The UN Security Council debates gays and ISIS: Why this is a bad idea

Photo from an Islamic State Facebook account: from Vice

Photo from an Islamic State Facebook account, republished by Vice

I. Questions

On August 18, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL or by its Arabic acronym, Da’ish) assaulted history. They beheaded an 82 year-old archaeologist, the resident expert on the ruins in the occupied city of Palmyra. Two days earlier, on August 16, Syrian government warplanes assaulted daily life; Assad’s pilots bombed a crowded market in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus. They killed at least 96 people; hundreds more were wounded.

Here is a Google summary of searches worldwide for “Douma” and “Palmyra” over the past week. (I’m sorry for the graphs; they’re dull when so much shiny gore is available online.)

Worldwide Screen shot 2015-08-22 at 10.25.35 PMYou see a small crest of interest in Douma at first, like a stone dropped in a swimming pool; but Palmyra’s a tsunami. And when you look up searches for “Assad” and “ISIS” last week, it’s like a local creek against the Euphrates:

Screen shot 2015-08-22 at 10.33.36 PMStrange disproportion: one death trumps one hundred, depending on who did it. ISIS has become a malignant fetish that crowds out other realities. We live in a world of manifold atrocities; but our minds, hooked like a perverse fanzine, are all Da’ish, all the time.

On Monday at the United Nations, the United States and Chile are hosting an informal meeting of the Security Council, to discuss Da’ish — and how it has “targeted one particular community with seeming impunity and scant international attention: LGBT individuals, and those perceived to be LGBT.” That’s from the US note inviting other states to the session. The meeting will “examine what kinds of protections are needed for LGBT individuals, what the international community needs to do to stop the scourge of prejudice and violence, and – related to this – how to advance equality and dignity, even in conflict zones.” And then the US and Chile “hope to discuss the multiple political, military, and social lines of effort needed to degrade and destroy” ISIS.

I interviewed dozens of LGBT Iraqis in 2009, and I’ve been in contact with scores more since. I’d never deny this is an issue of utmost urgency (just as I don’t scant the horror of an elderly archaeologist’s vicious execution). Refugees from Syria and Iraq will speak at the meeting; their voices deserve to be heard. But who’ll be listening?

Whom will this help? If you know Iraq, you have to ask: can Obama really stop the murders? I question the wisdom of letting the US and the Security Council set themselves up now as standard-bearers against these atrocities. How much is this driven by a strategy to help LGBT people, and how much by that uncontrollable tidal wave of fear and fascination over Da’ish that sweeps along governments and NGOs like flotsam, drowning every other event or context? Is there a plan, or is everybody just happy to ride the panic?

At best, the meeting will be useless. It’ll lead to that indolent repletion where people feel they’ve acted when they’ve actually done nothing. At worst, it’s going to cause more killings.

Man accused of

Man accused of “sodomy” thrown from a roof in the Syrian city of al-Taqaba in March 2015; photo collected from ISIS media by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

II. Strategy

NGOs mostly live by words; and the Obama administration shares with them a touching faith that history is made by merely talking about history. “This will be a historic meeting,” American Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told reporters last week. “It will be the first Security Council meeting on LGBT rights.”

The administration went all out in the media for the historic meeting, getting Frank Bruni to promote it in his New York Times column — “American officials involved in it arranged for me to talk” to participants, Bruni wrote. He hit the same notes:

[It’s] the first time that the council has held a meeting of any kind that’s dedicated to the persecution of L.G.B.T. people, according to Samantha Power … And it’s an example, she told me, of a determined push by the United States and other countries to integrate L.G.B.T. rights into all discussions of human rights by international bodies like the U.N.

It’s cheap to make fun of “discussions,” and the things endlessly integrated into them. Remember: “Jaw-jaw always is better than war-war,” said Winston Churchill. On ISIS, though, Obama’s strategy is to try both. He jaw-jaws about human rights, and drops bombs.

The bomb-dropping is pretty much the limit of his abilities on the military side; after the murderous mess the US already made of Iraq, there is neither capacity nor will for any on-the-ground intervention. But the bombs give the US neither control nor leverage over what happens inside territory it thinks of as distant targets. The military action is completely disconnected from the human rights talk. And History, so blithely invoked by Power, suggests the disconnect goes deeper. The massive 1970-73 US bombing campaign against Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge only made the insurgent army more radical, its indifference to human life more drastic.

Smoke rises from Kobane after a US airstrike, October 18, 2015. Photo: Getty

Smoke rises from Kobane after a US airstrike, October 18, 2015. Photo: Getty

Moreover, the bombs haven’t worked even in military terms. Da’ish is trying to build state structures in the areas it controls, but it’s quite capable of folding them up like lawn chairs, reverting to guerrilla mode, and melting into the landscape. “Skillful in dispersing their men and hiding their equipment,” Patrick Cockburn writes, they’re hard to target. As of October 2014 “The air campaign of the US-led coalition had sent out 6600 missions, but of these only 632, or just 10 percent of the total, resulted in [actual] air strikes against targets on the ground.” Where Da’ish has failed is in a war of fixed positions; digging in around Kobane made them vulnerable. There the US bombed the hell out of them — 700 strikes; 2000 bombs dropped by one squadron alone — and forced their retreat. Yet Kobane was all propaganda for Obama and Major Kong, not a real turning point. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan note that ISIS’s defeats come “mainly within enemy [ethnic or sectarian] lines rather than in its geostrategic heartlands across Syria and Iraq.” It overstretches trying to conquer Kurdish or Shi’ite areas; it wins when defending its Sunni empire.

In other words, the Obama administration has no real way to counter ISIS’s killings of LGBT people, or most other human rights abuses the group commits. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t talk about the abuses. But it’s vital not to confuse talk with the ability to act. Discussions aren’t “historic.” Change is. It’s cruel to LGBT people whose lives are at risk to celebrate so gushingly a discussion that has little chance of leading to change.

And there’s where the UN comes in. Since Da’ish captured Mosul fourteen months ago, the Security Council has grappled with a response. The UN is composed of states; it addresses itself to states; it deals with the crimes of insurgent forces mainly by asking states to act. The difficulty of state action against Da’ish is redoubled when one of the states involved, Syria, itself stands accused of war crimes. The Security Council passed a few resolutions about ISIS in the last year. In August 2014, it called for financial sanctions against Da’ish and al-Nusra (the local face of al-Qaeda). The next month, with great fanfare, at a session spangled with kings and presidents and chaired by Obama personally, it demanded that governments suppress the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS. Another vote, in February 2015, tightened the financial screws by banning all trade with Da’ish, including oil smuggling and the traffic in looted antiquities. Meanwhile, foreign recruits still stream to the Levant. And you can gauge the Security Council’s impact by the fact that Da’ish murdered Khaled al-Assad, the Palmyra archeologist, because he refused to reveal the hiding place of antiquities that would rake in a fortune on the market. The illegal trade rolls on.

Obama chairs Security Council meeting on ISIS and global terrorism, September 24, 2014, with Samantha Power behinf him looking studious, and John Kerry looking badly embalmed. Screen capture by

Obama chairs Security Council meeting on ISIS and global terrorism, September 24, 2014, with Samantha Power behind him looking studious, and John Kerry looking embalmed. Screen capture by Scoopnest

The Security Council certainly isn’t contemplating a resolution on Da’ish and LGBT people; Russia would veto it. Nor is this meeting meant to lead to one. It’s a so-called “Arria formula” meeting, named for a Venezuelan diplomat who devised the format in the 1990s: these “are very informal, confidential gatherings” permitting “a frank and private exchange of views.” Or, as one observer says, they allow the Council to “open itself in a very limited way to the outside world.” NGOs are often asked to speak; but member states aren’t obliged to attend. Since early 2014, there have been almost no Arria meetings over ISIS, perhaps reflecting the Security Council’s sense of its own impotence.

The sole concrete outcome to which this particular Arria might contribute is one that seems entirely logical on paper, though off paper it’s fantastic as a Harry Potter outtake. The Security Council could refer ISIS’s crimes to the International Criminal Court (ICC). (Neither Syria nor Iraq has ratified the treaty that founded the ICC,meaning the court has no automatic jurisdiction over acts committed on their territory. But the Security Council can vote a referral, as it did with Mu’ammar Qaddafi in 2011.)  There is mounting pressure for exactly this. A March report by the UN mission in Iraq and the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that ISIS actions “may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.” The ICC itself is eager to take up a case, any case, outside Africa (its exclusive preoccupation with that continent has led to debilitating charges of racism). Reportedly, it also wants to deal with LGBT issues.

But this won’t happen. There is certainly no question of sending LGBT killings alone to the ICC; any referral would cover a broad range of Da’ish crimes, from brutality against ethnic and religious minorities to the monstrous enslavement of women. Yet an investigation would still face huge political obstacles. Kevin Jon Heller, a professor of international law, notes that “The Security Council can’t just say that the court has jurisdiction over crimes by ISIS and nobody else. The Rome Statute is designed to prevent one-sided referrals.” In other words, a referral would open the Syrian regime to prosecution, probably along with other Syrian rebel groups. Across the border, Iraqi Shi’ite militias and the Iraqi government could also be liable. Russia and China would almost certainly veto any prosecution of their friend Assad. But the US and UK would also resist charges against their Syrian and Iraqi clients –“not least,” as Heller writes, “because it would provide the ICC with a backdoor to prosecuting their nationals for aiding and abetting rebel crimes,” and possibly Iraqi ones.

