of the Gulf. It also suggests this is mainly for domestic political consumption. (Most of the MPs were supportive: the move would “safeguard our children … from abnormal behaviours contrary to religion.” Only one expressed some qualms: “Generally I reject legislating for legislation’s sake. Any legislation must be based on scientific study, and must be legal and constitutional.”)

In practice, the Gulf states are even worse than the EU at coming up with joint policies in the sensitive areas of work or borders. (A Schengen-like proposal for a common tourist visa has been discussed interminably.) In other words, even if some new policy is adopted by Kuwait itself, it’s still not clear it would affect Qatar or other states.

Raise your hand if you're a manly man: Session of Kuwait's National Assembly

Raise your hand if you’re a manly man: Session of Kuwait’s National Assembly

THIRD. What kind of “medical screening”? And for whom? Here’s where it gets interesting. Both Al-Rai articles repeatedly said the screening would search for the “third sex” (al-jins al-thaaleth). Only once in each article did they use the word al-mithliyeen, which is a politically-correct, recently invented term (derived from mithliyyu al-jins, “same sex,” constructed by analogy to “homosexual”); it’s sometimes translated “gay.”

What is the “third sex” to Kuwaiti ears?

Popular Arabic doesn’t contain any word (even mithli) that corresponds exactly to the way English-speakers and other Westerners use “gay” – which doesn’t stop Western reporters and the rest from jumping on this story and announcing it’s about “gay” people. This isn’t just about translation, it reflects different social norms: different concepts of identity. In the US, Europe, and much of Latin America, for instance, a strong, almost defensive distinction has grown between “gay” men and people who are “trans” or “transgender” (or “travesti,” or other words). The cultural importance of maintaining this difference is one reason the aggressive gay male Penis Police break out in anxious sweats when faced by someone they find ambiguous – somebody like Johnny Weir who’s too man-identified to be shoveled off into what they see as the transgender trash can, but who is just not their kind of man.

The distinction can be irrelevant in many other parts of the world, though. Here in Egypt, for instance, a separate female-to-male “transgender” identity is only starting to be articulated among middle-class people. (Many elements go to make it up, some local and some patterned after non-Egyptian possibilities. Demotic, working-class subcultures of men who danced in women’s clothes were well-known in 19th century Egypt, even if they didn’t cross the gender line full-time. On the other hand, a recent trip to Alexandria with a trans-identified friend involved more repeated viewings of RuPaul’s Drag Race than I care to remember.)

This is important because people who think the Kuwaiti proposal is an anti-“gay” measure clearly haven’t followed what’s been happening there in the last decade. In Kuwait for seven years now, “third sex” has mainly been a term of abuse for people whom the US or Europe might call “transgender.” A major moral panic has been raging (also in other Gulf countries, especially Bahrain). Press, preachers, and politicians rant about the dangers of men who aren’t “manly,” or women who are too much so. (Sometimes they refer to the latter as al-jins al-rabi, the “fourth sex” – or sometimes just “boyat,” as in boys.) This peaked in 2007, when Kuwait’s parliament passed a provision to punish anyone “imitating the opposite sex in any way” with a year’s imprisonment, a hefty (US$3,600) fine, or both. MP Walid al-Tabtabai, who drafted the law, said repeatedly it was aimed at stopping the “third sex.” Here he is on YouTube feeding the fires of panic: “Imprisoning ‘third sex’ and boyat is a law I’m proud of.”

 Boys will be boys, and if they won’t, send them to me

During my years at Human Rights Watch, we monitored the panic and the resulting police crackdowns from 2006 on. My colleague Rasha Moumneh, now sadly moved on from HRW, wrote an excellent 2011 report about the Kuwaiti situation. While police abuse of transgender-identified women has been especially violent and brutal, she stresses that the law does not just single out a “transgender” identity, much less “gay” sex, but rather targets anybody who doesn’t follow gender norms. It’s easiest for police to pick out biological men who are overtly wearing women’s clothing – but all men seen as effeminate, or women seen as butch, are potential victims.

Gender and sexuality often become foci for broader anxieties in times of rapid social and political change. The criminalization of “imitating the opposite sex” in Kuwait is one  element of a broader regime of gender regulation that began to take hold after 1992, when  tensions between “liberal” and “traditionalist” Kuwaitis after the Gulf War intensified as  each tried to establish their status as influential political entities. The battle over women’s rights and role in society constituted one of this conflict’s most  prominent arenas, and presented an opportunity for traditionalists and Islamists to join forces. … Given this long-running controversy within government and society over the appropriate  roles of men and women, it is not surprising that parliament would turn its attention towards those who visibly challenge these gender roles.

HRW documented how people arrested under the Kuwaiti law are often subjected to bodily inspection by a forensic doctor, to determine what their “real” sex is. It’s likely this is the meaning of the “medical screening” that Dr. Mindkar proposes: a doctor checks potential entrants to find their biological sex, and if it doesn’t correspond to their demeanor or the clothes they’re wearing, goodbye.

