LGBT Rights in Russia and our Western Fantasies


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.

The above is from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about the response to a speech Clinton gave which ‘promoted gay rights around the world’. The overwhelmingly positive reaction (and concomitant presentation of America as a champion of ‘human rights’) neatly illustrated some problematic aspects of ‘LGBT rights’, not least the tendency for them to be viewed as separate from (even superior to)general human rights. At times it can seem like liberal Westerners are like laser-guided drones, zooming around the world in order to pinpoint abuses (perceived or real) against LGBT people (and really we’re overwhelmingly talking about the ‘G’ here.) We get petitions about Uganda, inaccurately attributed photographs about Iran and demands to cut Western aid to ‘anti-gay’ countries and in each case the engagement never progresses beyond the facile. There are no efforts to understand the wider context, few efforts to engage with activists who actually live and operate in the countries in question and certainly no consideration of Western complicity and/or hypocrisy. The simple narrative goes “LGBT rights are being abused somewhere, as Westerners we can do something about it”. And that’s it. You don’t have to ponder this for long for the ‘white saviour’, imperialist and orientalist fantasies to make themselves obvious.

We’ve been seeing this again recently as the noise around Russia’s treatment of its gay citizens grows louder, culminating this week in a New York Times column from Harvey Fierstein and a Buzzfeed ‘article’. Seriously, when you’re sharing Buzzfeed pieces to highlight human rights abuses you should probably have the self-awareness to step back. Now, the situation in Russia is clearly worrying and shouldn’t be ignored. The introduction of such a law on a national level and a law effectively banning LGBT activism have drawn Western attention. However while this marks a deterioration in LGBT rights in Russia, the situation has been troubling for quite some time with various regions of Russia bringing in laws prohibiting ‘homosexual propaganda’ over the past decade.  More than that, the human rights situation in Russia has been dreadful for many years. Even if we only look at the past month or so, we see a law criminalising blasphemy, the murder of journalists, the persecution and imprisonment of political opponents to the regime, the harassment and murder of human rights activists and extradition and torture. Russia has not been a functioning democracy, or respected human rights, since well before Putin came along. Yet it’s the LGBT issues which are seized on and lead to demands to boycott the country and the Winter Olympics. As is almost always the case, these calls for boycotts don’t seem to have arisen after discussions with activists in Russia over how best to proceed but have rather been imposed on high by Westerners, many of whom have clearly never set foot in Russia.

There’s a lot to be untangled here. There’s the question of whether a country which had its own ‘homosexual propaganda’ law until fairly recently really has the moral authority to be lecturing another on its treatment of LGBT people, of course. There’s the small matter that LGBT people are far from equal and far from free of homophobia in most Western countries. Yet as the wonderful Scott Long notes in this great piece, attacks on LGBT people in Western democracies tend to be portrayed as aberrations rather than being evidence of the daily hell faced by all LGBT people. There’s also the detail that the West has played a massive role in establishing and/or supporting regimes with appalling records on LGBT rights. This obviously brings to mind both the legacy of colonialism and the many repressive regimes which have Britain and America’s sticky fingers all over them but there’s also soft power. For example the One Campaign, which Bono credits as saving 9 million lives in Africa, opened the door to American evangelicals whose influence permeates (for example) the homophobic actions of the Ugandan government.

Then there is the tension between LGBT rights and ‘human rights’ which I wrote about in the piece first linked to above. It’s with neat symmetry that the Youth Olympics are to be held in China next year, as the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008. The wider LGBT community never joined in calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics and there are pretty much no calls for a boycott of the Youth ones, yet China is one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. As Russia’s human rights record has only become of interest once it was seen to be targeting gay people, China’s perceived lack of laws targeting the same means their appalling human rights record is of little interest to people like Harvey Fierstein. Indeed, our own Olympics last year brought their fair share of authoritarianism and abuse, from ‘pre-arrests’ and forced evictions to exploitation of migrant workers and the prohibition of political protest. Yet speaking about these as a British person was seen as ‘grumbling’ and ‘negative’.

