Boycott politics: Breaking out of the spaghetto mentality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gran Fury poster, 1988

Gran Fury poster, 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ad for Aunt Jemima pancakes, 1950

Ad for Aunt Jemima flour mix, 1950

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

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

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

1380504_188087118043291_959814342_n

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

boycott_stoli

© Not Gran Fury

He’s our bigot. Leave him alone.

L: Bad but unboring Russian activist holds easily comprehensible sign, Moscow, September 25; R: Good but boring Russian activists hold signs nobody cares about, Moscow, September 24. Police equally unimpressed.

L: Bad but unboring Russian activist holds easily comprehensible sign, Moscow, September 25; R: Good but boring Russian activists hold signs nobody cares about, Moscow, September 24. Police equally unimpressed.

John Aravosis published an article about Nikolai Alekseev’s latest Moscow protest on his blog today. It’s interesting how he excuses doing this. He objects to other media covering Alekseev (“I’ve noticed some top gay ‘news’ sites continuing to go to the anti-Semite Alexeyev for comment”) but not to himself covering Alekseev. He squares the circle by pretending that Alekseev wasn’t behind the demonstration (“it’s unfortunate that the protesters included in their group known anti-Semite, Nikolai Alexeyev“) when of course Alekseev didn’t simply happen along for the ride, he organized the whole thing. It’s all a bit like: I didn’t want to show you Britney Spears’ privates on my blog, people, it’s just that they walked right onto my computer screen. 

The truth is, it’s much more sexy and clickworthy, from an American perspective, to run photos of Alekseev holding an catchy English-language sign (no Google Translate needed!) and getting chased by police, than photos of other Russians holding up Russian slogans about substantive things like the fate of Russia that only Russians care about. It would be nice if Aravosis would admit this — and admit there’s a symbiotic relation between the Alekseev lust for controversy and the Aravosis lust for blog hits. It would spare us all the denials.

Aravosis’ piece contains the following remarkable line:

When it comes down to it, no one would fraternize with a “human rights activist” who calls blacks the n-word, calls Latinos “wetbacks,” or calls gays “fags.”  There’s no excuse for the tolerance some in our community, and some on the left generally, show when the victims of bigotry are Jewish.

One reason this is remarkable is that a couple of hours later, Aravosis was Tweeting:

Aravosis FAG copy

I’m not even going to get into the question of whether it’s as OK for gay people to use the F-word (about non-Fs) as for black people to use the N-word. I don’t think the F-word is “like” the N-word, or homophobia is “like” racism, or so on. I just find this a curious coincidence.

Now, what Aravosis said on his blog about Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida, was this:

I was at my parents’ house last summer, watching the Republican convention … when I looked up at the TV to see who was speaking, saw some cherubic-faced yet-ageing man, and said to myself, “who’s that queen?” It was clear to me that whoever was at the dais must be gay …

Rubio and wife: Lose the beard, my alarm bells are ringing

Rubio and wife: Lose the beard, my alarm bells are ringing

That’s all the evidence. My own gaydar is sufficiently bad that I wouldn’t call somebody a “big fag,” in public, on its sole basis. Probably Aravosis’s gaydar is a precision instrument by contrast, capable of picking up distant quasars of queeniness, like the Hubble Telescope. I bet he was born with a super-keen eye for queens, that is, for men who aren’t quite manly. We’ve already seen this with Johnny Weir, whom he pegged instantaneously as one of those unreliable pseudo-guys bending like a fey reed in the wind. You might well ask, though: can this go too far? Should a human rights activist define his relationship to trans* people’s rights by asking what on earth he has “in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman”? Should a human rights activist call an effeminate man a “freak of nature“? Well, obviously it’s OK, because nobody says “sorry,” and we keep fraternizing.

But wait a minute. Another question.