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

By no means do I minimize the abusiveness and intrusiveness of these examinations, or the humiliation they can inflict. Probably doctors would limit themselves to inspecting genitals at the border. But in part because “transgender” and “homosexual” are not neatly separated categories, it’s quite possible that indications a biological man has been anally penetrated can serve as proof that he “imitates the opposite sex.” I spent years documenting the forced forensic anal examinations practiced by the Egyptian police on thousands of victims. Such fraudulent tests were also part of the Lebanese police’s repertory. Though they prove nothing except the obscene prurience of the responsible officials, they have been blessed in the past with pseudoscientific imprimaturs. For example, sitting on my shelf is a 1993 Arabic publication by the World Health Organization’s East Mediterranean Regional Office, on “Forensic Medicine and Toxicology”; it recommended them as a way to discover the “habitual bottom” (ubna). It’s conceivable that the Kuwaiti border’s anti-deviance armory could include forcing these tests on suspect migrant workers. We just don’t know.

FOURTH. Isn’t this just more proof of the exotic, barbaric practices of repressed Muslims? Yes, of course, if you believe everything you read. It’s amazing how a story like this allows people to bring in every little tidbit about sheikh-and-terrorist sex that they garnered from the rumor mill, or from having wet dreams about Lawrence of Arabia. It’s as if, every time you mentioned gerbils, you had to segue to that friend of a friend of a friend who told you how Richard Gere ….

For instance: the International Business Times filled out its story on the border controls by informing you that

In 2012, Kuwaiti police officers arrested two men for allegedly having homosexual acts in a car at a café’s parking lot in Kuwait city. Police also found the men had a four-year-old “marriage contract” and were planning to travel abroad to obtain a legal marriage certificate. According to many Arab LGBT organisations, it is common practice among Arabian Gulf gay couples to sign a marriage contact as a sign of love and commitment.

I have to doubt “many Arab LGBT organisations” said this, or were even asked. It also seems odd to mark this as a distinctive, slightly primitive custom among “Arabian Gulf gay couples,” when oodles of gay couples in Amsterdam and San Francisco are doing the same thing. Did the Dutch read about this ritual called “marriage” in some anthro textbook on exotic Arabia, and decide to mimic it? But what does this have to do with anything?

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

The idea of medical testing for sexual or gender deviance is not an Arab one. It came from the West. The forensic anal examinations I discuss above were – as I’ve written before — the brainchild of Auguste Ambroise Tardieu (1818-1879), a French scientist who largely invented the techniques for forensic examination of sexual crimes. The fact that his theories about how “abnormal” sex changed the bodies of its practitioners were idiotic and bizarre does not make them less French. The myths and modes of investigation he advocated remain powerful, and not just in the Middle East.  His theory that frequently-penetrated assholes turn “infundibuliform” or funnel-shaped even found its way into the avant-garde poetry of the Comte de Lautréamont:

Oh incomprehensible pederasts, I shall not heap insults upon your great degradation; I shall not pour scorn upon your infundibuliform anus.

Thanks, thoughtful Frenchman!

Our pundits also assume that any different understanding of gender and sexuality must be a deficient one: that the absence, for example, of a concept exactly like “homosexuality” in another culture implies a lack to be filled, rather than discursive space already occupied by another valid concept. So Arabs don’t know what “gay” means? We’ll teach them! But, if anything, the coverage here clearly shows how our English-language terminology and thinking are stunted and inadequate to other situations. In particular, although we do formal obeisances to the “inclusive” terminology of “LGBT,” we’ll throw out everything but the G given half a reason.  Why is this a “gay” story? Why does everybody translate “third sex” as “gay” alone? Why do they ignore Kuwait’s recent history on gender issues as irrelevant? Why do they describe it as “homophobia” when only a slight look below the surface shows how deeply it’s a question of gender?  Why, given that vicious persecution of transgender people in Kuwait has been documented for seven years, does nobody even think to raise the T word (much less the L word!) when a report like this arises? What fears, what phobias enforce that silence?

FINALLY: There is a history to Kuwait’s worries about its borders. This story is not just “about” gender or sexuality. It’s also about citizenship and belonging. 

From Nasra M. Shah, "Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?" at

From Nasra M. Shah, “Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?” at http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1055&context=intl

The other huge moral panic going on in the Gulf for years has been over migrant labor. And Kuwait lies at the heart of the vortex of arrests, abuses, deportations. The whole region survives on the sweat of foreign workers. Four-fifths of Kuwait’s labor force is non-Kuwaiti; two-thirds of the country’s residents are non-citizens. Qatar and the UAE have similarly high figures; but Kuwait is unique in that it endured the trauma of foreign invasion in 1991, and doesn’t forget. Back then, Kuwaitis perceived guest workers — many resentful over their exploitation — as a fifth column welcoming Saddam Hussein’s troops. After Bush the First drove out the Iraqis, Kuwait expelled Palestinians en masse, including tens of thousands who had lived there for decades. Other guest workers, however, quickly took their places. The last time Kuwaiti nationals made up a bare majority in the country was the year of its independence, 1961.

