John Pilger’s columns have increasingly despaired at the narcissism of a particularly facile and pervasive brand of identity politics which is concerned only with the various ways in which we as individuals can claim to be oppressed. He touches on it in this piece (linked in the title) with the line observing that “”Identity” is all, mutating feminism and declaring class obsolete”, themes he has explored with regards to Julia Gillard’s idiotic adoption as a feminist heroine or the liberal obsession with gay marriage over basic human rights issues such as the treatment of Bradley Manning. This particular column from March, which I missed but has been brought to my attention by Organized Rage, nails this egotistical individualism and connects it to the “submissive void” spoken of by Leni Riefenstahl as being crucial for the success of propaganda. 

It’s a particularly timely read for me because of this section:

Hollywood has returned to its cold war role, led by liberals. Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning ‘Argo’ is the first feature film so integrated into the propaganda system that its subliminal warning of Iran’s “threat” is offered as Obama is preparing, yet again, to attack Iran. That Affleck’s “true story” of good-guys-vs-bad-Muslims is as much a fabrication as Obama’s justification for his war plans is lost in PR-managed plaudits. As the independent critic Andrew O’Hehir points out, ‘Argo’ is “a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.” That is, it debases the art of film-making to reflect an image of the power it serves.

This leapt out at me because last night I became aware of this:

It’s the latest part of a tie-in promotional campaign between Man of Steel and the American National Guard. Like me, chances are you’ve been completely unaware of this but this video quickly spread because the guy who plays Superman has his top off in it. No, I’m not joking. It’s kinda difficult to take issue with the ‘submissive void’ idea when people are so eager and willing to spread blatant propaganda because you can see some flesh in it. And what propaganda it is. The campaign’s website proudly boasts “National Guard and the MAN OF STEEL. Two American icons who put on the uniform when duty calls.” It links through to a page clearly aimed at encouraging people to sign up. The promotional videos were directed by Man of Steel director Zack Snyder, who apparently made them because the National Guard appear in the movie and he explicitly draws parallels between the “basic principles” and “patriotic spirit” of the NG and Superman. So far, so awe-inspiringly creepy. The National Guard have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan (making up 43% and 55% of the respective front-line forces, apparently) so we’re not talking saving kittens here. As with the wider military there are problems with suicide, sexual assault and much of its recruitment is drawn from “young people with limited economic and educational opportunities” (an issue Michael Moore looked at in Fahrenheit 9/11).

Clearly, the tie-in is an attempt to depoliticise and neuter the military. Further, it seeks to link the very notion of being ‘good’ to the military, just as it tries to link citizenship to it. It’s a common tactic, not least here in the UK where “our boys” are frequently and uncritically referred to as “heroes” and their partners reach number one in the charts. It’s depressing that a film which will be viewed by millions of kids is explicitly promoting militarism as a heroic path. It’s not exactly unexpected – the Dark Knight trilogy demonstrates hugely reactionary politics, for example, but the Man of Steel tie-in is so brazen that it is quite breathtaking. 

Make no mistake, though, that criticisms of this nature would be scoffed at by many who would claim “it’s only a film” or wonder why it shouldn’t promote “our boys”. This takes us back to the “submissive void” as the eagerness and/or ability of many to critically approach the world is sorely and pointedly lacking. Hence we end up with smug, superior atheism or self-congratulation that we’re not homophobes in place of actual thought. If the timing of the Pilger piece appearing on my feed seemed apt, this article from David Wearing which was published yesterday is serendipitous. Titled ‘Duty and the Conscientious Objector’, it’s a review of a book by Joe Glenton, a former soldier who faced jail rather than return to Afghanistan. His is a study of a kind of bravery which the makers of Man of Steel (and implicitly much of its audience) could never comprehend. A bravery which depended on the ability to think for oneself and, most importantly, understand that you have agency and what you do impacts on the world around you. A bravery which has been so clearly demonstrated by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. If we can’t be brave, we can at least attempt to be smart and think about the implications and meanings behind the culture we consume. In other words, be active and destroy the “submissive void”. A superhero film which actively serves power and seeks to encourage kids to put themselves at risk for unjust wars and imperialist flights of fancy is not entertainment, it’s propagandising garbage.

