The UN, seen from Khayelitsha: Guest post

Khayelitsha, Western Cape, South Africa

Khayelitsha, Western Cape, South Africa

On June 30, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva passed a resolution establishing an independent expert (a special investigative mechanism, a slightly weaker title than the more usual “special rapporteur”) on sexual orientation and gender identity. Although you wouldn’t know it from most of the news reports, this move was controversial within LGBT movements. Some pressed for UN action against a wider range of abuses, for a recognition that issues of sexual and bodily autonomy are difficult to disentangle or to fit into convenient identity boxes. The final outcome occasioned celebration even as it raised questions. What are our movements’ relations to power? When are we agents, when are we patients, when are we acted upon and when are we actors in our right? What happens to us and our own autonomy when we derive our power from the agendas of “friendly” governments vastly and more malignly powerful than ourselves? How will the power we experience in the rarefied air of Geneva actually help those outside?

A post by Gabriel Hoosain Khan, a South African human rights activist and artist, dealt with some of these questions. I am publishing it here with his permission.

I am bewildered by the myth of Cape Town. As I drive on the N2 towards Khayelitsha – I know that the pretty green boulevards and the old Victorian houses will soon erode into an endless plain of informal settlements. I forgot that truth (again) during the previous night as I ate Bobotie and sipped wine in Observatory – the truth that Cape Town is not that pretty city on the southern tip. It is easy and gross privilege that allowed me to forget. Cape Town instead runs far up along a spine towards Somerset West, with dirty lungs on either side of the highway – letting the city inhale a poor black workforce every day, and roughly exhaling these workers every eve.

It is this binary which tints my perception of the recent vote at the UN on SOGI. This binary between the facades we sell about cities and processes and resolutions; and the realities of the communities on the ground that don’t taste the pleasures of the façade. In Cape Town, Camps Bay, Claremont and Seapoint are pretty and some of the safest areas in South Africa; while tens of kilometres away Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and Nyanga have limited access to sanitation and remain some of the most dangerous areas in South Africa (and the world). In Geneva it might be possible to celebrate a human rights gain – but that gain seems far removed from the room in Khayelitsha where I met three LGBTI youth groups last week. The beautiful paneled ceiling in Geneva (which I have seen in pictures) is unimaginable from the crèche where we meet – a zinc structure with no electricity, little furniture or flushing toilets.

Main meeting chamber of the Human Rights Council, Geneva

Main meeting chamber of the Human Rights Council, Palais de Nations, Geneva. No one has ever explained to me what the ceiling, an apparent emanation of the Borg, is supposed to mean (SL)

In writing a reflection on the latest resolution on SOGI at the UN – I in no way seek to denigrate the good work of colleagues and comrades engaging that space. I acknowledge that work at the UNHRC and with other international bodies is needed. The hard work of colleagues, the self-reflexive strategies, the guidance given to me and others by those working at the UNHRC, and their patient willingness to engage that space is acknowledged. That being said, I have been uneasy: uneasy with quick celebration, unconvinced with activist praxis at the UNHRC and other international spaces, uneasy with an LGBTI-politic which is not truly intersectional.

While I acknowledge the importance of being visibly queer at the UNHRC – foregrounding particular and unique experience as LGBTI people – I wonder what it means to separate that from the rights of women, sex-workers, the unique challenges associated with race, and class – or the realities of culture, geography and poverty? For example, what does an independent expert mean to a black gender non-conforming woman tortured by police in Zimbabwe? How do we separate out a colonial era law from contemporary arbitrary detention; how do we separate out practices of torture from the unique gendered violations?

While I acknowledge the standard-setting power of international bodies, I wonder whether these standards ever trickle down to states, and more so whether domestic standards ever trickle down to those communities who are most vulnerable. For example, how has UNHRC resolution 17/19 [the first UN Human Rights Council resolution devoted to sexual orientation and gender identity, passed in 2011] affected change at a domestic level on the African continent – do we have evidence that it made things better? If these resolutions and even treaties are not binding – what is their utility? What is the relationship between a document approved by states at the UNHRC and an individual who may not have knowledge or understanding of that council?

While I acknowledge the need for an international standard which protects the basic rights of humans (as manifest in the UN declaration of human rights), I notice how this standard is used in a manner which is unbalanced. For example, while much focus of the UNHRC often lingers on states in the global South, the actions of states like the USA, UK and others remain unscrutinised and their leaders not held accountable for their gross human rights violations. How do we hold to account states in the north with equal vigour for their contemporary and historic crimes (cough: reparations for slavery and colonialism).

In a strange way, the human rights context is similar to the myth of Cape Town. Whilst we may celebrate a human rights gain which mandates an independent expert to maintain focus on SOGI at the UNHRC in Geneva — in the same breath, in Baghdad, two hundred people die in a car bomb attack. I wonder what our wins at the UNHRC mean in the context of Syrian refugees, or landless Palestinians, or the 10 years of violence in Iraq. What do our SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans strategies (as linguistic, interventionist and economic practices) achieve at the Palace of Nations, when the constituencies we work with (in Khayelitsha, in Gugulethu, in Nyanga to name just 3 localities) remain in circumstances largely unchanged? I remembered this poem:

amidst the new-fangled fallacies
of sexual and racial freedom for all
these under-informed
self-congratulating
pseudo-intellectual utterances
reflect how apolitical the left has become
– Staceyann Chin

Asiyi eKhayelitsha (We will not go to Khayelitsha), 1985 poster protesting forced removals. CAP Collection, UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

Asiyi eKhayelitsha (We will not go to Khayelitsha), 1985 poster protesting forced removals by the apartheid regime. CAP Collection, UWC – Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

I might be a little cynical here – we have seen positive changes on the continent – but these have been slow. I guess I am keen to reflect on the political implications of human rights strategies which centre efforts in a language palatable to the global North. I muse on Fanon’s words — “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World” —  as a guide: to the way human rights as employed reinforces the metaphorical normativity of “Europe” or “the west” or “the global North” as a white, liberal and civilized measure of humanity. I guess I am trying to examine SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans strategies as practices (linguistic, interventionist and economic) which do not trouble the normativity of a human rights discourse that leaves colonialism, racism and global north exceptionalism largely unchallenged.

