Paper Bird: Three years old and growing

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from giladorigami.com

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from giladorigami.com

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It’s midway through this month of fundraising for A Paper Bird. Please consider giving $5, $10, $100 — whatever you can – to keep us going strong.

If you visit this site regularly, you’ll agree: it gives a bit more than most blogs do. That’s why it’s been cited, and praised, from the New York Times to the Nation

It shines light on injustice. News about the crackdown on trans and gay people in Egypt has largely spread from here: we’ve been an indispensable source for journalists and human rights activists alike, inside and outside Egypt. We helped stoke the storm of indignation that freed 26 men in the most publicized Egyptian “debauchery” trial – an unprecedented victory.

It gives you facts behind the slogans. For analysis of why ISIS murders “gay” Iraqis, or what made Putin put Russia’s activists in his sights, or what’s the truth underlying rumors from Iran — you can turn here.

It asks the hard questions. What’s the real impact when the World Bank links preventing maternal mortality to LGBT rights? How do Western leaders’ bold promises to defend queer Africans play out on the ground? What does it mean when “vulture fund” bankers support gay marriage internationally? What are the hard choices we make in fighting for free speech?

This blog is still mainly solo work. I want it to become something bigger, more wide-ranging. Your generosity can help fund some of my own research and travel. If worse comes to worst, it can pay my legal fees in Egypt. But it can also:

  • Support some of the people who have been helping with research and translation (from Russian, Arabic, Farsi,and Hindi, and more) out of sheer dedication – but who deserve something more.
  • Help bring guest writers and new voices into the blog. The writers I’d like to see are activists from the South who don’t enjoy the cushion of time and leisure that lets Westerners opine for free. They deserve to be recognized – and reimbursed.

From now till June 5 – that’s my birthday – I’ll keep cajoling you to give a little to a site that gives you facts, scandals, sex, shocking pictures, snarky captions, stories of rights and wrongs, and ways to fight back. Press the Paypal button. Do what you can. And, as always, thanks!

Feed the bird. If you like this blog, please think about pitching in:
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Fashion police

Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013

Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013

I agree; fashion is an art. But it’s a strange one. The other arts always held out promise of escape, or at least aloofness, from the ravages of time; they gesture at a world more lasting than our fragile and fugitive flesh; from a vantage mimicking eternity, they pass judgment on our inconstancy, like Rilke’s marble statue: “You must change your life.” Fashion, though, is within time and of the moment. It feeds on the awareness that what’s beautiful this spring won’t last till next season. Impermanent in essence, it inflicts the same transience on its consumers. You merit fashion mainly in those evanescent years when you are young and thin enough to be worthy. Brightness falls from the air; Prada has no patience for middle-aged weight gain. “The grand problem,” Coco Chanel said, “is to rejuvenate women.” But of course that’s impossible. Mercurial and mutable, fashion rejuvenates only itself, yearly; it leaves the women behind.

Fashion is art for an era that believes in nothing but its own acceleration. Fashion is the Sublime indexed to inflation. As the world speeds up, moreover, it comes to resemble the fashion industry, which takes over all of life in an osmosis of mimesis; a business that runs on models, becomes the model for everything. Lately this is also true of human rights.

That’s my thought on the Dolce & Gabbana furor, which is a fable for our time. You know the basics. In an interview an Italian magazine published last week, the two living labels — gay, and former lovers too — announced they don’t believe in same-sex parenthood. “The family is not a fad,” declared Gabbana. And Dolce (they still seem to finish each other’s sentences) said, “I am gay, I cannot have a child.”

You are born and you have a father and a mother. Or at least it should be so. That’s why I’m not convinced by what I call the children of chemicals, synthetic children. Wombs for rent, seeds selected from a catalog. …. Procreation must be an act of love; even psychiatrists are not prepared to deal with the effects of these experiments.

Natural: Gabbana (L) and Dolce (R) in 2001. Photo by Bend.

Natural: Gabbana (L) and Dolce (R) in 2001. Photo by Bend.

The outrage broke when Elton John took to Instagram: “How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic’ …. Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions.” That’s a cruel cut. And: “I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again. #BoycottDolceGabbana.” D&G retaliated by calling Sir Elton a “fascist.” RIcky Martin and Victoria Beckham and other celebrities jumped in to defend him. Overnight #BoycottDolceGabbana was trending. An employee of the Peter Tatchell Foundation named Peter Tatchell called for public protest:
Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 5.16.00 AM

D&G fought back by claiming, more or less, that Twitter terrorists were trying to censor and kill them.

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Comparing themselves to the dead of Charlie Hebdo tended to magnify the anger. Still, Tatchell has also recently accused his detractors of wielding Twitter to try to murder him. Maybe the pair were bidding for his sympathy.

This whole story is pregnant, by God-given or artificial means, with implications.

First, the interview was astonishingly stupid for a couple of gay businessmen who cultivate a market niche among gay men. But it wasn’t spontaneously stupid. D & G have been trying to appeal to more conservative consumers for years. The pretext for the interview, in fact, was to publicize a project the company launched in 2013: #DGFamily, inviting people to submit portraits of ancestors, spouses, kids, to an online corporate collection. “The family is our point of reference,” the project website quotes Gabbana and Dolce. (Queer families who want to protest D & G might try sending their pictures; I don’t notice any same-sex couples in the gallery.)

This touching pictorial display was about rebranding D & G as traditional, less promiscuously trendy. When Gabbana claims “the family is not a fad” — thus distinguishing it from everything they’ve made their money on — he’s invoking a timeless realm beyond the vagaries of fashion. (“There are things that must not be changed,” Dolce chimes in, sounding like an oatmeal commercial. “And one of these is the family.”) That gives the company a tinge of permanence rather than constant newness. But he’s also lying. He’s making the family a fad; it’s part of an advertising campaign. The dynamic by which the traditional becomes the fashionable, and is sold as such, is a familiar one in capitalism. Nothing is immune to commodification, no value too solemn or secure to escape subjection to the capricious humors of the market. G and D may speak of the family as a pristine cultural unit, but they treat it as a luxury D & G product. Even the line about “synthetic” or “chemical” versus “natural” children sounds like a backhanded stab at polyester. The duo may well honestly believe in the virtues of an imaginary world where superglued mother-and-father units spawn incessantly without assistance; but it’s absurd for them to pretend this is purely a “personal view.” It’s calculated outreach to a different set of consumers. Their mistake was to mouth off too much, and anger other consumers in the process.