It’s this inability or flat-out refusal to look at our own human rights records first which most grates. Russia has human rights activists and they lead their fights, sometimes apparently with notable success. We should be so brave. Before being so eager to point out the problematic human rights of countries we perceive as lesser we should take a look at ourselves and our allies. It’s not without irony that Edward Snowden looks likely to be given at least a temporary Russian visa as he flees America’s persecution of whistle-blowers which is most notably represented by Bradley Manning (one of whose heroes is Harvey Milk). It is without irony that we condemn Russia for locking up Pussy Riot for ‘criticising the government’. The massive abuses of our national security agencies exposed by Snowden, both in America and here, have been met with nary a whimper by most people despite their enormous implications for our democracies.  We rightly applaud the bravery of Malala Yousafzai yet are utterly silent about the (at least) hundreds of children murdered by Western (mostly but not solely American) drone strikes. The American government has even assassinated its own citizens and it hasn’t inspired much of an outcry. We turn a blind eye to our government’s support for Israel and its brutal oppression of Palestine.  We shriek about the authoritarianism of Russia while the insanity of Guantanamo continues for yet another year and our own government destroys legal aid and sets up secret courts. Yet Fierstein declares that he has “a lot of faith in Obama”. Where is his concern for the human rights of those affected by his own government? From Trayvon Martin to Gareth Myatt, Jimmy Mubenga to Mark Duggan and beyond, our ‘liberal’ Western societies are riven with abuses. We wouldn’t expect activists in Russia to deal with any of these problems yet have no compunction about wading into their country without even speaking to them first. What these cases show is that ‘human rights’ are not experienced by all in the same way. They are always contested and always must be fought for and this requires that we pay some attention to our own societies first and foremost rather than indulging in liberal fantasies that we’re well-placed to start dotting around the world solving the problems which our governments and NGOs often have had a huge role in to begin with. 

08-08-2013: This blog was getting a lot of hits yesterday which I’ve no doubt was due to Stephen Fry’s ‘open letter’ about Russia going viral. Though undoubtedly well-intentioned it’s pretty much a perfect illustration of some of the issues I wrote about here. It’s almost entirely about him, for a start. He finds no space to quote or even refer to voices from within Russia, despite having visited there last year. He surely can’t be unaware, for example, that LGBT activists in Russia have actually spoken out against a boycott of the Sochi Olympics? If you’re directly contradicting the wishes of activists actually living in the country you profess to speak for, you better have a compelling reason. Fry doesn’t even begin to offer one.

Furthermore, he contrasts Russia with the ‘civilised world’ and ends with an obsequious tribute to David Cameron:

I especially appeal to you, Prime Minister, a man for whom I have the utmost respect. As the leader of a party I have for almost all of my life opposed and instinctively disliked, you showed a determined, passionate and clearly honest commitment to LGBT rights and helped push gay marriage through both houses of our parliament in the teeth of vehement opposition from so many of your own side. For that I will always admire you, whatever other differences may lie between us. In the end I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right. Please act on that instinct now.

“I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right”. Clearly this is not a man affected by the government’s ‘austerity’ programme and his words elide the many struggles occurring in the United Kingdom. Yet even looking beyond the myriad of injustices wrought by this government, we see that only this week Cameron entertained the King of Bahrain, a truly brutal dictatorship. A brutal dictatorship which is sold arms by the United Kingdom. Funnily enough, we also sell arms to Russia. “The civilised world”. The situation in Yemen is similarly sold to us as a battle between “the civilised world” and the barbarians – a narrative which obscures the complex and morally abhorrent truth.

Fry’s words further cement the myth that the people of Russia are voiceless, less-than-human and need saving by the eloquent, ‘civilised’ West. They act as propaganda for Cameron and the West and insult the many activists here who are fighting their own struggles against the government. And all for an action which there seems to be little call for from within Russia, and which the only Russian LGBT activists whose words we can find oppose. Western fantasies, indeed.


