Private revolution: “Homosexuals” and “Satanists” in Kermanshah

2nd century BCE rock carving of Bahram, Zoroastrian god of strength, outside Kermanshah

It’s my party, come in and have a drink: 2nd century BCE rock carving of Bahram, Zoroastrian god of strength, outside Kermanshah

On the night of October 9 (17 Mehr 1392), the Nabi Akram (Prophet’s) Corps — part of the Revolutionary Guards — raided a birthday party at a community hall in Kermanshah, in western Iran. The website of the city’s basij (religious police) reported it the next day. It said a “network” of “several dozen” people engaged in homosexuality (the derogatory term used was hamjensbaz) and Satan-worshipping (Shaitan parasti) was broken up. The “network” had been “under surveillance of the security forces of the Revolutionary Guards for several months.” Eight people in the group were “homosexually married.”.

There were several foreign nationals from Iraq and some other countries in the region … Groups practicing Satan worship and homosexuality had sent support from abroad. For a long time these disgusting practices have sought to penetrate the country.

Some additional information on this has come from sources inside Iran, and with the permission of the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), which has been following this closely, I can share a few things they have been able to confirm.

  • About 80 people were caught in the party. The Guards used pepper spray, beat many of them, and took the personal information (including mobile numbers) of everyone they found.
  • 17 people were arrested (the rest were freed that night), taken first to a police station and then to an unknown location. They were beaten, threatened, and verbally and physically humiliated.
  • Most of those have been released, but five remain imprisoned. There were reports they would face a court today — Saturday — but no one as yet knows the charges or the outcome.
  • All reports suggest that straight as well as gay and lesbian and transgender people were at at the party.

The story has already made it to the international press, so it’s probably worthwhile offering a few cautions as well as reflections.

First, there’s almost nothing that can be done right now, at least until the outcome of the first hearing is known. Lawyers are on the case in Kermanshah. International interventions tend to polarize things; they can tip governments into pursuing prosecutions when they’re hesitating, or turn fluid situations into injustices set in concrete. This is particularly true when the conservatives responsible for the arrests are already pointing to the penetration of the nation by foreign (im)morals.

Makwan Mouloudzadeh, d. 2007

Makwan Mouloudzadeh, d. 2007

Second, we don’t know anything about the arrested people: either what they’re accused of, or whether they identify as heterosexual, gay, transgender, or something else. Don’t presume on their identities. It was in Kermanshah in 2007 that Iranian authorities executed Makwan Moulodzadeh, a young man who’d been convicted for the rape of three teenaged boys (while himself a teenager) in a nearby town. His case was not helped — in fact, his judicial murder was arguably facilitated — by Western activists who tried to defend him by claiming without any evidence that he was “gay” and had a gay “partner,” and hence was guilty of another capital crime. There’s no room for a repetition of those mistakes.

Predictably, if so far in a minor way, international politics have already entangled the story. Ben Weinthal, a propagandist working for the right-wing “Foundation for Defense of Democracies,” (which Glenn Greenwald called “a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country”) tweeted it:

Weinthal news iran copy

Weinthal is paid to promote a war against Teheran, with Western LGBT communities as a swing constituency to convert (most ridiculously, he took to New York’s Gay City News some years back to opine that an “anti-gay genocide” was happening in Iran). His solicitude for Iranian gays is a bit hard to take seriously given that he wants to kill them, and plenty of other Iranians, in a military assault.

Nonetheless, it’s very possible this is part of a test for Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, even if not quite what the neocons imagine. Since taking office, Rouhani has struggled to establish the perimeters of his power in an inherently ambiguous system where the president is subordinate to the Supreme Leader. This has meant trying to rein in the other power centers in which authority is dispersed — most more loyal, and formally more responsible, to Ayatollah Khameini than to him. Majid Rafidzadeh describes them in Al-Arabiya as

solid institutions which have not only employed, educated, and ideologically trained millions of loyalists in the last few decades, but have also managed and controlled the nation’s economy and foreign policies. These institutions were created in order to secure an adequate and dependent social base in case of any revolt or opposition, as well as a stalwart against potential Western intervention.

The Revolutionary Guards are crucial to this network. They manage a large share of Iran’s military-industrial complex, and their tendrils reach deep into energy, construction, and other industries; some estimate they control a third of the Iranian economy.  Crucial too are the basij, in theory under Revolutionary Guards command but in practice under the charge of a welter of local clerics and commanders. The basij can mobilize more than a million volunteer members for social policing and control (though it claims figures higher than 10 million), and since 2008 has had leeway to build its own empire of economic projects.

In a carefully calibrated speech just a month ago — immediately before leaving on his hectic UN visit — Rouhani tried to strike a bargain with the Revolutionary Guards. He offered to leave their economic interests untouched, even urging them to “take on important projects that the private sector is unable to take on,” if they would leave politics alone. The Guards seem unimpressed. Mohammad Ali Jafari, their commander, criticized Rouhani strongly in the state press after he returned from New York, for “prematurely” talking to Obama. Senior Revolutionary Guards leaders have stressed the organization’s important role in recent weeks, warning with renewed intensity that the West plans to “internally weaken” Iran in advance of any nuclear talks.

Three bears: Rouhani (center) with Jafari (L) at September speech

Three bears: Rouhani (center) with Jafari (L) at September speech

A well-publicized moral scandal serves the purpose, in a minor way, of emphasizing the Revolutionary Guards’ vigilance against both foreign and domestic foes, and stressing they can drum up public support. There are rumors in Kermanshah that the Guards have been under instruction, at least since Rouhani’s election, to look for gender dissidence — “men who appear like women” (mardan-e zannama) and “transvestites” (zanpoosh).

There may be more strictly local motives as well. Kermanshah lies at the heart of the Kurdish area of western Iran, increasingly a source of anxiety to Teheran as they face a spillover of Kurdish separatist sentiment from Iraq. (The day after the arrests, Kurdish guerrillas reportedly killed five Revolutionary Guards in a border town in the next province to the north.) I would bet the Iraqi guests mentioned in the basij report on the party were Kurds, whose presence — even if only rumored — may have attracted additional scrutiny to the event. The accusation of “Satan-worshipping” is also suggestive in this light. Many Iranian Kurds adhere to the Ahl-e Haqq (“People of Truth”) or Yârsânî faith, a syncretic religious order whose believers may make up as much as a third of Kermanshah’s population. Several Ahl-e Haqq believers are rumored to have been at the fateful party. Iranian authorities persecute the sect, on religious grounds coupled with fear of ethnic solidarities — in June two Kurds burned themselves to death in Hamadan, between Kermanshah and Teheran, to protest abuses suffered by their co-believers in prison. An ominous mix of religious heresy, political separatism, and sexual deviance may be what the Revolutionary Guards read into an innocent birthday celebration.

All this is speculation. What’s certain is that Rouhani so far has little control over anything the Revolutionary Guards do. The test of his presidency is not so much whether continuing human rights abuses belie his reputation as a “reformer” — that reputation is overblown, but largely irrelevant to the issue — as whether he can accumulate enough authority to curb the parastate, paramilitary institutions behind much of the abuse.

"Rouhani's Key": Cartoon by Touka Neyestani, at http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2013/07/cartoon_55/ -- a key was Rouhani's campaign symbol

Cartoon by Touka Neyestani, at http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2013/07/cartoon_55/ — a key was Rouhani’s campaign symbol

Maybe the most important point to make, though, is this. What’s at stake in this case is not so much “LGBT rights” or the status of any minority — it’s the right to privacy, and its profound contribution to human dignity. Thinking of it solely as an “LGBT” issue misses the larger point.

Female basij (R) arrests a woman for "bad hijab," revealing the hair, during a periodic crackdown in 2013

Female basij (R) arrests a woman for “bad hijab,” revealing the hair, during a periodic crackdown in 2013

The people at the party were exercising their right to do as they liked, harmlessly, behind closed doors: in a rented hall, to be sure, but that partly reflects the porous nature of safety and opacity in even “private” homes, where overbearing families keep watch, and intrusive neighbors mean a basij raid may be only a phone call away. This right has a scope that extends beyond closed spaces. It’s also the claim that women are making when they defiantly wear “bad hijab,” or straight couples when they declare their intimacy with an over-the-top embrace on the street; they’re asserting they should carry an umbrella of autonomy around with them wherever they go, because they’re human beings, and their bodies or their hair or their hands are nobody’s business. The way the Iranian state treats this right with loathing and contempt, through a myriad micro-practices of meddling and surveillance, is one reason the religious police are perhaps its most popularly despised and resented symbol. It’s not because Iranians are all secular; it’s because they’re all human, and they want to be left alone. Iran’s LGBT-identified communities have made many strides in recent years in building alliances with opposition activism, partly because they affirm not just the specialized identity of a minority but a freedom from oversight and intrusion that should be a universal entitlement. Not everybody in Iran knows what it’s like to commit lavat, or “sodomy,” but millions of Iranians know what it’s like to be at a party sweating in anxiety lest the basij break in. That’s where sympathy and solidarity begin.