In using human rights without examining the racist/colonial/exceptional manner in which it is employed:

  1. we too divide our struggle through employing SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans as a singular palatable thing – rather than a queer, feminist and anti-colonial resistance; and
  2. we continue to reinforce an expensive international system which does not help those who most need these mythological human rights.

In a way this myth of human rights has little to do with the messy colonial, racial, gendered, sexualized, classed realities of humans.

It says we deserve a piece of this myth whilst only affording this myth to a few bodies, and leaves largely unchallenged the global colonial/racist systems which perpetuate gross human rights violations (on and beyond LGBTI bodies). I wonder if we can challenge this normative trap of human rights . A normative trap which allows states like the US to talk loudly about human rights, whilst the indigenous peoples of that state and their leaders still do not have representation in that same UNHRC space? A trap which allows the Syrian government to have space and power at the UN whilst that same government has killed 12044 civilians in 2015? A trap which led me to think about SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans issues in Khayelitsha as somehow separate from access to sanitation, electricity, quality education, public safety and street lights? I find this all very troubling.

Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO), June 16: Viva the Youth. Ca.1986commemorating the anniversary of the Soweto uprising. CAP Collection, UWC - Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO), June 16: Viva the Youth. 1986 (?) poster commemorating the anniversary of the Soweto uprising. CAP Collection, UWC – Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

I take a sip of my caffeine-filled cappuccino and feel a little guilty (I am meant to give up caffeine for Ramadan). Last week in Khayelitsha I met with youth groups using creative methods to empower LGBTIQ youth. One group used drama to document the history of local words and stories about LGBTI identities. Another, called Cape Inspirations, was a choir – they used song to build confidence in LGBTI youth and build community among vulnerable youth. Ikhewezi youth group used theatre – they performed a play inspired by the violence in Orlando; their play explored local experiences of homophobia and violence against women. In Mannenberg, I met two groups providing safe space for LGBTI people in a neighbourhood with high unemployment rates, plagued by gang-related violence. The Reach for Life Foundation provided much-needed shelter and psychosocial support to LGBTI youth; Behind the Red Door highlighted the prevalent and interconnected struggles of drug and alcohol abuse, HIV and homelessness among LGBTI youth. I visited both on the day the vote at the UN was being negotiated. Neither knew about the resolution, neither engaged the UN in any manner and neither had strong opinions about the vote. More importantly, neither were consulted by LGBTI organisations about what they wanted.

This highlights a limitation when it comes to our praxis as SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans organisations. In attempting to engage with these international bodies – what do we lose? Lose in our purpose and mode as civil society actors; actors who unlike states should be giving voice, opportunity and space to those who are most vulnerable? If these positions do not represent the groups or ideas of those who are most vulnerable – or even engage those who are most vulnerable – whom do these positions represent? I wonder about this practice of negotiating at the top (for things we supposedly need or don’t need; for language we supposedly use or language with limitations) in a manner which does not engage the modes and ideas of those we still position at the “bottom”?

In South Africa – we too were easy to celebrate: our new constitution in 1996; which enshrined non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the laws which followed (in quick succession) moving LGBTI from identities criminalized before the law – to legal equality. Even with these changes – I wonder who enjoys that freedom – the suburbs which have always been safe and affluent cupped in the bosom of Table Mountain – do enjoy some semblance of freedom that is coloured white and affluent and gay. But those in Khayelitsha and Mannenberg live a reality in many ways similar to before those laws passed. LGBTI people in Khayelitsha and Mannenberg complain of the same issues thet faced before the first SOGI resolution passed at the UNHRC in 2011. I am trying to make sense of this binary.

The Bagdad bombing — when over two hundred people died in a commercial district in Baghdad — marked a somber closing to the month of the 32nd UNHRC sitting, but also to the month of Ramadan; a month marked by violence, from the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, to the bombing of Istanbul’s Ataturk international airport. It is in this context of gross violence that I locate the actions of the latest UN Human Rights Council. It is in this context that I would locate the broader struggle for the rights of LGBTI people. It is here that I ponder about the resolution on SOGI.

for all the landmarks we celebrate
we are still niggers
and faggots
and minstrel references
for jokes created on the funny pages of a heterosexual world

the horizons are changing
to keep pace with technology and policy alike
the LGBT manifesto has evolved into a corporate agenda
and outside that agenda
a woman is beaten every 12 seconds
every two minutes
a girl is raped somewhere in America

and while we stand here well-dressed and rejoicing
in India
in China
in South America a small child cuts the cloth
to construct you a new shirt
a new shoe
an old lifestyle held upright
by the engineered hunger and misuse of impoverished lives
– Staceyann Chin

Medu Art Ensemble (designer: Judy Seidman), The People Shall Govern, screen print poster, Botswana/South Africa, 1982.

Medu Art Ensemble (designer: Judy Seidman), The People Shall Govern, Botswana/South Africa, 1982.