I have to say that the drone strikes and the targeted killing program have made my passion and mission in support of America almost impossible in Yemen. In some areas of Yemen, the anger against America that results from the strikes makes it dangerous for me to even acknowledge having visited America, much less testify how much my life changed thanks to the State Department scholarships. It’s sometimes too dangerous to even admit that I have American friends. Late last year, I was with an American colleague from an international media outlet on a tour of Abyan. Suddenly, locals started to become paranoid. They were moving erratically and frantically pointing toward the sky. Based on their past experiences with drone strikes, they told us that the thing hovering above us – out of sight and making a strange humming noise – was an American drone. My heart sank. I was helpless. It was the first time that I had earnestly feared for my life, or for an American friend’s life in Yemen. I was standing there at the mercy of a drone. I also couldn’t help but think that the operator of this drone just might be my American friend with whom I had the warmest and deepest friendship in America. My mind was racing and my heart was torn. I was torn between the great country that I know and love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some AQAP militant. It was one of the most divisive and difficult feelings I have ever encountered. That feeling, multiplied by the highest number mathematicians have, gripped me when my village was droned just days ago. It is the worst feeling I have ever had. I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower militants. Even worse, I know it  will make people like Al-Radmi look like a hero, while I look like someone who has betrayed his country by supporting America.

Testimony from Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee: Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on April 23rd 2013. The subject was the ‘Drone Wars’ and al-Muslimi spoke about how the drones were radicalising many in Yemen; as he put it, “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.” His words are an important counterpoint to what we are and will read in the media regarding what’s happening in Yemen right now. Drone strikes are only against “alleged al-Qaida members”. The Guardian reports that AQAP is the regular target of drone strikes”. You will read little about how it’s been reported by prominent officials that all military-aged males are automatically classed as combatants (a claim which sparked such outrage that the administration has since back-tracked without ever properly addressing it) or that attacks are often made on the basis of circumstantial evidence with little real knowledge about who is being targeted. You won’t read much about the children killed by drone strikes or about the American citizens assassinated by drones.

No, instead you will read reams about Al-Qaida in Yemen and the atrocities they commit.

Edward Snowden and personal responsibility

Questions of personal morality and responsibility have loomed large in my writing over the past couple of years. This largely came about because circumstances conspired to puncture my previously binary (and naïve) notion that the world was divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people; instead, I realised, almost everyone believes themselves to be ‘good’ and casts others as the ‘bad’. We rationalise and excuse our actions while being swift to judgement when we believe that others have fallen short. We flatter ourselves that we wouldn’t do ‘bad’ things without stopping to ask ourselves not only what drives people to ‘evil’ but even what the term actually means. Both the book Alone in Berlin and the film Good rested on the truth that morality is not the obvious and grand battle which it is commonly presented as but rather a question of quotidian decisions, actions and words. Few of us are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in any sense other than how we exist on a daily basis. Doing good, of course, seems to easier than ever – signing e-petitions, attending marches, making the right noises about poverty and hunger. We think of badness as the converse of this – actively doing unpleasant things on a personal level – but for the most part it’s really not this. It’s instead taking the path of least resistance. Avoiding the awkward confrontations, discussions and perceptions of being ‘too difficult/serious/self-righteous’ which inevitably follow when morality is raised. If conversations stray into territories where people start to espouse views which are sexist or racist or otherwise offensive and/or ignorant, the common response is to regret that we ever allowed the chat to go there rather than to seriously discuss/challenge. After the attacks in Woolwich led to an outpouring of idiocy on social media, for example, many people were broadcasting that they had deleted offenders from their Facebooks etc. An understandable response but one that doesn’t really begin to challenge the attitudes on display (even more difficult of course is to consider your own response and where it comes from).