I'll see your wink and raise you a smile: Golce, or Dabbana, dreams wistfully of a happier, simpler time

I’ll see your wink and raise you a smile: Golce, or Dabbana, dreams wistfully of a happier, simpler time

Second: People have every reason to be outraged, most especially parents who dearly wanted children, and used the “synthetic” means — assisted reproductive technologies (ART) — the designers denigrate. But since the issue for D & G is the corporate image, the most meaningful response has been from those who ricochet images back. Parents have been posting beautiful photos of kids born through in-vitro fertilization (IVF), all over social media. It’s simple and lovely and it shames Dolce & Gabbana with a minimum of effort.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 4.57.15 AMIs it worth more energy than that, though? Cries for boycott and demonstrations seem disproportionate to the danger. If a self-styled human rights group like Tatchell’s foundation calls a protest, they must mean a human right has been violated. How? Insulting people isn’t the same as threatening their freedoms. D & G’s offensive statements will hardly make life worse for LGBT parents or their children. The designers don’t dictate laws; they don’t deepen stigma. (Alabama, where LGBT people’s families do face profound discrimination, is very unlikely to intensify its prejudices at the beck of two Italian queers.)

A real boycott, meanwhile, is a political act. What’s the purpose here? A real boycott should have demands; and no one has suggested getting anything from D & G. A real boycott should weigh strategies and targets. Scott Wooledge, a maker of Internet memes who chases all the big gay Twitter storms, had this dialogue with a skeptic yesterday; it suggests a paucity of thought and purpose.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 2.01.50 AMGot that? Remember: gays are never poor, and they shouldn’t worry about the poor. The poor are interchangeable as off-the-rack clothing. They can always earn a dollar an hour somewhere, sewing purses in 14-hour shifts to buy those ugly rags they wear.

This pseudo-boycott isn’t politics. It’s celebrity dodgeball, Elton versus the Italians. In the manner of big-name grudge matches, it also attracts celebrity wannabes like Peter Tatchell, straining to scrape up leftover attention. It’s a show of muscle-flexing too, a few folks boasting, on behalf of LGBT communities they don’t particularly represent: Don’t tread on me. But beyond that, there’s no goal.

In fact, there’s one place where condemning D & G’s statements might have some political effect: back home, in Italy. Same-sex couples enjoy no legal recognition in Italy, denied both marriages and civil unions. Single people cannot adopt children — and that also bars gay people, since even same-sex partners are legally single. A 2004 law on assisted reproductive technology severely limits its use, and prohibits it for single women or couples without legal status. On the other hand, Italy’s Constitutional Court has demanded a “protective law” for same-sex couples to confer recognition short of marriage; it has also rolled back several provisions of the ART law. Parliament ignored these judgments. There’s an opportunity to use this anti-Dolce backlash to boost campaigns for tangible, feasible change in Italy.

I love you. Are those synthetic fabrics? Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2010

I love you. Are those synthetic fabrics? Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2010

But nobody outside Italy has raised this possibility. It hasn’t crossed their minds. To follow through would take the boycott-backers a bit of research — ten minutes on Google. More seriously, it would require reaching out to Italy’s LGBT movement, hearing their advice, negotiating a strategy and message. That’s the hard part; that’s politics. And it’s much more satisfying to feel you’re a solo hero, fighting the demon designers on your own, at home, Tweeting.

And here’s another point.

Remember Russia?

Elena Klimova

Elena Klimova

On March 5, a court in Murmansk, Russia, punished an organization supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It fined them 300,000 rubles (around US $5000) because the group had failed to register as a “foreign agent,” the crippling label Russian law lays down for organizations that accept external funding. This came after another court, on February 12, slapped an identical fine on an LGBT group in Archangelsk, for the same crime. On January 23, a district court in Nizhny Tagil found Elena Klimova guilty of “propaganda” for “non-traditional sexual relationships,” under the famous, repressive 2013 legislation. Klimova had founded Children 404, a web project providing psychological and social support for LGBT youth. The judge denied her a lawyer and fined her 50,000 rubles (over US $800). What’s left of Russian civil society is being ground away, activist by activist, group by group.

You haven’t heard these stories, yet you have heard about Dolce & Gabbana. A year and a half ago, LGBT Russia was big news. That was when the fresh laws against civil society and LGBT speech still went largely unenforced. Yet from L.A. to London there were boycotts of Russian vodka, protests against Russian musicians, a whole hashtag storm around the Sochi Olympics. Foreigners trekked to Red Square to raise rainbow flags; celebrities like Harvey Fierstein and Elton John lamented the plight of queer Russians with Dostoevskian prolixity and pain. That lasted six months or more. Then it stopped. The same people Tweeting about Dolce & Gabbana now are often the ones who waxed loudest about Russia then; but with prosecutions under Putin’s laws launched in earnest, they’re silent. Fierstein — whose New York Times op-ed set off the 2013 frenzy — ignored the recent trials. So has Dan Savage, who back then demanded the gays swear off Stolichnaya. So has Jamie Kirchick, who became a minor star for walking off the Swedish set of Putin’s propaganda channel RT to protest homophobia. So has New York-based Queer Nation, which led many fine demos. Peter Tatchell Tweeted once about Elena Klimova’s sentence, but passed over the others. It’s deafening indifference.

Politics is so draining: Bar-goers dump Stolichnaya at a West Hollywood protest, 2013. Photo from International Business Times

Politics is so draining: Bar-goers dump Stolichnaya at a West Hollywood protest, 2013. Photo from International Business Times

It’s not as though Russia and Putin ceased to be headline fodder in the last year. But the Internet-fed furor over Russian homophobia was never a campaign capable of the long haul. There was never any effort to build a resilient structure, ally with other movements, or recruit students or reach into unions or explore other stories of international solidarity. There was never much strategy, just publicity. There were flash-mob attacks on labels like Stoli, which doesn’t prop up the Russian economy; there were no campaigns to get governments to stop buying Russian gas and oil, which do. There was faith that Barack Obama had some magic sway over Moscow. And there was wild over-optimism that hashtags and Embassy protests would manage, in six months, to make Vladimir Putin back down. Five days into the Stoli boycott, blogger John Aravosis exulted that they’d “pressure the most important brand of all, Brand Russia and its leaders in parliament and the Kremlin, to make permanent change on this issue – if for no other reason than to simply make us all just go away.” This assumed Putin gave a damn, or regarded Russia as a “brand.” He didn’t. When the promised quick victory failed to come, virtually everyone gave up. Energy and enthusiasm and idealism infused the campaigning; sadly, they were squandered. The laws still stand. The trials are starting. The Tweeters have moved on.