On not being well

Michael Ancher, "The Sick Girl," 1882

Michael Ancher, “The Sick Girl,” 1882

My mother died when she was 51 and I was 17. Here is how it happened. She had gone to Ohio — we lived in Virginia — to see her own mother, a solitary and sometimes bitter woman; an argument had broken out; my mother was struck by chest pains, and an ambulance took her to the hospital with angina. She’d never had heart problems before. That was on the Fourth of July, 1980. The next day, my father and I drove the hundreds of miles across monotonous mountains to her. Prone in the metal bed, she was pale and distracted. She asked me to rub her back. As I did so a small volcanic spike erupted on the monitor behind her, connected to her chest by wires. We left her, seeming a bit better we imagined, and my father and I went to a Howard Johnson’s somewhere nearby to eat silently. When we returned, the outer hall of the intensive care ward looked strange, congealed, like light glancing off obsidian. Nurses were gathered, and my mother’s beloved aunt was there. A band of bright fluorescent light showed under the door to my mother’s room, and I started toward it, and someone stopped me and told me rapidly what had happened. A massive heart attack, nothing anyone could do …. My great aunt held me. After a while they asked me if I wanted to see her, and I said no. I couldn’t have stood it. Many of these memories are blurred now — I don’t recall exactly who stopped me, or who told me. I remember those jagged peaks on the monitor, and I remember the color of that band of light as clearly as if it were shining in the next room now. It was only some years later, in graduate school, when I read The Duchess of Malfithat I found words to match in some degree what I must have felt. Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young. 

The ensuing years involved the usual inept evasions of guilt and sorrow. An event like that, especially when you are 17, does not enforce lessons, even if it should. Now I am 50. Ten days ago, I woke up in Cairo with a straining pain in my left leg: the kind of pain that suggests a bad soprano trapped inside there, trying to sing something from ToscaI knew what it was, but for 24 hours I persisted in hoping I had simply pulled a muscle. The next day I took a taxi downtown, and discovered I couldn’t walk at all. A familiar cafe near Bab el-Luk had just opened after Friday prayers, and the waiter propped me there and I started calling friends for help. The pain now indicated that the soprano and the orchestra were working from different scores in different keys. After a while my friends Tarek and Fady arrived with a car, and took me to a hospital in Giza. My leg had swollen to the size of one of those limbs of cattle that hang in butcher’s shops here, and was as red, but with a necrotic blue noli me tangere tinge of rot. As I lay in the emergency room, a doctor told me I had a “massive” deep vein thrombosisWhy massive? Why do they always call them massive? I asked myself. The caterwauling in my leg and in my head had reached a point where the orchestra was trying its hand at a Mahler symphony while the soprano, drunk and flu-ridden, was howling out Pierrot Lunaire.

What it felt like, generally: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

What it felt like: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

I spent five days in the hospital, laid flat and depressively eating flavorless soups, while the musicians gradually sobered up and wound down. I am home now, but the clot is still there, diminished but undefeated. I can’t walk much: even staggering to the corner pharmacy to pick up medicines makes the leg swell up again. I inject myself with something in the stomach daily, intrigued by how this doesn’t hurt. Kind friends are staying with me, to cook and run errands and clean. There’s no travel, no boarding an airplane till this is over, and I’m not sure when it will be over.

This isn’t the first time for me. Modernity has done wonders, for those of us in rich countries, to expand the life-span; specimens of homo sapiens in the European Middle Ages were lucky to grasp the goalpost of 35. But the payback is the onslaught of technologically demanding ills that start in the forties, as a reminder that what lies ahead of you is a stretch of undeserved and unnatural existence endowed by civilization’s artifices, that you owe this borrowed time to the bank.

Warfarin way back when

Warfarin way back when

My mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure in her forties. Almost four years ago, I had my first thrombosis. That one started in my leg too, but showed no traces there; it climbed — they’re natural mountaineers — unnoticed to my chest and nested there as if in a Himalayan cave, and I still felt nothing till one night, running to catch a bus on a New York street, things went white and I collapsed. There were massive blood clots (there you go again) in both lungsMy heart almost failed.

After that came two years of staying on blood thinners. The most popular one, Warfarin, was invented by the Wisconsin Agricultural Research Foundation (WARF) decades ago, in search of a humane way to kill rats by bleeding them to death internally. I went to sleek offices to have blood drawn all the time — little pipettes and big bleeping machines became my neighbors, like the vampires civilisés of True Blood — to test my “international normalized ratios,” (INRs) which determine the “extrinsic pathway of coagulation.” You get used to the jargon. Then 18 months ago my doctors took me off the drugs experimentally, since I seemed to be doing reasonably well. Bad call. 

Warfarin now

Warfarin now

In a condition like my current one, you lie in bed all day and think. The first fact about not being well — it should be obvious, but isn’t to the young and healthy — is how boring it is. The second, related, is that your horizon shrinks: all reality concentrates in the point or body part where you hurt or fear, and neither action nor emotion can happen without reference to the fundamental given of what’s wrong with you. How’s my clot today? That question obliterates the sunrise and the revolving world.  Auden wrote a poem about the sick:

They are and suffer; that is all they do:
A bandage hides the place where each is living,
His knowledge of the world restricted to
The treatment metal instruments are giving.

They lie apart like epochs from each other
(Truth in their sense is how much they can bear;
It is not talk like ours but groans they smother),
From us remote as plants: we stand elsewhere.

This is why visiting the hospital-bound or the very old is so horribly dull for everybody else, to be avoided like (literally) the plague, or turned into a quick drop-off of chocolates or floral arrangements, surgical as a Special Forces raid. What have they got to talk about? Their skin is the absolute limit of their interests. I don’t know how my friends, who have been generous with their time, can stand it.

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

At the same time, in high Western modernity, we’re obsessed with disease. With the idea of disease. This is understandable, since we are, as I say, living on borrowed time. Stolen, really: every year we eke out beyond our fourth decade is not just the gift of our technological civilization, but a robbery from other people whom we deny the diet, the drugs, the requisite machines.

