Some Quick Thoughts on Channel 4’s Hunted

I tried not to pre-judge Hunted, an edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches about homophobia in Russia, broadcast tonight. I really did. Yet having just watched it I have to attempt to articulate the despair it induced in me.

The issue of homophobia in Russia has captured a massive international audience in the past year, in no small part due to the interventions of celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Harvey Fierstein. As stories of the hardships faced by Russia’s LGBT (but really mainly gay male) community have dramatically increased there have been concomitant protests in countless Western cities, boycotts of Russian vodka, a near-endless litany of e-petitions and a growing industry in ‘concern porn’ where any individual or company speaking about the issue is seemingly guaranteed a disproportionate amount of attention, no matter how irrelevant their intervention. I wrote previously about a lot of my problems with the growing hysteria, which seemed largely ill-informed and enormously hypocritical. I think it’s safe to say that the situation hasn’t improved – in fact, as Sochi has neared, the hysteria has grown. We need only look to yesterday to see examples of the self-serving drivel being pushed out in the name of the gays of Russia (it’s notable that the Brewdog ‘promotion’ continues with the itself-weirdly-homophobic ‘making fun of Putin’s masculinity and implying he’s a closet case’ tack taken by many already.)

Nonetheless, there is clearly a very real issue here and it’s entirely right that it be looked at. It’s also entirely right that we in the West help if we can. So when I learned that Channel 4’s respected documentary series Dispatches was covering the issue, I was quietly hopeful that it would do so in a constructive way. This hope largely faded when I learned that the episode was called Hunted, a provocatively emotive title which feeds into the frenzy that shows no sign of abating. Nonetheless, I wanted to give it a chance.

I wasn’t just disappointed, I was crushed. Dispatches had an hour to explore this issue and they used it largely to show various examples of gay people being beaten, harrassed, abused and denigrated. It was shocking and undeniably ‘powerful’ – absolutely no-one deserves to be treated in these ways. Yet what was the point? We’ve been told that these things are happening over and over again by the media. Showing the attacks certainly made them viscerally real but there was an added, horrible sense that we were voyeurs contributing to the humiliation of the victims. Were all of these individuals approached afterwards to give proper, reasoned consent to having their brutalisation shown on UK television?! Did the film-makers have any contact with them whatsoever beyond the actual incidents? After perhaps the most shocking and upsetting footage, where a man is lured to a flat by a gang and then attacked by them, we are told in voice-over that the film-makers followed the victim as he left to offer support. We learn nothing more. The victims on the whole remained just that – faceless victims without identity serving only to shock a UK audience.

As voyeurs watching acts of brutality we instinctively feel angry and want to help. Yet we also feel powerless. This is where the emotive rush to ‘do something, anything’ so easily enters and where the documentary could have made a real difference. Instead, it played to what the audience already ‘knew’ – it added almost nothing. It seemed to me, for example, that for the most part the documentary was actually about the rise of vigilantism in Putin’s Russia rather than the rise of homophobia. You wouldn’t know this because it made absolutely zero effort to contextualise the vigilante groups it kept showing, interviewing and even infiltrating. There was not a single mention of the fact that Russian vigilantism has been a major problem for immigrants and ethnic minorities as well as ‘social deviant’ groups such as drug users. It’s really not difficult to find journalism which gives this very important context. Scott Long’s blog post here is particularly good on it and you’ll learn more about the problem in reading it than from the hour spent with Hunted. The first few paragraph’s of Scott’s post are particularly relevant here. Note, for example:

Clips and snapshots keep cropping up on Western blogs. Here’sa  ”horrific video showing Russian thugs have started entrapping gay men and boys,” posted by John Aravosis, with 85,000 hits on YouTube. Yet how can you evaluate it if nobody bothers to say where the hell they got it?  Nor do most of the reposters have any qualms about showing the full faces of the people in these videos and photos: apparently once they’ve been outed and humiliated in Russia, they’re fair game in the rest of the world. (“While I am loathe to expose this young man any further, but [sic] this must be shown,” Melanie Nathan blogs while hawking one video. No, it mustn’t.) There’s a panicked compulsion to give us more and more pictures to consume, partly because they drive up Web traffic, partly because they lend an urgency that makes mere explanations seem distracting. But you can’t make sense of it unless you can say, not just see, something about what’s going on.

That could easily have been written about Hunted, which arouses an urge for quick action but tells you absolutely nothing about why any of this is going on. We kept being told than homophobia was on the rise in Russia but it was presented as some mass sociopathic tendency rather than something intricately connected to the rise in racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, attacks on the reproductive autonomy of women or the general human rights situation in the country. We were given a very brief interview with a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and told nothing about how or why they are such a major force in modern Russia. Perhaps most egregiously, the sole attempt to explore how homophobia may be a political tool for Putin (rather than some bizarre fixation) came in a couple of sentences from a Russian activist stating that his domestic policies were a disaster and he needed a smokescreen. This seems like a quite fundamental assertion to explore in an hour-long documentary about homophobia in Russia but it was left at that. If the documentary had looked at this more thoroughly, it would certainly have encountered the strong body of opinion that Putin is not only shoring up his conservative base with the homophobia, but also drawing on strong anti-Western sentiment. This joins some crucial dots when it comes to other big issues, as seen in this Al Jazeera piece:

This economic “stimulus” by Putin may jumpstart his flagging economy that was robust at the height of his popularity in 2000. He enjoyed a popularity built on oil and gas profits that have since dried up. No longer a media star, he has lost support and now tries to find it in his right wing flank with an official homophobic nationalism. This positions him against the West with its so-called excessive rights for gays and abortion. A new anti-Americanism thrives cloaked in a mix of homophobic nationalism and asylum for Edward Snowden.