Man of Steel, the National Guard and the “submissive void”.

I’ve written about Chelsea Manning a couple of times, chiefly in relation to how writers and activists who obsess over any hint of slight against gay people take little-to-zero interest in her because her situation involves actual power and politics as opposed to narcissistic posturing. This week someone managed to sneak out an audio recording of Manning’s one-hour statement wherein she explains what she did and why. It should be listened to widely.

It should be listened to widely because it’s a compelling and surprisingly moving testament to real courage. Manning had nothing to gain from her actions and everything to lose yet, as she makes clear, she had learned of shocking things and “no one wanted to do anything about it”. So she wanted to alert the public to what was being done in their name and, hopefully, affect change:

In attempting to conduct counter-terrorism or CT and counter-insurgency COIN operations we became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and not being suspicious of and avoiding cooperation with our Host Nation partners, and ignoring the second and third order effects of accomplishing short-term goals and missions. I believe that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as [missed word] as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I also believed the detailed analysis of the data over a long period of time by different sectors of society might cause society to reevaluate the need or even the desire to even to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the effected environment everyday.

It should be listened to because this kind of bravery, motivated by a deep and engaged sense of social responsibility, should shame us in this individualistic culture where we all rush to shove our inconsequential opinions at each other and seem incapable of taking any time to reflect, to think, to examine what’s going on around us. Why think about how our ‘liberalism’ manifests itself, both in our daily lives and in government, when we can send out more pithy dismissals of religion or remind each other how superior we are to conservatives? A friend commented on Twitter yesterday that “the social justice challenge of (thinking about your own relationship to the world and others) is very upsetting to one’s sense of self when you’re faced with it”. Because how can you not find yourself wanting? How can you not feel inadequate and ashamed? Manning clearly struggled with these things herself and bravely made the leap. How many of us would have the courage and character to do even 1/100th of what she has done? Almost none of us will have jobs similar to hers but in our jobs and in our daily lives we will encounter things which we think are wrong. How we respond to them is everything. Manning’s own act has led to unquantifiable change, from exposing war crimes to igniting some of the sparks which led to the Arab Spring.

It should be listened to because it humanises Manning and should shame us that we have turned a blind eye to his persecution while sanctifying those responsible. Thinking about Manning and what her plight says about our societies is difficult and uncomfortable – there is little opportunity for self-aggrandisement there. Believing that President Obama is a left-wing archetype of liberalism, stymied by evil Republicans, requires zero reflection and allows us to continue the delusion that we are the ‘good guys’. And so a single photo of Obama pulling a face will be seen more widely than anything Manning has done (or that is being done to Manning).

I had a little disagreement last night with someone who advanced the usual line about Pope Ratzinger being a ‘former Nazi’ and saying that he should have allowed himself to be gassed rather than be complicit in Nazi Germany. That’s what they would have done, they said, sitting at a keyboard 70 years later. How brave we like to think we are; how exceptional and how good. Yet as the book ‘Alone in Berlin’ made me realise, our morality is not independent of the social circumstances around us and, more, it is not typically manifested in grand and obvious stands of good versus evil. Instead it is found in the tiny choices we make and actions we take in everyday life. That is how a creed like Nazism comes to dominate – by tiny degrees of ignorance, inaction and acquiescence. It’s how we allow workers in awful sweatshops to continue making most of our clothes or gadgets, why we countenance acts we normally like to think we’d loudly oppose if they come from quarters which we have vested our own identity in, why we equate being ‘good’ with being quiet and disengaged. Manning’s actions explode these myths wide open. She did a ‘good’ thing and is paying a terrible price for it; we do nothing and get drunk on our own righteousness.