Life expectancy in the rich US is 78.62 years these days. (Almost thirty years to go, Scott –voice shrinking to a whisper — insh’allah.)  That’s lower than Monaco, which has hit an amazing 89.63 (insert joke about a good gamble, please) but well above Egypt, where I am now. A cheap, efficient medical system, the legacy of Arab socialism, can’t overcome radical poverty to raise the allotted time above 73.19. In Sudan, just south, the expectancy falls to 63 years; from there on, as you follow the paths of slave caravans and colonial explorers across the continent, it keeps plummeting, to 54 years in Uganda, 53.86 in Zimbabwe, 52.78 in Malawi. Finally, in South Africa, it reaches 49.48 years, one of the worst in the world (in 2013 only Chad was lower), the aftereffect of forty years of apartheid and twenty more of equality deferred. Democracy does not heal; it does not cure history. These figures don’t just map out disease or poverty. They are a geography of power, because who has power has life. (It’s no coincidence that I’m getting the numbers from the CIA.) As a bedridden American in Cairo, on the broad Northern shelf of Africa, I’m sitting atop an inverted pyramid of injustice.

Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From www.gapminder.org

Do click on this chart. Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From http://www.gapminder.org

There’s always some symbolic sickness in the West, a disease representing how we think about these powers and inequities: a condition that stands in for what we know about our place in the world, or what we’d rather forget. Cancer used to be the great symbol. Its origins were obligingly inexact; either there were Enemies Within (anonymous little Communists in the liver or the lungs) or Enemies Without, chemical or biological opponents like Third-World dictators making the whole known environment unstable. (Todd Haynes’ Safeabout a woman rendered sick by almost everything in the plastic life around her, is still one of the scariest American films.) Thirty years ago, HIV/AIDS displaced cancer as an imaginative malady. We figured out what caused it fast enough — that retrovirus — but it was easily attributable less to a microscopic invader than to lifesize Others whom we disliked. There were a lot of them. Haitians, homosexuals, and heroin users for US paranoiacs were quickly joined by fearsome cousins around the world: Bulgarian nurses, Zimbabwean migrants, sex workers, black men on the down low, black women who slept with them, Africans in general, foreign tourists, foreign truck drivers, that ethnic minority who stink, the whole sick crew. It’s a truism that HIV prevalence provides a chart of inequality. But HIV mythology provides something almost as valuable: a chart of hate. The political power and the ideological convenience of HIV have always lain in its double gesture: simultaneously exposing injustice, and giving hate a justification.

I’ve watched relatives die of cancer, and friends live and die with HIV/AIDS. The kind of thing I’ve got is different: not worse, certainly, just different. There’s a reason heart disease and its associated syndromes have never become such symbols, such subjects of imaginings. They’re just there. Their ultimate cause is generally in the genes or in some combination of accidents; that multiplication of factors doesn’t lend itself to mythology. In my case, the blood just clots the wrong way, much like my mother’s did. I will have to take modified rat poison for the rest of my life to thin it. This is not intolerable. (The rats are happy.) The problem is, of course, that as a condition it’s controllable but not excisable; it doesn’t go away, and there is always that low basso ostinato uncertainty about whether or when you’ll wake up with a strange pain in the leg that gets more insistent, or keel over in the street. It’s impossible to interpret something like that in any meaningful or order-instilling way. It’s an existential insecurity insusceptible to the consolations of metaphor. It teaches nothing except that the body is frail, unreliable. In no sense can that be made reassuring, not in the way that it’s always comforting to identify some chemicals to eschew, some culprits to loathe, some immigrants to expel.

Jean Bourdichon, The Four Conditions of Society : Poverty, ca. 1500

Jean Bourdichon, “The Four Conditions of Society: Poverty,” ca. 1500

Nobody likes these uncertainties, from which there’s nothing to be gained or learned. Nobody likes knowing the body is weak and prone to betrayal.  All that money, all our accumulations of political power, all those drugs we hoard behind patent laws, all the debt we extract from others to fund our happiness, all the food we store up while others starve, all our drones and armies and the authority our societies claim, can’t contend against our physical random flaws, doesn’t alter the aleatic vulnerability of the individual body. It’s an old cliché:

Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade. …
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair.

But do we ever hate hearing that.

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, Cardinal Mazarin's Last Sickness, 1830

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, “Cardinal Mazarin’s Last Sickness,” 1830

You would think that Western gays, after years of confronting HIV, would have come to terms with the body’s unreliability. But no. In fact gays particularly hate the idea. Maybe it’s because their identities are so tied to a set of physical acts that to admit bodily weakness would undermine their selfhood in a particularly drastic way. Maybe it’s because one common reaction to AIDS has been an extreme compulsion to look and act healthy. Back when I came out, in the 80s, you were required to be buff and butch and the picture of wellness (odd that the Marlboro Man, a pitchman for killer cigarettes, served as icon of this vital manhood). The slightest sag into infirmity or unaccountable cough, and no one would touch you for fear of infection. We queers measure triumph or disaster by our bodies. We can’t afford to let them be mistrusted.