Campaigns like this try to make it look easy. They obscure the truth: that politics is not quick or solitary, that solidarity is hard. The gays have a boycott almost weekly, steady as the Two Minutes’ Hate: it’s Barilla, or Mozilla, or Brunei, or something. Few such campaigns have contributed to any substantive social change. Many don’t even try. Boycotting Dolce without a declared goal isn’t pressure; it’s self-expression. As a result, they last only as long as it takes for people to get the anger out of their systems: the noble Russian campaign was a Methuselah compared to most of them. This erodes the patience real change requires. Our political attention span is barely longer than the mayfly’s lifecourse. Look up the mayfly, people. Do some research.

Meanwhile, some corporations do terrible, material harm to LGBT people, not just dissing their relationships but colluding with their torture. They go unboycotted. What about GE and BP, which recruited for the investment summit of Egypt’s head persecutor General Sisi, and are sinking millions into a dictator’s private economy? What about the Silicon Valley-based Blue Coat Systems, which sells Sisi surveillance equipment that can record every keystroke Egyptian queers type? Where are the hashtags? Where’s the outrage?

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Through these priorities peer some of the disorders that afflict Western LGBT experience. A fascination with celebrity runs deep in gay men’s cultures. It’s partly founded in the persistence of the closet, the years of our lives that withered in concealment; the memory breeds envy of lives led in utter exposure, the unreserved nudity of fame, stars with skin and secrets open to the world like French doors. As a result, the purely verbal sins of celebrity designers matter more than the depredation wreaked by a little-known, torture-enabling CEO. And a British comedian’s directives outweigh anything a mere activist in Russia or Italy can say.

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

But there’s also the way that gays, with identities demarcated by desire, define themselves less and less as political participants, more and more as consumers. Boycotts can be useful tools to change things, but they can also feed this apathy. I wrote in 2013, and nothing’s changed: “If the gays stay apolitical, it’s because campaigns like this encourage them to think of their beliefs, values, and political actions as consumer choices.” Taking sides is picking “brands”:

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

One last fact: there’s almost no LGBT organization with any political power in North America that’s democratically run. They’re either behemoths governed by unelected boards, or the odd authoritarian one-man show. Other activists have few ways to participate except by giving money. This fosters more and more roving Lone Rangers, accountable to no one, locked outside.

You can argue the causes; but you can see the consequences. Things accelerate, and the focus goes. Human rights present themselves as immutable values, the preserve of universals in an incoherent time. Yet as abuses multiply, politics and principle — strategy and capability — play less part in deciding which rights to defend, where to concentrate concern; taste takes their place, capitulation or whim, mass gusts of emotion across computer screens like the wind bending tall grass. This month it’s Uganda; next month, Egypt. There’s no persistence; the future erodes. Conscience is the creature of fashion. You can protest Dolce and Gabbana if you like; they’ve won already. It’s their world we live in.

Get your rights abuses here: Dolce & Gabbana ad from 2007. The US National Organization for Women called it “beyond offensive, with a scene evoking a gang rape and reeking of violence against women.” But at least it's not synthetic.

Get your rights abuses here: Dolce & Gabbana ad from 2007. The US National Organization for Women called it “beyond offensive, with a scene evoking a gang rape and reeking of violence against women.” But at least it’s not synthetic.

Government by moral panic

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

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

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

Martine de Schutter

Martine de Schutter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

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

images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s Scott? Is his family ashamed of him?

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

Scott Lively at St. Basil’s: Silent partner

No one cares where I am. My family gave up hope years ago. Lost soul that I am, this isn’t about me.

No, a much bigger family just shoved its black sheep in the closet. The World Congress of Families, brave defender of the ever-vulnerable Vladimir Putin, has put out a press release about its latest activities in Russia.

Pro-family leaders from ten countries met in Moscow (October 15-16) to plan World Congress of Families VIII, a celebration of the natural family, which will take place in Moscow, September 10-12, 2014. Members of the International Planning Committee for WCF VIII that attended the Moscow meeting included: Ignacio Arsuaga (HazteOir, Spain), Brian Brown (National Organization for Marriage, U.S.), Benjamin Bull (Alliance Defending Freedom, U.S.), Allan Carlson, Lawrence Jacobs and Don Feder (The Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society and World Congress of Families, U.S.), Silvio Dalla Valle (Association for the Defense of Christian Values, Italy), Shelly Locke (Power of Mothers, U.S.), Bob McKoskrie (Family First, New Zealand), Tom Minnery (Focus on The Family, U.S.) Justin Murff (Christian Broadcasting Network, U.S.), Austin Ruse (Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, U.S.), Steven Smoot (Family First Foundation, U.S.), Christopher Carmouche (GrassTopsUSA), Christine Vollmer (Latin American Alliance for the Family, Venezuela), Peter Westmore (Australian Family Association), Srdjan Nogo (Dveri, Serbia), Vincente Segu (Incluyendo Mexico), Fabrice Sorlin (France) and Jack Hanick (formerly with FOX News, U.S.). [I’ve added links for the convenience of anyone wondering who these people are.]

But one name is missing. Scott Lively, the Holocaust-rewriting, murder-promoting pastor who helped foist Uganda’s “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” upon the world, said on his own blog that he was in Russia for the same meeting. He even had pictures.

I am writing to you from Moscow (Russia, not Idaho) where I am on a one-week mission to bolster the Russian pro-family movement. … On the 15th and 16th I participated in the planning meeting for the World Congress of Families VIII, which will take place September 2014 here in Moscow. …  We dealt with logistics on the 15th and then on the 16th we visited the conference facilities.

Lively interviewed on TV by Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, President of the Orthodox Church's Patriarchal Commission on Protecting Family and Motherhood

You be the mother bear, I’ll be the father bear: Lively interviewed on TV by Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, President of the Orthodox Church’s Patriarchal Commission on Protecting Motherhood and Family

Why doesn’t the WCF mention Lively as one of their leading planners? Could it be that he’s a little too notorious even for them? They’re happy to name Serbia’s Dveri, a fascist organization. They proudly tout Fabrice Sorlin, a French authoritarian thug whose extremist group, Dies Irae, draws inspiration from the neo-Nazi, genocidal tract The Turner Diaries.  But Lively alone is a bit beyond the pale.

Logo of Dies Irae

Logo of Dies Irae

Treating him this way is very un-Christian. The prodigal son in the Bible got a fatted calf, after all, which in the first century was at least the equivalent of a press release. Perhaps the WCF needs some public reminders of who their loving children really are.

There are other notable things about that list of planners. Look how Northern, how Western, how Americo-European it is. Only two representatives hail from the vast Catholic and Evangelical expanses of Latin America; nobody from Africa; and nobody from a majority-Muslim country. (By contrast, the WCF’s 2007 and 2009 organizing committees included a Pakistani group, and the former contained a Kenyan one.) Perhaps the language of demographic decline the WCF took up in recent years (with its overtones of white people must breed before the brown hordes overrun them) has yet to find an audience there.