I listened to Manning’s statement in bed last night and felt wretchedly ashamed. I do not have an ounce of her courage. We all owe her a debt of gratitude and she should be celebrated from the rooftops as a hero.

Help Spread Chelsea Manning’s Words Across the Internet

Free to be Human – the “descent into infantile triviality”

Today, possession by devils is indicated by our failure to adequately worship the God of consumption; by a weird tendency to ‘deep conversations’ and serious thought…the death of our own culture can currently be experienced as a descent into infantile triviality. – David Edwards

All that matters is that nothing is too serious, that one exchanges views and that one is ready to accept any opinion or conviction (if there is such a thing) as being as good as the other. On the market of opinions everybody is supposed to have a commodity of the same value, and it is indecent and not fair to doubt it. – Erich Fromm

These two quotes are taken from David Edwards’ book Free to be Human, a curious but provocative blend of Chomsky and Herman’s ‘propaganda model’, Fromm’s political psychology and Buddhism. It’s an odd read, encompassing (amongst much else) a political theory of the media, an attack on ‘New Atheism’ and a didactic bent which at times feels like self-help. If it sometimes feels like it’s stretching, however, there is much of value to be found within its arguments. As the quotes above indicate, one aspect which I found particularly interesting was the linking of the urge towards ‘triviality’ in our personal lives to the propaganda model. Something which seems absurdly self-evident now but an angle I hadn’t really previously considered. I have previously noticed, and written about, the “common fear of being serious and/or sincere” so the placing of this within a theoretical framework as serving capitalism grabbed me. Triviality is seen to allow us to rationalise our positions in the absurd society we live in by refusing to consider it too much – and certainly by refusing to challenge its dominant ideas and narratives. It serves to isolate those who do challenge it, heretics who are quickly painted as self-important cranks. Further, in its particular manifestation as a facetious fixation on popular culture it flows neatly into consumerism – rather than thinking about what it means to be ‘ourselves’, what it means to live, we instead express both our personalities and our relationships via popular culture and consumption. I was reminded of only a few weeks ago when I  found myself complaining that so many ‘friendships’ seemed to consist of an endless exchange of references to culture and things – catchphrases from reality tv shows, shared semi-ironic ‘love’ for retro pop music, links to internet memes and so on. I had found myself considering what many of us would talk about if we were dumped on a distant island, completely removed from popular culture; wondering who we would be. It ties in neatly with the Situationist idea that “in mass-production economies all that was directly experienced has been replaced with images of itself”  and that “all social relationships are conducted through the spectacle” – our very identities, never mind our lives, seem unfathomable outside the context of modern capitalism (a fundamental aspect of Capitalist Realism).

This idea clicked with recent readings and thoughts on social media and our expression of self through it. It takes the mediating role of the spectacle to some kind of logical extreme (perhaps not as extreme as we’d like to think), removing all but the most perfunctory illusion of human interaction and instead offering the “pure, dehumanizing objectification” where “the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual”. Those links we post on Facebook? That’s ‘us’. The likes, comments, RTs etc are what passes for relating to other people and in themselves are a kind of instant panopticon where we both seek instant approval and seek to avoid instant scorn. It’s the urge to and descent into triviality gone supernova.

While consideration of ‘serious’ issues is subservient to our own ego and, as a result, subject to an unconscious (sometimes not to unconscious) self-censorship – we don’t want to be that person – an ostentatious, facile display of concern can nonetheless be deployed to our own purpose. Something like the petitions regarding gay people in Nigeria offered this in spades – it was seen to be the opposite of ‘trivial’ and evidence of a more ‘serious’ personality but the engagement was so slight that it posed no danger of alienating anyone; furthermore, it both served and fed dominant narratives and so was a seriousness which only cemented a sense of belonging to a society which was fundamentally right. In the same way, being seen to care about issues like poverty, hunger and social justice serves us well but consideration of the systemic causes (and a surely reasonable assertion that we cannot even begin to tackle these issues through social media) is jarring – it brings bad feeling and detracts from the idea that more (if different) consumption is the answer. 