What should John do about a “human rights activist” who says things like black people “are racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic” — “Why does everyone attack the Mormons, but they’ll never go after African-Americans?” What would you say about a “human rights activist” who calls the Koran “today’s Mein Kampf,” a book that “fatuously and ridiculously” claims to be a guide to “a Supreme Nincompoop called Allah”? Any thoughts on a “human rights activist” who claims Muslims “have not contributed to civilization in any way, in any field—political thought, science, music, architecture, nothing for century after century”? How would you respond to a “human rights activist” who alleges that a proposed Islamic cultural center in New York is actually a “monument to Muslim terrorism”? Is it OK for “human rights activists” to incite hate against whole communities? is John down with that? How about a a “human rights activist” who says that Arab immigration is leading to “a Europe where liberal institutions will be replaced with mosques and minarets, the glass of wine with a glass of camel milk, Speedos and miniskirts with jellabas and burkas, music with calls for prayer, and gay parades with public executions”? What would you do about a “human rights activist” who smears a whole people, those of Palestine, by saying their conflict with Israel is a choice

between civilization and barbarism; between freedom and oppression; between democracy and dictatorship; between human rights and violations of human rights; between those who treat gay people with respect and those who murder them, jail them, torture them, and dismember them; between those who treat women like equals and those who treat women like camels.

What would you say about a guy who uses that line about  “a woman is equal to a camel” over, and over, and over, as if part of the fun is that he gets to insult women and Arabs at the same time

Under the limelight: Lucas in his element

Under the limelight: Lucas in his element

This fellow, who has a long record of defaming whole groups based on their race or religion or immigrant status or nationhood, is porn intellectual Michael Lucas, of course. And I haven’t heard a word of objection from John Aravosis about him — about the fact that he sets himself up as a leader in the anti-Russia campaigning, and gets to use the Advocate and Newsweek as platforms for his bile, and writes about “freedom” and “equality” as if he knows what the words means,  and marches off to Queer Nation meetings to tell activists what to do. Any complaints that “the protesters included in their group known racist Michael Lucas”? None. Not from Aravosis, or Melanie Nathan, or most of the other people who feel or feign horror at Alekseev’s diatribes. Nathan even recommended Lucas’s opinions (“Michael Lucas wrote a very good article encapsulating the downfall of Nikolai Alekseev”), and Aravosis linked to him, without any hint that there might be a bit of irony about one open racist condemning another.

It’s all so inconsistent. I’m not entirely sure what Aravosis means by “the tolerance some in our community, and some on the left generally, show when the victims of bigotry are Jewish.” (Is there anybody relevant, except Peter Tatchell, who’s failed to voice loud anger over Alekseev’s attacks?)  I do know, though, about the tolerance some show when the purveyors of bigotry are rich, and famous, and have influential friends, and draw the hungry attention of the cameras: and when the victims they vilify are powerless, marginal, despised. Alekseev, in his minor way, lived off that syndrome for a long time. I’m waiting for John Aravosis to notice the fact that Michael Lucas keeps doing it.

Members of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid stage a sit-in at the New York LGBT Center to protest a Michael Lucas-inspired ban on Palestine-related events, June 8, 2011

Members of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid stage a sit-in at the New York LGBT Center to protest a Michael Lucas-inspired ban on Palestine-related events, June 8, 2011

“Queer quislings”: Johnny Weir, and getting Russia wrong

A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men: NON-GAYS WALK AMONG US, and we must root them out!

A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men: BAD GAYS WALK AMONG US, and we must root them out.

Fellow gays, I want to discuss a subject which, in my opinion, towers in importance above all others. It is the subject of international homophobia.

At the start, let me make clear that no special credit is due those of us who are making an all-out fight against this force — a force which seeks to destroy all the honesty and decency that every gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender person has been taught at his mother’s knee. It is a task which we are obligated to perform. It is one of the tasks for which we were brought into this world. If we fail to use all the powers of mind and body, then I am sure our mothers, wherever they are tonight, may well sorrow for the day of our birth.

We must be sure that those who seek to lead us today are equally dedicated.  We cannot survive on half loyalties any more than we can find the facts of homophobia with half truths. 

Wise words! They’re as inspiring now as the day they were first spoken. That day was June 2, 1950, and the speaker was that famous gay campaigner Joseph McCarthy, a patriotic fighter and good-looking Irish lug equally at home under the Capitol dome and in the anal cavities of Roy Cohn. At least, so they say. I’ve changed a few words in Tailgunner Joe’s oration, just to bring it up to date for the era of Queer Nation. But the basic idea still resonates for us, as our great sexuality stands at a moral crossroads, caught between Us and Them, hope and fear, the dark burden of the past and the shining promise of the future, which just like tomorrow is always a day away. Right?