From Iranwire.com

From IranWire.com

One often hears that privacy is a culturally specific concept. Certainly the forms of privacy and the things it can contain may vary; certainly the ability to experience it is stratified by class and power; but I’m persuaded by Barrington Moore’s researches, among others, that nearly every society traces distinctions between inside and outside, and lays down rules by which its members can control what other people see and know. In Iran these rules are perpetually changed and fought over, subject to the whims of a swollen state and a people’s capacity for resistance, and the conflict can be brutal.

The struggle for privacy ought to be critical for everybody — especially though far from exclusively for LGBT people around the world, whose earliest moral claims and legal successes partly hinged on the demand for a respected, protected private sphere. In the West, though, our sense of why privacy is vital seems to be eroding. Among LGBT movements, it’s a right either denigrated or confused with a privilege, and in either case hardly mentioned any more. This may hinder our ability to understand why events like this in Iran are not trivial but political and decisive. Frank Rich wrote a few months ago, about the US’s own surveillance scandals, that

The truth is that privacy jumped the shark in America long ago. Many of us not only don’t care about having our privacy invaded but surrender more and more of our personal data, family secrets, and intimate yearnings with open eyes and full hearts to anyone who asks and many who don’t, from the servers of Fortune 500 corporations to the casting directors of reality-television shows to our 1.1 billion potential friends on Facebook. Indeed, there’s a considerable constituency in this country — always present and now arguably larger than ever — that’s begging for its privacy to be invaded and, God willing, to be exposed in every gory detail before the largest audience possible. We don’t like the government to be watching as well—many Americans don’t like government, period—but most of us are willing to give such surveillance a pass rather than forsake the pleasures and rewards of self-exposure, convenience, and consumerism.

Try telling this to an Iranian. They’d be amazed, I suspect, that anyone would doubt how preserving and cultivating your sphere of privacy and autonomy is indispensable to your dignity. This is one reason the struggles in Iran continue to be important, not only as source of “inspiration” to the West –that generic and vapid tribute — but as something we should learn from.

Trayvon Martin, “privacy,” and privilege

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black kid who played football and wanted to be a pilot, was shot and killed on February 26 while walking unarmed through a gated neighborhood in Sanford, Florida. Visiting his father’s fiancee there, he’d gone out to buy her son some Skittles. The man who shot him, George Zimmerman, 28, captained a neighborhood watch, a group of denizens devoting spare time to crime prevention.

All this is for non-American readers, since most US residents by now have heard the story. It’s a very American story. Both the gated community and the anti-crime watch are innovations of these shores: the former, privatizing the idea of neighborhood, a product of post-60s middle-class anxieties about cities and danger; the latter, privatizing the idea of protection, a product of equally middle-class fears about a police hamstrung by underresourcing and liberal-slanted laws.

From one perspective, in fact, this very public story, about a horrible killing on a street, is all about privacy. Specifically: it’s about the different ways black and whites experience privacy in a racist country.

The story exploded, of course, because the killer still hasn’t been charged with any crime. The local cops, besieged by indignation (their chief has now “temporarily” stepped down) sent out a Q&A justifying its inaction:

When the Sanford Police Department arrived at the scene of the incident, Mr. Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self-defense which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony. By Florida statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.

The law they scream about in capitals is colloquially named the “Stand Your Ground” law; some in Florida call it “Shoot First.” Time usefully explains:

The cops have been balking in large part because, under the stand-your-ground statute, they’re virtually obligated to accept [Zimmerman’s] argument that he was acting in self-defense — even if it was Martin who may have felt more threatened, according to recordings of 911 calls by neighbors that were released over the weekend. The 2005 Florida law permits anyone, anywhere to use deadly force against another person if they believe their safety or life is in danger, and it’s the state’s usually futile task to prove that the act wasn’t justified. Little wonder the St. Petersburg Times found that five years after the law was signed by then Governor Jeb Bush — who called it a “good, commonsense anti-crime” bill — claims of justifiable homicides in Florida more than tripled, from just over 30 to more than 100 in 2010. In that time, the stand-your-ground defense was used in 93 cases involving 65 deaths — and in the majority of those cases, it worked.

Pro-gun advocates like the National Rifle Association [NRA], which pushed hard for stand your ground, say it simply broadens citizens’ capacity for self-defense. But if … Zimmerman do[es] walk, there may be an understandable public backlash against a statute that in reality has made the streets, bars and parks of Florida — and of the at least 16 other states that have enacted similar laws since 2005 — more dangerous spaces.

British and American common law hold to what’s called the “castle doctrine” — you know, an Englishman’s home is his castle. Generally it means that within your dwelling (extended in some cases to such places as a car or workplace) you can attack an illegal intruder without risk of prosecution. There are certain conditions; for instance, in the common-law version of the doctrine, if you can safely retreat, the protection doesn’t apply.

Gun lobbyists tried to dub the Florida legislation a “castle doctrine” law, but in fact it turned the old principle on its head. Instead of limiting lethal self-defense to the home, the law says that, like a turtle, you carry your castle anywhere: you can shoot to kill anyplace anybody menaces you. And the whole point of the new law is that you don’t have to retreat: you should “stand your ground,” armed with righteousness and an NRA-endorsed weapon.

In other words, the domestic privacy the original doctrine was meant to protect now follows you down the street in your personalized penumbra, porcupined with gun barrels.

i see black people outside

Whose privacy? Well, look at George Zimmerman, a would-be cop who had appointed himself guardian of a middle-class gated community. His own ethnic identity has been debated— he seems to have had a white father and Latina mother; but there’s no better way in the US to ratify an uncertain claim to whiteness than by taking the fight to black people, preferably in defense of white people’s property. Indeed, if you look at previous 911 calls Zimmerman had made to police, clearly he was waging what Dave Weigel identifies as a “long, lonely war against black youths doing things.” In the collective psyche as it insinuiated itself into Zimmerman’s brain, white folks are the possessors of privacy; black kids are the invaders. Mother Jones writes:

[E]ven more than cars, he was concerned about black men on foot in the neighborhood. In August 2011, he called to report a black male in a tank top and shorts acting suspicious near the development’s back entrance. …Three days later, he called to report two black teens in the same area, for the same reason.

Coupled with the shoot-first law, this attitude is a road map to murder. Timothy Noah cites a University of North Carolina psychological study six years ago that looked at how race inflects “weapons bias.” Researchers asked subjects

to distinguish between images of harmless hand tools and images of guns, both projected onto a screen. Immediately before each image appeared there flashed a lightening-quick (more or less subliminal) image of a white face or a black face. The subjects were told to ignore the faces and focus on identifying the objects.

The result? In a carbine shell: if a black face flashed first, it made both accurate IDs of guns and false positives more likely. This suggests the Florida law and its clones are “catastrophically bad public policy,” Noah says. “If people are more likely to imagine guns in the hands of black people than white people then the result will be disproportionate deaths for innocent black people.” Invade my privacy, will you?– says the white guy standing in the middle of the public street. Die, invader, die!

But the other side, of course, is how African-Americans experience their bodily existence under view. Is there any comparable umbrella of inviolability there? And the answer, clearly, is that where somebody’s monitored and surveilled constantly for signs of deviance and violence, you watch yourself and police your movements for your own life’s sake. One of the saddest things I read this week was from Janice D’Arcy’s “On Parenting” blog at the Washington Post, about “parents who say that to raise a minority in this country, particularly an African American boy, is to live with the understanding that the child will be arbitrarily mistreated. It is also to live with the burden of explaining this reality.” She found an account by Jonathan Capehart, for instance, of the warnings his mom gave him before his first day at a mostly-white school:

“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.

“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.