They all look so secular: this must be freedom! Bashar al-Assad and wife Asma vote in presidential election, 2003. Photo by Getty

They look so secular: this must be freedom! Bashar al-Assad and wife Asma vote in presidential election, 2003. Photo by Getty

If the US did endorse a prosecution of ISIS, it might be politically tainted from the start. In April John Bellinger, a onetime Bush administration legal adviser, penned a New York Times piece, which one advocate called “a compelling case for referral.” It was peculiar. Bellinger wrote:

The United States has reason to be concerned about inappropriate and politicized investigations of the United States and Israel, but the International Criminal Court still has an important role to play in investigating and prosecuting acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — all of which have reportedly been committed by the Islamic State.[emphasis added]

What? Bellinger writes almost as if a juicy ISIS trial would be a welcome distraction from any (unlikely) accountability for US abuses in Afghanistan, or Israeli ones in Gaza. His words recall how the Bush regime vehemently rejected the ICC, and indeed pressed client countries to abjure or undermine it. Under Obama, the US has been more flexible: employing the ICC against truculent states like Libya, while still maintaining immunity for itself and its allies. Such pliancy undermines both America’s credibility, and the court’s. In the — purely hypothetical — event that LGBT issues found their way into a US-prompted ICC indictment of ISIS, the contradiction with America’s exemption of itself and exculpation of Israel would be a front-and-center fact throughout the region. A polarization that implicates LGBT lives in power politics, and in the various hypocrisies of US policy, would do little for the safety of LGBT people in Iraq or Syria.

This Arria isn’t going to lead anywhere. There’s no strategy behind it. So why does the US want it now? I can tell you — in another graph.

Screen shot 2015-08-23 at 5.22.32 AM

That shows web searches for “ISIS” and “gay,” versus “ISIS” and “women,” since the start of 2015. The gays hold their own in this surreal competition most months; the spurts come at the points when shocking photos of executions spread on the web. From a woman’s perspective there are two reasons this race is rigged against her. First, gays form a more cohesive constituency, tuning their attention spans together, unlike the diffuse concerns of feminists and other women. Then come the pictures. Even when the New York Times and Human Rights Watch publish terrible, unbearable testimonies of enslaved Yazidi women, those rouse only gentle undulations on the blue line. They lack the power of photographs, the seduction and sheen of the unspeakable seen, the visual vertigo of identification.

And look at the last spurt, the perfect wave for the gays. That came in July, when a flood of awful execution photos was released. The US government attends to headlines. A month later, Samantha Power called the Security Council meeting.

There should be no competition between women’s rights and LGBT rights. But the imbalance in Google and in the government’s response is telling. In a melancholy analysis of `American failures over ISIS, Peter Harling and Sarah Birke write that the US doesn’t have a strategy — “a set of clearly-defined interests and goals achievable with available means.” It only has a narrative: images and gestures woven into a palliative, invented story.

The US … continues to desperately seek ways not to engage seriously with the region’s problems. It has developed a sophisticated narrative about a war on terror than thinly veils the absence of a genuine strategy. …. This is a reflection of broader, deeper trends in the Western political sphere. The policy- making process is increasingly dominated by public relations, as spectacular events prompt a rush to put out statements … [these] later inspire and constrain practical measures that must be made to fit into a narrative rather than into a strategy.

There’s your Security Council fairy tale. Brave Obama, bold leadership, coalition, noble victims, historic first. It’s a beautiful story: except, of course, that US policy is being made by the photos its enemies put out. It’s also clear whose good will Obama wants: gay Americans’, not gay Syrians’ or Iraqis’. Last month, the President announced a revamp of “strategy” against Da’ish: “shifting focus to counter ISIL’s public relations machine while training local forces to sustain progress made on the ground there.” Less bombing, more hearts and minds. But whose hearts and minds?

When Samantha Power wanted to tell her story about LGBT people’s rights, she didn’t call Al Hayat, or Al Jazeera. She didn’t call any media that people pay attention to in Syria or Iraq. Neither she nor the NGOs she works with tried to “counter ISIL’s public relations machine.” She called the New York Times.

Execution of a man for

Execution of a man for “sodomy” in Mosul, January 2015. Caption: “Applying the shari’a verdict on the person who committed the greatest crime.” Photo released on Da’ish social-media accounts

III. Power

If the only problem were Obama’s need for publicity, it wouldn’t matter. I fear, though, that the Security Council will only give more impetus to murder.

“Many have asked what needs to be done about the Islamic state of Iraq and al-sham,” writes Jessica Lewis of the Institute for Understanding War, in an understatement. Everybody has a grand theory of ISIS. I don’t see why I shouldn’t too. After all, I live in a country where the Da’ish franchise operates with increasingly lethal boldness; they kidnap Westerners from neighborhoods where I do my shopping. Proximity might lend an even better claim to expertise than having an air-conditioned office inside the Beltway.

ISIS’s appeal is twofold, and it has to do with power. Lewis observes that Da’ish is both an army and a government, “operating in both military and political spheres.” As an army, it holds loyalties because it gives recruits a personal sense of power that life has largely denied them. As a proto-state, it sustains control because it uses power in ways that, however irrational from outside, seem comparatively coherent to many in the chaos of Iraq and Syria. You assert power by standing up to other powerful people — just as Da’ish’s recruits defy their childhood norms, their governments, and often their families to join the ISIS adventure. For the movement, standing up to the Security Council has no downside; the UN can’t hurt them. To continue a killing campaign that’s been publicly deplored by powerful states in far New York affirms the movement’s own claim to power. Murder says defiantly: Yes, we can. 

Man beheaded in Raqqa for blasphemy, December 2014. Photo from ISIS-affiliated social media

Man beheaded in Raqqa, Syria, for “blasphemy,” December 2014. Caption: “Applying the judgment of God upon one who cursed God.” Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

The public character of ISIS’s violence asserts an imaginative authority. Harling and Birke explain:

One of the particularities of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. … This may explain, in part, how it is increasingly resorting to crimes that are not just horrific but spectacularly staged, such as the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh or the mise-en-scène of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on a Libyan beach. The Islamic State is at its most dangerous in its interaction with the psyche, the fantasies, the frustrations and the fears of others, from the converts it attracts to policy-makers and analysts.

What are these fantasies? That ISIS uses the allure of sex slaves to enlist sex-starved men has become a cliche. “Sexual repression in Muslim communities is the foremost reason behind these terrorist organizations’ popularity,” one analyst says. Sex is “a recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden,” the New York Times agrees. (Never mind that some recruits seem to be seeking sexual repression, not fleeing it.) These pop excuses ignore one of feminism’s important insights: that rape is about power, not just sex. To have a sex slave is to have a slave. Da’ish entices less with orgasms than with the delirium of ownership.

Da’ish’s displays of total power attract recruits who want to share in it. But for populations who live under the Islamic State, what makes it tolerable — even attractive — is that its authority is embodied in a legal system. The militias that plagued Iraq in its years of civil war kidnapped victims; corpses turned up days later, skulls pierced by power drills. The Islamic State reflects the rule of law, by contrast, however abhorrent the laws. The relative bureaucratic rationalization under ISIS is part of its state-building aspiration, and of its appeal.

A man is led to execution for “invoking magic” in a village near Raqqa, February 2015. Photo from ISIS-affiliated social media

A man is led to execution in a town near Raqqa, for “invoking magic,” February 2015. Caption: “Applying the judgment of God on a magician in the area of Al-Dbsa in the western section.” Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

Although its Western image is one of roving boys enforcing whims, ISIS in fact has three organized police forces: the ordinary police, the squadrons for religious morals called the hisba (seemingly modelled on Saudi Arabia’s fearsome units for promoting virtue and preventing vice), and security services to patrol dissent. Trials, in principle, precede sentences — though Sarah Birke, after interviewing refugees from Da’ish’s Syrian capital in Raqqa, says no one “was sure whether ISIS’s sharia courts actually listen to evidence … several noted that gruesome punishments are sometimes meted out on the spot to instill fear.” The organized state keeps lapsing back into expressions of personal power. And as with the Khmer Rouge, the bombs seem to bring naked violence to the surface.

Some Raqqa residents said that until the US-led air strikes, you were safe if you followed the rules, however perverse, that were posted on walls and circulated quickly by word of mouth. But the air strikes have made ISIS more paranoid and prone to kidnapping people randomly, the women told me.

Da’ish has two faces: the military movement and the nascent government. But both are power; power is their attraction.

Does anyone think that, given an easy chance to affirm its law and write its defiance of the Security Council in blood, Da’ish won’t take it?