That bad feeling, that desire to protect our ego, is the fundamental reason why we are so terrified of being critical (in the analytical sense). As Fromm notes above, the ‘market of ideas’ prevents this being a problem. We just project, safe in the knowledge that no-one will think about what we say too seriously and that, if they do, the fault lies with them. We can dip our proverbial toes into ‘seriousness’ and not stir the murky waters beneath, wherein lies the unknown which might demand an exchange of ideas, could lead to our questioning of previously unassailable truths about society or even ourselves. Better to nod, to ‘like’ and in the process protect not only the ego of those around us but, fundamentally, our own.

These are truly fascinating and potentially profound considerations. They take something as ubiquitous and impulsive as the sharing of a cute cat video or the dominant tone of discussion with our friends and ask us to critically examine what they mean, where they come from and what they serve. I think any such examination is an inordinately useful one. Indeed, while it is wide-ranging, for those of us who spend a lot of time on social media it is an absolutely essential one.

An interesting (if not unproblematic) piece on Chelsea Manning and LGBT politics. Despite its clear American context the parallels with the UK are obvious – from an organisation like Stonewall to the aspirational content of our most prominent magazines, our representations of gay life are indeed stitched “ever more tightly against the fabric of late capitalism’s pirate sail.” It’s difficult not to be dismayed by how utterly facile in its expression most mainstream LGBT politics is, concerned solely with individual legal equalities in a neoliberal framework without any interrogation of that context. The use in this article of ‘Gay Inc’ is grotesquely apt, as the dominant ideological viewpoint found in mainstream LGBT politics encourages a tunnel vision which views LGBT individuals as one-dimensional beings affected only by issues of equal access to the privileges afforded to certain heterosexuals. So the politics of companies such as Barclays become solely concerned with their affinity with and treatment of their Western LGBT employees; the human rights records of leaders like Cameron and Obama become overwhelmingly dominated by their actions on LGBT rights. Further, these rights are solely the aforementioned ones regarding legal equalities – economic issues are almost entirely neglected and wider rights seen as unrelated to sexuality are ignored. I’ve previously voiced the question of how the response to the Guantanamo residents would differ had they been white gay men pleading homophobia – it seems to me that this would insert Guantanamo firmly into the tunnel vision of ‘Gay Inc’. Chelsea Manning is of course a perfect example of this, with her treatment (and actions) viewed as unrelated to her gender status and so as irrelevant to LGBT politics, which spent the previous year almost entirely ignoring her and instead fixating on the almost-entirely symbolic (and unthreatening to authority) question of gay marriage.

Of course such tunnel vision isn’t confined to LGBT politics and this is a great danger of the view that ‘all politics is identity politics’. Just as Cameron and Obama’s stances on gay marriage can be said to have obscured more meaningful (and harmful) examples of their use of power, we are seeing with increasing frequency the exploitation of ‘identity politics’ (e.g. LGBT and feminist politics) to obscure and divert in the service of authority. The justification of interventions in the Middle East in the name of ‘women’s liberation’ is an obvious example. Glenn Greenwald wrote this week about the Republicans’ use of homophobia to oppose Chuck Hagel. The abuses exposed by Wikileaks, meanwhile, ceased to exist for many as soon as Assange was accused of rape and became a feminist cause célèbre, despite these accusations having no bearing on the leaks themselves. In the rush to combat inequality and discrimination many are all too eager to reduce themselves to a cosmetic humanity capable only of outrage at slights against their particular identity and uncritical of all else. It is here that I take issue with the article’s talk of “Proletarian drag” and “history’s costume shop”, as positing political identity as a grab-bag of choices easily leads to its co-option and manipulation. Classical Marxism and ‘class vocabulary’ certainly have problems galore, but it’s disingenuous to pretend that they are anathema to LGBT and other issues of ‘identity’ and in fact I would argue that they provide a core critical grounding to political identity which is lacking in the postmodernist ‘all politics is identity politics’ view.  Such a critical grounding is undoubtedly completely lacking in much LGBT politics – as the article suggests, “the gay establishment is paid very well to underscore it every day” with their focus on ‘the gay angle’ and perceived slights overriding any rigorous and wide-reaching attempts at analysis. Indeed, it’s clearly possible to make quite a decent living from being a ‘useful idiot’ for your identity of choice and churning out columns on the homophobia/sexism etc of the day. It’s an approach which is as insulting and damaging as any bigot. We shouldn’t need Chelsea Manning’s status to be relevant before LGBT people take notice – rather anyone who is concerned with abuses of power, justice and human dignity should take heed and always strive to be sceptical of the authority which Manning bravely opposed.