Most striking, though, is how all these US ex-Cold Warriors met in Moscow like cardinals of the Church to organize what will basically be a large-scale worship service for the cult of Putin. It’ll be flush with Russian government support: “A special WCF Parliamentary Forum was discussed with Yelena Mizulina,” the chief sponsor of the “anti-propaganda” bill.

This Parliamentary Forum will be held at the Russian Duma on September 10, 2014.  In support of this Parliamentary Forum, Luca Volonte and the Novae Terrae Foundation have pledged their sponsorship and support to help bring pro-family MP’s from Europe and around the world to Moscow for WCF 2014.

(A pity that Putin’s defense of traditional values couldn’t salvage his own marriage, recently undone by insidious Western decadence.)

To the WCF, Russia’s government is no ordinary dictatorship: it now stands in the vanguard of Christianity. They look forward to a Godly gathering “in the Kremlin, once the citadel of Soviet power, and in a rebuilt cathedral, on the site of one the communists destroyed during one of their anti-God crusades.”

In the Soviet-era, faith and family were special targets of communist hegemony and socialist persecution. World Congress of Families VIII in Moscow next year will represent the triumph of the natural family and faith over its great enemy of the 20th Century.

Large phallic object in Kremlin will ejaculate all over Godless homosexual hordes: from Lively's blog (caption and smiley face are his!)

Large phallic object in Kremlin will ejaculate all over Godless homosexual hordes: from Lively’s blog (caption and smiley face are his)

That’s the voice of Cold War victory, as well as cold-shower Victorianism. But Scott Lively’s analysis is both more imaginative and more precise — which perhaps is why they don’t put him in the press release. He knows that Focus on the Family, the National Organization for Marriage, and the rest aren’t there to celebrate their own successes but to acknowledge Russian sponsorship, Russian power. “The Americans and the Soviets both won and both lost the Cold War,” Lively writes with admirable evenhandedness.

[T]he Americans broke the Soviet system through economic strategies and tactics.  But before they collapsed, the Soviets poisoned the United States with Cultural Marxism, promoting moral degeneracy and family breakdown through so-called “progressive“ ideology.  Today, post-Soviet Russia is re-emerging as a Christian nation, while the United States is becoming a “Gay Soviet Union.”  What a strange turn of events.

The more they hang around with Putin, the more Brown and Lively and the other fellow travellers will learn the old, straight Soviet Union hasn’t vanished. Dissidents murdered, detainees tortured, demonstrators beaten and jailed: but a little bit of Gulag is a small price for keeping birth control away.

Strange, indeed.

PS.  The WCF is also furthering Russia’s interests in the near abroad, and taking its key fascists along. They write: “Prior to the Moscow meeting, [Aleksei] Komov [head of the WCF’s Russian satellite group] and WCF Communications Director Don Feder, along with Srdjan Nogo of the Serbian group Dveri (WCF’s newest Partner) and French pro-marriage activist Fabrice Sorlin, were in Kiev, Ukraine for meetings with key leaders of Ukrainian parents rights groups and members of the Rada (parliament) and a press conference on strengthening the nation’s pro-family laws.” Perhaps Sorlin led some discussions of his favored text The Turner Diarieswhich advocates using “chemical, biological, and radiological” weapons to exterminate the entire population of Asia. Once Ukraine’s pro-procreation laws are in place, this would furnish plenty of lebensraum. 

God is our master, guerrillas in our midst: Fabrice Sorlin (L) in front of a church, white-power rights (R) on front of The Turner Diaries

God is our master, guerrillas in our midst: Fabrice Sorlin (L) in front of a church, white-power fighters (R) on front of The Turner Diaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

I. Where the US religious right failed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Putin as educator

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

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

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

Natural_Population_Growth_of_Russia

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

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

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

Chart by Mark Adomanis, Forbes, 2013

Chart by Mark Adomanis, Forbes, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Lullaby, little fetus: Recent Russian anti-abortion imagery

Lullaby, little fetus: Recent Russian anti-abortion imagery

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

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

Children and caregiver in a Moscow orphanage, 2013: Corbis

Children and caregiver in a Moscow orphanage, 2013

3. The new package

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Power: Anders Breivik in court

White Power: Anders Breivik in court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children of women: Sad times

Children of women: Sad times

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

Demographic Winter”: Be afraid, be very afraid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aleksei Komov

Aleksei Komov

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

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

4. Putin as patron of the Right Wing 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s not true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to fight back.

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

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

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The Russian issue(s)

Right-wing demonstrators attack participant (center) in a "Day of Kisses" protest against anti-propaganda bill, in front of  the Russian State Duma in January: © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

Right-wing demonstrators attack participant (center) in a “Day of Kisses” protest against anti-propaganda bill, in front of the Russian State Duma in January: © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

A few good sources of information about Russia crossed my screen in the last week or so.

§ Just over two years ago, LGBT activists in Russia set up an e-mail list, Queerussia, to help to help Western activists and journalists understand their perspectives on the LGBT rights struggle. Now it’s gone online, as a news aggregator for lots of information about Russian events — mostly in English, with valuable material specially translated for the site. Check it out.

§ Open Democracy published an opinion piece by activist Igor Iasine on what Russian LGBT communities need right now: movements strong enough to carry the fight forward on Russian ground.

It won’t be Stonewall; it’ll be our own revolt. ..We  need to create a systematic and solid movement for LGBT rights if we are to avoid a new backlash … We can take inspiration from other people’s successes. Not everything in that experience is universal and equally relevant everywhere, but its importance should not be underestimated.

In the 60s and 70s the American LGBT community couldn’t ask Brezhnev or Mao to lean on the USA government on their behalf, to introduce sanctions or refuse visas to American officials. But now some Russian activists are looking for ways to enlist help in putting pressure on the Kremlin from abroad, as they doubt their own strength and don’t believe they will find enough support among other Russians. But … the best way to fight homophobic laws and prejudice is to forget about Obama and develop our own grassroots protest campaign. … [T]he LGBT community shouldn’t be pawns in a new Cold War, but part of an international movement for real democracy and equal rights for all.

The best way for people abroad to help us is through empathy and genuine solidarity, and not isolation or a boycott. Lukashenka’s Belarus has been the object of sanctions for years, but ordinary people’s lives are none the better for it.