Or a blogger who listed “the rules” she’s instilling in her 6-year-old black daughter:

1. Don’t touch anything when you go into stores. …

2. Always ask for a bag for the items you purchased. … My mom didn’t want anyone thinking that we walked out of the store without paying for our merchandise. …

3. Know who you are. You can’t do everything they do. In other words, just because your white friend does something that doesn’t mean you can do the same. Whether it’s hanging at the mall or going to a house party, police, teachers, and other authorities treat white children differently than black children. …

This is grimly awful. These children are learning at home, in what’s supposed to be the safe space of the family, precepts of inculcated inferiority that could save their lives. As Khaled Beydoun and Linda Sarsour write for Al-Jazeera: the après-Obama myth that the US has become a “post-racial” society is way premature.

no blacks in headgear wanted here

Obama himself weighed in about the Martin killing today, saying that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon … I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this. And that everybody pull together.” It’s a moving thing to say; but it also situates the grief and the suffering back behind closed doors, as a “family” issue, when in fact it reaches into most every part of our public life. So, too, I resist his calling this a “tragedy.” Tragedies are the work of Fate, or the hero-victim’s overreaching; in that spirit, exculpating the world around him, Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera attributes Trayvon’s death to blind pride in wearing “gangsta” style, the hubris of the hoodie. (For photos of Geraldo wearing a hoodie, see here. Shoot first, criticize fashion later.) But there are no resentful gods exacting retribution here. Just historical legacies and human choices.

The truth is: white people get to be private even in public. And for black people, public facts and figments follow them home even to the private sphere.  These are truths that, given suitable laws and armaments, kill. When we talk about the “right to privacy” — in contraception, in abortion, in Lawrence v. Texas — all of us need to be conscious of the different enjoyments and possibilities it can mean.

The drone at the window and your pregnant credit card: Notes on privacy

A great South Park episode once featured panicked parents, terrified of child abductors, forcing their kids to wear “Child Tracker” helmets that made them look like crosses between Marvin the Martian and a 600-channel satellite dish. Technology has gotten sleeker, if not simpler, since those innocent days. Now, if it’s 10 PM and you wonder where your child is — what opium den or white slave ring she’s wandered into — you can check the data your personal, aerial drone is feeding you.

They’re not just for repressive governments (and human rights organizations!) anymore. The new thing is the DIY drone — for “do-it-yourself”; rhymes, I think, with “die.” Forbes magazine, a great promoter of cheap consumer technology, cites a Canadian technie waxing enthusiastic about the little devils’ potential:

People are often most frightened by the state’s growing interest to monitor what we do online. Here in Canada for example, the government has proposed a law that would require telecommunications firm have the ability to record, and save, everyone’s online activities. But technology to monitor people offline, in the physical world, is also evolving. More importantly, it is becoming available to ordinary citizens. …

The neat thing is that, instead of a telescreen giving the State a window into your private life, you can have a hovering camera outside your neighbor’s window to watch theirs.  The work of keeping tabs on thoughtcrime is thus not only decentralized but, in conservative fashion, privatized. “It is entirely conceivable,” he writes,

that, in 5-7 years, there could be drones that would follow your child as he walks to school. You can of course, already choose to monitor your child by giving them a cell phone and tracking the GPS device within it, but a drone would have several advantages. It would be harder for someone to destroy or “disconnect” from your child. … This may all seem creepy to you, but if such a drone cost $100 dollars, how many parents do you think would feel like it was “the responsible thing to do.” I suspect a great deal. Even if it was only 5% of parents, that would be a lot of drones.

And of course there are thousands of other uses. Protestors might want a drone observing them, just so that any police brutality could be carefully recorded for later. Cautious adults may want one hovering over them, especially when going into an unfamiliar or unsafe neighborhoods.

Drones (upper R) classical style: Put those clothes on, young lady! Your mother can see you!

In fact, why wait till you go into a neighborhood?  Why not keep the drones hanging constantly, like Saruman’s White Hand, over doubtful places where darker people live? I don’t know how it is up placid Toronto way, but in the Big Apple white people are tired of that flaming sword of fear preventing them from entering Bed-Stuy to price the housing.

For some years New York City civil libertarians have been diligently at work (presumably observed by the FBI and other notekeepers) recording where surveillance cameras in Manhattan operate. As this map they’ve produced reveals, there’s a wealth of such devices downtown, but a distinct dearth north of 125th Street.  This means, reassuringly, that white folks in lower Manhattan are protected from Harlem’s poorer tribes attempting an incursion across the Great Wall; but when it comes to knowing what the barbarians are doing over their own campfires, no one has an idea. A few drones whizzing over Lenox Avenue and Sugar Hill could put this to rights.

If you think back 20 years ago and told someone you were going to give them a device that would enable their government to locate them within a few feet at any given moment, they would likely have imagined some Orwellian future. But this is, functionally, what any smart phone can do. Looking forward 20 years, I ask myself: would my child feel monitored if he has a drone helping him get to school? Or maybe he will he feel unsafe without it? Or maybe it will feel like his Hogwart’s owl [sic], a digital pet?

I never trusted those goddamn owls. Satanic.

An expert on privacy and robotics (another thing you wouldn’t have seen outside a sci-fi novel 20 years ago) observes that while “you might think [private citizens’] drones would already be ubiquitous,” the Federal Aviation Administration has slapped restrictions on  unmanned aircraft systems. However, police and other “public agencies” are lobbying to rolle these back.  “Recently the state of Oklahoma asked the FAA for a blanket waiver of eighty miles of airspace.” (What the hell could be going on in Oklahoma?) “The FAA faces increasing pressure to relax its restrictions and is considering rulemaking to reexamine drone use in domestic airspace.” Meanwhile,

Agency rules impede the use of drones for now; United States privacy law does not. There is very little in our privacy law that would prohibit the use of drones within our borders. Citizens do not generally enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, nor even in the portions of their property visible from a public vantage. In 1986, the Supreme Court found no search where local police flew over the defendant’s backyard with a private plane. A few years later, the Court admitted evidence spotted by an officer in a helicopter looking through two missing roof panels in a greenhouse. Neither the Constitution nor common law appears to prohibit police or the media from routinely operating surveillance drones in urban and other environments.

Dead diva: Easier with a drone

The author argues that drones’ noisy intrusions will actually galvanize the law into acting against all these violations. They’re just too extreme: “Drones may help restore our mental model of a privacy violation. They could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.” But I wonder; especially if, as he indicates, the media get involved, and TMZ and Perez Hilton have their warring aircraft locked in on the radio frequency of Lindsay Lohan’s ankle bracelet. You may be offended when it’s your own intimacy that’s invaded, but fascinated when it’s somebody else’s.

The National Enquirer infamously printed a photo of Whitney Houston’s corpse last month, and while sales figures haven’t been released, you can bet — judging by the fact that CNN got 10 times its usual Saturday viewing audience just for showing mourners’ minked backs trudging into the funeral — they spiked. Consumers want the famous, live or dead, splayed for inspection. Incidentally, Forbes separately tells us that  a hanger-on beautifully named Raffles van Exel snapped the doleful photo, and apparently hawked it to the Enquirer for six figures. If you were an editor, and could get the same shot cheaper from a birdbot spying through a stained-glass window, cutting out the middleman in the process, wouldn’t you jump?  And how many would buy it!  The economics are not on the side of indignation.  What, too, if Peter Tatchell got his hands on a drone?  Run for your reputations, sexually healthy civil rights heroes! Not even Martin Luther King would be safe. I can see Peter proclaiming that he caught Martin masturbating to Rawhide in his grave.

Forbes also carries more sceptical approaches to the DIY drone question. Venkatesh Rao, an aerospace engineer, worried in its pages three weeks ago that the current bubble is a bit weird. Although he admits that “Heck, my wife is now insisting that I help her build one,” he says: “I don’t get it. What exactly do people expect to do with their own private drones?” In addition to the Superpaparrazo idea, he cites some other options:

  1. Start a revolution. If drones are the new guns, and the burgeoning political movement to ensure a “right to bear drones” succeeds, you and a few hundred of your friends can secretly build a drone swarm. …
  2. Attach guns to drones. There is absolutely nothing stopping drone hackers from doing this technically, and there is almost no conceivable scenario where this will ever be legal, but if you’re on the wrong side of the law already, for murder say, what’s one more charge for “attaching gun to drone”? The mayhem possible with a bunch of armed drones would make Columbine look like a kid’s tea party.

And he’s not very sanguine about the idea that citizen drones offer people a liberatory way around the government:

[The] only advantage the world of private citizens has over the military-industrial complex is sheer numbers. If, as some commentators speculate, drones are going to be citizen weapons to act as a check-and-balance to absolutist police-state tendencies, it will be through sheer numbers. A handful of extremists maintaining serious drone capability could be sneezed out of existence by any modern military within minutes. The trend only becomes serious if drone ownership becomes as common as gun ownership.

Great. Every Minuteman will have a Minuteman; every band of lunatics, its own Luftwaffe. The universe of Mad Max, where they only had trucks to fight with, will seem the Peaceable Kingdom by comparison.