Photo allegedly of a 27 year-old man’s hand being amputated for theft, in Da’ish--controlled Raqqa. Photo released by the Syrian group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

Photo allegedly of a 27 year-old man’s hand being amputated for theft, in Da’ish–controlled Raqqa. Photo released by the Syrian group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

IV. Security

Belief that the Security Council should be the venue for talking LGBT people’s human rights is part of the ever-growing concept of “human security.” It’s a dangerous concept. Before they buy into it, LGBT people need to ask some questions.

Historians of the “human security” idea usually trace it to the UN’s 1994 Human Development Report, which introduced the notion that “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” — from Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — were critical to global security. From there, the story goes, it was taken up by noble states like Canada and Norway, who built consensus around treating public health, food, and the environment as security concerns. No one knows yet what “human security” means — “Existing definitions,” writes Rolland Paris, “tend to be extraordinarily expansive and vague, encompassing everything from physical security to psychological well-being” — but it’s a Good Thing.

Human security: from Japan’s “Official Development Assistance White Paper 2011” at http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/oda/white/2011/html/honbun/b2/s2_1.html

Human security: from Japan’s “Official Development Assistance White Paper 2011” at http://www.mofa.go.jp/

Human security has roots outside the touchy-feely development field, however. To adopt it as a frame for LGBT rights, or any rights, is to take on this burdensome past. Its real origins lie not in the UN but in the thinking of Cold War security experts, forced to wrestle in the 1990s with a suddenly disorderly world. New threats to governments’ power loomed — ones that were always there, perhaps, but now acquired new menace, bursting free of the bilateral structures of superpower rivalry. They elbowed out the old bogeymen, peasant insurgencies and nuclear wars. David A. Baldwin wrote in 1995:

With the end of the cold war have come numerous suggestions that resources once devoted to coping with military threats now be used to deal with such nonmilitary threats as domestic poverty, educational crises, industrial competitiveness, drug trafficking, crime, international migration, environmental hazards, resource shortages, global poverty, and so on.

Stephen Walt, in a controversial piece from 1991, argued against this expansion of the term — against “making the term ‘security’ so inclusive that it included virtually anything that might affect human welfare.” But his was a losing fight. Soon a plethora of formerly human issues were being rethought as “security” ones. The UN’s happy platitudes merely reflected a sense that to speak in security terms was the only way to get heard.

What defines “human security” is not the demilitarization of security thinking. It’s the militarization of everything else. What isn’t there a “War on” these days? Each problem’s a pretext for exceptional action. (Alex de Waal has written perceptively, for instance, about the dangers of militarized responses to public health crises.) One scholar of international relations identifies “the politics of existential threat” as the core of the new security studies.

The distinguishing feature of securitization is a specific rhetorical structure (“survival,” priority of action “because if not handled now it will be too late, and we will not exist to remedy our failure”). In security discourse an issue is dramatized and presented as an issue of supreme priority, and thus by labeling it “security” an agent claims a need for and a right to treat it by extraordinary means. ….

The gauzy concerns of human security — freedom from want and fear — blend readily into coercion, armed intervention, and emergency repression.

I'm human, what about you? Logo of the Human Security Network

I’m human, what about you? Logo of the Human Security Network

Look at the makeup of the Human Security Network, one of the international flagships for the idea. Norway and Canada launched this grouping of nations back in 1998, on the “principle that the true rights-holders in our world are not states and governments but rather the individuals for whose benefit they exist and in whose interests states are supposed to act.” Current members are Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Greece, Ireland, Jordan, Mali, Norway, Panama, Slovenia, Switzerland and Thailand; South Africa’s an observer.

What nice countries! Yet when it comes to the American war on terror, many of these take security in less-than-human terms.

Jordan, for instance, has been “a key ‘hub’ in the USA’s secret “renditions” programme,” according to Amnesty International: it jailed and tortured manifold victims en route to “black site” prisons. Ireland is a lovely place, with gay marriage to boot; but it handed Shannon Airport to the CIA, to use as a stopover in sending prisoners off to torture. Thailand hosted a secret prison called “Detention Site Green,” sufficiently awful that nearly all information about it was redacted from the recent US Senate report on torture. And democratic South Africa illegally rendered two terror suspects to torture in Pakistan, in one case handing him to CIA custody first.

The human face of human security is a mask. It covers mid-level states obediently following US orders — and pursuing indigenous agendas of blood and fear. Jordan notoriously will torture just about anybody to protect the state from anything. Canada, until a few years ago, imprisoned sex workers — apparently for their “safety.” And Thailand’s own security paranoia led to a military “war on drugs” starting in 2003: soldiers and cops killed almost 3000 people.

From the Caux Forum for Human Security, Switzerland

From the Caux Forum for Human Security, Switzerland

“Human security,” Rhonda Howard-Hassmann argues, has tense relations with human rights:

the broader view of human security at best repeats, and possibly undermines, the already extant human rights regime, especially by converting state obligations to respect individuals’ inalienable human rights into policy decisions regarding which aspects of human security to protect under which circumstances. … The discourse of human security is not one of state obligations and individual entitlements: it is a discourse that permits states to make choices as to what aspects they wish to protect.

The international obsession with ISIS proves her point. It’s obvious that, however skilled Da’ish is at publicizing its own horrors, the atrocities of Assad’s government dwarf those of the Islamic State. The US and its allies choose to concentrate on the latter, not the former. Parly this is driven by the headlines and the Google searches, by Da’ish’s dominance of the imagination; but it’s also a policy decision. The US believes Assad is on the wane; whereas it sees ISIS as rising, and a major security issue. This may or may not be true, but humanity is utterly at odds with security here. The US does nothing to help Syrians who are dying; and, manipulating ISIS’s death toll as a tool of raison d’état, it does little for Da’ish’s victims either.

Screen shot 2015-08-19 at 11.10.40 PMThis cynicism’s effects show up elsewhere. I live in Egypt, a country where the US has some influence; yet the Obama administration does nothing about arrests and torture of LGBT people – or any of the other human rights violations that have burgeoned under military dictatorship. No Arrias, no indignation. The contrast with Da’ish is depressing. Egypt is not a “security issue”: or rather, Egypt promotes security by torturing and killing people. Prattle about human security only weakens Egypt’s beneficent work bolstering the safety that counts, that of states in a pliant international order.

Increasingly, Western governments are taking on LGBT issues as their foreign-policy concerns, often, like the US, in a framework of “security.” It’s a good deal for LGBT NGOs based in New York or Geneva. They get recognition, and with it funding and power. It’s not always good for LGBT people on the ground who face danger. Their lives are suddenly tangled up with the politics and schemes of governments thousands of miles away. And they can be reviled, punished, killed in consequence.

Dianne Otto, a friend and a feminist scholar of international politics, has written about women’s movements’ decades-long engagement with the UN Security Council, which flowered in four Council resolutions on “women, peace, and security.” Initially critical, she has moved toward cautious optimism. Her analysis demands study by anybody contemplating the Security Council as a home for LGBT rights. She credits feminism with “disrupting the Council’s conservative gender script and prompting remarkable levels of institutional activity.” If feminists succeeded in moving the Council, though, it’s because they never surrendered to its agenda, remaining both intellectually independent and responsive to the grassroots. Their story shows “the critical importance of feminist activism outside institutional control, which can resist the ways that institutions capture feminist ideas and turn them to their own purposes.”

The difference in how diplomats see feminist advocates and how they see LGBT activists is the difference between a movement that’s politically powerful, and one that’s politically useful. Can LGBT politics evade subordination to great-power agendas, “security” frameworks, and exploitation? It’s an open question.

Da'ish executioners throw a man accused of homosexual conduct off a building in Fallujah province, Iraq, June 2015. Photo collected from Da'ish-affiliated social media

Da’ish executioners throw a man accused of “sodomy” off a building in the Al-Jazira region of northeast Syria, apparently in May 2015,. Caption: “Applying the judgment on the one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot.” Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

V. What is to be done? 

One thing that will surely be jaw-jawed in the Security Council meeting, and one area where it could lead to constructive action, is increased help for LGBT refugees from Syria and Iraq. LGBT people who have fled to other countries in the region — Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt — still face severe threats there. Two months ago in Egypt, a Syrian refugee was entrapped over the Internet, convicted of homosexual conduct, and eventually deported. The UN High Commission for Refugees has done nothing to protect other LGBT refugees in the country.

These people deserve accelerated resettlement to safe countries, and Security Council members would do well to urge that. Yet to say that LGBT refugees should be processed faster doesn’t mean they should be resettled instead of other refugees. If resettlement becomes a competition, where queers get berths and displace persecuted Christians, or Yazidis, or women, the perceived privilege can only deepen hatred of LGBT refugees. The danger is that Western governments who don’t want Syrians or Iraqis will take a small dollop of LGBT ones, then announce they’ve done their duty, and close their doors. I doubt whether the Security Council — whose permanent members, including the US, have woefully avoided their obligations to refugees — will be sensitive to this danger.

Refugee protections, though, won’t solve the situation in Syria and Iraq. International LGBT groups sometimes assume “helping people” simply means “getting them asylum.” Asylum is a vital human right; but, as I wrote two years ago, “Escape substitutes for protection. The asylum system – unwieldy, prejudiced, deeply flawed — serves as the nearest thing we have to a security plan for the international LGBT movement.” As intractable as the situation may seem, a real “historic step” would entail much more than mere discussions, and more than finding victims an escape hatch.