There’s no room for half-loyalties. Consider the sad Alger Hiss of the homos, Johnny Weir. Weir, an Olympic figure skater, is not just openly gay but flaming. Even so, it may be necessary to burn him at the stake. In an interview yesterday with Keith Olbermann, Weir – dressed, with typical traitorous élan, in a vintage Red Army uniform – said he doesn’t think boycotting the Olympics is the best protest of Putin’s anti-gay laws.

While many people can sit on their couch at home and say Oh, we shouldn’t go to Russia …  staying away is something I think is the worst possible thing we can do. … Even if we stay away, Russia will still put on an Olympics, they will win all of the medals and it will be even more of a propaganda machine for Russia. What we need to do is be there, to be strong and to be united. We have to show Putin who we are, what we’re about.

If you aren’t for us, you’re against us. John Aravosis promptly lit into the skater: “Johnny Weir is living proof that you can be de jure progay, and de facto antigay, at the same time.”

Weir has been somewhat – how shall I say? – unhelpful in terms of his lack of support for the international effort to help the gay and trans communities in Russia. Weir seems to be letting his Olympian side take precedence over his gay side.

Weir in costume: At least he's not carrying a Kalashnikov

Weir in costume: He may look gay to you, but  just ask him about the boycott

Two sides? People with an extra side need it amputated, fast. They can’t be trusted. Is this guy some kind of closet Communist? I’d guess the author really doesn’t like Johnny Weir personally, which is understandable, given that the kid is not only disloyal but, as Aravosis tweeted today, “a bit caricaturish.” His post is called “Nothing Good Can Come from Johnny Weir,” but if you judge from the URL — these tend to fossilize headings from early drafts — the title used to include something about a “freak of nature.”  (The URL is http://americablog.com/2013/09/freak-nature-johnny-weir.html) Oddly enough, that’s the kind of slur Johnny Weir has heard from homophobes throughout his career. ““We should make him pass a gender test!” “He should compete with the women!” a couple of Canadian sportscasters chortled on air during the 2012 Olympics. In the past, many people saw Weir as courageous for standing up against this shit. But that was before the fey little deviationist veered from the Central Committee’s line.

Then someone named Scott Wooledge stepped in — he has a business called Memeographs, which as you’d guess produces memes, those funny internet pictures that make you seem cool and original when you post them on Facebook along with 1,537,648 other individualists.  Here’s today’s viral sensation:

Meme for the day: Traitors in our midst

Meme for the day: Traitors in our midst

Queer quisling? Really? I have a dark confession. I, too, have a Soviet military uniform. You could buy them for a few forints in Budapest when I moved there in 1989; Russian soldiers were peeling them off and selling them right and left to scrape up spending money. For years, in the former Warsaw Pact, they were prized as ironic objects whose appropriation (for costume parties, not Party Congresses) mocked the onetime occupiers. This is a lot like the kind of thing gays used to call “camp.” Johnny Weir is campy, an attitude that tends to sit poorly with political correctness.  But these days, camp is for quislings. I wonder if the language here might be getting a bit over the top. This thought control, these charges of treason seem a little … Stalinist, somehow. Maybe Soviet attire would fit Scott Wooledge even better than Johnny Weir.

The enemy is clever – be vigilant! Stalin-era propaganda poster: A phobe in Johnny Weir's clothing, unmasked

The enemy is clever – be vigilant! Stalin-era propaganda poster: A phobe in Johnny Weir’s clothing, unmasked

But all this is nothing as against the righteous ire of John Becker, at the Bilerico Project, who practically dismembers Weir’s comments syllable by syllable, The incompetent little ice queen can’t do anything right. Weir, for instance, had the effrontery to describe himself as “an Olympian, first and foremost, before a gay man, before a white man, I am an Olympian. That’s what I worked for from age twelve.” That is not just disloyalty, it’s thoughtcrime. Wise up, traitor skaterboy, remember who you are! Becker explains it to him:

Note to Johnny: while you’re certainly entitled to view yourself as an Olympian “before a gay man,” that’s simply not true, biologically and chronologically speaking. You may have been training for the Olympics since you were twelve — and believe me, I have incredible respect for the training you and other athletes put yourselves through — but you were born gay. Sexual orientation is intrinsic to a person’s humanity; being an Olympian is not. So whether or not you place your gayness ahead of your Olympic identity, you were a gay person long before you set foot on the ice for the very first time.