Hegemony and Sodomist Strategy

AIDS ribbons and poppy-watching

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This image did the rounds on social media yesterday. At first I paid little attention to it but by the fourth or fifth posting I was curious as to what it was about. I read and re-read the two captions about the Work Programme, assuming that there was some glaring misrepresentation of the figures tailored to each leader. Unable to see any, I felt a little dumb. Then someone shared it explicitly pointing out what we were supposed to be looking at – the AIDS ribbons.

The ribbons are, of course, a way of both raising awareness and of remembering those affected. Reading some of the comments, however, it is pretty clear that the ribbon has become an expected accessory around this time of year – much like the poppy in late October/early November. I did buy a poppy this year but it fell off within ten minutes and (having made my donation) I didn’t feel the need to replace it. I understand that many have a problem with the poppy as a political symbol; I also understand that it simply doesn’t cross the mind of many to buy one. I have zero problem with these positions (and zero problem with the teenager who posted a burning poppy on his Facebook) – it’s what freedom of conscience and freedom of expression are about. Yet ‘poppy-watching’ has become a feature of the period, with twitter accounts and countless topics of forums devoted to discussing who is and (more frequently) who isn’t wearing one. Presumably the proponents of this believe that they are ensuring due respect is paid to those who ‘died that we might live’ – I think that while such respect is important in human terms, it shouldn’t be reified. It’s something we should personally reflect on – why did these people fight, why did they die, what was at stake? This reflection undoubtedly leads to innumerable different conclusions and many of them do not fit nicely with the mystification of the armed forces which is such a core tenet of poppy-watching. It’s easy to stick a poppy on because you’re supposed to; it’s far more difficult to separate respect for human life and human sacrifice from a sceptical approach to authority and war. For me, part of my respect for men like Harry Patch is to attempt in my own small way to understand the function played by the armed forces in modern society and to question (and oppose, if necessary) it. This includes opposing the uncritical, unengaged stance which the ‘respect’ is supposed to take for many. So while I understand and appreciate the importance of the poppy for many, I am wary of the symbol becoming the object of discussion rather than what it is supposed to symbolise.

Much the same can be said of the AIDS ribbon. In this image, the implicit (but barely so) assumption we’re supposed to make is that the evil coalition don’t care about AIDS while noble Labour does. I’m not even sure of the ‘rules’ around AIDS ribbons myself – I’ve not worn one so far this year and I’ve barely seen anyone else doing so. This hasn’t stopped the point-scoring. Yet I would wonder how many people sharing it pay any attention to Government policies and funding regarding HIV and AIDS, not only here but around the world (it’s the third-biggest killer in low-income countries but not in the top ten in the so-called ‘First World’). Tackling HIV/AIDS involves political choices regarding austerity, taxation, developmental aid, poverty, culture and more. None of these are things which can be summed up by whacking on a ribbon for a week each year.