§ Spectrum Human RIghts Alliance also interviewed Iasine here. And Open Democracy also carried an interesting piece by writer Sergey Khazov:

I’m certain that it is the new homophobic law itself that … has in fact worked both ways. On the one hand it has triggered a public witch hunt: a steep rise in cases of discrimination; people losing their jobs; attacks on LGBT activists; regional LGBT organizations being harassed and prosecuted under the law that bans NGOs from engaging in ‘political activity’. But on the other hand, this is happening precisely because people have suddenly started leaving their closets in a way that they never did before – a wave of ‘coming- outs’ is sweeping the country. LGBT activists have emerged in just about every city, and some of them have set up organizations that are making a real difference to people’s lives.

Foucault speaks at a labor union demonstration supporting Solidarity in Poland, April 1981

Foucault speaks at a labor union demonstration supporting Poland’s Solidarity movement, Paris, April 1981

§ Sean Guillory’s article in The Nation is one of the few recent English-language pieces to recognize the large, loud, and vibrant LGBT movement that’s still agitating in Russia — and to point up the diversity of opinion it contains. He concludes with a paradox worth stressing:

Six months ago, few in Russia, let alone abroad, knew about Russia’s LGBT movement. Now it seems that gay rights in Russia are on everyone’s lips. The sudden incessant talk about homosexuality is the dialectical result of recent attempts to repress it. In his History of Sexuality, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that … the more a society seeks to repress sex, the more it has to talk about, identify and categorize it. Prohibition, he wrote, ensures “the proliferation of specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate sexualities.” Russia is currently experiencing what Foucault called the repressive hypothesis. … The worst thing that could happen is that Russia’s current LGBT explosion is silenced. Or as Andrianova says, “It is very important to keep this pressure on because here in Russia the LGBT community is very mobilized and very much more open than before.”

§ Finally, in Counterpunch, Alexander Reid Ross places the anarchist artists of Pussy Riot in the heroic tradition of Soviet-era dissent. Check at the bottom of his article: he offers to translate and forward letters of support to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, the sacrificial leaders of the group who are imprisoned in Putin’s Gulag, if you’ll send them to him at a.reid.ross@gmail.com. Tolokonnikova started a hunger strike last month to protest conditions in the Mordovian labor camp where she’s being held. Her open letter has been widely circulated; it can be read here. I would also like to call attention to a moving statement Tolokonnikova wrote (but was not allowed to deliver) at a hearing this April, when a judge denied parole because she refused to admit her “guilt.”

I am absolutely convinced that the only correct road is one on which a person is honest with others and with herself. I have stayed on this road and will not stray from it wherever life takes me. I insisted on this road while I was still on the outside, and I didn’t retreat from it in the Moscow pretrial detention facility. Nothing, not even the camps of Mordovia, where the Soviet-era authorities liked to send political prisoners, can teach me to betray the principle of honesty. …

Recently, I got a letter containing a parable that has become important to me. What happens to things different in nature when they are placed in boiling water? Brittle things, like eggs, become hard. Hard things, like carrots, become soft. Coffee dissolves and permeates everything. The point of the parable was this: be like coffee. In prison, I am like that coffee.

I want the people who have put me and dozens of other political activists behind bars to understand one simple thing: there are no insurmountable obstacles for a person whose values consist, first, of her principles and, second, of work and creativity based on these principles. If you strongly believe in something, this faith will help you survive and remain a human being anywhere.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova behind barbed wire in Prison Colony no. 14, Mordovia: from http://izvestia.ru/news/539656

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L) behind barbed wire in Prison Colony no. 14, Mordovia, November 2012: from http://izvestia.ru/news/539656

And then there’s other stuff. Notably, New York’s Gay City News headlines its current edition “The Russia Issue,” which is nothing if not a belated effort to clamber onto the news cycle. As issues go, it’s thin. There’s one article on the Queer Nation’s anti-Russia protest at the Metropolitan Opera, which happened two weeks ago. And, inevitably, there’s something by ace reporter Doug Ireland.

Ireland’s contribution is an interview, all done by e-mail, with Nikolai Baev — Nikolai Alekseev’s onetime deputy at (indeed, almost the only other member of) Moscow Pride. Baev is a brave man, and he’s been a leader in at least one important action: he and Irina Fet were arrested in Ryazan in 2009 for demonstrating against the local anti-gay-propaganda law, a precursor to the later Federal iteration. Fet took her case to the UN Human Rights Committee, which found against Russia; Baev appealed his conviction to the European Court of Human RIghts, where it’s still pending.

But there are a couple of issues with Doug’s mis-take on the “Russian issue.” First off, Baev broke with Alekseev back in late 2011 — partly because Baev wanted Moscow Pride to join in anti-Putin demonstrations, and Alekseev refused; but partly too because Alekseev briefly resigned as Generalissimo, putting Baev in charge, then rudely retracted it (not the only time this happened). Baev hasn’t had an organization since then. Singling him out as the sole voice of Russian activism shows Doug’s old identification with heroic Lone Rangers, and his distaste for people who build movements. It’s the same frustrated passion that led him to idealize Alekseev over seven years of hype. Indeed, maybe the most telling passage comes when Baev tells Doug that Nikolai Alekseev’s

reputation among Russian LGBT community was always very bad. He has been supported by a few number of radical activists, including me, who thought about him better than he indeed was. … In any case, it always has been a minority of activists, and originally he understood this himself, saying that he represented no one but himself and his supporters.

If that’s true, why didn’t ace reporter Ireland know it? If Doug knew it, why did he keep lauding Alekseev as “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers” — and so on?

I have an issue with that: Gay City News cover

I have an issue with that: Gay City News cover

More than that, though, it shows how little Doug has learned about Russia and its movements over the years. Presumably he was under some pressure from his usually pliant editors to show that he could interview somebody, anybody, other than Alekseev about Russian issues. But who does Doug find? Alekseev’s former right-hand man. Either Doug didn’t have any other Russian numbers in his Rolodex; or other activists, many of them angry over his years-long denial of their existence, refused to talk to him. Either way, it’s sad that Gay City News thinks this lazy, one-note, one-source writing actually gives a general picture of “the Russia issue.”  One need only compare Sean Guillory’s analysis of the diversity of Russian LGBT activism with Ireland’s easy puff pieces to see the difference between reporting and typing.