Not only does this little ingrate not understand his own essential, primordial, primary biological being: he disses marriage. Weir made the mistake of saying that “the Western countries that support gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender unions” should unite at Sochi. Becker goes ballistic:

Ummmm, Johnny, it’s 2013, not 1983. LGBT people don’t have unions, we have marriages. … Those terms may have been acceptable in the 1980s, but they sure as hell aren’t now. If you’re going to be working the talk show circuit, you owe it to your community to update your vocabulary.

Wait a minute. 

You owe it to your community to use the M-word? I feel my own inner traitor coming out. But what if you don’t want to marry, or call your relationship a marriage — because, say, you believe along with generations of feminists that it’s a repressive institution sodden with the unpaid sweat of patriarchy, and no liberating model for your loves? Weir, as it happens, has married his Russian partner. But are we all bound to obey and imitate, in word and deed?

Here’s where I leave the party. With all due respect to Becker, I invite him to fuck the hell off, and stop telling me how to define my intimacies or live my life. I haven’t been a human rights activist for a quarter century so that some small-minded blogger could straitjacket me in a new regime of canons, conformities, and exclusions. For his information, my relationship is not a marriage, nor is it any kind of regular, sell-out union. It’s a radical Trotskyist union with militant anarchist tendencies, wild as the Wobblies or the old Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo. I’m going to stick to my principles, and I’m not going to play Brad-and-Janet just because John Becker orders me to. And If John Becker doesn’t like how I think of my own life, too fucking bad.

Model for my relationships

Model for my relationships

The abuse of Weir today was weird, an explosion of macho paranoia. But the rage and vitriol, completely out of proportion to what Weir said, suggest that something’s getting way, way out of hand. The demand that gayness trump any other identity or interest because you’re BORN THAT WAY, that’s ALL YOU ARE; the contradictory search for bad gays who don’t have any right to the name; the talk of treachery, the policing of word choice as well as opinion, the smearing of some gays as “antigay” — these kinds of things don’t just demolish nuance and discussion. They destroy movements.

They breed amid the mounting fever of ever more high-pitched rhetoric that surrounds the Russia campaign. The panic gets steadily more manic. The Holocaust comparisons are becoming not just offensive but insane. Aravosis warns Weir that “Jesse Owens won and the Nazis still killed millions afterwards”! — as if Putin is already testing his gas chambers. Harvey Fierstein seriously believes the next stop after Sochi is, if not Auschwitz, at least Bergen-Belsen:

Vigilantes [in Russia] have implied instruction to protect their communities from the rampant evil.  … And now the government comes in with “concern” for the gay community’s safety. They are rounded up for their own protection and isolated for the sake of the children at risk of infection. Welcome to the return of concentration camps.

This is all in the present tense: Fierstein seems to think it’s happening now, or anyway only a day away. If you really believe that, then of course you can’t waste a second on discussion, there’s genocide going on, something must be done immediately, and dissenters are as bad as killers. Johnny Weir has blood on his blades!  This kind of hyped-up desperation debases all debate.

This wouldn't have gotten out of hand if you'd listened to me earlier: "Death to World Imperialism," Soviet poster, 1920

This wouldn’t have gotten out of hand if you’d listened to me earlier: “Death to World Imperialism,” Soviet poster, 1920

There’s something even more disturbing about the abuse. The truth is: Weir’s opinions, whatever you think of them, are shared by a significant number of Russian LGBT activists. Many activist voices there have criticized the boycotts. The Russian LGBT Network issued a statement six weeks ago that said:

Participation and attendance of the Games in Sochi will not indicate endorsement of injustice and discrimination; they will only if they are silent. We hope to join forces and succeed in raising everyone’s voices for LGBT equality in Russia and elsewhere. We hope that together with those who share this vision, we will succeed in sending the strongest message possible by involving athletes, diplomats, sponsors, and spectators to show up and speak up, proclaiming equality in most compelling ways. …

Do not boycott the Olympics – boycott homophobia! Stand in solidarity with people in Russia and bring LGBT pride and values of human rights and freedoms to the Games in Sochi!

So? Is the Russian LGBT Network “antigay”? Are they fake gays, mere gays “de jure,” as Aravosis says? Are they quislings, Scott Wooledge? Are they only concerned about their selfish interests, instead of a bunch of American boycotters’ needs? Attacking Weir is actually a way for these folks to attack Russian activists and Russian arguments by proxy. They’d be shouting insults and heaping abuse on some of the Russians they claim to defend, if they dared.