Drone (upper R), classical style: My eagle doesn't like what you've been doing

Surely the government will restrict the technology before then — not for the sake of privacy, but for safety. (Not ours, its own.) The real question, though, is what will happen to our intimate lives when not just the state but the corporate order have vastly expanded their abilities to spy. Business, after all, equally surely has its (remaining non-mechanical) eye on this new opportunity both to collect information on citizen-consumers — by camera, infrared, and any other legal means — and to commodify it in its turn. For whether the subject is a celebrity or an ordinary credit-card holder, information is power, and power is money, and somebody will pay.

Forbes, once again, has a story (via the New York Timesthat’s not so much a cautionary tale — who will be cautioned by it? shoppers never beware — as an allegory of the age. Target, the US megastore, hires its own statisticians devoted to “consumer tracking.” The firm “assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address, that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources.”

Marketeers pant particularly damply for the new-parent demographic, eager to get them hooked early, before “they turn into rampant — and loyal — buyers of all things pastel, plastic, and miniature.” Babies need so many things these days; the last time a new mother stayed with me, the neighbors thought an army regiment was moving in.  And Target’s 50% revenue growth from 2002-2010 may partly be owing to statisticians “helping the retail giant corner the baby-on-board market.” The nerds used Science. They

ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but [they] noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc.

They identified “about 25 products” that, taken together, added up to each shopper’s “’pregnancy prediction’ score. More important, [they] could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.”

Unfortunately, this sometimes backfired: not by being wrong, but by being more right than the humans. One teenage girl’s father reacted with rage to the coupons his daughter was getting. She had to tell him she was pregnant — not a confession she’d planned.

Target is in retail, not the revelation business. This wouldn’t do. So, a store statistician explains, they got cannier — “started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random.”

We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. … That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons.

“So the Target philosophy towards expecting parents is similar to the first date philosophy?” Forbes comments. “Even if you’ve fully stalked the person on Facebook and Google beforehand, pretend like you know less than you do so as not to creep the person out.”

We’re all on blind dates with the information buyers these days. And stalking, far from being criminal, is studied in business school.

... is you.

Privacy, sex, and prices

A few months back, I noted a video about an earnest Austrian law student, Max Schrems, who demanded that Facebook share the data it had collected on him. The moguls sent him a CD with more than 1,200 pages of personal info PDFed on it.  He found, to his alarm, that things he had deleted were still floating around in Facebook’s collective (un?)conscious: “When you delete something from Facebook, all you are doing is hiding it from yourself,” he said. Unable to induce the cybergiant to scrap this trove of ex-facts, and convinced that there was more material the corporation wasn’t sharing (Facebook refused to reveal, for instance, what data it retained from biometric facial recognition, a technology the website recently introduced) Schrems took action. He filed a complaint with the Data Protection Commission in Ireland, where Facebook’s European operations have their HQ. Schrems explains:

“Facebook most probably has its headquaters in Ireland for tax reasons. That way, Facebook not only saves large amounts of money, but the Irish as well the European laws of data protection and consumer rights are applicable. However, Facebook continues to tailor their terms of use to the American consumer and data protection laws.”

He adds,

“It’s a shock of civilizations. Americans don’t understand the concept of data protection. For them, the person with the rights is the one with the data. In continental Europe, we don’t see things like that … If a company wants to operate in a country it has to abide by the rules.”

Facebook, he says, has agreed in Germany to stop keeping records of users’ IP addresses — information showing where someone is connected to the Internet — but in other European countries the practice continues.

“This is Facebook strategy. When someone gets really annoyed, they back off one step, but continue advancing in other ways,” Schrems said.

The problem is that most people don’t take the time to read the small print in Facebook’s terms and conditions, he says. “For the average citizen data protection is too complex and subtle,” he says, believing it is therefore the responsibility of the state to ensure that users’ rights are upheld.

See this page for more information on Schrems’ campaign.

Lawsuits about violated privacy are piling up athwart the social network. Trying to find Schrems on Google (which probably has a similar file on him) I came across headlines like “Naked Nun Sues over Facebook” (how do you solve a problem like Maria?) Everything about Facebook is porous: your privacy leaks out through each app as if it were a hose suctioning gasoline. Yet whether these measures will intimidate the behemoth is another question. Irish authorities noted that if Facebook doesn’t cooperate, “a court could then fine it up to 100,000 euros ($136,400).” I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg (net worth: $17.5 billion) is trembling in terror. One of these days, he might have to skip lunch.

But the issue of who reads the privacy protections is interesting. A couple of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in the US have made some calculations. Their findings appear in a journal called Transactions of Human-Computer Interaction , which “seeks to be the premier archival journal in the multidisciplinary field of human-computer interaction,” and which sounds from its frightening title like Hustler for robots.Turns out it’s not just that people don’t take the time to read privacy policies; they don’t have the time. Here’s the math: The 75 most popular websites in the country have privacy policies that stretch to a median length of 2,514 words. Academics (whom robots take the be the model humans) can read about 250 words a minute.  And estimates suggest an average American visits 1,462 websites every year. The result: it would take 76 days out of the year to read the privacy policies for all those websites.

They then tried to monetize this. “First, they split up web surfing between work and home visits. For work visits, they valued the time spent reading privacy policies at two times that worker’s wages to take into account overhead and salary. For home visits, they multiplied the time spent reading at home by one-quarter of average wages” — OK,  this is boring.  The gist is, all that time reading those policies would add up to a lot of money. The Atlantic offers a convenient visual:

Think about this. A corporation might pay a hundred thousand bucks as punishment for trampling on your privacy.  It would cost Americans $781 billion just to be aware of how this happens. Um, isn’t the burden in the wrong place here?

Privacy concerns me, among other reasons, because it’s a core component of defending sexual rights and sexual freedom. The US Supreme Court recognized the right to contraception (now under typically eloquent assault from, among many others, Rush Limbaugh) in a genuinely landmark decision that helped articulate the right to privacy.  The first time international courts condemned sodomy laws, it was because they violated the right to privacy.  That people should have autonomy and control over both intimate decisions and intimate information has become a staple of rights discourse and progressive thought.

It’s ironic, though; because in the same time, sex has become vastly more … well, public.  And that isn’t only because of the retreat of guilt or shame or the inflation of pudic courage in the wake of the Sexual Revolution. It’s also because sex has become a key way of selling things. It’s not just that sex itself is commodified. Sex is a method and technique of commodifying everything else.  Sex is what commodities wear, a sheen and scent upon them, a fine integument of pheromones sprayed on like perfume, that keeps the consumer buying.

Turn on the TV!  The commercials are sexier than the regular programming.  Drive down the highway!  The signs and billboards swoosh by like erotic flashcards, Rorschach invitations to desire so rampant and uncoded that, once you’re inured to them, their very blatancy comes to seem subliminal.

The ad at top left, by the way, is for a church promoting its sex-related sermons.

It gets harder and harder to maintain that sex is private, not because it’s so flagrant, but because it stands in seamlessly for the great public fact of our time: money.   And in fact, privacy itself has turned into money too.  It’s not just the $100,000 fines or that hypothetical $800 billion to defend it. It’s the fact that Facebook, Google, and the rest make most of their money marketing your privacy, selling it off in discrete chunks of information.

Facebook’s initial public offering (IPO), when the social network is expected to raise $5 bilion by putting its stock on the market, is privacy itself going public, parcelled out to brokers and bidders. In a world like this, where intimacy and autonomy are publicly traded commodities, what can privacy possibly mean?

Iran shuts down the Internet: The how and why

Anyone who possesses even mildly the geek’s temperament will remember what happened in Egypt just after midnight on January 28, 2011, The Night Mubarak Turned It All Off. The following graph captures it:

A great darkness poured out of Mordor ....

In a matter of minutes, Web access across a country of 80 million shrank to almost nothing, as every major Internet service provider (ISP) shut down like a po-mo version of the end of Atlas Shrugged. But that steep cliff has to be understood against this graph, too:

Up, up, and away

That’s the growth in Internet usage from its first introduction in Egypt in 1993.   From 2004 on — the same time political dissent was multiplying — it took off almost exponentially. By 2010 it had reached a quarter of the population. This year, Internet penetration is estimated to hit 30%.