Keeping quiet when something you disagree with happens at work is another example, telling yourself that you’re only paying the bills or whichever other rationale that allows you to function. It’s only recently that I’ve come to realise that this is almost certainly the mind set of people who do what seem to be unequivocally ‘bad’ jobs such as those who work in the arms trade – they’re making a living, doing a job, hell – maybe even doing a good thing. In big financial organisations involved in activities ranging from tax avoidance to money-laundering to third world exploitation, employees are encouraged to view their activities as morally neutral and instead ‘do good’ through Corporate Social Responsibility programmes which toss a desultory amount at charities and such. Questioning the ‘social responsibility’ of the actual work is beyond the pale. Even in ostensibly ‘good’ organisations like charities and NGOs we unquestioningly (and often ostentatiously) assume that we are doing great things and fixate on the social capital generated for us rather than thinking about what we’re actually achieving. We aren’t confronted by the effects in any real sense and so it’s easy to push them out of mind.

 Perhaps this is why so many people do all they can to avoid thinking about the world in any meaningful sense, instead focussing on popular culture and the immediate social circle. Once you start to think of the world not as something out there but as something which you are a part of and have some power over, it’s difficult not to start thinking about these issues of morality and responsibility – and inevitably find ourselves wanting. That’s a continuing process rather than the end of the world but it can seem so terrifying that we run away from that power for our entire lives. Who knows what the colleagues of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have told themselves – undoubtedly some of the same rhetoric which we’ve heard wheeled out in opposition to them since they took their actions, contrasting their own ‘mature’ silence and complicity with the crazed, irresponsible, dangerous actions of the whistle-blowers. Rationalise, rationalise, don’t rock the boat and be a ‘good person’. In broader terms the urge is to look away. Why think about what is happening to people exposing our government’s wrong-doings when we can talk about Mad Men or Game of Thrones or chastise Chris Brown or squee because Hillary Clinton, one of the most powerful members of the government which is persecuting Manning and was exposed by Snowden, has joined Twitter with a ‘sassy’ bio? There’s little we can do about this stuff, after all – it’s out there rather than being a part of our daily lives. Thus divested of our moral responsibility we sign another petition and congratulate ourselves on not being one of the bad people – the homophobic, religion, ranting people, the ones who kill people, the ones who have power. They are over there and we are here and as long as we can stay as untainted as possible, we’re pretty good people. As I’ve written before, one of the most powerful aspects of Manning’s (and now Snowden’s) actions is that it shames those of us who think of ourselves as good while indulging in equivocation after equivocation. They highlight the Fisher Price morality of the ‘goodies’ who applaud Hillary and Obama internet memes while taking little interest in what they actually do or, worse, slavishly adapting their principles to suit. This illuminating poll reveals that many Democrats who previously thought that NSA surveillance was unacceptable (implicitly because it was associated with Republicans) support it now that their own ‘team’ has been caught up in it. In Britain, meanwhile, so-called ‘libertarians’ who attacked Labour with righteous fury for their ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear’ rhetoric declared themselves at ease with the Tories’ deployment of the exact same line.

This is where the divestment of moral responsibility gets you. You become an amorphous cloud, adjusting to whatever position best enables you to keep believing that you’re ‘a good person’ while avoiding facing the uncomfortable and unpleasant truths which our own power in the world confronts us with. Manning and Snowden, in taking decisive action which put themselves at risk, blow this wide open and confront us with our own agency in the world. An agency which most of us suppress each and every day. There have been many on social media asking that we stand with Snowden just as we should stand with Manning. Looking at our own lives, our own agency, seems just one of the apt ways in which we can do this.

Obama’s speech and the ‘cynics’.

Truth be told, I had allowed myself to forget about Obama-mania, particularly its bizarre British liberal expression, in the months since the Presidential election. I didn’t even realise that Obama was being inaugurated yesterday until mid-afternoon (the predicament of a broken boiler meant I had more immediate concerns). Once I did notice, however, the radiant worship of the Dear Leader quickly became unavoidable – particularly when he mentioned gay people, possibly the bravest and most inspirational thing anyone has ever done in the history of mankind.