Now, one very interesting aspect of this was that it was overwhelmingly gay men who seemed to be sharing the image. Some of the responses I saw believed Labour’s mass adoption of the ribbon to be a cynical response to the Government’s reported plans to rush through legislation on gay marriage. This is how quickly identity politics gets absolutely absurd. At PMQs yesterday they ‘discussed’ (in the facile, braying manner typical of PMQs) the flooding hitting the country, the Leveson enquiry, unemployment, welfare, the rail system, tax avoidance, the Middle East and the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. As a gay man, however, I’m reduced in the eyes of many to being impressed by the coalition’s policy on gay marriage but liking Labour’s red ribbons. All of the other stuff, much of which has a far more tangible impact on my daily life, is unworthy of comment. It’s supremely facile and patronising. It also fails to understand the global reality of HIV/AIDS today, which is that it is far from being a ‘gay disease’ and disproportionately affects women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of course the gay community has a unique, tragic history with HIV/AIDS but in viewing the red ribbon as an identification with ‘us’ we ultimately do the cause (and ourselves) a disservice. Indeed, many of the people sharing this image would undoubtedly be outraged if HIV/AIDS was referred to as a ‘gay disease’. Whatever the history, the disease is not ‘ours’ to be used as a weapon deployed to curry our favour. As a gay man in the UK you’re far more likely to die of circulatory disease, cancer and respiratory disease than of HIV/AIDS and just as the former three unite everyone to ‘stand up’ against them, we should hope for the same response to the latter, free of our own rush to offence.

We’ve come a long way when AIDS ribbons are seen as signifiers of being ‘good’ but what ultimately matters are actions and understanding. Going down the path of ‘ribbon-watching’ does nothing to help these things and if we find ourselves doing that we should pause and think about why. What does the ribbon mean to us? Why is it so important that we see people wearing it? What do we do in our own lives to further the aspects we value so much? This seems to me to be a far more thoughtful and respectful response to the symbol, which should never ever become the point of the discussion.

2011

I read ‘Anti-Gay’ in February this year. It was around the time Gaga released ‘Born this Way’ and the ‘gay community’ seemed to collectively suspend all critical faculties. Only a couple of weeks later, Johann Hari wrote his awful, racist lies about ‘Muslim homophobia’ in Tower Hamlets and the piece went viral, shared by countless educated people who should have known better. That piece and the reaction to it (from Hari, from his colleagues, from his readers) proved to be the catalyst for a serious appraisal of my own beliefs and approaches towards the media, identity politics and wider politics.

It took in ‘gay activists’ in Tower Hamlets, Caitlin Moran, Johann Hari, Patrick Strudwick and Sunny Hundal (repeatedly – exactly a year ago I actually followed Johann, Patrick and Sunny. I would sometimes engage in harmless banter with them. It was only when I criticised them that they turned (quite insanely) nasty and this response proved to be quite typical of their peers like Caitlin and Grace Dent. An honourable mention to Eva Wiseman, who somehow tracked down a criticism I made of one of her articles (I didn’t send it to her) and responded in very good humour) and the John Snow “kiss-ins”. The Hari scandal, by complete coincidence, unfolded only weeks after my own disillusionment with him and the response to that further informed my self-criticism. It led me to be depressed at the ironic cynicism which passes as ‘writing’ for so many prominent figures in the media (and the ironic responses they receive). 

The response by many of my peers to the London riots only added to the sense that I had been living in a cosy bubble for many years, not really questioning anything around me but instead being happy to have my opinions reflected back at me. My disgust with identity politics led to a re-focusing on class and in increasing disdain for the petty politics of Labour vs Tory (something which, again, I have been frequently guilty of). I have been bored to death by the tedious and irrelevant chattering about Ed Miliband being replaced by someone more presentable. It seems that ‘Labour’ or ‘Tory’ have in many quarters become just another form of ‘identity’, signifying something while meaning nothing. My thinking of late has been around trying to form a coherent narrative relating class to many of the above issues and why identity politics inevitably reaches a cul-de-sac that inevitably ends up serving the powerful and diverting from the real problems.