The regime was very slow to waken to the potential threat that blogs, social networks, email and other kinds of cybercommunication could pose.  By the time they got around to considering the problem, the Net had burgeoned to a point where they could no longer monitor and conduct surveillance easily. It wasn’t just a question of physical capacity; Egyptian State Security and the regular police were late to develop the technical competence. In the great crackdown on gay men from 2001-2003, police entrapped people in chatrooms and through personals ads.  But they hadn’t the technology or knowhow to trace the guys through their ISPs. The only way of finding them was a relatively primitive one: luring them to give away their names and addresses. One man who was caught on the Web told me,

All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor]—knew nothing about the Internet.  The deputy prosecutor even said, “I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it?  Do people just talk around with men?”  They knew nothing about how the things I was charged with actually worked, how these sites work, how you enter them or use them, or even how you log onto the internet or send an e-mail.  They knew nothing except that the police officer had said I was gay and stood in [Midan] Tahrir making feminine motions, and that the Internet was somehow part of this.

The reason they shut down the whole Internet in a failed attempt to stifle the Revolution, then, was that they didn’t know anything else to do. Other, more targeted means of keeping tabs on dissident networks were beyond their ability. As a similar mark of ineptitude, when I say that the Great Blackout in January happened “in a matter of minutes,” I mean it’s inaccurate to think that the Mubarak regime “pulled the plug” on the Internet. They didn’t know where the plug was. They weren’t technically able to shut down the whole thing themselves. Those minutes mean that they were individually calling the telecom companies and ordering them to close up shop.  The whole thing was massive but  appallingly primitive.

Now, what isn’t very well remembered is that the Egyptian blackout boys had a role model. Here it is:

The grand canyon

That deep fosse or fissure is a profile of panic. It was the day after the stolen election of June 12, 2009. As protests spread, on June 13 the state-run service providers shut down. The authorities had realized that the Internet and its accomplice technologies, Twitter and texting and the rest, were how information was metastasizing among the protesters, and spilling over to the outside world. Much like Mubarak’s sweating henchmen, they had no ready means to control it. So off went the lights. They flickered back only slowly in the following days, at a dim and sluggish level. The BBC spoke to a  Western expert who

believes the authorities were buying time to install the filtering tools they needed to have a functioning internet infrastructure, but one over which they had some measure of control. So he reckons they gradually turned the tap back on as they put the filters in.

We talked about two very different countries that have also attempted to control the web; Burma and China. “Burma in 2008 wasn’t very delicate,” he explained, referring to the regime’s reaction to large-scale unrest. “They simply turned it all off, so there was six weeks without a phone call or an e-mail.”

China, by contrast, has a very sophisticated filtering infrastructure, allowing for a completely open interchange of traffic with overseas trading partners, while maintaining strict control over access to forbidden sites and search terms.

And here’s the other graph that’s relevant. Iran’s internet usage as of 2010 was hovering just above 10% of the population:

Crawling toward the light

Iran’s regime struggled after the June 2009 shock to find ways of surveilling and controlling the Internet that would still keep its economy functioning. They were aided, though, by a rate of Web penetration that, while growing along a curve comparable to Egypt’s, had still reached a much smaller proportion of the population. They had a bit of breathing space to sample technology — mostly, in all probability, from China — test it here and there, and develop a comprehensive plan.

The plan appears to be unfolding bit by bit — no pun intended. With legislative elections impending in early March, the government has introduced new rules requiring all Internet cafes to set up security cameras, and trace all users’ online footprints. Customers must also present their personal information before log-on. The Guardian says these

are calculated not to stamp out anonymous use of the internet, but to dissuade the far larger body of average people from any thought of dissent…. In a society where you know that you are being watched, eventually you will watch yourself, and save the authorities the trouble. Monitoring the free internet is too big a task for any government. But by using the threat of monitoring, Iran‘s administration can free itself to focus on words or phrases, or people, it knows to distrust.

But this is just the harbinger. Since 2009, authorities have been warning periodically about a project for a “Halal Internet”: an intranet somewhat on the model of corporations’ internal messaging systems, allowing supervised communication within the country, but cut off from the external world.   This is the technologically competent version of the Cairo Solution. You shut the Internet, but you shift the parts you need to another network, one you can control.

It’s already coming. Early in 2011, a government techie told the Iranian press that

soon 60% of the nation’s homes and businesses would be on the new, internal network. Within two years it would extend to the entire country, he said.

Reza Taghipour, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology (an Orwellian title under the circumstances), has announced it will be ready in May. “Privacy, security, and cheapness are the goals of this project,” Taghipour added. (Privacy is publicity; security is vulnerability; cheap is China.)

Meanwhile, the chief of national police, Ahmadi Moghadam, warned that “Google search is not a search engine but a spy machine!”  He comforted concerned searchers: “We have all these services here in Iran, more secure and better performing, so we can cut the foreigners’ connections to our content.” The appeal to xenophobia, both in the fear of alien espionage and the prospect of an improved, indigenous Google, is blatant. It isn’t us watching you, the government assures you, it’s the Zionists behind your screen. And our super gadgets will defend you! It reminds one of the Ceausescu-era Romanian “protochronists,” a sect of pseudoscholars who believed that Romania had invented everything first, and better. The Renaissance started in Wallachia, the Orthodox created the Reformation, and Aurel Vlaicu built the first airplane. Not for nothing is the project being compared to North Korea’s self-imposed isolation. Dictators, at a certain level, think as similarly as they force their subjects to do.

Kim Jong Il looks at the Internet

This information came to me first from Iranian LGBT rights activists. Queers in Iran are, though, in much the same situation as other dissidents.  All had built a protective carapace, a niqab of anonymity, out of the Internet’s capacities; and they’re faced with that being ripped away.   It’s a contrast to (straight) dissidents’ strategies in Egypt in the last decade: comparatively few went undercover on the Web. A large number of activists and organizations preferred transparency, not only to challenge a regime that was palpably losing some of its repressive acuity and power, but, it seemed, to confuse and swamp it with a surfeit of information. This has never been much of an option in Iran, where the cloud of information is smaller and wispier, and security forces’ ability to retaliate has been unquestionable.

Of course, xenophobia in Iran has a certain rationality at the moment. One expert inside the country told the Guardian that “Iran has fears of an outside cyber-attack like that of the Stuxnet, and is trying to protect its sensitive data from being accessible on the World Wide Web.” The Stuxnet virus, an American-Israeli bit of malware, got into the Iranian system through infected USB sticks left for workers to pocket like poisoned chewing gum; it seriously damaged the national nuclear program. The killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, one of whom was bombed today, tend also to promote a vivid paranoia. “Despite what others think,” the expert said, the “intranet is not primarily aimed at curbing the global Internet but Iran is creating it to secure its own military, banking and sensitive data from the outside world.”

“At the same time,” he added, “Iran is working on software robots to analyse exchanging emails and chats, attempting to find more effective ways of controlling users’ online activities.”  Regardless of the halal Internet’s intent, surveillance will tighten.

What can you, or anyone do? Activists convey a twofold message to the West: first, to shout to governments that sanctions, viruses, and bombs redound in the repression of the dissidents they profess to support. Second, if the US and other states are developing Internet technologies that can circumvent censorship and firewalls, speed the damn things up.   The Obama administration has promised an “Internet in a suitcase” to dissenters in countries it dislikes. It will

rely on a version of “mesh network” technology, which can transform devices like cellphones or personal computers to create an invisible wireless web without a centralized hub. In other words, a voice, picture or e-mail message could hop directly between the modified wireless devices — each one acting as a mini cell “tower” and phone — and bypass the official network.

It sounds a bit more unwieldy than the compact tchotchkes Q gave James Bond at the outset of every film:

This pen, Bond, is mightier than any sword: it contains a three-megaton warhead.

[T]he suitcase would include small wireless antennas, which could increase the area of coverage; a laptop to administer the system; thumb drives and CDs to spread the software to more devices and encrypt the communications; and other components like Ethernet cables.

The New York Times adds with sang-froid:

Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border.

Right, if you’re bristling with all those cords and antennae. And doing 2,300 words’ worth of interviews with the Times about the project doesn’t help either.

Tell your governments — what? Tell them dissidents need help, and they’re not helping. Something, somewhere, has to give.

Rick Perry’s hot manmeat makes me cream my jeans, and other fallacies: Thoughts about outing

Happy New Year! Here’s some gossip. Did you know that two extremely homophobic men who served, in the last decade, as prime ministers of their respective European nations were actually gay? So was the son of a dictator lately deposed in the Arab Spring – as well as two of the old tyrant’s cabinet ministers, which practically makes a harem quorum. Then there are the two Middle Eastern monarchs (why do these all seem to come in pairs?) who are, you know, queens of the male gender. And there’s the immensely famous Hollywood actor – not Tom Cruise, maybe twenty years older – who shows up at supersecret elite gay parties featuring ultradiscreet hustlers for the closeted and fabulously wealthy. But don’t forget the internationally known gay rights activist who’s actually straight; he’s never even slept with a man; his nice “lesbian” roommate is his girlfriend.