I learned this in a curious way, the last time I got seriously sick; I learned it from a bunch of people who don’t like me. When I resigned from Human Rights Watch, I discussed the blood clots in my lungs that triggered my departure, in a letter that made its way around the Internet. What struck me about the many responses was that people who disliked me for political reasons felt compelled to turn that into medical mistrust; they simply didn’t believe I could get sick. This took nasty forms. The ever-love-filled and litigious Peter Tatchell repeatedly circulated e-mails to thousands, saying that “Scott Long left Human Rights Watch. He claims it was because of ill-health. Others suspect he was sacked.” Peter’s friend Michael Petrelis, the crank-slash-stalker in San Francisco, developed this theme, blogging that “Long developed a severe case of a Soviet-style case of the flu … His official explanation for moving on would have delighted the editors of Pravda in Brezhnev’s day, it was so full of obfuscation and self-pity.” Melanie Nathan, a peculiar West Coast blogger, just three months ago sent me an series of messages saying — among many other things — that “We all know that your ’embolism’ was a convenient excuse” (not clear for what). She also called me a “vile bucket of anal slime,” which I think is a quote from some website. There were more. I would have to be superhuman not to be angry at these creeps; I felt like sending them my medical charts as proof, or maybe my medical bills. Some of these folks were crazy, some permanently enraged, and some simply hadn’t a clue what they were saying. But — trying to stand back slightly — I hear in all this vituperation a very human fear. Your foes are always supposed to be there, even more so than your friends; they’re an identity and linchpin, a pole against which you define yourself. They’re spectres and ideas, not frail and physical people. God forbid they should have bodies; God forbid their bodies should do them wrong. I’m sorry I got sick, and I’m sorry that unsettled Tatchell and Petrelis so much. Perhaps I can understand, though, why the news of somebody else’s sickness roused them to so much anger. “Rage against the dying of the light” translates quickly into a rage against those who remind us of the dying.

So here I sit in Cairo, thinking about my body.

Edvard Munch, "The Sick Child," 1885-86

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child,” 1885-86

My mother died when she was a year older than I am now: much too young. I can’t remember her without seeing, almost like a light beneath her skin, the banked fires of things undone. The memories don’t grow easier. I cannot read Paul Celan‘s poems about his lost mother without breaking into uncontrollable tears:

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?
My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return.

Celan’s mother died in the Holocaust, in Transnistria. It’s presumptuous to compare personal loss to historical catastrophe. But loss is what it is, always different in its circumstances and in other ways always the same. My mother died because her body failed her. It was part of a world in which she’d suffered, and also where she had a relative degree of safety: a world where she had tried to compensate for both by a constant, wearing labor of compassion. It didn’t matter. My mother died because her body was part of the world, and the world is perishing.

It’s strange that I’ve spent so much of the years since then working on things like “sexual rights” and “bodily autonomy.” Bodily autonomy is a beautiful ideal. Like so much in human rights, it gestures toward a vision of a perfect cosmos, lit by Platonic concepts that burn in the corridors like inexhaustible candles. Yet our bodies are not autonomous. Our bodies are part of the world. They are subject to its vicissitudes, implicated in its weakness, its injustices, its power, its deaths. They live with the world’s joys and fail with its wrongs. This is a fact, not a lesson. It can be said; it can’t be learned. I will only learn it by dying.

Boycott politics: Breaking out of the spaghetto mentality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gran Fury poster, 1988

Gran Fury poster, 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ad for Aunt Jemima pancakes, 1950

Ad for Aunt Jemima flour mix, 1950

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

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

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

1380504_188087118043291_959814342_n

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

boycott_stoli

© Not Gran Fury

Aluta continua: On loving Mandela

This is just part of an extremely neat infographic on Mandela's life, created for his birthday; the full thing is available at http://www.bestmswprograms.com/nelson-mandela/

This is just part of an extremely neat infographic on Mandela’s life, created for his ninety-fifth birthday; the full chart is available at http://www.bestmswprograms.com/nelson-mandela/

Back in 1990, Nelson Mandela, newly freed, came to Boston on a US visit to raise awareness (and money) for the continuing liberation struggle. Massachusetts was, of course, one of the heartlands of liberal support for South African freedom, even through the darkest and most racist days of Reagan. (I remember sitting in a Harvard Square cafe some years before, as a very nice white lady next to me tried to manage an ill-behaved two-year-old boy. “Bish! Bish!” she kept saying, but I didn’t know what this imprecation meant till the end of her patience arrived: she warned sternly, “You keep your hands out of that butter, Bishop Tutu McNally.”)  He spoke on Boston Common, and the turnout was enormous, reinforcing the rock-star quality of the tour. I went down to hear him. I don’t remember anything he said, and I doubt anyone else there did either. Although Mandela obviously could be extremely eloquent, his US reputation even at that point was caught in an antinomy like the old divines’ dispute over Jesus: Did his teachings matter more, or his miracles?

With Mandela, the words-versus-works controversy was already settled in the miracles’ favor. The image of the man, wonder-working in his saintliness, transcended any particular message he might try to convey. What remains of the event is the picture of a small Madiba doll on stage, whose mere presence promised absolution for a myriad local sins and omissions to the worshipping, overwhelmingly white throng.

Crowd listening to Nelson Mandela, Boston, June 23, 1990: © Paul W. Locke on Flickr

Crowd listening to Nelson Mandela, Boston, June 23, 1990: © Paul W. Locke on Flickr

Walking back across the Common and feeling unaccountably melancholy as the crowd disbanded, I ran into a black man, dishevelled and a little drunk or stoned, who started beleaguering me. “What the fuck, do you think you own this place, asshole? That guy” — gesturing back toward the defunct convocation — “is gonna teach you a lesson. He’s gonna show the white man who rules. White people ain’t gonna rule no more, motherfucker. You think you can do what you want? Just wait.” This was in the days of ignorance, long before George Zimmerman came to earth to bring us enlightenment: I didn’t realize that I could just shoot him. Instead I got into an conversation, starting with the predictable premises: a) I am not oppressing anybody right now; b) I am here to support Mandela, because I am on the right side. I don’t recall the outcome of the discussion (though it does strike me that in those days of jahiliyya, fewer white people carried guns), but I don’t think it was productive. Even in my racially and politically rather callow state back then, however, it did occur to me that the guy had a point. Not so much in the substance of what he said, as in rather bluntly reminding me Mandela didn’t mean the same thing to everybody. Despite all the white people who insisted he stood for forgiveness — mainly, their forgiveness — there were others to whom he signified aluta continua, the struggle goes on, we are still militant while oppression still stalks the streets and parks. His person– and this was true in South Africa, too, because he could never have kept the faith of the masses without it — could channel not only love but anger. For some, he came to bring not peace but a sword.

