No one would doubt Madonna’s commitment to gay rights but more importantly, few would doubt that she’s an archetypal American liberal. This is underlined in this speech to GLAAD, the American body which is widely seen (outwith American liberal circles, anyway) as the hobby horse of privileged white men. The American version of Stonewall, if you will, and as such hugely averse to radicalism and any meaningful discussion of inequality and the use of power. Madonna’s speech pushes all the right buttons in this regard: the American enemies of the great and the good gathered in the room are religious bigots who fixate on sexuality; some truth to this, of course, but neatly feeding the sense of victimisation which many of these people thrive on while obscuring wider and more complex inequalities.
If Madonna had restricted her comments to the Boy Scouts and religious bigotry in America, however, there would have been little wrong with this speech. Where it becomes worthy of criticism is when she moves onto the wider world with some banal but damaging observations on inequality and oppression. Israeli apartheid becomes a question of two mothers sitting down to speak to each other, the pervasive and pernicious fiction that the conflict is one of two equal ‘sides’ rather than one of oppressor and oppressed. Worse, there is a throwaway reference to “an Iranian gay man being hanged for falling in love with a man.” This is a favoured trope of liberals, even in situations where there is absolutely no evidence to support it, and it is unforgivable as it serves to increase the drumbeat for ‘intervention’ in Iran while completely ignoring America’s own complicity in and hypocrisy regarding the Iranian regime (and indeed support of regimes seen to be even more oppressive).
The reference to Malala Yousafzai and the Taliban at first seems straightforwardly ‘good’ – who could have an issue with this, after all? Yet it undeniably further serves American fantasies of promoting equality and justice in the world against dangerous, dark, barbaric enemies. It’s easy to be horrified when the Taliban attempt to kill a child – it’s braver to use your platform to draw attention to your own government murdering hundreds (at least) of children with its drone strikes and sanctions.
Indeed, the sense that you should hold your own government to account before deigning to wag your finger at others looms large in one inexcusable omission from Madonna’s speech. She speaks of Putin and Pussy Riot – again, a worthy cause but one which flatters Western notions of superiority. It is ‘insane’, she says, that Pussy Riot have been locked up ‘because they criticised the government’. Further, she notes that she doesn’t ‘know many brave people’ and draws attention to the line in ‘Nobody Knows Me’ which observes that “it’s so hard to find someone to admire”. You have to wonder, then, if Madonna (and indeed GLAAD) is aware of Chelsea Manning, a truly brave American who has spent over 1000 days in prison and faced torture precisely because she wanted to draw attention to her government’s horrendous abuses of its power. I’ve written before about the silence of ‘Gay Inc’ on Manning and it is truly inexcusable for this room to loudly whoop and applaud their sense of righteousness over Pussy Riot while they continue to turn a blind eye to their own government’s persecution of someone who courageously spoke up. It’s possible to go further still, as Glenn Greenwald does here in a piece on Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen who was subject to extrajudicial assassination (ie murder) by the CIA. Greenwald argues that:
What prompted my opposition from the start to the attempted killing of Awlaki was that it was very clear he was being targeted because of his anti-American sermons that were resonating among English-speaking Muslim youth (sermons which, whatever you think of them, are protected by the First Amendment), and not because he was a Terrorist operative. In other words, the US government was trying to murder one of its own citizens as punishment for his political and religious views that were critical of the government’s policies, and not because of any actual crimes or warfare. (my emphasis)
You may have to read that a few times to fully take in its shocking message – one which completely demolishes liberal fantasies of a superior, secular America which can afford to cast its eye over the abuses of other governments and find them wanting.
Predictably, Madonna’s speech is proving popular with many; it’s being described as ‘courting controversy’ and ‘brave’. Yet what was difficult or shocking about it? It flattered the egos of everyone present, assuring them that they were on the side of ‘right’ and ‘good’ while still facing oppression from wicked religious people. The man the speech honoured is a mainstream journalist who waited until he was firmly embedded at the top of his profession before choosing to come out and there seems to be little that is truly ‘brave’ about his overwhelmingly conventional views. What would have been truly brave, truly shocking, truly controversial, would be if Madonna had challenged the smug complacency of GLAAD and, indeed, of the wider American liberalism and exceptionalism which she so perfectly embodies.
EDIT – A response to this blog I’ve had several times now is for people to state that the differences between Pussy Riot and Manning are obvious; that the former case is clear-cut and indefensible while the second is ‘controversial’ and ‘disputed’. The first point to be made here is that within Russia, the Pussy Riot case isn’t remotely clear-cut. It is in fact as ‘controversial’ and ‘disputed’ as these people present the Manning case as being. A cursory Google of Russian public opinion on the case will reveal this. Following on from that, the second point is that the reasons these cases are so disputed in their countries of origin are worth focusing on in themselves. As this piece puts it:
There are some U.S. citizens who see Manning as a hero (I am one of them), and some who see her as a traitor. Manning’s target population was and still is all of the rest. Yet the sad truth is most of this remainder doesn’t care much about Manning’s fate and will, in the end, accept the government’s verdict on her. This is how I reasoned out the situation back in 2010, and I think my conclusion is still sound. On the assumption that most people are locally focused and apolitical I conclude that this vast majority are unconcerned about the Manning case because it seems not to touch their lives. And, on the assumption that the government and its allied mass media control the information flow, I conclude that most of the minority who are aware and concerned share the official view that Manning is a traitor. (my emphasis)
Indeed, the fact that the one line repeatedly wheeled out to me is that Manning ‘put American lives at risk’ would tend to confirm the notion that people are blindly parroting what the authorities have told them.
The third and most crucial point is that support for freedom of expression, for freedom of conscience, for opposition to government and for bravery in opposing and exposing its abuses means nothing if it must be uncontroversial and widely accepted. This is precisely why I write above that Madonna’s speech served the dominant narratives of power – it is both fed by and feeds ideas and causes which are acceptable to the American liberal ‘elite’. The idea that raising the cause of Manning would have been too ‘controversial’ is to argue that no-one should ever make a meaningful stand for justice. There is never a ‘time and a place’ for that – that’s kind of the point in calling such actions ‘brave’.