The liberal response was hysterical in every sense of the word. It was also broadly uniform – today I’ve seen several analyses of Obama’s speech which contrasted it with his supposedly inferior 2009 speech, despite the fact that the same people and publications making this observation pretty much lost their heads over that previous address at the time. Still, how could anyone fail to think it was disappointing now? Back then Obama said:

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

It’s a paragraph which could be repeated almost word-for-word today. Arguably, some of these problems have even gotten worse under Obama – unemployment rose before settling back at the rate he inherited, both inequality and poverty are at record levels and the President has ramped up militarism, illegality and authoritarianism to a levels that would make Bush blush. Throw in retrospectively perverse lines such as “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” and sure, that speech seems a bit…wanting.

THIS speech though. This one is DIFFERENT. That’s what we’ve been told for the past 24 hours and it’s that I want to focus on rather than Obama’s record. Because just as liberal hysteria over Obama may be predictable, as night follows day it is succeeded by fury at anyone left-wing (I’m sure even David Cameron classes himself as ‘progressive’ these days, it’s a useless term) criticising the President. This piece is exemplary in that regard. These people, they tell themselves, are reasonable, mature, serious. They understand how the world works. They engage in realpolitik. The detractors? They are juvenile and hateful. Fantasists more concerned with their own ideological purity than with the messy and compromised world of politics. Just look at how the piece sets the critics up in the first paragraph – they are little more than contrarians, internet trolls interrupting the sincere discourse of the adults. Obama is doing his best, we are told, in a dysfunctional and right-leaning U.S. system. He is “practically a subversive”, in fact!

Now, we have here the often-pushed idea that Obama is a left-wing dream stymied by Republicans/the system – an idea which some on the American left have went to pains to deconstruct and destroy. Notice that I referred to the American left – because it clearly, demonstrably exists in a significant form, from Occupy and politicians to newspapers, magazines, websites and even prominent television series. There are many voices within America demanding that Obama return to his original promise, voices who do not accept that his actions over the past four years represent the best possible world for the American left. Indeed, many of the shrieking responses to his speech yesterday seemed to acknowledge this, hoping against hope that he was finally going to be the President the writers had clearly hoped he would be and actually do daring and transformational things rather than release meme-ready photographs and say things which sounded vaguely good.

Why do they hope this? Because they have values, principles and beliefs which they hope to see advanced by whatever means possible. Obama is one of those means – an enormous one, sure, but not the only game in town. Why, then, do so many in their praise of Obama demand that others compromise their own beliefs before we’re even out of the gate?! What is gained by taking as your starting point excuses for Obama’s disappointments? We owe nothing to our politicians – instead we have a duty to our society and to ourselves. If there are no voices of dissent against Obama, no discussions of the equality and justice which the left-wing so prizes – whether they be grumblings on Twitter or internationally-renowned writers and directors – then where does the pressure on him to actually do some of the things the left-wing want him to do come from, especially after he has betrayed their trust so much already? We should not be grateful to politicians for doing the things they said they would do; we should not support them in their betrayals by shrugging and saying ‘oh well, that’s real life for you’. Especially before the betrayals have even come.

Ironically, the idea that Obama is held back by the Republicans depends on a reading of the American right-wing akin to that which these Obama supporters ascribe to left-wing critics – that they obsess over their ideals and self-interest, that they do not rush to compromise. We’re encouraged to scorn those nasty, evil Republicans fighting viciously for…the things they believe in (I’m not saying this reading is particularly correct, but it’s one that Obama supporters constantly push). Having strong core principles is seen as a bad thing which people should grow out of.