In Minima Moralia, Adorno wrote:

Before the eighty-fifth birthday of an in all respects well cared-for man, I dreamed that I asked myself the question, what could I give him which would make him truly happy? I immediately received the answer: a guide through the realm of the dead.

As Mandela turns ninety-five, I am struck by the demands, from South Africa and elsewhere, that he refrain from dying. I too wish he could be eternal, but not like Tithonus, settling into a decay unmitigated by the consolation of mortality. The man has done everything he was put on earth to do; nothing more can be asked of him. He is sick. He needs rest.

Obviously, however, he’s more than frail flesh now, even at the end point of his frailty. He is, as he’s been for fifty years, a symbol. The insistence on his survival is also a desperate supplication that the things he came to symbolize — the possibility of dialogue, the promise of forgiveness, the example of how a civil state can be built despite a deep foundation of violence, and, of course, the state he built, South Africa — can all survive.

If they mean anything, of course, they’ll survive without him. But they’re so fragile; some of them (forgiveness, for instance) are always fragile. Bloemfontein to Boston, none of us are so at ease with facing the desolation of reality that we don’t cling to a veil of symbols to keep ourselves standing.

Both man and symbol of the Black Atlantic: Statue of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Allada, Benin

Both man and symbol of the Black Atlantic: Statue of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Allada, Benin

Yet there’s a great deal to be learned from, and about, Mandela beneath the symbol. Maybe those lessons will become more teachable (as Obama might say) once the man-as-symbol is gone. One remarkable thing is that he’s one of the twentieth century’s very few revolutionaries who also succeeded in building a democratic state. In fact, he’s almost the only one. It’s as if the talents and lives of Gandhi and Nehru cohabited in one person. Except, of course, he was never a simple Gandhian; he paid his obeisance to non-violence as an ideal, but when he saw the extent of the apartheid state’s violence, he believed in fighting back. One would have to add Subhas Chandra Bose to the mix, then, and probably plenty of others from different strands of history: from Toussaint L’Ouverture to Che, from Sandino to Lumumba. The image of Mandela we have is like one of those Baroque effigies of saints constructed to contain and conceal a jumble and diversity of relics — for he was diverse and self-contradictory, like anybody. There is no particular contradiction between his latter-day embrace of forgiveness and his long pursuit of the struggle, though. Peace was only possible when the apartheid regime abandoned power. There was no possibility it would do so peacefully. Reconciliation would only come as a consequence of resistance.

Everybody has their own Mandela. The magnificent figure of the opening statement at the Rivonia trial is a canonical one. His peroration, as he prepared to face the life sentence of which he would serve twenty-seven years, is now inscribed on the wall of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, a kind of Fiat Lux for the country as it is now:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.


Audio of Mandela’s closing speech at the Rivonia treason trial, April 20, 1964

There are other objects in the reliquary, though. There is the speech he gave to the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) in Addis in 1962, a great summation of Third-Worldism adduced as “evidence” in his trials later. An internationalist all his life, he nonetheless held that people had to shoulder responsibility for their own freedom — although he knew all too clearly what ruthless violence they would face.

The view has been expressed in some quarters outside South Africa that, in the special situation obtaining in our country, our people will never win freedom through their own efforts. Those who hold this view point to the formidable apparatus of force and coercion in the hands of the government, to the size of its armies, the fierce suppression of civil liberties, and the persecution of political opponents of the regime. Consequently, in these quarters, we are urged to look for our salvation beyond our borders. Nothing could be further from the truth. …

South Africa is now a land ruled by the gun. The government is increasing the size of its army, of the navy, of its air force, and the police. Pill-boxes and road blocks are being built up all over the country. Armament factories are being set up in Johannesburg and other cities. Officers of the South African army have visited Algeria and Angola where they were briefed exclusively on methods of suppressing popular struggles. All opportunities for peaceful agitation and struggle have been closed. Africans no longer have the freedom even to stay peacefully in their houses in protest against the oppressive policies of the government. During the strike in May last year the police went from house to house, beating up Africans and driving them to work. …

But we believe it would be fatal to create the illusion that external pressures render it unnecessary for us to tackle the enemy from within. The centre and cornerstone of the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa lies inside South Africa itself. Apart from those required for essential work outside the country, freedom fighters are in great demand for work inside the country. We owe it as a duty to ourselves and to the freedom-loving peoples of the world to build and maintain in South Africa itself a powerful, solid movement, capable of surviving any attack by the government and sufficiently militant to fight back with a determination that comes from the knowledge and conviction that it is first and foremost by our own struggle and sacrifice inside South Africa itself that victory over White domination and apartheid can be won.

Myself, I turn to his less-famous statements when put on trial by the South African regime (for inciting resistance and for leaving the country illegally), in 1962:

I challenge the right of this court to hear my case on two grounds. Firstly, I challenge it because I fear that I will not be given a fair and proper trial. Secondly, I consider myself neither legally nor morally bound to obey laws made by a parliament in which I have no representation.