I’ve come in for a lot of flack while thinking through all this stuff. Of course I know that I can seem smug, vitriolic, aggressive in my writing but really I think many of the responses I have received are more to do with the things I’m questioning and how the person relates to them than with anything relating to me. I don’t claim to know any great ‘truth’ or to be ‘correct’ but I think it’s fair to say that my politics and my approach to politics has completely altered this year, more so than it has done probably since university over a decade ago. A decade seems like a long enough time to coast along without seriously having my beliefs challenged. That is the fundamental thing – whomever else has been a part of this, it’s my own thinking and beliefs that I have ultimately been criticising. I feel much better for it and feel excited about what 2012 will bring – in terms of what I will learn and also what I can do to help fight the battles I believe are important.

Edit- and in the spirit of continuing to learn, if anyone has any recommendations for future reading please comment below and let me know.

I’m Gay for the USA

We look forward to President Mubarak coming as soon as his schedule would permit. I had a wonderful time with him this morning. I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.”

“Our pressing on (human rights in China and Tibet) can’t interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.”

We do business with a lot of countries whose economic systems or political systems are not ones we would design or choose to live under. We encourage consistently, both publicly and privately, reform and the protection of human rights. But we don’t walk away from dealing with China because we think they have a deplorable human-rights record. We don’t walk away from Saudi Arabia.”

These are all statements made by Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State. I mention them now as the speech she gave to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday regarding gay rights has gone viral, with a gratitude bordering on the hysterical that she has deigned to say some nice things about gay people deserving human rights. Thanks Hil!

Now, I don’t wish to sound dismissive. I of course support human rights. If the initiative Clinton spoke of helped people around the world, it would be churlish to complain. I hope it does help people.

However (you knew there was a however), there are troubling aspects to this speech and the reaction to it. Firstly, there is the idea that America has any moral authority from which to lecture the world on human rights. Someone with even a cursory knowledge of America’s history of intervention in the post-war period would find this utterly perverse. America was a prime mover in the overthrow of the democratically-elected governments in Guatemala and Chile. In both cases the government was replaced by military juntas who had scant regard for ‘human rights’ and killed hundreds of thousands of their own citizens. The Nicaraguan Contras, actively supported and funded by America, were described as using violent human rights abuses as “their principal means of waging war”. America (and the UK) orchestrated the overthrow of the elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. He was replaced by the monarch who ruled as a dictator with America’s assistance until his overthrow in 1979 and replacement by Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran then became an ‘enemy’ of America, leading to US support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war (which there is evidence that America pushed for). It is surely well-known now that America trained and funded Osama Bin Laden during the Soviet-Afghanistan war. America engineered the 1949 coup against the elected government in Syria, the first military coup in its history and one which lead to decades of instability and brutal crackdowns on its citizens. As we can see from Clinton’s statements above, America is more than happy to conduct a relationship of equals with countries with awful human rights records when it suits – China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia. The American-led excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan spoke the language of liberation, holding human rights up as a totem, while killing thousands, engaging in torture and doing little to advance human rights on the ground.

America is not just a country that has engaged in ‘realpolitik’ with its interests in other countries, it has a dubious (to put it politely) record on human rights with its own citizens. The death penalty is still widespread while it locks up more of its citizens than any other country. Millions of its citizens remain without access to healthcare as a matter of course. It has some of the worst employment rights in the developed world. Amnesty International has frequently reported on police brutality in America and the refusal of its government to engage on this issue. American has consistently refused to ratify the International Criminal Court, set up to pursue crimes against humanity. Then there is the ‘War on Terror’ which has been used to suspend many basic rights and bypass international law, allowing detention without trial, torture,  prisoner abuse, rendition, extrajudicial killings and the grotesque, Kafkaesque spectacle of Guantanamo Bay. Even this year, the American Senate passed the National Defence Authorisation Act which places ‘domestic terror investigations’ in the hands of the military and paves the way for explicit, indefinite detention without trial for American citizens on American soil.