Da'ish members throw a man accused of

Da’ish executioners throw a man accused of “sodomy” off a building, apparently in Homs, Syria, June 2015. Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

LGBT people’s rights can’t be lopped from the full context of the violence in Iraq and Syria. But this means recognizing the utter failure of the “security”-based solutions the US has promoted. We invaded Iraq at the behest of our own security state. We rebuilt a security state in Baghdad, and it imploded. Another security state sprang up under ISIS (Da’ish, Sarah Birke found, imposes its will mainly “by security services, just as it was under the Baathist regime in Iraq and continues to be in Assad’s Syria”). It may implode too, or its violence may keep it going. But the US, with its CV of disasters, can do little to hasten its disappearance.

Timidly I offer one specific and one general solution — and the US can’t do much about either. Those targeted as the “people of Lot” in Iraq and Syria aren’t large populations. They need places where they can live quietly, without being “out” in any Western way, without daily state harassment, and with some protection from violence in families or communities. They need to be left alone. To get the governments to leave people alone would entail engaging with Iraqi (and Syrian) opinion on sexuality in ways that no state or international NGO has done so far, and furthering the very limited elite sympathy for LGBT victims that years of violence (especially in Iraq) elicited. It might involve finding tacit enclaves where let-alone policy was possible; parts of pacified Southern Iraq or Kurdistan could do, though such areas, already purged to extirpate diversity, would look with suspicion on Sunni or Arab migrants respectively. It’s all a long shot, but it’s also the best realistic hope for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Protesters carry national flags and an electric fan in Baghdad, August 7, 2015. Photo by Karim Kadim/AP

Protesters carry national flags and an electric fan in Baghdad, August 7, 2015. Photo by Karim Kadim/AP

More generally, the security model needs to go. Iraqis and Syrians want safety — from Da’ish, from militias, from common criminals, from bomb-mad militaries, and from the corrupt police. They also want governments that protect them from sickness and hunger. This month Iraqis are protesting, in 120-degree heat, for the state to furnish enough electricity to run air conditioners. We need to stop “integrating” welfare into a framework of security issues, and instead see security as a small part of the spectrum of welfare issues. New thinking about the state, a revival of welfare as the goal of government, must emerge from the dust and gore.

Writing just after 9/11, Giorgio Agamben described how, with welfare states surrendering to the assault of neoliberalism, governments found renewed legitimacy in fear:

In the course of a gradual neutralization of politics and the progressive surrender of traditional tasks of the state, security becomes the basic principle of state activity. What used to be one among several definitive measures of public administration until the first half of the twentieth century, now becomes the sole criterium of political legitimation. The thought of security bears within it an essential risk. A state which has security as its sole task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to become itself terroristic. … European and American politicians finally have to consider the catastrophic consequences of uncritical general use of this figure of thought.

The catastrophe is nowhere more evident than in the Arab lands; the imported security-state model brought nothing but disintegration and death. LGBT people are among the innumerable victims. Resort to the Security Council will not help them. Securitizing rights under the aegis of foreign action only pits the victims permanently against the communities they come from. The New York discussions will continue, unstanched, unstoppable. So will the killings.

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The UN Security Council chamber. The weird mural by Per Krogh depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes, and figures in various conspiracy theories as a product of Kabbalists, Illuminati, or Satan

The UN Security Council chamber. The weird mural by Per Krogh depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes, and figures in various conspiracy theories as the work of Kabbalists, Illuminati, or Satan.

Cultural Cold Wars: Where “traditional values” came from

"Communism destroys the family": Spanish fascist poster, 1936. With one women screaming as the Red abducts another, the possibility that this is a lesbian family is not to be discounted.

“Communism destroys the family”: Spanish fascist poster, 1936. With one women screaming as the Red abducts another, the possibility that this is a lesbian family is not to be discounted.

There’s thunder out there, and not just on the Right, telling us the Cold War is back. Tensions between the US and Russia have ascended, over Edward Snowden and Syria. A new poll shows that a bare majority of Americans thinks of Russia as “non-friendly/enemy,” the first time it’s fallen so low in this century. And of course there are the gays. Will “divisions over sexual orientation” be “the new Berlin Wall”? Indeed, by sponsoring a resolution on “traditional values” at the UN Human Rights Council, Putin seems to be bidding for leadership of an unwieldy coalition of conservative countries — the Islamic bloc, sub-Saharan African states, right-wing Catholic regimes in Latin America – that has opposed women’s rights and sexual rights for more than fifteen years, usually without great-power support.

A lot of people, particularly pundits, need a Cold War.  It lends focus to their energies and cohesion to their loathings, without calling on their minuscule reserves of courage like a hot one would. The years since 1989 have been a nostalgic and leaderless lurch from enemy to enemy, searching for one with size and staying power enough to infuse meaning into the vacant days: first, Saddam Hussein, then radical Islam, then Saddam Hussein again briefly, then back to radical Islam, with occasional forays into demonizing Serbia (too small to be powerful and frightening) and China (too non-white for same). Only in the last few years has Russia re-emerged as Old Reliable, perhaps dating from John McCain’s history-making 2008 cry: “Today we are all Georgians.” True, nobody remembers the Georgians now, but the principle’s the same. Today we are all Russian gays. Crowded, this back room.

I don’t think there will be a new Cold War – Russia is big, but it’s not what it used to be – and I don’t think homosexuality will be a Checkpoint Charlie, though the analogies are tempting. (Will the gays organize a Berlin airlift to ferry sex to their starved brethren under repressive rule? What about the Bay of Bears invasion?)  But with Moscow emerging as a patron, the side that’s been fighting a culture war against women and against sexuality has a bit more weight in international arenas than before; maybe that will translate into more boldness at home as well.  (Russia, however, is not prone to backing up its verbal support for homophobic governments by ladling on bilaterial aid. China, which is comparatively indifferent to sex, is the big funder.) Similarly, there’s no question that the Obama administration’s loud support of LGBT rights abroad – with an eye to domestic voters — has given a don’t-tread-on-me, militaristic tone to the way US gays approach international issues. The big dog is barking for progressivism and freedom, and we can puff our chests out and piss on lampposts to assert our pride. So as one blogger puts it,

25 years ago a lot of countries got away with a lot of antigay crap because we weren’t powerful enough to stop the bigotry and the hatred that led so many of us to attempt suicide. That doesn’t give Russia the right to keep abusing us today – as if they somehow missed out their chance to dehumanize us somehow, and now want a shot at it. We finally have the power to stand up to bullies and we will.

Barry Goldwater couldn’t have said it better.

All the same, if this Cold War is being waged over cultural values, we need to remember that the old Cold War was too. It was, in fact, the first real culture war, not just between two countries but between two ideologies – capitalism and Communism – each measuring success not merely in military terms but in changing lifeways and attracting populations by their blandishments. (Fascism employed propaganda to cement loyalty in peoples under its direct rule, but  it was never a universalist ideology, too absorbed in national and racial myths to refashion itself for transnational audiences.)

What’s interesting is that the cultural alignments in the 40-year US vs. Russia showdown were very different from those today: in fact, about 180 degrees so.

"This Godless Communism": Treasure Chest comics series, starting in 1961

“This Godless Communism”: Treasure Chest comics series, starting in 1961

These days, Russia claims to speak for countries that see themselves on the cultural defensive, fighting a rear-guard effort to preserve “traditional values” like family, religion, and cohesive community. Back then, it was the capitalist countries, and the US in its capacity as Head Capitalist, who sold themselves that way. The values rhetoric, the defense of patriarchy, the invocations of moral absolutes that are used against so many human rights movements today – all these are pretty much what the US was saying at home and abroad half a century ago.

When I was a small-town boy at the height of the old Cold War, every pulpit, politician, and TV screen seemed to warn that Communism was after us, the way we lived here and now. It would dissolve the family, destroy religion, crush morality, and abolish traditional community: all the things that small-town boys in Gambia or Belarus nowadays hear are the goals of homosexuality and feminism and Hillary Clinton. The visions were terrifying; the thought that some commissar out there had Radford, Virginia (pop. 10,000, an All-American City) in his sights was extraordinarily vivid. Moreover, even comic books spread the dire message – and for a six-year-old in 1968, comic books were way more reliable than members of Congress. The iconic images of threats to a way of life say more than all the speeches I could quote.

Treasure Chest, a Catholic-oriented comic, was widely distributed for years in secular schools as well. It featured a running series series on the Red threat, “This Godless Communism.” (Catholic leaders were heirs to a long history of anti-Communist agitation in the name of social values – and they were also, most likely, familiar with Fascist propaganda, like the poster up at top.) This one, from 1961, featured an introduction and cameo by J. Edgar Hoover. After the Communists take over the US, the first thing we learn is that they’re feminists.

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Getting Mommy in the workforce isn’t the half of it, though.  Next come state-run nurseries, and “So ends the story of the American family.”

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We need “to be on our guard, to re-affirm the truths we once learned and now teach, to keep our children free from Communism.”  But Communism targets the transmission of tradition. Even in places without tradition, like Canada.