Police outside the Pretoria Palace of Justice as the Rivonia treason trial opens, 1963: Bailey African History Archives

Police outside the Pretoria Palace of Justice as the Rivonia treason trial opens, 1963: Bailey African History Archives

Mandela said the state and its whole apparatus of injustice was illegitimate, and he claimed the right to resist it by means corresponding to its own. The historic resonance of what he said perhaps obscures the fact that it’s not a strategic thing for a lawyer to assert in a courtroom, when the lawyer is on trial for (several years of) his own life. It effectively convicted him in advance of the treason he’d be charged with a year later. He was ready for that. He laid out the principle of resistance to immoral authority in terms even clearer than Thoreau’s:

Government violence can do only one thing, and that is to breed counter violence. We have warned repeatedly that the government, by resorting continually to violence, will breed in this country counter-violence amongst the people, till ultimately, if there is no dawning of sanity on the part of the government – ultimately, the dispute between the government and my people will finish up by being settled in violence and by force. Already there are indications in this country that people, my people, Africans, are turning to deliberate acts of violence and of force against the government, in order to persuade the government, in the only language which this government shows by its own behaviour that it understands.

Elsewhere in the world, a court would say to me, ‘You should have made representations to the government.’ This court, I am confident, will not say so. Representations have been made, by people who have gone before me, time and time again. Representations were made in this case by me; I do not want again to repeat the experience of those representations. The court cannot expect a respect for the processes of representation and negotiation to grow amongst the African people, when the government shows every day, by its conduct, that it despises such processes and frowns upon them and will not indulge in them. Nor will the court, I believe, say that, under the circumstances, my people are condemned forever to say nothing and to do nothing. If this court says that, or believes it, I think it is mistaken and deceiving itself. Men are not capable of doing nothing, of saying nothing, of not reacting to injustice, of not protesting against oppression, of not striving for the good of society and the good life in the ways they see it. Nor will they do so in this country.

The Mandela of resistance is the one I am remembering as he turns ninety-five. It’s not that I don’t value the legacy of comity and reconciliation — I do. But the world I choose to live in is a secular one, where forgiveness is not a transcendent obligation but a political choice.

What would happiness be that was not measured by the immeasurable grief at what is? For the world is deeply ailing.” There is much still to resist. If that means there’s much to forgive, then resisting it comes first. In South Africa, the state Mandela built massacred 34 striking miners in Marikana last year. The state is still democratic, still open, still lawful; but it is also increasingly under the rigid hegemony of neoliberalism, looking more and more like a reserve run for the rich by the purchasable. The malls in Sandton where the white bourgeoisie used to go to get away from blacks are now where a black bourgeoisie goes, for the same reason. Nor does this make South Africa worse than or different to many other formally free polities, policed and segregated against the demanding poor. Freedom increasingly doesn’t guarantee the right to move about, the right to demonstrate, the right to vote among meaningful alternatives, even — in some primitive places that have regressed especially far, like Pennsylvania — the right to vote in the first place. Pass laws have given way to gated communities; the ethic of Sandton is the one George Zimmerman killed for. Would Mandela resist this world? Think.


Miriam Makeba, Aluta Continua

Blacks look back

Zanele Muholi: Nomonde Mbusi, Berea, Johannesburg, 2007; © Zanele Muholi

Despite all the pleasant words in South Africa’s progressive Constitution, black lesbians and trans men — people whose looks or demeanor push at accepted gender norms, or simply don’t fit in — face endemic violence, including the threat of rape to punish or to “fix” them. Among over thirty documented murders of lesbians since 1998, only two cases have seen convictions.

Amid this crisis, artist and activist Zanele Muholi has spent five years photographing black lesbians in an effort to affirm their identities. The resulting series is called Faces and Phases and Beulahs (queer South African slang  for “beauties”). Claire Breukel writes that “her portraits

are straight-shot black and white images that make direct reference to the tradition of portraiture. … Muholi’s role is to simply and effectively afford her subjects a platform to be “seen” and furthermore be recognized in a climate that has, to date, marginalized this community and omitted documenting its existence.

Zanele Muholi: Apinda Mpako and Ayanda Magudulela, Parktown, Johannesburg 2007, © Zanele Muholi

A documentary film, Difficult Love, directed by Muholi and Peter Goldsmid, has also grown out of the project.

These marvellous photographs inevitably bring to mind the Images of the Week in South Africa at the moment. The youth wing of the opposition Democratic Alliance party has distributed a poster on campuses showing an unclad white man and black woman in an embrace:

The poster roused a storm of controversy in the country.  South Africa’s Christian Democratic party accused it of “clearly promoting sexual immorality.” A leader of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) claimed,

“The poster says, ‘Join the DA to have an affair with a white person’  … It entrenches the white supremacy that we fought against during the liberation struggle … We will not be excited with having an affair with a white person; we will not be enticed by that.”

Comments on the DA Youth Facebook page ranged from the racist (a photo of an all-white  family with the caption “Now that’s how it should be!”), to the prudish, to the patriarchal:

“Who is the head of a house? Yes, a man, and the man makes the choices and the women listens … So to some it has been offensive that the man is white and the woman is black, because it places the black nation under the head of the house, so to speak.”

Imitations have also multiplied, including a gay one, which the Democratic Alliance Youth reportedly endorsed:

South African constitutional law scholar Pierre de Vos has a fascinating analysis of the controversy here. He argues that

the thought never seems to have occurred [to critics] that the women in the poster could be in charge … and that we cannot tell from the poster whether this is so or not. They have jumped to conclusions (based on their own internalised prejudices and stereotypical assumptions about race and gender and sex) that the woman in the poster is a meek receptor of male aggression.

The poster, he contends, serves as a reminder that

race hovers not far from the surface in private or other everyday settings … In South Africa we cannot escape race. We cannot escape our own race. Even when we claim that we have escaped the perceived shackles of race, we are merely confirming its presence by our stated yearning for its absence.

Absolutely true. At the same time, it strikes me that the posters, instead of challenging the viewer directly to examine her or his stance and presumptions (as Muholi’s photographs do), play on these “internalised prejudices” in very calculated ways. In fact, the poster needs the prejudices, in order to work at all.  The whole point of its saying “you wouldn’t look twice” in the DA’s ideal world, is that you do look twice now; the DA relies on your shock to grab your attention.