Two thoughts arise from this. The first is that many of the actions which these Obama supporters label people as ‘cynics’ for raising are ones which they would shout about endlessly from the hills if they were taken by a Republican President – of this I have absolutely no doubt. In the face of a recognisable enemy they would swiftly regain many of the ideals they currently scorn. The second is that the approach taken in pieces like the New Statesman is one which strips the ideology out of politics and treats real policies, with sometimes horrific consequences, as little more than entries in a ‘pro’ and ‘con’ score sheet which the writers can use to write finger-wagging columns and send snide tweets. The NS piece generously concedes that Obama’s “terrible record in the Middle East, environmental issues, the use of drones” are all “valid  criticisms” before swiftly returning to the fact that he gave a nice speech. Because ‘words matter’, you see? The countless, very real, victims of Obama’s ‘kill list’, drone strikes and militarism don’t really get that he kinda lets ‘progressives’ down when he’s killing them, but they should quit whining and realise that by mentioning gay people in a speech he may “make it a tiny fraction more difficult to bully the gay or brown kid” (the latter assertion in particular quite bizarre given Obama’s treatment of Muslims).

There is simply zero moral equivalence here. A nice speech doesn’t even begin to approach the consequences of his actions (military, economic etc) – consequences which no-one who identifies as ‘left-wing’ could possibly support. Saying this and voicing dismay at the President responsible, whomever they may be, is not contrary or juvenile. Because words do matter. They matter as an expression of anger, of thwarted hope, of ideals endlessly fought for. They matter as challenges to what we believe in and why. They matter as causes for self-reflection and for inspiration. Ultimately for those of us in the UK, it’s all just words when it comes to Obama – there is no inherent superiority in praising a politician than in criticising one. The issue, then, is that these columnists wish to decide which words matter. In the world I believe most left-wing people would aspire to, the thoughtful words and the deliberate actions of a public servant should be no more beyond criticism than the words and actions of anyone. If anything, they should be scrutinised with far more aggressive vigour.

Power must always be questioned

God knows the last few weeks (and undoubtedly the last few days) have confirmed how irritating British people lecturing the Americans on how to vote are, so forgive me if this is in any way part of that. However it’s largely these responses to the election which I want to make a few brief comments about.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Seumas Milne speaking about his new book (which I heartily recommend) at the new left-wing café, Firebox. During the subsequent q & a session he was asked about the American election and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he said that he would rather Obama won. What was slightly surprising was that he couldn’t understand the hesitance of those on the American left to support Obama, stating that it was their responsibility to exert pressure on him to be ‘better’. This makes sense yet it’s difficult for me to see where this pressure could possibly come from. Perhaps there is the possibility of choosing a more left-wing candidate at the primaries stage but overwhelmingly the US Presidential race is a zero-sum game: if you walk away from the Democrat candidate, a Republican wins. In this regard the Democrats need only hope for a caricatured rabid Republican to run against and they can surely count on most people of a left-wing bent supporting them, even if holding their nose as they do so (as an aside, I read a very interesting piece on this yesterday suggesting that American socialists should abandon the Presidential race altogether and focus on localism)

I can certainly relate to this, having voted Labour for the first time in 2010 not because I particularly supported Brown but rather because I opposed the Tories. For all the faults in the British system, however, it’s undoubtedly easier (even if marginally so) to exert pressure on the main parties, not least by taking your support elsewhere. In America third (and fourth, and fifth) parties are essentially shut out of the system in a codified manner. It’s no wonder, then, that politics there seems ever more divided and calcified – it’s patently absurd for the hopes, beliefs and ideals of 300 million people to find their expression in two candidates. The hopelessness of this seems ever clearer as the ‘financial crisis’ trundles on, groups like Occupy and the Tea Party speak to hearts and minds and the Presidential candidates continue to tinker at the edges of a discredited system.

Whomever becomes President is set to do so with a popular support of less than 30% of the American electorate. Yet you wouldn’t think this was the case listening to many on the British left for whom supporting Obama is an almost evangelical cause. The drumbeat of ‘Obama good, Romney evil’ has increased to almost hysterical proportions in recent weeks. What I find fascinating about it is that I’ve seen few cases where the support (it’s too kind to call it an analysis) goes beyond this. The most vocal of Obama’s British supporters in my experience tend to be the ones who feel least compelled to explain why they support him. It’s just self-evident to them that he deserves their support. The question of them supporting someone who is arguably to the right of David Cameron is not raised. The problem of them supporting someone who has not only continued many of Bush’s worst policies with regards to national security, civil liberties and foreign policy but has in some ways worsened them doesn’t raise itself.  The fundamental issue that scores of millions will stay away from the ballot box does not arise. Most startlingly of all, the agency of the American electorate itself ceases to exist – unless they support Obama.