Canadair advertisement, 1955

Canadair advertisement, 1955

The result of this treason, of course, is a school like this (the pedagogue looked, even if she didn’t exactly sound, like my first-grade teacher):

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Here, in a 1948 comic about Soviet America, a son tells the secret police about Mom’s hidden “religious junk.” When they raid the home in consequence, disappointed Dad is alarmingly happy to hand Biff over to them as well: “You’ve got his soul — now take his body too.” I could see my father saying the same thing.

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And, of course, all this flows from a cosmopolitan conspiracy against American morals and values. Even in 1948, the Catholic comics were decrying a “culture of death” — in this one, Communists boasted about their success in spreading it:

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It’s easy, maybe cheap, to laugh. I always find that, to us in the US, our Cold War propaganda is funny in a way that other endeavors in the field (even the trumped-up, hysterical atrocity stories of the First World War) aren’t. Mainly the reason is that it’s less about them than about us. Precisely because it’s a culture war, and because we believed we were losing, the focus is incessantly on the “way of life” we’re supposed to be defending. More than almost any other propaganda, it serves up images of our imagined everyday happiness as the object of the enemy’s resentful demolition urges. But that way of life, airbrushed to absurdity then, seems utterly unreal now. It isn’t even menacing in its repressive gender roles, its airtight whiteness. You can’t take it seriously – it’s all camp, and you can recuperate it for a nostalgic chuckle as easily as Leave it to Beaver.

This distance we feel is partly due to what happened, throughout the capitalist West, since 1960. The vast economic growth of the postwar years, the Trentes Glorieuses, created fullblown consumer societies in western Europe and in parts of the US that had never seen them before. People could spend their way into niches where they could express dissident identities publicly and safely. Affluence relaxed social norms and helped women push for liberation from traditional roles. Economic power brought burgeoning demands for political rights. Leave it to Beaver was left behind, a relic. It grew harder and harder for the West to represent itself to itself as securely on the side of conservative social practices.

Not so simple these days: From 1971 cartoon by US evangelical megapublisher Jack T. Chick

Not so simple these days: From 1971 cartoon by US evangelical megapublisher Jack T. Chick

But the Cold War’s cultural as well as political battlefield shifted in the 60s and 70s, away from the capitalist heartland to the Third World. Increasingly, the conflict fought itself out in counterinsurgency campaigns and ideological struggles in all corners of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “Traditional values” became an export commodity, essential to Western propaganda and Western politics there.

US government experts explained the temptations of Communism in the developing world by “the personal uncertainty generated by the jarring social transitions from tradition to modernity.” The best way to ensure satisfactory citizens, and stable and dependable governments, was to entrust development to a trustworthy force – preferably, the military would preside over modernization in countries prepping for “take-off.” A stern dictatorship of generals would also make sure that free trade, marketization, and a capitalist economy left as much as possible of patriarchal, hierarchical morals and social relations intact. US propaganda tools and talents would be ready to assist. The US treated family and religion as universal values of conservatism, regardless of what particular God you worshipped or within what family form you beat your wife. The more they eroded in the homeland, the more vital they appeared in foreign policy. As President Eisenhower famously said, free government “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Poster for António Salazar's dictatorship in Portugal: "Salazar's Lesson: God, Fatherland, Family: The Trilogy of National Education"

Poster for António Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal: “Salazar’s Lesson: God, Fatherland, Family: The Trilogy of National Education”

The US’s pet dictatorships, from Lisbon to Saigon, all fostered bifurcated visions of the world: a rosy and pious traditional family at the center, requiring the exertion of appalling violence to protect it from corrosive horrors beyond. Jordán Bruno Genta, chief ideologue of military fascism in Argentina, urged the country to

Create a military state and a war policy to combat internal subversion; indoctrinate the military with a clear idea of its mission and with enthusiasm for this mission; mobilize the entire population for the counterrevolutionary war; free the nation from the power of international money; base everything in Christ, which means restore the natural hierarchies.

After the generals took power in Buenos Aires, school textbooks told kids that

for psychological and physical reasons, the male should be acknowledged as the authority … By her nature the woman represents kindness and love. Unless things are so, anarchy and dissatisfaction become a fact … To deny the father’s authority is to tear the family to pieces. The woman’s obedience to authority has a great educational influence on the family.

Abortion, free love, pornography, and divorce all exempified “the most recent Marxist strategy to conquer the West.” Propaganda, of course, had the police behind it; everything from feminism to Freudianism took on the look of leftist subversion. The regime murdered thousands who denied “the father’s authority,” or its own.

Similar propaganda sustained the Pinochet dictatorship in neighboring Chile.

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This is a 1984 booklet on Marxism emitted by the junta. “Communism believes that the family has no reason to exist, so must be weakened to extinction.” The sad female on the right, dreaming of distraught infants, dreams in vain: “Woman is separated from family life, into work shifts in factories and militant political activity. It denies her duty as a mother and wife, and puts her children under the tutelage of the state.”

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“Chile: Yesterday” –street violence — “Today” — family; 1975 propaganda

This was crude compared to other Pinochet productions. The Chilean dictatorship hewed to a comprehensive “cultural policy,” to promote “the defense, development and growth of the tradition and culture which is our own.” It also had excellent PR. It drew on the services not only of the CIA but of numerous American intellectuals and corporations who had the tyrant’s back. Its marketing emphasized continuity, stability, and belonging, with simple text and visuals and attractive typography. This 1979 promo is as warm and reassuring as an American ad for oatmeal.

“Chile’s glorious past is reborn with vigor in September” — the month of both Independence Day and the so-called Second Independence, when the thugs overthrew Allende. Family and continuity unite as cultural values, in a history represented by a list of safely right-wing national heroes. Then: “Chile Forever. All One.”

Those faux-kindly notes were struck in many places, even if fear was never far from the margins. Consider this collection of election posters for Italy’s Christian Democratic Party, which dominated the country for 50 years, and was a well-funded favorite of the CIA

Top L: "Mother! Save your children from Bolshevism!" Top R: "Vote Christian" -- while snakes labelled "Divorce" and "Free Love" hiss at the family. Bottom L: A 20th-anniversary poster for Christian Democracy features a white-clad virgin. Bottom R: "Mamma and Papa are voting for me."

Top L: “Mother! Save your children from Bolshevism!” Top R: “Vote Christian” — while snakes labelled “Divorce” and “Free Love” hiss at the family. Bottom L: A 20th-anniversary poster for Christian Democracy features a white-clad virgin. Bottom R: “Mamma and Papa — Vote for me.”

More overt are the oppositions in these posters from Thailand, which contrast misery and alienation in Communist China to traditional culture and the family.

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“The Communist Party forcibly tears apart family members among the common people. The Kingdom of Thailand’s people live and work in peace and happiness.”

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“The Communist Party fattens the public and deprives the private, not allowing the Chinese people enough property. The people of the Kingdom of Thailand live comfortably in abundance.” It’s like Norman Rockwell.

CIA propaganda invoked family and religion in counterinsurgency campaigns. A two-sided CIA leaflet from the Dominican Republic, invaded by the US in 1965, puts it succinctly:

The exact identity of the round object raining golden showers on the Virgin’s head remains, however, uncertain.

The CIA also drew heavily on imagery and rhetoric of family in South Vietnam. One of its key propaganda contributions to the war was the Chieu Hoi or “Open Arms” program, a multimillion-dollar fiasco designed to persuade Viet Cong guerrillas to surrender in exchange for amnesty. Nostalgia for the families they’d left behind was the main selling point, but it played into larger themes of traditionalism and security.

We cry for the dead
We are bitter because the Communists
Have destroyed our families.
When will mothers and children be reunited?

The leaflet’s obverse is less sentimental, though, promising deserters

200 (piasters) per month for errands. 15 piasters for each member of the family who stays at the government center. …

Two pairs of shirts and pants or 1000 piasters.

During the Chimurenga against white rule in Rhodesia, the racist government predictably allocated gender roles in the most traditional ways when appealing to the white community:

Top, recruiting ad for Rhodesian army, 1970s; bottom, warning against loose talk

Top, recruiting ad for Rhodesian army, 1970s; bottom, warning against loose talk

Its attempts to propagandize among blacks, however, showed “native” families the way whites wanted to see them, as unappealingly impotent. Men were absent, women defenseless, a vision perhaps unlikely to entrance the intended audience. Meanwhile, Communist bearers of deviant sex ravaged traditional ways of life, as not only rapists but carriers of venereal disease:

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Leaflets distributed in government-controlled villages by white Rhodesian forces, 1970s

You have to wonder if this talk of infectious “mad dogs” had any influence on the later language of Robert Mugabe.

Perhaps the oddest artifact is this comic book, Grenada: Rescued from Rape and Slavery. A CIA front (“Victims of International Communist Emissaries,” or VOICE) distributed it on the island after the US invaded in 1983. In true Treasure Chest style, it shows Bill and Anna, a nuclear couple with the requisite two kids, who fear what the Communists will do to the Grenadan family: “Oh, Bill, I’m so afraid — afraid for ourselves and for our children. With more Cubans coming in more of our children will be forced into brainwashing!” The problem is, unlike the Treasure Chest clan, they’re black. Black families in the US had been suffering “benign neglect” for generations, so why do these guys expect you to drop everything? Bill and Anna seem virtuous, monogamous, and not part of the drug trade, though, so the helicopters come: “Yes, Anna, thank God!  And thank God for President Reagan and our freedom-loving neighbors!”