Surprise! There are divisions among Russian activists. All the attention paid in recent days to the sheer looniness of Nikolai Alekseev — whose pathology and prejudice truly put him beyond the pale — obscures the fact that serious, respected activists in Moscow and Petersburg differ, for the most part civilly, on what to do. Some people support the Stoli boycott but not the Olympics boycott, some support both, some want neither. The first obligation on Western supporters in this kind of situation is: Do no harm. Whatever you do, try not to worsen the divisions unnecessarily, try not to turn disagreements into civil wars by the sheer weight of your influence. But when Aravosis and Wooledge demonize a perfectly credible strain of opinion by abusing it viciously as “antigay,” they are really, really, really not helping the movement within Russia.

Working together, we're pretty rad: "Worker and peasant women, all go to the polls! We bring fear to the bourgeoisie!" Soviet poster, 1925

Working together, we’re pretty rad: “Worker and peasant women, all go to the polls! We bring fear to the bourgeoisie!” Soviet poster, 1925

More than that, though: There have to be strategic discussions. Western activists actually can play productive roles here. They can help create virtual spaces for talking strategy — Skype, Viber and Internet chat are wonderful inventions that, surprise again!, are useable for more than hookups. They can serve as sounding boards for their Russian colleagues, to figure out what methods will sway foreign governments as well as their own. They can learn about what’s worked in Moscow or Rostov, and, with a little humility, they can offer examples of what’s succeeded elsewhere. Doing this would require getting off  the high-horse of urgency, discarding the frantic certainty that we are summoned to do something, anything, and it has to be now. It would mean admitting that this is going to be a long fight that will stretch way beyond Sochi. It would mean trying to settle on some common and realistic long-term goals, which might not be the stuff of headlines (Putin overthrown! Anti-gay law repealed) but could be very meaningful all the same: arrests that aren’t made, trials that don’t happen, organizations that actually survive. It would mean building a movement for the long haul, too, reaching out to the backbone structures that power real, successful international campaigns — labor unions, anti-war and women’s groups, minority lobbies, mobilized students. It would mean putting the Western activist ego in abeyance a bit, admitting that you’re not going to save a bunch of Russians solo, that Russians are more likely to save themselves.

Of course, this would all be slow and boring and terribly unsexy, and much of it would be out of the public eye. Which is why the Dan Savages will probably never go for it.

How much are the U.S. campaigners bothering to listen to Russians at all — you know, the kind inside Russia, the ones who are going to be directly affected by what they do? Not much, from what I see.

Exhibit One. Dan Savage gave an interview to Radio Free Europe a week ago:

RFE/RL: Are you in communication with Russian LGBT activists about the situation on the ground?

Savage: I’m getting a very clear picture. I live in Seattle, Washington. And there isn’t a large Russian or Russian gay community here. The large Russian community and large Russian gay community is in New York City. And I’m following very closely their statements and following meetings that are going on there.

I visited Moscow in 1990 and met with gay people there. And it just breaks my heart that they were so full of hope for their futures and for the progress that they hoped their country would make as it joined the civilized world.

This all means “No,” with a little overlay of “I can see Russia from my house.” Savage weirdly answers a question about whether he’s ever talked to a Russian activist in Russia by saying he “follows” –whatever that means — what Russians living in New York are saying. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that these aren’t the same thing. He does let us know, however, that 23 years ago he talked to some people in Moscow. It’s a pity they still aren’t civilized. They do have Starbucks now, though.

It makes you wonder whether Savage thought Russians should have any input into the boycott campaign he started. John Aravosis began his attack on Johnny Weir today with this immortal line: “It’s time we stopped pretending that every guy who sucks d*ck, as my friend Dan Savage would put it, is somehow an instant expert on our civil rights.” But how many blow jobs does it take to make you a Russia expert?

Exhibit Two: Also last week, Eric Sasson, a Wall Street Journal blogger, published a piece at Salon on the Nikolai Alekseev mess. He reviews the grim record of Alekseev’s anti-Semitism, but then gets down to the 64,000 ruble question: “Just how does the Russian LGBT community move forward when its most prominent voice loses his credibility?” The answer is, it can’t, and its credibility is shot. The whole initiative lies with activists in the West: “We have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot do so.  This is exactly what the propaganda ban is about: denying a class of people the right to stand up for themselves.”