Again and again, supporters of Romney are portrayed as idiotic, bigoted lunatics. Yet despite the implicit idea of Obama voters as educated and progressive, it often seems that all they are doing to warrant support is agreeing with the speaker. It certainly seems the case that many British folk who repeatedly broadcast their support for Obama couldn’t actually articulate even a handful of meaningful reasons for supporting him. You would almost certainly hear about his support for gay marriage (which I’ve written about previously), perhaps his ‘prevention of a Great Depression’. It probably wouldn’t be long before you got onto foreign policy and predictions of apocalypse if Romney won. This underlines the problem – Romney certainly may have tried to sound more hawkish than Obama, but anyone who thinks that (for example) war with Iran is a unique possibility with Romney simply hasn’t been paying attention.

This projection of everything that is seen as ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’ onto Romney, while not unjustified in many ways, is instructive of the approach here. None of this shit must stick on Obama and, as a result, meaningful criticism of and opposition to his worst activities is a non-starter. It’s that old thing of politics-as-identity, with the political parties largely stripped of ideology and instead being akin to football teams: Labour and Obama good, Tories and Romney bad. God knows I understand how easy and tempting it is to fall into this and I still do it myself sometimes, but it’s utterly meaningless and is more about personal ego than a sincerely held worldview.  I remember an interview with Marilyn Manson where he eloquently spoke about how he almost preferred Republican Presidents as it was only then that people on the left got really angry and motivated. Glenn Greenwald, formerly of Salon and now The Guardian, has been very good at documenting how supine much of the American left has been in its support of Obama. It’s certainly difficult to believe that things like the NDAA, drone wars, Bradley Manning and the ‘kill list’ wouldn’t have become totemic evils under a Bush (or Romney) administration (notably there are Republicans who are far to the left of Obama on these issues.) As it took Nixon to go to China and Blair to bring in tuition fees, it’s taken Obama to normalise extra-judicial assassination. Under Obama, however, these concerns become largely the preserve of apocryphal ‘trots’ who are ruining it for everybody else. For this reason it’s almost impossible to envisage where the pressure which Milne speaks of could come from. It’s also for this reason that I don’t really buy the apocalyptic pronunciations on a Romney victory from people who will wail loudly and then forget about it once the attention moves elsewhere. While most on the left would see an Obama victory as the ‘least bad’ option, the placing of a panto villain in the White House has some crumbs of positivity in that the football team progressives would unite against activities they currently have no interest in.

The point here is not to argue the toss between Obama and Romney, especially given that this is a pretty one-sided argument already. Instead I would argue that whomever is in power, whichever party they come from: power must always be questioned and must always be justified. There should be no free passes because we think someone is a ‘goodie’ or because they are ‘less bad’ and this is the great danger when we reduce political support to being part of a team, sure of our rightness and certain of our enemy.

Santorum and Romney

I’ve posted this three times now and today underlined why. There have been a slew of blogs, tweets and articles from ‘the left’ today about Romney and Santorum. There has been particular emphasis on the latter’s social views. It continues to unfold exactly as described in the article:

The worst attributes of our political culture — obsession with trivialities, the dominance of horserace “reporting,” and mindless partisan loyalties — become more pronounced than ever. Meanwhile, the actually consequential acts of the U.S. Government and the permanent power factions that control it — covert endless wars, consolidation of unchecked power, the rapid growth of the Surveillance State and the secrecy regime, massive inequalities in the legal system, continuous transfers of wealth from the disappearing middle class to large corporate conglomerates — drone on with even less attention paid than usual.