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What we see now is a remarkable reversal of all this old-time religion. It’s now consumerism that plays the role once taken by godless Communism, threatening all traditional ways of life. America is the great Satan; Obama stands in for Khrushchev in the imaginary comic book of our time; and the effectively neutered and de-radicalized Third World (now along with Russia) stands up for the good old values. In fact Putin sounds like, and with his taste for boorish nationalism and unapologetic intervention often acts like, Eisenhower or Reagan. How the whirligig of time brings round his revenges!

There was always a contradiction in the ideologies of capitalism, though, between the social values it dresses itself in  — so often traditional, meant to hold society in place and ready for productive labor during rapid change — and the social processes it furthers, so often transformative. Everything solid melts into air; but we’re not supposed to notice, are meant to carry on with our assigned roles as always, the work, the weddings, the funerals.  Marx knew how this happens, but most of the moderns don’t.

America and Europe in the last few decades have thrown away the sheep’s clothing. They’re not interested in tradition anymore, because it isn’t useful to them. They’re on the side of social transformation, as long as it’s in their favor: as long as it’s compatible with economic advantage, with keeping capital mobile and the workforce in the rest of the world low-wage. Meanwhile, the previously pliable regimes it helped establish around the planet, from Ben Bella’s jailers to Yeltsin’s heirs, are seizing the banner of tradition, as a symbolic way of defending themselves against — among other things — capital flows and forces that see their borders as irrelevant and their economies as fields for exploitation.

What hasn’t changed in sixty years (though the players’ slogans and some of their identities have) is that it’s about power. Caught in the middle, much as before, are ragtag, straggling bands of communities and social movements who reject the fake ideologies of tradition and belonging. They want more freedom; but they don’t want to buy another prefab ideology of being “freed,” or fight on somebody else’s side to get it — whether the somebody is Brezhnev or Obama. Third World feminists in the ’70s and Third World LGBT folk today are in approximately the same place, ground between visions of liberation or salvation that are unreal and oversimplified and exclude them. It’s not a comic book world, and the answers will not come easy.

Last page of Two Faces of Communism, comic produced in 1961 by the evangelical Christian Anti-Communist Crusade

Last page of Two Faces of Communism, comic produced in 1961 by the evangelical Christian Anti-Communism Crusade

Promoting homosexuality versus promoting one homosexual: Putin, Nikolai Alekseev, and the publicity machine

Brokeback Moscow: Everything is fine here in Marlboro country

Brokeback Moscow: Everything is fine here in Marlboro country

Vladimir Putin dabbled in the promotion of homosexuality this morning. After all, he can get away with it. In an interview published by AP, he praised the notoriously decadent Tchaikovsky, and promised that everything for LGBT folks in Russia will be fine, fine.

I assure you that I work with these people, I sometimes award them with state prizes or decorations for their achievements in various fields. We have absolutely normal relations, and I don’t see anything out of the ordinary here. They say that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a homosexual. Truth be told we don’t love him because of that, but he was a great musician, and we all love his music. So what? There’s no need to make a mountain out of a molehill, there’s nothing horrible or scary going on in our country.

Great; unlike scary Syria, which understandably took up most of the conversation, Russia continues in the peace that passeth understanding. In response to a question that has all the marks of being planted (“You said earlier that President Obama was welcome to meet with members of gay and lesbian groups in Russia. Would you also be willing to have such a meeting?”) Putin voiced eagerness to listen not only to the musical gays, but to the ones who just talk.

If any of them would like to meet me then, by all means. But so far there hasn’t been any such initiative. We have many such groups, various organizations, societies, and as a rule I meet with anyone who voices a request for a meeting and offers to discuss an important problem. So far there haven’t been any such requests, but why not?

Convenient. It cocks a snook at Obama, and allows Putin to show that civil society (all those “groups, various organizations, societies” now hamstrung by draconian registration requirements under his laws) is functioning just fine despite everything.

In an interval so brief that subatomic particles would envy it, anti-Semitic activist hero Nikolai Alekseev announced he is asking for a meeting.

Quick, before the Jews find out:  "A formal letter requesting a meeting today will be sent by me to the Administration of the President of Russia." "Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich! I ask you for a meeting to discuss the situation of LGBT people in Russia and around the world!"

Quick, before the Jews find out:
“A formal letter requesting a meeting today will be sent by me to the Administration of the President of Russia.”
“Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich! I ask you for a meeting to discuss the situation of LGBT people in Russia and around the world!”

For a long time, some activists in the West — along with the US and UK gay press, and others — have proclaimed Alekseev the leader of Russia’s gay movement, despite ample evidence of his pathologies and prejudices. They didn’t give a damn, either, about the disinclination of Russia’s actual, vibrant gay movement to follow Alekseev’s erratic lead. “Not many people would have dared continue to put themselves in the frontline and take on the power of the ruthless tyrannical Russian state,” Peter Tatchell wrote in 2011 (this despite Alekseev’s insistence, over many years, that he was in no way an opponent of Putin). “Sadly,” Tatchell added, “too many people were ready to believe some of the malicious things said against him.”  Alekseev’s faithful scribe and oddly fawning promoter Doug Ireland called him, in Gay City News in 2010, “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers.” 

Now, for the first time, Russia’s government agrees with them.  The official news agency RIA Novosti referred to him today as “the leader of the Russian gay movement.” The Presidential press secretary told the agency that “Putin is always a supporter of dialogue. Certainly, it is important to determine the theme of the meeting …  If he wants to ask a burning question, of course, I am confident that the meeting will be considered as [a matter of urgency.]”

If this meeting happens — and if Putin is smart, he will do it, perhaps after putting some tranquilizers in the samovar — you can expect a communique from the duo saying that everything is fine across all of Russia, maybe even for the gays in Syria too, that those crazy human rights activists (whom Alekseev was deriding as “extremists” as far back as 2007) should be jailed, and that the law really doesn’t make any difference. Maybe Moscow Pride will finally be allowed, as a moneymaking venture, as long as it’s indoors. Maybe Alekseev will get one of those State prizes. Maybe he will even sing Evgeny Onegin for Putin, in a command performance.

I am not one of those who believe (as Oleg Kashin speculates today at Svobodnaya Pressa) that Alekseev has somehow been captured, bullied, or blackmailed by the Kremlin and is now under their control.  That easy explanation seems to me a product of the same naiveté about the man that his Western fan club helped promote. The government doesn’t need to pressure Alekseev for him to be erratic and divisive. They just need to wait. Anybody who’s watched him for years knows that jealousy and opportunism come to him as second, or first, nature.

What’s at work isn’t State intimidation; it’s much simpler. It’s Alekseev’s passion for publicity, something that he’s learned at the feet of stuntmen, pseudoactivists, and journalists in the West. He could certainly use some good publicity right now; here’s a way to get it. His pursuit of the paparazzi, and Putin’s need for a friendly headline, have just converged. Alekseev’s fan club plucked the man from obscurity, kept him in the limelight for years despite burgeoning doubts and questions, ignored and actively insulted other Russian activists doing serious and important work, and fed his hungry ego till it burst. They made him. He’s their golem — a Jewish legend Nikolai wouldn’t like, but in which he might feel the shock of recognition. But unlike the golem of the old stories, Alekseev can’t hurt his makers. Instead, it’s Russia’s LGBT community whose rights will suffer.

 

More on Hillary and Barack

the marriage of true minds: any impediments?

A future torture victim sat next to me yesterday, on my flight from Paris to New York. She was in her twenties, and strung tight as piano wire, and professed to be half-German, half-Egyptian. She’d been subjected to a random search back at Charles de Gaulle. This put her in a state of steaming outrage, during which she emitted, to no one in particular, vocal and egregious threats: “I hope they bomb that airport. I hope everyone is killed. I feel like I am in Auschwitz.  How dare they serve Coca-Cola on this plane?”  Finally she wrote, in big black letters on a piece of paper, and pinned to the TV screen in front of her:

FUCK YOU
CHARLES DE GAULLE
HITLER’S AIRPORT AND
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
I hope you are blown to bits and
Everybody dies
Coke Kills

I huddled in the aisle seat, thinking in no special order: a) Given all the security, it’s impossible she has a bomb. b) Then why does she keep talking about it? c) Can the stewardesses see that note? d) I need more wine. e) If the stewardesses see this, she will be taken to Guantanamo. f) If we make an emergency landing so she can be taken to Guantanamo, my flight will be six hours late. g) Should I protest if she’s taken to Guantanamo? h) Do I want to go to Guantanamo? i) I need more wine.