From Nasra M. Shah, "Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies," at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf. PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

From Nasra M. Shah, “Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies,” at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf.  PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

Most of these foreigners are from poor countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, many serving in demeaning domestic jobs. They’re needed but feared. Migrant Rights, a website on migration in the Middle East, notes that “demeaning spectacles” and “popular myths” surround guest workers in Kuwait. They’re promiscuous, they’re drug addicts, they’re criminals. The press “vilifies undocumented workers through vague, unfounded assertions of the miscellaneous ‘danger’ they pose to society at large.” In addition to moral menaces, medical fears also play a role. Just a casual search shows that much of Dr. Mindkar’s work at the Department of Public Health involves protecting the Kuwaiti public’s health from the strangers in its midst. He makes sure domestic servants get re-tested and re-vaccinated when they return from holidays! He visits Egypt to stiffen the standards of clinics that pre-screen migrants there!

The stigma leads to violence. Bosses don’t just exploit guest workers; they abuse and beat them. And the country recurrently tries to chase out undesirables — who could be anybody with the wrong passport.  Since early 2013, Kuwait has been carrying out a “fierce crackdown” on foreign workers, jailing and deporting thousands without appeal. The numbers keep mounting: one day sees 86 arrests, another day 491 across the country.

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

This is the context for the new, proposed test of foreign workers’ genitals and morals. It’s another excuse, founded in fears for national purity, to drive people out. It’s doubly ridiculous, then, to claim the proposal’s wrong because it somehow endangers the World Cup. Zillionaire football stars and tourist fans won’t suffer any hiccups at the border: it’s obscene to put their situation on a level with that of impoverished migrants who face torture and the loss of livelihood. It’s equally absurd to claim that “Banning gay people [sic] from entering the country will deter foreign investors and companies. They won’t want to subject their employees to such barbaric, medieval humiliations.” Executives for Exxon or Royal Dutch Shell will breeze through Kuwait’s medical tests, whatever they may be, because they’re wanted in the country; if they happen to have some ailment, their company just bribes them in. The exams are meant to intimidate poor Nepalis or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis, to exclude those who are too recalcitrantly different. Talking about the imaginary inconvenience to corporations and guys in Porsches completely misses the point.

I hate to play the game of equivalences, to measure any human rights violation against another. Kuwait’s proposal is appalling, part of a disgusting system of policing gender — and part of a repressive history of exploiting a non-citizen helot class. Fight it! But to treat it as some “barbaric” or “medieval” invention unprecedented in modern immigration law is a self-exculpating fantasy.

Consider the US, where the Atlantic magazine made fun of those stupid Arabs: “We wouldn’t want to be the ones to break it to Mindkar that gay people come from the loins of straight people, meaning any attempt to keep your country gay-free is all but impossible.” Yeah. The US still bars foreign sex workers and drug users from entering the country, a policy that banned thousands of people from participating in the last World AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC. See if that keeps America drug-free, or sex-work-free. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail excoriated the Kuwaiti policy. That’s in the United Kingdom, a country famous for welcoming immigrants with songs and sex and flowers, and for its particular friendliness to LGBT asylum-seekers, who get free chocolate cakes and feather beds upon arrival! The Daily Mail itself loves immigrants. It loves immigrants so much that it just accused the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition of being anti-British because his father was a Jewish refugee. Stupid, stupid, stupid Arabs.

Oh, yes, I mentioned the rich Quilliam Foundation, a favorite of Tony Blair and the terror-fighting crowd. (Peter Tatchell, after enunciating his version of the Qatar Kuwait story, went off to a fifth-anniversary event for the Quilliam Foundation, and tweeted “Bravo”!) Blogger Fagburn has asked where Quilliam gets its money, aside from British taxpayers. Here’s one answer. In 2008 Quilliam’s head told Susannah Tarbush, writing for Al-Hayat, that it received “private Kuwait funding.” Kuwait’s a small country, and “private funding” usually passes through pockets of the royal family. Kuwait is happy to fund organizations that oppose “extremists,” which to the royal family means anybody who dissents. They also torture foreigners, Islamists, students, transgender people … the possibilities are endless. Those concerned about Kuwaitis’ and non-Kuwaitis’ rights might stop going to the Quilliam Foundation’s parties, or ask it to stop laundering Kuwaiti money. But I won’t hold my breath.

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991: Palestinian refugees at Kuwaiti border waiting to be deported, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis

One side of a sad story

“Inger and Philippa”: in this moving short, an American reads a letter to the President about her life as part of a binational same-sex couple, separated from her partner by US law. Part of the power is that only one half of the relationship can be heard.

“I have always loved my country, but sadly it does not love us. I wish you and your family, health, happiness, and the knowledge that you should never ever, for even one moment, waste the time you have with each other. Not everyone is lucky enough to have that. Hold them close and never let them go, but think for a moment on those of us who aren’t allowed to hold the ones we love.”