And part of the attention-catching is that the pictures confirm to certain old South African expectations. (The black woman, after all, is situated “under” the white man, by position and stature.) Catching people by their coat-sleeve of intolerance may be one way to promote tolerance, but it can backfire, too.

Moreover, and most interestingly, the poster shows the straight couple, in coy and conventional style, ignoring the camera’s challenging intrusion and the questions it raises, lost in their apolitical world of love. The figures don’t engage with the issues; they present themselves as innocents who just are. (In the gay version, it’s only the white partner who stares back at the viewer, acknowledging his or her interest. The black partner is raptly absorbed in the white man.)  This is quite different from the faces Muholi shows: those confront the camera and the watching world beyond it with their bodies if not their gaze, realizing they have become objects in the act of being seen, and that this challenges them to control how they are seen, to change the terms.

The centrist, neoliberalish DA’s main if not sole appeal is to white and mixed-race voters. It’s long chafed under the ruling ANC’s accusation that it is a “racist political party only committed to protecting the last vestiges and policies of apartheid.”  Or not chafed: its previous leader, Tony Leon, seemed happy enough to embrace the charge, indulging in racially-tinged rhetoric. (The party’s 1999 election slogan, “Fight Back,” was practically a clarion for backlash; the ANC redubbed it “Fight Black”.). The DA itself estimates it wins only 5% support among black voters in the country, who make up 80% of the electorate.  It’s been trying frantically to recast its image, most notably by picking a 31 year-old black activist, Lindiwe Mazibuko, as its parliamentary leader. (The party’s overall leader, Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille — a former journalist and activist who exposed the state murder of Steven Biko — is white.)

The posters are part of the party’s rebranding campaign.   You can’t help feeling, though, that they’re a distinct strategy of avoidance: deflect the question of race into a controversy over sex. They turn politics into erotics.

Bulworth: Out of the mouths of babes

Muholi’s photographs take sex (or the body, or gender) and frame it inescapably in political terms.   The DA posters, by contrast, take politics and try to make it sexy.  In the process they struggle to blunt its hard edges, and come up with romantic — literally — solutions to problems that remain stubbornly ones of power and of economics. They remind me, in their way, of Warren Beatty’s 1998 film Bulworth, in which a liberal senator, suddenly awakened to the crisis of race in America, turns rapper and decides that sex, if not love is the answer: all we need is to interbreed.

“All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everybody just gotta keep fuckin’ everybody ’til they’re all the same color.”

Yeah. That’s really going to work.

Sex is part of the problem — whenever it’s a way that hierarchies of power are defined or maintained; when it’s a basis for violence or hate; when, as in corrective or punitive rape, it’s used to brutalize and to establish who doesn’t belong.   But sex is not, in itself, the answer. Sex is always potentially political.  But sex isn’t the sum of politics. To imagine that injustice can be screwed out of existence is a pathway to leaving it in place.

Zanele Muholi’s photography is featured in the Face of Our Time exhibition, on view at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, November 12, 2011 through February 5, 2012.

Correction: Helen Zille is no longer Mayor of Cape Town. She now serves as Premier of the Western Cape.

Four convicted in Zoliswa Nkonyana’s murder

A mob murdered Zoliswa Nkonyana, a 19-year-old lesbian in Khayelitsha, South Africa, in February 2006. After a group of straight women taunted her as a “tomboy” in a shebeen, a gang of young men chased her, stoned her with bricks, and beat her with a golf club.  Yesterday, almost six years later, and after more than 40 trial postponements, a court convicted four members of the mob of her murder.

At several points, the Magistrate made reference to Zoliswa’s sexual orientation as being the motivation for her murder. … The Magistrate concluded … that those participating in the assault acted with “common purpose.” All had been involved in the altercation outside the bathrooms at the shebeen, all had been chased her, and all had participated in the assault. Further, Zoliswa was “tiny girl” and it was reasonable to conclude that such an assault on her would lead to her death.

A month ago, a coalition of civil society organizations condemned the justice system’s multiple failings in the investigation and trial:

The manner in which Nkonyana’s case has progressed illustrates severe failures in our criminal justice system, particualy in poor under developed areas such as Khayelitsha where crime is at its worst, and where the Court and Police services are heavily under-resourced. Some of these include:

  • In the five and a half years since the case began, there have been upwards of 40 postponements. A case of this nature should never take this long in a functional, healthy justice system.
  • The main state witness was attacked on the day of the murder and was threatened during the trial. She left the province fearing for her life, and was not given the necessary protection and support.
  • Initial investigations were slow and poorly carried out.
  • In 2008 the State was found to have committed gross negligence for failing to ensure that witnesses were present in court.
  • There has been poor case management as defence attorneys routinely missed court dates without any repercussions.
  • In 2010, four of the accused managed to escape from their holding cells, causing great panic and fear. They were later recaptured but a police sergeant was arrested for aiding them in their escape and defeating the ends of justice.

For one case to be affected by so many failures is unacceptable but not unusual. It illustrates much of what is wrong with the our Criminal Justice System. All of these problems occurred, in spite of constant public pressure, media coverage and repeated calls from a number of civil society organisations for it to be prioritised. … Many other victims of crimes and their families will never receive the same level of support. It has become clear that in many cases, justice is a privlidge dispensed only to those who can afford to pay for it. For the marginalised and the poor there is little substantive assistance to be found from the State. Without prohibitively expensive legal representation, many victims and their families, have little hope of having their cases dealt with in a timeous and professional manner.

This case also shines a spotlight on the intolerance, intimidation and dangerous environment that lesbian and gay people living in informal settlements are facing, including related issues such as corrective rape. It has also illustrated how our Police are failing to protect society’s most vulnerable.