Air France handled things surprisingly well, as it happens. Nobody was wrestled to the floor or cuffed. Instead, a senior, marmoreally-coiffed French woman shunted me from my seat and lectured the passenger for almost an hour. I heard snatches of the one-way conversation: “You can of course think zat. But you cannot say it on an airplane. And you cannot expose it zat way for others to zee.” There is nothing like a dressing-down from une française soignée to put even incipient psychosis in its place. The note vanished, the writer calmed down, the plane landed on time, and no one seemed to go Gitmoward. I desperately hope someone was waiting past customs with Valium, and not an orange jumpsuit.

I’d meant to spend the flight thinking about the Obama administration’s new LGBT human rights initiative; and instead I worried about whether seat 27b had a ticket to a Caribbean prison. Yet this made sense somehow. How progressive are the Obamaites in talking about human rights!  They meet with rights NGOs and flatter their fragile egos; they support the touchy issues, the women and the queers; they speechify. But Guantanamo is still there. The military tribunals still promise to happen in a slow parody of justice. Drones still descend from the sky, with a blue whine beyond appeal, to kill people we don’t like. It’s nice to be part of the class that merits concern, not cages; protection, not jet-fueled murder. This administration does demonstrate more real action on human rights than its bloody predecessor.  But the action is just selective enough to leave you wondering why you were singled out, when so many others still suffer the vast yet individuated violence. As Samuel Beckett wrote, musing on the two miscreants crucified on either side of Christ: “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”

Reading some of the US responses to Clinton’s speech only reinforces this queasy feeling. Take gay activist-at-large Wayne Besen, who writes:

A historic address of this magnitude was desperately needed to counter the rising tide of backwards and barbaric nations that had recently been persecuting LGBT people to distract from their glaring problems. …

The list of countries that recently declared war on sexual minorities include Russia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Iran, and Zimbabwe. For the contemptible despots who run these underachieving nations, fomenting homophobia makes political sense. .. [S]omething drastic needed to happen to turn back the tide of violence and discrimination that plagued these “loser nations.”

Or, as Besen intones elsewhere,

The LGBT community rarely thrives in backward places that promote ignorance over education and medieval views over modernity. As these intellectual swamps sink, sexual minorities make ideal targets… [P]laces that are leaders in passing anti-gay laws are losers in virtually every other category that defines successful, civilized societies.

I can’t imagine how you could even communicate to Besen that the gays in  “loser nations” like Nigeria or Uganda don’t really like having their countries called “backward and barbaric.”  Besen wouldn’t get it: he’d counter, But the gays are civilized!  It’s the other Cameroonians who live in trees! In other words, he understands why the gays in loser lands deserve to be singled out: they’re better than their compatriots, more successful, more unbarbaric, more like us.

Why would that be so? Well, possibly the foreign gays have a cultural leg up, and have gotten book-learned and Westernized by reading … oh, for instance, Wayne Besen, who’s available on the Internet even in darkest Russia. Or possibly it goes deeper, it’s in the chromosomes, and even in Cameroon the gays are genetically predisposed to be like “us,” park-cruising rather than tree-dwelling, forwards rather than backwards.

Except that isn’t so. As far as a) the chromosomes go, there are plenty of theories about the genetic roots of gayness, but none of them argue it’s linked to a gene for intelligence or Western-ness. And if you tried to contend that, there’d be Wayne Besen to disprove it: clearly not the brainiest fish in the primal soup, and a permanent dilution in the gay gene pool. Moreover, as far as b) culture is involved, I can testify that the lesbians and gays in foreign countries really don’t read Besen ever, at all. Maybe this is evidence for a) after all — maybe their intelligence genetically disinclines them to study him; but then you have to deal with Besen disproving the theory again, because after all he’s gay and he reads himself. Or you’d think so.

By a fearful symmetry, though, the forward Besen and the “backward” lands he criticizes match each other. His rant exactly echoes how the offending parties he condemns rage against the initiative. There, too, people know why Clinton singles out the queers: they’re infiltrating agents of the West, objects of its special and invasive interest. The rhetoric is entirely predictable, because it’s been used so much before. “Africa new frontier for West’s gay rights crusade,” one African news source headlines. In Nigeria, now finalising a draconian bill to ban public expression around homosexuality, legislators rushed to assert their independence:

“Why would America want to dictate to a sovereign country which law to make and which one not to make? How can the depraved ways of a minority become the standard for law making in Nigeria?”

And so on.

Then there’s the question of just how the Obama administration will support LGBT rights elsewhere in the world. Clinton’s speech and the president’s memorandum are rather vague on the techniques. This leaves considerable white space to be filled in by the imagination. On the right, various voices already kvetch because Obama isn’t willing to send the army out to protect the gays. On the neoconservative Commentary site, Abe Greenwald complains:

At the end of this year, the United States will cease to be a military presence in Iraq. Here’s whose influence will grow in Iraq once the U.S. leaves: Al-Qaeda, whose new leader once shot a male teenage rape victim in the head for the “crime” of homosexuality. … Who else stays on in Iraq after the pro-LGBT president has pulled out American forces? Iran, world leader in the public hanging of gay teens.

And, in 2012, when Obama withdraws surge troops from Afghanistan against the advice of our military commanders, what exactly does he think Afghan homosexuals will face in the resurgent Taliban (the same Taliban Hillary Clinton is trying desperately to strike deals with)? The answer is known: they will face something called “death by falling walls.” …

Although George W. Bush is vilified by many in the gay community for talking about the sanctity of marriage, the freedom agenda he instituted did more for global human rights—gay or otherwise—than any speech or memo that might warm your heart.

Never mind that Bush’s own Texas has, statistically, almost certainly killed more teenage gay offenders in recent years than Iran. The point is: the best way to protect human rights is to invade and conquer countries. We’ve already got our hands on Texas. What about the others? By not listing an axis of homophobic evil — bauxite-rich Jamaica! oil-endowed Iran! — Obama failed to make the case for future action. He didn’t even use the homophobes to prolong the invasions we’ve already got going on.

If diplomacy for the neocons is merely a preamble to bombing, for many US and European gays it’s a synonym for money. And in this equation they’re aided by the brouhaha over David Cameron’s incredibly ill-handled statements on LGBT rights and foreign aid last month. This fiasco — threats that Cameron bandied about without even the pretense of a strategy, then tried to abandon after half of Africa reacted in fury — has imprinted itself on the imaginings of activists and reporters alike. If you have an agenda, why not enforce it with cash? Even the US and UK headlines on Clinton’s speech suggested an aid linkage. “U.S. to Use Foreign Aid to Promote Gay Rights Abroad,” the New York Times said.Gay rights must be criterion for US aid allocations, instructs Obama,” the Guardian reported. And of course the chronically inaccurate sporadically truthful blogger Paul Canning spun that spin: “Obama admin to ‘leverage’ foreign aid for LGBT Rights.”

As always, pursuing exactly what Canning says gives an insight into a whole mindset, of which he is the sum, the symbol, and the White Whale. He embraces multitudes, the way a blank piece of paper contains all the dumb things that could be written on it. Canning is very attached to the idea of “leverage,” so much so that when @iglhrc tweeted, “Significantly, neither the memo nor Clinton’s speech said LGBT rights would become a condition for foreign assistance,” his beak bit back:

“It says ‘leverage foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination’. Sounds like conditionality to me!”

But it’s true; neither Clinton nor Obama said a syllable about conditionality. The word “leverage,” which Canning rolls lusciously on his tongue, comes not from the Clinton speech or the Obama memo, but from the fact sheet the White House press office put out to summarize things for reporters. It has no official weight.  The president’s directive instead ordered:

 Agencies involved with foreign aid, assistance, and development shall enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure regular Federal Government engagement with governments, citizens, civil society, and the private sector in order to build respect for the human rights of LGBT persons.

“Ongoing efforts” doesn’t sound like a completely new policy — rather, like existing conversations more aggressively pursued. The US has a very spotty record on linking aid to any human rights issue; ask any Egyptian about America’s long support for the military, or any Palestinian about … well, anything. It would be a peculiar and skewed occurrence if the administration launched a first-ever policy of general aid conditionality in the specific and limited sphere of LGBT rights. And most likely, it won’t happen. The idea of “leverage,” and of supporting LGBT rights at the domestic level, will most likely involve private and particular conversations. Any public aspect is adequately embodied by Clinton’s proposal to launch a fund for LGBT rights advocacy.

Canning, however, wants broad aid conditionality; it gives him a sense of agency; it makes him feel that his emails to the UK Foreign and Colonial Office bear immediate fruit in action, in treasuries trembling and programs withering on the vine. Much as the neocons see diplomacy as war pursued by ineffective means, Canning sees it as money given or withheld under a convenient cover. In either case, the Obama statement becomes a field of dreams, a place where imaginings about Northern power get printed or palimpsested on the global South. It’s fun, it’s fertile, but it’s not quite real.