Now! All those stories are true except one – one I made up, to keep it interesting. They’re true, I mean, in the sense that with that lone exception I was truly told them, by people who seemed to be in some position to know; true, therefore, in the same sense most truths you share with other people are “true.” (I can’t prove airplanes are held up by air currents, rather than elves living under the wings; but folks who say so are reputed to be expert.) I know the names of those sneaky closet types, too; but I’m not going to tell you, because I’m a mean bastard. But you’d love to hear, wouldn’t you?  I bet you’re already guessing. Which one do you want to find out the most? The least?

Rebozo, Nixon, and Henry Kissinger: Fetch Cambodia, Henry! Fetch!

Two pieces of news got me off on this kick this holiday season. One is about the dead. Did you know Richard Nixon was gay? A new book, Nixon’s Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story of America’s Most Troubled President, by Don Folsom, says as much. A White House reporter dropped some silverware at an official dinner, and, bending to retrieve it, saw the President and longtime buddy Bebe Rebozo holding hands under the table. There’s plenty of equally ironclad proof; the men’s peculiar intimacy even aroused curiosity in the much more reticent press of the time, since an thick odor of crookedness hung round Rebozo, hardly making him explicable compadre material for the leader of the free world. No one seems happy about this revelation. Rick Santorum must now realize the homosexual jihadists have ruled the roost for more decades than he imagined, since they had their talons so long ago in the Defender of the West. Larry Kramer must feel he was a very bad boy this year. He wanted Abraham Lincoln; instead, he got this lump of coal.

Since I came to this story late, I assume the Tricky Dick jokes are all taken. But then there’s Ricky’s Tricks. Rick Perry, the slavering right-wing governor of Texas and presidential candidate, the one with the hair, is gay. So says Glen Maxey, the first openly gay member of the Texas state legislature, in a new self-published book, Head Figure Head: The Search for the Hidden Life of Rick Perry.

a caption really would be pointless, don’t you think?

I haven’t read it. I don’t know if it’s true. Ace reporter Doug Ireland is hawking its veracity on Facebook, which offers strong if not conclusive evidence that it’s humbug. A review on Gawker says Maxey’s investigation “was conducted, oddly, mostly through Facebook messages and chats,” which jibes  with Doug’s mode of carrying out human rights research in his living room. Anyone who knows Doug’s creative oeuvre can hear his voice in the following lament:

Maxey can be a little naïve about why The Huffington Post spiked the story [about his findings]. He complains almost relentlessly about how much work went into it—at least two months … —as if this alone should give HuffPo the impetus to publish his account. He doesn’t seem to understand what hearsay is, and when confronted about this, says simply, “I’m not a journalist.”

Fellow Texan rumormonger John R. Selig has put an interview with the author online in three long, long podcasts. That’s three hours of two Texans talking about sex! I couldn’t listen.

The quotes on Gawker do make the book sound like a great trashfest.

“He jerked down his shorts,” [James said], “It lasted about a minute. He had a little dick. It was the worst fuck of my life. And on top of it all he stunk because he had been jogging. He then pulled up his shorts and put the used condom in his pocket. … Oh my God,” thought James. “I just got fucked by Rick Perry!”

There is also a rumor that in 2004 Perry’s wife caught him screwing the Secretary of State (not Colin Powell; Texas has its own Secretary of State, it seems). I’m happy to know that these days Texas officials are mating with each other, rather than with humankind. The last Texans in high authority who were unqualified members of homo sapiens, and entitled to intercourse with the rest of us without an intervention from the SPCA, were Jim Hightower (whom Rick Perry unseated as Agriculture Commissioner in 1990) and the late, great Ann Richards (undone by the simian George W Bush four years later). Since then, each quadrennial parade of successful candidates has been a clear explanation of why Texans rightly disbelieve in evolution. If these lower beasts copulated regularly with humans, it would prove that other virtuous Rick — Santorum — right: legalize homosexuality and next thing you know you have man on dog, man on box turtle, man on Rick Perry. Or worse, if possible.

All these torrents of truth, though, have made me think about something I haven’t for a long while: Outing. What are the ethical implications? Is it ever right?  Ever wrong? What liberty do we have to hypocrisy, and what obligations to others’ privacy?   As Marlene Dietrich groans at the end of Touch of Evil –another film about a Texas politician — “What can you ever say about anybody?”  Right on, Marlene!

I’ll start with an earlier question.  Who, among those closet cases, excited your curiosity the most? The Hollywood actor, right? I mean politicians are well and good. But stars … they’re all publicity, all surface. The burnished sheen of the broadcast image is so overpowering that it creates its own counter-hunger to find out what’s beneath it. Every role they act and every photoshoot they grace breeds the tabloid story or the probing paparazzi purporting to tell what’s really true. (The private lives of genuine actors, who aspire to be humanity in its frail diversity rather than icons of the ideal, are so much less interesting than the stars’. Who cares that Cherry Jones is a lesbian? Who wouldn’t care if Angelina Jolie were?) And of course, if the truth unearthed diminishes them, all the better. Knock them off that pedestal!  Prove the hetero sex god is a pushy bottom! We want the secret, and we want it dirty.

Which leads to the one you’re surely least interested in: the gay rights activist. Who cares about activists? There’s nothing fun about their lives, believe me. But there’s another aspect. What is scandalous about someone being … normal? The sole thing remarkable is that there’d be a reason to hide it. It could only raise eyebrows if the guy pretended to be ex-gay and sold out to the conversion crowd. (Attention, Exodus International: I am taking offers at my private e-mail.) Outing is not a two-way street. The scandal comes when the ordinary is stripped off to reveal the strange: not the other way round.

The leper principle: one touch makes you gay

Moreover, not only does homosexuality derive its interest from being non-normative, abnormal, it is actually more powerful than the normal. We accord it the infectious quality of a pathology: of a disease. So if the “gay” activist were to come out as straight, a lot of us simply wouldn’t believe it. Of course he’s really gay! You don’t spend a life’s work on homosexuality without there being something there. At a minimum, someone would tell you the activist is “performatively” queer: in a universe of roles, he’s acted this out with success. Again, it is intriguing that this only works in one direction. To play the part of queerness even once gives you an identity that amounts to ontic. When Rick Perry (1 wife, 3 kids) or Ted Haggard (1 to 5), or Larry Craig (1, 3 adopted) is caught in man-sex, or reported to be caught, or caught trying, the story is not that they’re performatively straight with a short lapse from character, or bisexual, or questioning, or experimenting: they’re gay, enough said. Hundreds of episodes of uncontroversial heterosexual copulation can’t erase the identifying force of that one abortive time in the bathroom. Heterosexuals would tend to agree with the gays on this one; but most of the gays are absolute in their certainty. As Larry Kramer explained about his obsession with Lincoln (1 wife, 4 kids) — based on his sharing a bed with a man, no further elaboration:

“There’s no question in my mind he was a gay man and a totally gay man … It wasn’t just a period, but something that went on his whole life.”

No Texan ever descanted of the Rapture with more conviction.

This assumption that one act makes you gay cements homosexual desire as the mark of minority status. It’s opposed to the insight –equally the property of Freudian and feminist theory — that it’s a subversive potential in most people, a power thrumming under the bland meadows of compulsory heterosexuality like a postponed earthquake or a patient geyser. That is a limiting, constricting vision of what our desires are able to do.

The main point I want to make, though, is this. As activists,  we devise plenty of excuses for outing. But the strength that drives it is still shame.

In outing,  the closet speaks through us. (And by “us,” I mean all my fellow queers to some degree, not just the activists.) The act reflects our own insecurity that homosexuality is non-normal. Even the certainty with which we assert that one gay incident makes you gay for life involves no actual dynamics of identity or sexuality, but stigma: the belief that a single transgression marks you permanently as endless reiterations of rightness never can. It’s consonant with the racist faith that one drop of “inferior” blood corrupts generations of offspring, that a Gentile woman’s hour-long dalliance with a Jew renders her a pariah to the Volk.  It’s the hatred instilled inside us that drives our obsession with the “truth.”