Defendants in the Queen Boat case during their 2001 trial

Defendants in the Queen Boat case during their 2001 trial

Let me tell a story. During the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, Doug decided he wanted to write up the gay angle. He “found” a gay Egyptian blogger — actually, the discredited website Gay Middle East served up someone they knew — and asked him questions by e-mail. When Doug published the story in Gay City News, it contained major factual errors, mostly about the 2001-2004 crackdown on men suspected of same-sex sex. Doug misidentified and misunderstood the laws under which they were arrested. He misunderstood Egypt’s Emergency Law and the kinds of special Security Courts the country operated. He got the details of the famous Queen Boat raid wrong. And he utterly garbled the fact that police arrested hundreds, probably thousands, of men by entrapping them through gay personals and Internet chatrooms. In his version, this came out as “During the same crackdown, all gay websites were closed down, either by Internet censorship of the Internet or by the arrest of those who ran them.” Fact: there simply were no “gay websites” operating in Egypt in the pre-blog, pre-Facebook era. (People used Gaydar.com, Gay.com, and other sites hosted well outside the borders. None of those websites was “censored,” since the police needed them to entrap people). And no one was ever arrested for running one.

I pointed these errors out to Doug, and he exploded in shrill banshee wails of fury at my temerity. “Distortions”!  “Meritricious [sic] semantic quibbles”!  His words were TRUE, he thundered back, because

Information on the use of the Emergency Law and the law on blasphemy to arrest and persecute gays came from Ice Queer, the gay Egyptian blogger I interviewed, as did the information on censorship and arrests relating to web sites which published gay-related content.

Now, I know “IceQueer,” who was Doug’s one and only source for the story, personally. He’s a nice guy. He blogs in English; this identifies him (or might if Doug knew anything about Egypt) as someone who stands at a slight angle to the mainstream of Egyptian life, gay or straight. He doesn’t write about politics at all. His blog is full of frank talk about sex; its main appeal is to an upscale Zamalek and Maadi crowd whose English is often better than their Arabic, who want to read about erotic lives like their own, but don’t give a damn about politics either. This is a very needed niche in Egypt, but it might have made Doug question whether the guy’s legal analysis didn’t need just a little fact-checking. Moreover, IceQueer was born in October 1988. When the Queen Boat case happened, he was twelve years old.

In other words, Doug Ireland relied on the memories of a single source who wasn’t even a teenager at the time to give him all the information about Egyptian law and history he needed. Having jotted down a mishmash of mistakes and turned facts to wet falafel, Doug rushed to print. Gay City News never printed a correction — they never do. Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom. Out of Doug Ireland, gibberish.

Two women at the "Day of Kisses" demonstration in front of the Russian State Duma in January; one sports the remains of an egg thrown by right-wing protesters.

Two women at the “Day of Kisses” demonstration in front of the Russian State Duma in January; one sports the remains of an egg thrown by right-wing protesters. © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

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

Aleksei Davydov, R.I.P.

Aleksei Davydov arrested by police in Red Square this summer

Aleksei Davydov arrested by police in Red Square this summer

Aleksei Davydov died this morning, a little after 5 AM, in a Moscow hospital. He was 36 years old. I only met him twice, at Moscow Pride in 2006 and 2007. He was softspoken, with a clipped, quick way of talking, something that made him seem rather more frail and willowy than he actually was. He was also, in my experience, kind and helpful, with a close grasp of detail – he gave a lot of assistance to myself and ILGA-Europe in researching our 2007 report on the Pride arrests.  He had no great passion for fame and the center stage, and when he fought internecine wars, which everybody in the Russian dissident movements does, the battles tended to be short and to the point. He cared more about getting things done than about who does them.

This probably came in part from his youth in Liski, near Voronezh, one of those provincial towns which everybody dreams of leaving, like Chekhov’s Three Sisters: where, as the Hungarian poet Petőfi wrote of life on the great empty steppe, the years rush by like a flock of birds startled by a gunshot. To be different and dissident there left no time to waste on inessentials; if you wanted change, you had to do it yourself, and get to work. The gay press obituaries today don’t mention that he had a long history (given his short life) in Russia’s opposition movements, either because they don’t know or don’t care, but that was what shaped his political horizon. He was, for instance, a founding member of Solidarnost (Solidarity), a liberal pro-democracy group. His open engagement with LGBT activism came only after the first Moscow Pride, in 2006, and that event genuinely did influence him — by contrast with Doug Ireland’s extravagant claims that the works of everyone from Tolstoy to Pussy Riot sprouted from Nikolai Alekseev’s fevered brain. He and a few other activists founded a circle called LGBT Rights not long afterward, meant to turn direct action into something more than a one-day-a-year affair. He wrote on email in 2008, “We created our group after we saw what was in Russia for LGBT people right after the first Moscow Pride. In fact, Moscow Pride gave birth to us.”

He worked closely with Alekseev for the most part over the years, one of the few activists of an independent reputation who managed to do so.  At the same time, he kept his distance from Alekseev’s more offensive antics, and tried to sustain relations between LGBT activism and the democracy movements. I didn’t always agree with him, but I respected him. He was known as the person around Alekseev you could actually talk to, and as someone who had a moderating influence on the always-enraged leader. Sometimes they had spectacular fallings-out. In 2009, Alekseev even threatened to sue the producers of a German film about Moscow Pride because it included interviews with Davydov, whom Alekseev was then accusing of “undermining the LGBT community.” Later, though, the two patched up whatever had caused the breach, and cooperated regularly if not uniformly till Davydov died.

At the same time, unlike Alekseev, Davydov never stopped demonstrating with the broader democratic opposition. This probably led to his death. Julie Ioffe writes today that

he was arrested, in 2011, at a meager protest to defend Russians’ rights to free assembly … and, in the process, had his arm so severely broken that he required a month’s stay in the hospital. Davydov, a diabetic who was on dialysis, contracted an infection which led to kidney failure, his friends say. By the end, his health was so frail that, on a recent visit to Voronezh to protest gay discrimination there, a bout of food poisoning sent him into his first coma.

Davydov in hospital, with bruised face and broken arm, after his 2011 arrest

Davydov in hospital, with bruised face and broken arm, after his 2011 arrest

All the while, he kept protesting. This July, he and a few other activists unfurled an anti-homophobia banner in Red Square. They were arrested. In August, he took part in a small rally on the same spot, protesting at the 45th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, with a flag that read “For our Freedom.” He and nine others went to jail.

Alekseev is on a rampage today, against one of the few Western stories on Davydov’s death:

Alekseev Davydov copyHe seems to be angry because the article said Davydov “was a leading Russian LGBT activist and widely viewed as a controlling influence on the movement’s most prominent and mercurial figure Nikolai Alexeyev.” Probably both statements offend the prominent and mercurial man. But they’re true. If Davydov had had more space to do his own work instead of moderating Alekseev, the movement might be stronger today. But what matters is that he was there; both the pro-democracy and LGBT rights causes drew strength from him, and drew closer to each other.