Then there is the issue it is now lecturing the world about – gay rights. The act of gay sex only became nationally legal in America in 2003! Laws covering discrimination based on sexuality are still piecemeal, varying from state to state, as are laws covering same-sex unions, family law and housing discrimination laws. It only became legal for gay people to openly serve in the military less than 3 months ago. Some states have brought in laws explicitly prohibiting gay marriage. President Obama himself has still not supported gay marriage. To be fair, Clinton acknowledges that America has some way to go – but isn’t putting your own house in order one of the basic requirements before you deign to lecture others on an issue?

I find it absurd that anyone could seriously believe a narrative that paints America as a tireless defender of human rights. Yet if you look at the detail of the initiative on gay rights, what does it actually add up to? Clinton says that America already uses its relationships with countries to ‘advance’ human rights. She also claims that they already use American aid to promote human rights. Now they are going to use this to promote gay rights (which are human rights but apparently not covered until now…still with me?) However, they are “not cutting or tying” aid to gay rights. This is a good thing but begs the question of what it all actually means in practice, especially given America’s history of tolerating extreme human rights abuses.  I acknowledge aforementioned ‘realpolitik’ restrictions but Clinton made clear in this speech that human rights transcend “personal, political, cultural and religious beliefs”. Presumably this means they should be foremost. Anyone with eyes can see that they are clearly not.

(There is a side issue which I won’t go into in too much detail here, but the imperialist subtext of this initiative is very clear and actually has the potential to make things more difficult for gay people around the world. It certainly makes it easier for tin-pot dictators to demonize gay people as a ‘Western phenomenon’ responsible for the ills of their particular societies – not least because it seems that if you are a rich/nuclear country, you can do what you want. Any engagement with human rights around the world surely has to be at the level of engaging with the people and bodies already working towards these aims there. Perhaps it will be, if and when more details are announced. A story that some representatives of Arab nations walked out of Clinton’s speech did the rounds last night – it has turned out to be false, but the narrative of ‘uncivilized nations vs America’ is clear.)

This smacks of positioning for an administration entering an election year, shoring up a liberal base that has been hugely disillusioned in recent years by making the right noises. I don’t mean to downplay the cultural importance of such a speech within America itself – I acknowledge and welcome this, but we shouldn’t rejoice at crumbs from the table. Which brings me to the other thing that troubles me about this speech – the reaction.

The big theme of the speech is that ‘human rights are gay rights are human rights’. Great – we can all get behind that. Yet it has gone viral in a way that no other speech or footage concerning human rights has done in recent memory. It is being shared by many, many people who seem completely allergic to politics and have absolutely nothing to say about human rights abuses – unless they involve gay people. The reaction seems to reinforce the idea that gay rights are seen as ‘above politics’ but the human rights of people at, for example, Guantanamo Bay or in Afghanistan are problematic and compromised by circumstance. If we are truly supporting the message, all human rights should be equal and should be fundamental. The politics of this speech lies in the knowledge that in making these noises about gay rights, all other human rights violations which the administration is involved in, even actively conducting itself, immediately become invisible to large swathes of the population. They become a ‘liberal’ government, regardless of the facts.

If we truly believe in human rights, then we do not elevate the rights of certain people as totemic of liberalness. It means we must support the human rights of ‘enemies’ in war. It means we support the human rights of rioters and criminals and Daily Mail columnists and homophobes and Muslims. I of course want to support governments that promote human rights but it is a messy business and actions speak infinitely louder than words. We must never allow rhetoric around gay rights to be allowed to obscure other human rights violations or render criticism mute.