Outing is still explicitly a tool of hate. It’s still used by homophobes to undermine those they dislike. The US right has mustered rumors of homosexuality against Ann Richards, Hillary Clinton, Janet Reno, Pat Schroeder, and many more. (It’s interesting how right-wing murmurs seem to target women, while gay activists mostly out the men. Are there no closeted conservative lesbians to stalk? Do you really believe Condi Rice is dating Jack Donaghy?) It’s almost subterranean, but there is persistent buzz in Tea Party circles that Barack Obama is gay.  Why else would Rush Limbaugh repeatedly demand that his former girlfriends  “come forward”? The implication is they don’t exist:  among the many lies of the Kenyan-in-chief is his masculinity, while Michelle – with that fabled, telltale musculature – is a convenient beard.

But how exactly are gays’ outings of right-wing homophobes, as a tactic meant to discredit, so different?

To be sure, there are plenty of good rationales for outing. Take Blogactive.com: the site of activist Mike Rogers, who devotes his enviable energies to flaying lying politicians he considers homophobes. He’s found plenty of stuff: he posted audio of a Republican congressman talking on a gay chat line, and the fundamentalist schmuck resigned. The website offers what’s now the standard two-step explanation: preemptive apology, then justification.

People are entitled to privacy and the exposure of someone’s sexual orientation without their permission is unacceptable to me. Reporting on the hypocrisy of those who represent us in government? That’s an entirely different matter.

The just-retribution-for-hypocrisy argument is widely used. But look whose pictures are up on Rogers’ site right now. (Admittedly, their outing wasn’t Rogers’ own work, but they suggest standards he applies.) They include:

  • The GOP mayor of Medford, NJ , who resigned after an anonymous male escort claimed on the net the man paid him for sex. I don’t see any indication the mayor was especially homophobic –just married, and Republican. (Looking elsewhere, though, I notice l the mayor had actually opposed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.)
  • The GOP former sheriff of Arapahoe County, AZ,  who went to jail for allegedly offering meth to a man in exchange for sex. The hypocrisy on drugs is clear, but I don’t see evidence he was hypocritical about gays. Another website claims he was a “major contributor” to Marilyn Musgrave, a congresswoman who sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But this seems to have been someone with the same name, a urologist in Greeley.

Hmm.

Doug Ireland offered a slightly sharper-toothed criterion in outing David Dreier, a closeted Republican House member. First the apology—“I have always taken the view that outing a gay person should be approached with caution”— but then Ireland added that hypocrisy had to be harmful:

… in doing so one should strictly adhere to the Barney Frank Rule. As articulated by the openly gay Massachusetts congressman …when Frank threatened to out a number of gay-baiting Republican fellow congressmen, the rule insists that outing is only acceptable when a person uses their power or notoriety to hurt gay people. [emphasis added]

(Barney himself dismissed Dreier rather nicely. When asked if the man lost a Republican leadership post because he was too moderate, Frank replied, “Yes, in the sense that I marched in the moderate pride parade last summer and went to a moderate bar.”)

But the problem is how you define “hurt.”  This brings to mind one of my tussles with Peter Tatchell on a queer listserve, when I said I disliked outing and he evinced outrage. “There is no human right to hypocrisy,” Tatchell intoned. I answered, of course there is. It’s called the right to privacy, and it’s enshrined in most of the international treaties.   Privacy protects not just your right to keep a sphere of your life secret, but to keep it different; to lie about what is going on there if you’re so inclined; to defend yourself against prigs who insist that your public face and your existence behind four walls align exactly in ideology, practices, and values; to contradict yourself, and contain multitudes who don’t necessarily get along. The main moral limit is that you not conceal what hurts people. The right to privacy has been the first principle on which courts have overturned sodomy laws, worldwide.

It is, in fact, a weak right in international law. The covenants allow states to infringe it, to protect (among other reasons) “public morals.”   One of the arguments proponents of sodomy laws mount has been that private homosexual conduct does hurt people. It threatens public morals – reasoning that’s resonated with publics from Houston to Harare.   Opponents have countered this not only by contending no, it doesn’t, but by going at the meaning of the “morals” exception – trying to devise a less sweeping, more specific definition of harm.

A couple of years ago, my colleague Ali Miller and I worked on a brief for the European Court of Human Rights, in a Turkish censorship case. We maintained that, to demonstrate harm to public morals, governments needed not just to allege some general damage, but to identify particular victims and prove the hurt.  We wrote:

“[P]ublic morality” arguments are acceptable only where some real and specific harm to society can be shown. … Authorities may not criminalise and confiscate publications without demonstrating what harm it causes to what part of the “public,” when, and where, and tailor any restrictions to any specific harm. Authorities cannot evade that responsibility by postulating a “public” and its hypothetical values as a pre-emptive and dangerously free-floating excuse … Laws are moving away from 19th century ideas of the protection of “public morality” and toward a more limited purpose of addressing instances of specific harm. The broad justifications that supported [these] laws when they developed are insupportable in a modern legal regime of rights.

That’s a criterion in law – here applied to obscenity, but equally applicable to cases where the state proposes to punish private acts. But I contend a version should apply in personal, ethical decisions about when an individual (or a website or a TV show) can intrude in someone else’s privacy.

It’s not enough to posit that their public acts were “harmful.” You need to think through whom they harmed and how; whether the harm was directed and intended, or simply the byproduct of a comparatively innocent action or association – mere belonging to a political party, say, or a church; and, most importantly, whether the outing will stop the harm. Will it succor the victims? Will it shut the speakers up? Or will hate carry on? — in which case the outing has no aim but vengeance.

The sheriff and the mayor don’t qualify, in my book. Outing Republicans just because they are Republicans is similarly not kosher; or Catholics because they are Catholics; or Muslims – you get the point. Peter Tatchell himself spent part of the 90s sending odd letters to MPs and Church of England bishops whom he suspected of being gay.  The missives flirted with the legal definition of blackmail:

“Although Outrage! had been passed a lot of detailed information about your personal life which would have enabled us to confidently name you…we chose not to do so.”

One MP keeled over dead. A bishop, David Hope, went public with the letter, accusing Tatchell of intimidation in a “profoundly disturbing campaign.” One wonders about the rationale here as well. Is mere membership in a Church hierarchy that, as a whole, regards homosexuality as a sin sufficient to convict one of “hypocrisy”?  Can’t one have a genuine religious faith without agreeing with all the Church’s stances? Can’t one even regard oneself sincerely as a sinner — and in addition to shame and penitence, perhaps derive compassion from the fact?

And then there’s Rick Perry. The man has been steadfast in his misbehavior. His longtime defense of Texas’s sodomy law was bad.  His recent ad about his struggle against the homosexual agenda was … well, bad too. If there’s actual evidence, outing him would be justified.

Perry: I remember I screwed a third guy, too, and his name was … uh … oops. The EPA?

But his campaign’s over. Today’s Iowa caucuses will probably mark the end. For someone touted five months ago as inevitable, he’s been a bigger flop than Ishtar. Do his miserable, halting performances have something to do with his fear of exposure, his seizing up in the glare of scrutiny? If so, he’s punished himself out of contention. A few days ago, asked about Lawrence v Texas – the sodomy case he took to the Supreme Court – he stammered, whitening, that he didn’t know what it was. That feels like a pitiable giveaway. I’d say, at this point: leave him alone.

Any impetus to outing should be an occasion for self-examination. We need to parse our aims. There’s the practical goal of defanging and disarming those who inflict harm. But there’s the moralistic one of inflicting, as judge and jury, punishment. Do we want to take the sting out of their arguments by showing they’re false — or demolish them personally, using the very shame they attach to homosexual conduct as a weapon? Activists don’t run courts, and shouldn’t carry out executions. The first aim is reasonable. The second is not just destructive but, to the extent it mobilizes homophobia, self-destructive.

Still, I believe, revenge remains the most common if unacknowledged motive for outing. And the yen for revenge is undiscriminating. The desire extends to anyone who’s hidden. It reaches beyond the errant politicians; it takes in the obscure but grapples for the famous, all those who haven’t hurt anybody, just failed to be the selves we think we know. At heart, I’m afraid, we remember hiding, and we want, as payback, to humiliate those who hide.

Plenty of us are still the closet’s victims. It’s conspicuous how the outers, and the people who’ve leaped on the Perry story, are folks my age and older – Ireland, John Selig, others. We’re the generation for whom self-concealment was a dark reality for too long a time.  My own emergence from the closet was halting, stilted, fraught with fear and bad examples. When I was seventeen — how well I recall! — Robert Bauman, a conservative Republican politician, was caught cruising. Disgraced, defeated for re-election, he disappeared, career crushed. That outing hardly provided me with an inspiring role model (another argument once adduced in favor of dragging famous figures out of their closets kicking and screaming). It scared the hell out of me.