There hasn’t been much notice of his death in the West. The Twitter feeds of Peter Tatchell and Gay City News, who so prominently promoted Alekseev, are silent; probably they never knew who Davydov was. Equally oblivious are the boycotters of Sochi and Stoli, who have turned their energies for the day to vilifying Italian pasta. I’m not sure Aleksei would mind; he didn’t care about the press clippings. I’ll remember him with a few words from something  he wrote in 2008 – criticizing an initiative (one which actually impressed me) to memorialize homosexuals persecuted under the Soviet regime. (I do not know whether this was published or not; I have it, though, in an e-mail.)

Not more than a week ago, my organization in Liski planned to organize a demonstration to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. Basically, a sort of anniversary of the date when what we can call “Modern Russia” resumed in 1993, with democracy, civil liberties, rights, freedom.

30 of us were ready to go on the streets of this little provincial city which never saw anything from “Putin’s miraculous economic boom of the last 8 years.” It resulted that in the next 2 days after we applied for the march, we were arrested and detained by the local police twice; one of the organizers and his parents were seriously threatened by the mayor of the city and might be sacked from his school; our contact details were passed to neo-Nazi groups; and last but not least — our event was banned. 

Instead, a march in support of the current regime was organized by the city authorities. Local schools were asked to send participants by the city authorities. The same who accused us of trying to pervert the local youth forced 200 teens to participate in this local masquerade that equals practices known in North Korea, China, or Vietnam. 

I respect the memory of those who suffered tens of years ago. Especially that many heterosexuals were accused of being homosexuals by the Soviet [Union], only to be sent far away from the cities where they would not be a threat for the dictatorship.

But I also would like that someone remembers also that today, many people suffer. And I don’t want the current regime to give an impression of kindness, to pay tributes to the victims of the Soviet state, while today it keeps persecuting us! Every day, we fight to end this present persecution that we all, gays and heterosexuals, defenders of civil liberties, face in modern Russia.

Земля тебе пухом, Алексей.

P.S. Sadly, Aleksei Davydov left no close relatives. His friends are trying to raise money for his funeral expenses. If you want to contribute, information can be found on Julka Bashinova’s Facebook page here — if you’re not a Russian speaker, you can use Google Translate or contact Julka directly through Facebook. Nikolai Alekseev is also attempting to raise money through his PayPal account, but I would recommend going to Julka instead.

He’s our bigot. Leave him alone.

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

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

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

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

Aravosis’ piece contains the following remarkable line:

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

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

Aravosis FAG copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait a minute. Another question.

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

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

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

Under the limelight: Lucas in his element

Under the limelight: Lucas in his element

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

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

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

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

In Russia they resist, too

 September 24 demonstration in Moscow against homophobia in schools, and official neglect of Russia’s school system

None of the Big News about gay Russia these days comes from Russia. Perhaps that’s a comfort – no news is good news; Nikolai Alekseev has been relatively quiet, and so has Putin; silence lies on Mirkwood. Still, it makes you wonder.

Yesterday there was  a demonstration by Queer Nation, in New York City, at the Metropolitan Opera. That was noisy. Naturally I wasn’t there (I am in Egypt); it seems only marginally more confusing from here than it probably was for the attendees. Outside, protesters passed out rainbow pins and raised awareness about Russian oppression. Inside, four infiltrators jumped up as the orchestra launched Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin, and shouted – at diva Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev —  “Anna, your silence is killing Russian gays! Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays!” I read mixed reports on whether the audience predominantly booed or cheered as the brave miscreants were led out.

This happened because the Met declined to dedicate the gala opening evening to Russian LGBT people. On the whole, I think it is lucky they did not. Russian LGBT people don’t have a crying need for an opera dedicated to them in a distant land right now. It might be nice, but it’s not a priority. (Do gay people need any more operas, period? The repertory closed a long time ago, like the gates of ijtihad, and we are left recycling all the old warhorses, memorizing Tosca note by note; but nobody seems too unhappy; the lack of novelty just simplifies things.) Absent the dedication, though, Queer Nation got to protest and make its own kind of music, and got excellent publicity as well. The Times gave them an article, and they made it into the Russian press, which is much more important. If it was one of those moments, common in activism, where everybody acts out their assigned roles with routine lassitude – the Met management defending l’art pour l’art, the protestors decrying the usual blood on someone’s hands – the same could be said of most any opera: you’d have to be an utter hick or cretin to be surprised when Tosca takes her jump, or Don Giovanni descends to hell. We are at an operatic moment now, when a huge surge of passion produces sound but so far little action. Everyone is emotional and nothing happens. How long can that go on?

One wrenching photo in a story about the protest struck me. It shows a member of the Russian diasporic LGBT group in New York –somebody I’d guess is showing way more courage than average in being there — holding up a sign:

met-protest-IS-bWe all know Pastor Niemoller’s moving message. Yet here it isn’t true. They didn’t come for the gays first.  Putin came for the Chechens first (actually, Yeltsin did before him); for the journalists; for the odd oligarch and whistleblower; for the punk rock feminists and the environmentalists; for the protest marchers; and then, somewhere down the list, he came for the gays. Where were we when the truth-seekers were slaughtered, when Pussy Riot went to prison, or when Grozny burned? Would things be different now, if some of that emotion had been transmuted into actions back when the right-wing thugs were mainly killing black people; or when the “foreign agents” law was first bruited about; or when cops were beating up Muscovites in the street after a faked election? It’s true, there’s only so much energy to spend on anger, and it’s so hard to get anyone exercised when there’s no ready point of similarity, no common identity at stake, no way you can say There but for the disgrace of Lady Gaga go I. I can’t blame anyone for coming to the Russian issue late. I’m not asking for miracles of altruism. I am glad enough the gays care about other gays who aren’t findable on Grindr. Yet you can’t help wishing some of that passion could be passed around, could be extended in the kinds of leaps possible in dreams, to grasp a few connections with other causes. So much feeling, you think helplessly, and yet somehow such a drought of sympathy. So much emotion showered on other people, yet so little sign of imagining beyond oneself.

Two other things I noticed, then. First, there was a demonstration in Moscow too yesterday – even if nobody in New York paid much attention. You can demonstrate in Moscow: the LGBT and democracy movements in Russia may be in retreat but are not silent or submissive. This is important to understand, since the tendency now is to paint them as pure victims who can’t say anything for themselves.  That’s wrong.