Shut up, she explained: Soviet propaganda poster, 1941

Shut up, she explained: Soviet propaganda poster, 1941

In the process he attacks Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel, who dared to suggest that “a truly effective fight for LGBT rights” means listening and giving priority to what Russians themselves say and do. Vanden Heuvel, he says, simply seeks “to dismiss the efforts of Westerners (including activists such as Harvey Fierstein and Dan Savage and journalists such as John Aravosis and Richard Socarides).” We need to remember how important those people are, “given that the propaganda ban effectively denies Russian LGBT citizens the right to protest freely.”

The law is awful, but Sasson is silly if he thinks it has shut “Russian LGBT citizens” up for good. They continue to organize, protest, and write. Of course they demand and need Western support, but they are also perfectly capable of saying what they want, and telling Aravosis, Fierstein, and Savage what to do. It’s their country. For Sasson, the law really seems less a human rights abomination than a wonderful opportunity for Westerners to speak for “silenced” people. No matter how loud they scream, Putin says they’re “silenced,” therefore we’ll do the talking. The good intentions shouldn’t obscure the terrible methods here. As Teju Cole wrote, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

Exhibit Three: Lesbian Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen gave an interview last week to Michelangelo Signorile, in which she said: “It’s high time to talk about asylum. The only way at this point that the U.S. can help Russian gays and lesbians is get us the hell out of here.” Masha’s an old friend of mine, and somebody whose opinion I respect a lot. She’s been a power behind the boycott movements, but she’s also consistently discouraged expecting quick results. Repealing the propaganda law is unlikely, she’s stressed, for instance; the best one can hope for is scaring Putin into seeing that it’s not enforced. It’s hard not to read this statement as a reminder that the US has limited clout in Russia, that persecution and arrest are real threats, and that we have a responsibility to clean up our own act where the human right to asylum is concerned.

That’s not how the comment played, though. By the time the meme-makers had mangled it, this was spreading over Facebook like kudzu:

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Bullshit. No activists are “begging” for asylum. They’re not abject mendicants. Most activists in Russia are courageously working and fighting on. But we need to feel that Russians need us. So we translate even a message that there’s not much we can do into a satisfying cry for help. How great to live in a country people want so desperately to get into! Let’s not think about immigration reform, though (does anybody even remember that?) As Teju Cole wrote, for the White Savior Industrial Complex, “The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.”

None of this is the stuff of successful campaigning. It’s the raw material for personal catharsis, not change. And in fact, despite all the urgent talk of concentration camps and gas chambers, the Russia campaigns aren’t going swimmingly. The anti-Stoli side of the boycott came in for withering ridicule in last week’s New York Times. More importantly, nothing in Putin’s Russia has budged; new, worse law proposals keep coming. Aravosis tried to tabulate the boycott’s successes today, while reproving Weir:

The only reason that Johnny Weir is even on Keith Olbermann’s show is because the boycott took an issue that most people didn’t care about and made it an international scandal with non-stop coverage going on seven weeks now. No one outside of the gay blogs and the very occasional news article was talking about Russia’s draconian crackdown on its gay and trans citizens, and it certainly wasn’t being discussed on a daily basis like it is now.  Yet, just days ago, the issue was raised at the G20 summit by both President Obama and the British Prime Minister. … It happened because some activists called for a boycott which caught the attention of the gay community, the media and the world.

This is getting the cart before the ass, I think. The boycotts creatively rode a wave of indignation that was already rising; they didn’t create it. But even granting the point (which Gessen also agrees with) that the boycotts have done a lot to crystallize public attention: what do you do with that public attention? Just getting publicity is not, is never, the point. Even pressing Obama to talk to Putin is not the point, as long as Putin doesn’t listen. If the Olympics stay in Sochi, what’s the plan? What are you going to do when Sochi’s over, and the law’s still there?  Can you mobilize people for something more sustained and demanding than dumping vodka in a drain? What actually are your concrete goals, short of bringing Putin down?

I don’t yet hear answers to any of these questions — and that’s partly because even to take a stab at answers, you’d have to pay some serious heed to Russian activists, especially Russians outside New York. Short of that, all this attention-catching and publicity-grabbing mainly mean attention and publicity for Dan Savage and the rest. Russian activists, Russian movements, and ordinary Russians facing silence or arrest are still waiting to see what it means for them.

Soviet sports education poster, 1951: "If you want to be like me, just train!" No comment.

Soviet sports education poster, 1951: “If you want to be like me, just train!” No comment.