Because most of those policies are fully bipartisan in nature, the election season — in which only issues that bestow partisan advantage receive attention — places them even further outside the realm of mainstream debate and scrutiny. For that reason, America’s elections ironically serve to obsfuscate political reality even more than it usually is.

The views of candidates like Romney and Santorum on issues like abortion and gay marriage may be repugnant, but their importance is hysterically overblown because they are amongst the only issues of substance where liberals can put clear water between ‘their’ man Obama and the Republicans (and vice versa). You need look no further than the fact that Obama has yet to endorse gay marriage himself for an example of the politics of convenience at work here. There have been grumblings about this but no firestorm of condemnation such as that which has greeted every dodgy uttering from a Republican candidate.

Of course it would be preferable to have a socially liberal President. But what does that mean? As the article notes, in their haste to hate all things Republican many liberals find themselves supporting a candidate advocating many things they have previously found repugnant:

Whatever else one wants to say, it is indisputably true that Ron Paul is the only political figure with any sort of a national platform — certainly the only major presidential candidate in either party — who advocates policy views on issues that liberals and progressives have long flamboyantly claimed are both compelling and crucial. The converse is equally true: the candidate supported by liberals and progressives and for whom most will vote — Barack Obama — advocates views on these issues (indeed, has taken action on these issues) that liberals and progressives have long claimed to find repellent, even evil.

The article lists at length many actions of the Obama administration to illustrate this fact (seriously – read it) before noting:

Progressives like to think of themselves as the faction that stands for peace, opposes wars, believes in due process and civil liberties, distrusts the military-industrial complex, supports candidates who are devoted to individual rights, transparency and economic equality. All of these facts — like the history laid out by Stoller in that essay — negate that desired self-perception.

It then notes that on pretty much all of the issues listed, the candidate Ron Paul has been on the side previously claimed by the ‘progressives’:

His nomination would mean that it is the Republicancandidate — not the Democrat — who would be the anti-war, pro-due-process, pro-transparency, anti-Fed, anti-Wall-Street-bailout, anti-Drug-War advocate

In the demonisation of all things Republican, this view is pretty much nowhere to be found. Liberals across the globe fawned at the feet of Obama’s administration when Clinton delivered her trite ‘gay rights’ speech. They have had almost nothing to say about the administration’s passing of the NDAA. Greenwald notes that an honest support for Obama is perfectly possible if a progressive argues that they value certain liberal values over others. What he only touches on very briefly is that it is almost always liberal values surrounding reproductive rights and homosexuality which trump everything else. This is in itself problematic as it implies that none of these other issues affect these totemic values. This is an even greater problem when the focus is so frequently on the personal utterings of the candidates rather than what they actually do and, more so, what the consequences of their actions are. It can clearly be argued that much of the activity of the Obama administration has impinged on the rights of women and gay people both in America and around the world but this involves an analysis which looks beyond rhetoric; an analysis which more and more people seem less and less willing to engage in.

Who could blame them? Once you’re faced with the fact that ‘your guy’ is in many ways just as ‘bad’ or even worse than ‘their guy’, where do you go? Especially in American politics where the two-party system shows no signs of faltering. However this ‘all or nothing’ approach where you fully support one guy because at least he’s not the other guy just leads to a never-ending cycle of this. There need to be strong voices on the left holding Obama to account. We need to be just as appalled by his misdeeds as we would be by a Republican’s and start to approach politics in a manner which treats it as more than a football game. More than anything (and this applies here just as in America) we need to start to question a system which allows such meaningless and juvenile point-scoring to pass for political discourse. As individuals we don’t lose anything by holding every candidate to the same standard, demanding more from our politicians and our political system and striving for more. This isn’t to say that any candidate is going to be perfect but once you begin to ask why the ‘left’ is so mired in activities which you find repugnant then you open the door to a potentially revolutionary personal political journey. Despite what we are encouraged to believe, there is nothing inevitable about the way things are. Be realistic. Demand the impossible.

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.