The September 24 demonstration was against homophobia in schools, which has come to the fore with the passage of the anti-propaganda law and also with two well-publicized recent firings of teachers who were also LGBT activists. (A Krasnodar university also fired an arts professor for supporting Pussy Riot.)  It was sponsored by a teacher’s union, the Interregional Union of Education – the “mainstream” participation helped it get official approval – but co-organized by LGBT groups and activists, including Igor Iasine. It’s interesting how the message differed from its New York counterpart. There were signs saying “Homophobic Law encourages bullying at schools,” but also “Homophobia is a tool to cover up budget cuts, school closures, and teachers’ lay-offs.” There was an effort to tie the law and homophobic harassment to the regime’s economic crisis, which has led to projected slashes in social spending — there’s a $30 billion revenue shortfall, and Putin said at a meeting with Vladivostok students last weekend that he’ll “have to be realistic and trim our intended expenditures. … What can we do?”

September 24 demonstration, Moscow: Igor Iasine holding up sign at center

September 24 demonstration, Moscow: Igor Iasine holding up sign at center. © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

A socialist group co-sponsoring the rally urged teachers to “explain to colleagues, parents and students how a lack of scientific information on homosexuality jeopardizes children.” But it also urged them to spread  “materials that explain the link between homophobic bullying with reduced funding for education.” They called for “a mass movement with a base in the trade unions against the government’s homophobia,” but also for a “fight for free crisis centers and support lines for LGBT teenagers from the [State] budget, and a decent education.” In other words, there was a consistent effort to make the rally a meeting point for different movements and demands, and to draw the connections between state-promoted homophobia and the Putin government’s ability to hurt people’s lives and livelihoods without democratic consent. 

Family, private property, and a State I don't like: Demonstrators under the Engels statue © Dmitry Zykov

Family, private property, and a State I don’t like: Demonstrators under the Engels statue © Dmitry Zykov

Several dozen activists picketed under the statue of Friedrich Engels near the Kropotkin metro station in central Moscow. (For context, that’s more turnout than nearly every Moscow Pride.) Zhenya Belyakov, a participant, described it on Facebook: 

The picket, attended by circa 40 LGBT activists and allies, was officially sanctioned although police at first did not realize that ”protest against illegal discharges of teachers” can be organized by the LGBTs. After short negotiations, police let the picket go on.

The highlight of that day was, of course, some 20 ultra-right thugs and some religious fanatics who, for some strange reason, always want to hang out with ”faggots.” Police pretended they did not see the eggs thrown at us, but despite that the whole picket was rather peaceful and went for a bit more than an hour.

When leaving the picket, our group was accompanied by some policemen (not to mention journalists, who always want to see some action) and some excited right-wingers, one of whom managed to hit one of our activists. Both the attacker and the victim were detained, and, as of now, both are released without any charges. The right-wingers tried to follow us in the metro, but, thanks to incredibly complicated metro system in Moscow, we shook them off very soon.

Police objected at first to the mention of “homophobia” on placards, but gave in after argument. The picket was publicized in advance on the website of Garry Kasparov (one of the main opposition leaders). It got sympathetic coverage in the mainstream press and on civil-society websites, and sent a message, at a minimum, that LGBT issues are Russian and not just foreign issues, and are part of the pro-democracy movement. This stands in contrast with Nikolai Alekseev’s declaration — repeated for years, and implicitly accepted by the many Westerners who attended his events — that “LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia and GayRussia as well as Moscow Pride will always stay as purely non-political groups.”

September 24 demonstrators confront police: © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

September 24 demonstrators confront police: © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

The second thing I noticed was an open letter posted by my friend Viacheslav Revin, a Russian LGBT activist who is now in the United States; he’s protesting a decision by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to preserve a “sister city” relationship with his home town, Nizhny Novgorod. I have always wondered about these “twinned towns” linkages, which in the US burgeoned as a Cold War gesture to “cultural exchange.” Like most such gestures, they put a comfortable veneer on basically commercial and political ends, and political injustice should be a reasonable basis for terminating them. But let Slava speak for himself:

Dear Mr. Nutter.

Viacheslav Revin

Viacheslav Revin

As a citizen of Nizhny Novgorod, a gay man, a LGBT activist, who was forced to flee the city and Russia due to my fear of persecution by the police for my activities against stigmatization and discrimination against LGBT community, I was deeply saddened to find out that you declined to break the sister city relationship between Philadelphia and Nizhny Novgorod.

I respectfully disagree with your position on this issue: by maintaining this relationship you do a disservice to the people of Russia and Nizhny Novgorod. Mayoral elections were canceled in my city. The power was usurped by thieves and scoundrels who can’t even maintain the storm sewer system, which causes the flooding of the streets every time it rains. Recently, the funds for snowplow equipment were embezzled and the city streets were not cleaned the entire winter. Do you think the culprits were found and held responsible? NO! Our parks are destroyed; our landmarks are taken down without any permission, often under the cover of the night, so the activists don’t even have a chance to protest against these atrocities. Our police have turned into a tool of repression, threatening and beating up those who try to exercise their civil rights. Many people have become victims of this persecution. People are beaten up right in the police precincts.

I myself was forced to flee because the chief of the anti-extremism department openly threatened on Twitter “to deal” with me. Why? Because I am an openly gay man, because I am HIV-positive, because I try to be a responsible citizen. And because I published an open petition, signed by several hundreds of people, asking Putin to put an end to his activities.

I ask you to stop supporting these scoundrels and to not participate in legitimizing of these criminals.

On behalf of the citizens of Nizhny Novgorod, I respectfully request that you reconsider your decision and hope you will come to the only possible and truly just conclusion: to break the sister city relationship with Nizhny Novgorod.

By doing this, you will show support to the people of Russia and will say a resolute NO to the criminals who usurped the power in my city.

Best regards, Viacheslav Revin.


What I appreciate is that Revin, again, makes the connections between the oppression of LGBT people and other oppressions; between a particular injustice and the way Russia is governed. Perhaps there’s something to learn here.

But I misspoke when I said that Nikolai Alekseev has been silent. He held a protest today outside the Moscow HQ of the Sochi Olympics, and he got himself arrested (for the fourteenth time in his career, which the pages of Gay City News will undoubtedly soon inflate into the four hundredth). There are many things I find odd about Alekseev, but one is that after weeks proclaiming that foreigners have nothing to do with Russia’s LGBT movement, and that Russians will now do it all for themselves, he was carrying an English-language sign today.

Not a foreign agent, but old habits die hard

Not a foreign agent, but old habits die hard

Also one notices that on Twitter he’s mostly been exulting about the foreign, not Russian press coverage (in fairness: complaining in one case, because the article didn’t give him enough credit):

alexeyev sochi protest tweetsI don’t know how much good this will do in Russia. But one thing you have to grant Alekseev is that his single-mindedness, and his focus on the bright lights, would serve him very well in America.