Trying to look realistically at what Clinton and Obama actually said, I still see occasion for optimism.  The contrast with Cameron’s recent blather is telling. Cameron came up with a quick-fix bit of rhetoric, not to benefit LGBT activists anywhere else in the world, but to silence the Peter Tatchells and Kaleidoscope Trusts, noisy Brits who wanted to see their country dominating the Commonwealth in the cause of justice and freedom. It meant nothing except short-term political gain, and when he got burned loudly enough by the stubborn ex-colonized, he flailed ineptly, trying to dog-paddle backwards and away.  There is, by contrast, little domestic political gain Obama and Clinton can extract from their move; the LGBT vote is largely on the administration’s side already. On Clinton’s part, and I suspect on Obama’s also, there’s a sincere commitment. Her speech was intelligent; it reflected an engagement not just with the issue itself but with the reflexive opposition it inspires. They’re trying to develop a strategy, not just a posture. The reaction from the usual suspects — such as Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania — whlle vocal, has actually been subdued by comparison with the Cameron affair, and this also, I think, displays a feeling that there is something substantive here that can’t simply be shouted out of existence.

The devil partly lies in the absence of detail, and in the scope this opens for disaster. Obama’s memo offers the agencies few patterns or directions for action. They’re supposed to come up with their own plans, and no one knows what that will add up to.  A dozen or so Southern LGBT activists were flown to Geneva to sit and applaud Clinton’s speech; the main measure of success will be whether they, and their innumerable colleagues elsewhere, continue to be consulted on what the US government should do in their countries. What if aid conditionality really does rear its head — what if an ill-conceived proposal for tying all funds to repeal of a sodomy law moves publicly out of the embassy in some unfortunate nation? What if a particular post decides on loud, press-release-based advocacy that backfires and stigmatizes local LGBT groups as servants of a foreign power?

In June 2011, the US Embassy in Islamabad took a pointer from Obama’s proclamation celebrating US Pride that May, where he’d perorated that “we rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” The embassy hosted what it called “Islamabad’s first ever gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) Pride Celebration,” to show

continued U.S. Embassy support for human rights, including LGBT rights, in Pakistan at a time when those rights are increasingly under attack from extremist elements throughout Pakistani society.  Over 75 people attended including Mission Officers, U.S. military representatives, foreign diplomats, and leaders of Pakistani LGBT advocacy groups. … Addressing the Pakistani LGBT activists, the Chargé, while acknowledging that the struggle for GLBT rights in Pakistan is still beginning, said “I want to be clear: the U.S. Embassy is here to support you and stand by your side every step of the way.”

That’s from the embassy’s press release. “Every step?” Well, except for steps outside the embassy walls.  It didn’t occur to them that announcing the country’s “first-ever” Pride from behind the turrets of a fortified compound, guarded against a public enraged by American assassinations and bombs, sent a not-very-indigenous message. A South Asian blogger remarked:

Within a few days, the streets of major urban cities of Pakistan … were hailed with the students and political workers of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious political party, chanting slogans at their highest pitches against homosexuals and America. For them it was a golden opportunity to kill both ‘the evils with a single stone’. Banners were displayed in major cities, especially in the federal capital, within a few days demanding persecution of gays and accusing Americans of propagating and imposing this ‘westernized’ idea. The lash back didn’t remain limited to the Jamaat-e-Islami only but sooner most of the political parties joined this bandwagon to form a coalition against the government for their menial political interests. …

Unthankfully, all the sensational and flowery claptrap peddled around this event turned out to be a disaster for the budding underground Pakistani LGBT movement as the US Embassy conveniently over[looked] the repercussions this event would have brought in an already critical country which is fighting against terrorism and radicalization while sacrificing its peace, its liberty, its sovereignty and countless lives of its law enforcement agencies and civilians alike.

protesting US Pride in Pakistan

The idiocy of all this seems obvious; but it wasn’t obvious to the diplomats involved. With an only-broadly sketched plan, there’s ample leeway for an embassy or two to try this catastrophic kind of thing again.

But the devil lies also in the way that Clinton’s initiative necessarily entangles LGBT movements around the world — mostly progressive, mostly loud in their opposition to unjust and oppressive domination, many resolutely radical — with the US, its rights record, its power, and its imperialism.  And the truth is, this may be terrible, but we are at a point where such imbrication could no longer be avoided. We’re stuck with being fully a part of the world we live in, and with trying to maintain our ideals and values despite, not through and with, our friends.

When I started lobbying the UN about fifteen years ago, queers had no power. Nobody offered them the slightest regard; nobody noticed their politics or positions; with the possible and partial exception of the Dutch, there wasn’t a single country willing to make even a rhetorical genuflection to the rights of LGBT people as a serious issue anywhere in its foreign policy.  This absence of clout was wonderful, inspiring. The lightness of being it brought was not only bearable, it was beautiful, an afflatus of innocence that bore one ecstatically aloft in places the merely practical could never reach. Trying to advocate in this atmosphere of glorious irrelevance, one was never corrupted by the blandishments of power; no one wanted your support, so there was not the least temptation to sell it. In powerlessness lies moral purity; the former is the latter’s fount and succor. One can easily be absolute for truth and right when nobody pays attention.

Now, of course, there are states that pay attention to us. And for better or for worse, we have to deal with their histories and practices, their virtues and their sins, because these affect us. If we don’t watch out, they will all become our own. When South Africa sponsors us at the UN Human Rights Council, we have to recognize that it is seen as an imperial power on much of the continent it underpins. When the US speaks out on our behalf, our future words thrum with the undertone of its assertions, like a basso ostinato. The echoes of its peculiar idealism and its failures, its invasions and its abuses, from Martin Luther King to Rumsfeld, from Guatemala to Abu Ghraib, are disharmonies that will resound in what we say and do. We have to decide when to speak with them and when to speak against them, and reserve and exercise the right to the latter as well as the former.

We can’t, as movements, reject all those who want to aid us. Maturity means negotiating, not denying, these obstacles. Politics means accepting the burden of having — however little — power. But we also have to be willing to stand up to our friends and risk their enmity in the name of what we see as truth, instead of clapping hands mechanically and taking handouts with uncritical gratitude. Indeed, nobody needs to be grateful for Hillary and Barack’s support. Never thank others for recognizing human rights, unless their case is such that they show real courage or risk some tangible  cost in the act. Otherwise, they’re doing nothing more than their duty, to you and to the world. And a duty demands no recompense. Acknowledge it, but feel no obligation. You owe nothing in return.

Instead, each movement in each country needs to figure out whether it will accept America’s new assistance, and if so, how to do so on its own terms. Hillary and Barack’s one-two performance carries opportunities. More largely, though, and in the ethical sphere, it offers a renewed challenge: to maintain values in the face of power.

“A constellation of conversations”: Hillary and Barack and LGBT rights

The big gay news today is the one-two punch provided by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton gave a major speech for Human Rights Day at the UN in Geneva that was entirely devoted to the question of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. (The initial transcript I saw, apparently taken down by somebody as she was speaking, referred to the latter as “trance gender,” which is a nice touch.) I’ll cite just two passages (from the official transcript):

Reaching understanding of these issues takes more than speech. It does take a conversation. In fact, it takes a constellation of conversations in places big and small. And it takes a willingness to see stark differences in belief as a reason to begin the conversation, not to avoid it….

[T]o LGBT men and women worldwide, let me say this: Wherever you live and whatever the circumstances of your life, whether you are connected to a network of support or feel isolated and vulnerable, please know that you are not alone. People around the globe are working hard to support you and to bring an end to the injustices and dangers you face. That is certainly true for my country. And you have an ally in the United States of America and you have millions of friends among the American people.
The Obama Administration defends the human rights of LGBT people as part of our comprehensive human rights policy and as a priority of our foreign policy. In our embassies, our diplomats are raising concerns about specific cases and laws, and working with a range of partners to strengthen human rights protections for all. In Washington, we have created a task force at the State Department to support and coordinate this work. And in the coming months, we will provide every embassy with a toolkit to help improve their efforts. And we have created a program that offers emergency support to defenders of human rights for LGBT people.

Obama, meanwhile, issued a presidential memorandum” outlining concrete steps he expects the entire US foreign affairs machinery to take in defense of LGBT people’s human rights.

On an emotional level, I was and am quite moved. It’s my government, after all, and if Hillary doesn’t quite speak for all the American people (amnesiac Texan Rick Perry promptly trumpeted that “This administration’s war on traditional American values must stop … Promoting special rights for gays in foreign countries is not in America’s interests and not worth a dime of taxpayers’ money”), having this concern placed by the country’s leaders firmly in the contested, troubled arc of American history and its bend toward justice is a powerful thing — an impressive moment. On the other hand, there are still many questions about what it means. How much are they going to consult with local movements before intervening for them? Are they really talking about aid conditionality (a question both their statements left open, but an implication seized on by most of the mainstream news reports)?

Two things, though. First, there’s actually the suggestion of a strategy here, the product of some attentive political and progressive thought, not just a headline-grabbing rhetorical idiocy like what David Cameron produced last month. And the US is not simply targeting its former colonies or satrapies for moral lecturing. If they genuinely engage with the issue, truly interesting things could happen.

Reactions welcome.

Chia Obama

Yes, it’s for real. HIs popularity may be trimmed but his hair is growing. Check the time-lapse photography:

You can order here. In addition to Chia Obama with his verdant Afro, there is a Chia George Washington with formidable green dreads. Each comes with its own convenient drip tray.  A Chia Rick Perry with forget-me-nots, and a Chia Herman Cain, Venus flytrap edition, are soon to come.