At eighteen, I finally came out to myself, in an agonized diary entry, scrawled in red ink as though I had extracted blood: it took me five pages of circumlocution to say, finally, “I am gay.” It was six months more till I first had sex with a man, an experience that led in the longer run to love, in the short term to vomiting. And not for another four years, after slowly coming out to friends (and making new ones) did I tell my father — who almost immediately cut me out of his life for the next quarter century, until he died.

No wonder that, having lived so long behind a fake façade, I spend so much time wondering what lies and lives underlie others’ fronts and faces.

But the closet is only one way of constructing sexuality,  enclosing one side of it with secrets. It’s not universal; nor is it immovable. The peculiar complex of secrecy, shame, and curiosity it encompasses can be done away with. In the US, it’s changing. New cohorts have moved beyond what our dying generations had to offer, our obsessions and our songs. I meet kids at fourteen who are out to their parents; kids whose families encourage truth. The closet has by no means vanished  (and in other countries, different forms cling to different power); but sexuality is way less “private.” Not because people have been outed. Because they came out themselves.

Privacy is not just constructed by what we want to hide. It’s also built round what we fear other people want to know. There’s a dialectic; privacy depends on intrusion to define itself. People defend their sexualities from prying eyes because the eyes are interested. And, by the same token, as long as sexuality – especially difference in sexuality – stays shameful, we’ll keep longing to know about the movie star, the dictator’s son, the sultan. But as sexuality becomes less fearful, less shameful, it will also be less interesting. Younger folks, I’ve found, had a more mature attitude to Perry than many of their elders. His dumb ad attracted more dislikes than any video ever on YouTube: but they focused on substance, not hypocrisy. The disgrace was what he said, not any contradiction in saying it. It will be a happy day when homophobia is treated as equally disgraceful even if the homophobes are straight.

Of course, as homosexual desire becomes more normal, less interesting, we lose something too. It becomes less powerful and subversive.  It’s less a quantity you can frighten the oppressor with – the oppressor is moving on — less something you can assert an arrogant uniqueness around and through: but less something you can learn from, too, less that protean skill at shape-changing that doesn’t abridge an inner integrity, less that Archimedean lever hung in space from which an introverted adolescent imagines she’ll move the world.

I confess I’ve clung to that capacity for subversion, which is also – by paradox – the memory of the closetedness and pain. So have many others. Listen to queers on the left talk about how their early insight into their own difference made them question revealed truth and really existing society, doubt hierarchies and privileges, feel their critical separation from the world as it was. That distance was loss, but it was also freedom. It gave loneliness, but it also offered knowledge. The less you have to overcome shame, the less you’ll understand how wrong it is; the less injustice overshadows your youth, the less you’ll recognize it in later years. A subtle apprehension of how the life we’re endowed with is ailing will be denied you.

But what can you do? As long as there’s something to fight, there must be the little battlefields where people learn resistance. Your own ephemeral gift of difference may lose its meaning, but difference itself remains. The quicksilver, elusive  capacity for subversion will move on, you hope, will settle in some other locus now despised and rejected, some other quirk or quality, indifferent in itself, that injustice in its irrationality targets. It had better. The world needs subverting.

What Facebook knows about you

This little film is the result of rudimentary research into Facebook’s knowledge machine. Taz magazine in Berlin explains:

A couple of months ago the Austrian law student Max Schrems asked facebook to send him all their data stored about him. All Europeans have a right to do this. Because facebook is based in Dublin, Ireland. It took a while and then facebook sent Max a CD with 1222 PDF files.

Schrems was surprised how much the social network knows about him and his friends. And how much it remembers. In theory, people at facebook could read all of his facebook messages. And find out what he has written on criminal law.

The content of these messages might interest advertisers who place customised adverts. Customised advertising probably earnt facebook around two billion dollars in 2011. What Schrems writes to his friends might also one day interest the police – or hackers. facebook keeps the messages even after Max has deleted them, deep down in its servers.

And facebook knows exactly when Schrems writes messages. And it remembers when Schrems logs on. So even weeks later it can be established precisely at what time Max used facebook.

facebook also sent a CD with data to Schrems’ friend Lisa. It knows much more about her because Lisa has taken photos with her i-phone. With GPS coordinates, the data can be used to work out exactly where she was.

With biometric facial recognition, which Mark has introduced to facebook, it is possible to know about millions of people exactly who was where when.

So it would be nice to know much more about Max Schrems’ data – for example which biometric data facebook stores. But facebook says that they don’t want to reveal any more. It’s a confidential business matter.

In other words, Facebook has a right to its privacy. Not you.

“I believe there’s a higher power watching over us — unfortunately, it’s the government,” Woody Allen once said. These days, though, surveillance has been privatized. Everything these days is private, in fact, except you and me.

Cyberninjas at the CIA are after your tweets

the eye of Sauron: tremble, puny Tweeters

So you tweak your Facebook status a few times a day, toot out five or six tweets, post the odd snarky comment on a Youtube video of dancing cats, dress up as Gabourey Sidibe on GayRomeo.com, and have an old Friendster profile out there somewhere to embarrass you like a passport photograph from 1992. You probably think these are just random traces, right? But they are texts, and good literary scholars and cool cyberpunks alike read their Derrilard and Baudrida and know that texts are endlessly fascinating, texts add up, you can put them together in all kind of configurations, you can invent or imagine old and new people behind them, you can read Don Quixote as if it was written by Pierre Menard, or the Hardy Boys as if it was about the Koch Brothers, and you can find all kinds of sentiments in them that defy the dull freight of ordinary meaning. What if “That cat could beat Chaz Bono on Dancing With the Stars” were a coded message? What if it were a cry of mourning for Osama bin Laden?

Hey! This should flatter you. Life is not random, and neither are your maunderings. Even without guessing it, you may be part of the “chatter” they are always saying they were listening to just before something big got bombed. The CIA has all kinds of cool, tattooed Ninjas in tortoiseshell glasses tapping the keyboards to track you.

In an anonymous industrial park, CIA analysts who jokingly call themselves the “ninja librarians” are mining the mass of information people publish about themselves overseas, tracking everything from common public opinion to revolutions….

The agency’s Open Source Center sometimes looks at 5 million tweets a day. The analysts are also checking out TV news channels, local radio stations, Internet chat rooms — anything overseas that people can access and contribute to openly.

From Arabic to Mandarin, from an angry tweet to a thoughtful blog, the analysts gather the information, often in a native tongue. They cross-reference it with a local newspaper or a clandestinely intercepted phone conversation. From there, they build a picture sought by the highest levels at the White House.  …

The center’s several hundred analysts — the actual number is classified — track a broad range of subjects, including Chinese Internet access and the mood on the street in Pakistan. While most analysts are based in Virginia, they also are scattered throughout U.S. embassies worldwide to get a step closer to their subjects.

The center’s analysis ends up in President Barack Obama’s daily intelligence briefing in one form or another almost every day. The material is often used to answer questions Obama poses to his inner circle of intelligence advisers when they give him the morning rundown of threats and trouble spots.

Of course, if you are lucky enough to be an American citizen, you are illegally immune to this surveillance, which is only directed at the population of the other 195 countries in the world, plus several animal species that communicate in tones only Michelle Bachmann can hear.

“The OSC’s focus is overseas, collecting against foreign intelligence issues,” said CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood. “Looking at social media outlets overseas is just a small part of what this skilled organization does,” she said. “There is no effort to collect on Americans.”

Of course you can believe them!  They’re the CIA, for God’s sake!  The United States intelligence community does not collect information on its own citizens. Instead, we kill them with drones.

the new face of Homeland Security

And the people who do this are really funky. Inside each one, carefully vetted by professional recruiters employing sodium pentathol and waterboarding, lurks a body-pierced, bisexual Scandinavian with a history of child abuse.

The most successful open source analysts, [OSC director Doug] Naquin said, are something like the heroine of the crime novel “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a quirky, irreverent computer hacker who “knows how to find stuff other people don’t know exists.”  An analyst with a master’s degree in library science and multiple languages, especially one who grew up speaking another language, makes “a powerful open source officer,” Naquin said.

CIA analysts are notorious for their weird tattoos. 

Meanwhile, while you are mulling all this over, pay a little visit to youropenbook.org.  This site trawls Facebook pages to search for information that’s publicly available, even if the people who put it there don’t have any idea it is. Wired editor David Rowan (who explains here why he is not on the social network) suggests trying out search terms like “cheated on my wife” or “my new mobile number is” or “feeling horny.“  You’ll be surprised how much these open, friendly Facebookers share.

The idea of the site is to shame Facebook into instituting more understandable, usable, and safe privacy protections. Check out their “proposed privacy controls for Facebook” here.