It’s not difficult to see how Putin’s opposition to Western ‘intervention’ in Syria fits into this. It’s also impossible not to see how the ostentatious Western boycotts and clicktivism could fit right into Putin’s narrative and actually bolster his position.

Hunted had no interest in such analysis, instead viewing everything through the prism of an all-pervasive homophobia. The police hassling a couple of protesters was portrayed as being because they were gay, while the troubles faced by an anti-Putin schoolteacher were seen to be because she supported gay rights. No doubt homophobia played a role in both but it seems somewhat disingenuous not to note that brutal crackdowns on all dissent is a hallmark of Putin’s Russia. Indeed, without wishing for a second to downplay the horrors shown on screen in Hunted, the film’s determination to push its message meant that life for gay people was shown to be unremittingly grim and desperate. It’s fair to say that there are far more positive presentations of Russian gay life out there (and even the documentary’s repeated assertions that the state did nothing about anti-gay violence doesn’t bear scrutiny, with one of the main ringleaders of the vigilante groups facing extradition after fleeing the country).

In short, it seems to me that the film will do more harm than good. It had an opportunity to inform, to educate, to provide not only valuable but essential context to what’s happening in Russia. Instead it affirmed every nightmarish vision of a crazed, pariah country which needs to be saved from itself (rather than a country which our own leaders are all too happy to sell arms todo business with and buy fuel from).It continued to present homophobia as an issue separate from wider human rights, the kind of attitude which has seen ‘activists’ suddenly noticing that, hey, those evil conglomerates McDonald’s and Coca-Cola don’t seem to be very nice! The anger and despair it aroused will almost certainly be directed towards more social media updates, more e-petitions and more aimless demands that something be done. For me, that’s an unforgivable outcome for a film which showed such inhumane brutality.

For a far more constructive look at the question of ‘what is to be done’ with regards to the issue, this second Scott Long post is essential reading.

Madonna’s #secretprojectrevolution and #ArtForFreedom

When I found out that Madonna’s long-trailed ‘secret project’ was going to tackle ‘human rights’ I was, it must be said, apprehensive. Having finally watched it tonight, I sadly think I was right to be. Here I’ll focus on its broad message, though the accusations of hypocrisy re:  Madonna endorsing products and partnering with an organisation part-owned by Rupert Murdoch while decrying branding and corporations are hard to combat.

Everything I write about Madonna comes from a place of love. Amongst friends (and enemies) I have a reputation as a Madonna nut, someone who is incapable of objectivity towards her and loves everything she does. I plead guilty to the former charge: objectivity is for chemistry, not pop music. I’ve written here countless times about how important Madonna has been and remains to me. I’ve also expressed my admiration for her outspokenness and willingness to involve herself in issues which most other pop stars shy away from. This remains the case. Even though I think #secretprojectrevolution is enormously flawed, I’d rather she was doing something like this than another perfume or gym launch; particularly as she must surely know that she’ll be torn to shreds for it and has little to gain. In the accompanying interview you are given the sense of someone who continues to try and seek some ‘truth’ and publicly work through the issues she cares about. So yes, to re-iterate, this comes from a place of love.

The film itself looks fabulous, continuing the aesthetic of the MDNA tour and producing some of the most arresting visuals of Madonna’s career. As a political statement it’s almost certainly too opaque to have any effect on the non-converted but as the launch for a new website/campaign called ‘Art For Freedom’, it piques interest. It also feels like a serious work worthy of our attention, albeit one which will be dismissed out-of-hand by many because of Madonna’s infamy.

I wrote earlier in the year about Madonna’s speech to GLAAD and how it found her firmly ensconced as an ‘archetypal American liberal’. Rather incongruously this saw me labelled as a ‘Madonna hater’ for possibly the first time in my life – some really do seem to think that being a fan means loving everything an artist does. The one message from #secretprojectrevolution’s somewhat rambling voice-over which jumps out to me, however, is the ‘revolution of thinking for yourself, of having your own opinion…of inquiring further’. That message reminded of a graphic I saw earlier today on the Progressive Development Forum

For all her talk of a ‘revolution of love’ it seems to me that Madonna actually wants people to be more politically conscious and more capable of critical analysis. This is by itself a great message but it’s one which means accepting/realising that these issues are more important than any pop star. This ‘revolution’ cannot possibly mean fawning over Madonna for ‘saying something’ and swallowing everything she says; if we buy into this message, we have to parse her words.

Indeed, there are times when her words demand to be challenged. Consider the following:

I keep telling everyone that I want to start a revolution, but no one is taking me seriously. If I had black skin and an afro, would you take me seriously? If I was an Arab waving a hand grenade, would you take me seriously? If I was wearing combat gear and I had an AK-47 strapped to my back, would you take me seriously? Instead, I’m a woman. I’m blonde. I have tits and ass and an insatiable desire to be noticed.

Now, if Madonna wants to say that she’s taken less seriously as an artist because of her gender, her use of sexuality and her notoriety, that’s fine…but that’s enormously different from what she actually says. Her words invoke the black civil rights movement, the struggle to ‘free’ Palestine and armed struggle in general: none of these things are Madonna’s to claim. She is an enormously privileged, wealthy, famous American and it’s flat-out offensive to draw parallels between her being booed at some shows or torn apart by some critics and the systematic oppression of an entire race or an entire people. People don’t dismiss Madonna speaking of ‘revolution’ because she’s a woman but rather because a) her class makes it difficult to take her use of the word seriously and, following on from that, b) she strips the word of most of its meaning.

We see the latter in her repeated assertion that ‘the enemy’ lies ‘within’ ourselves. Sure, we all have issues we have to deal with and a lot of hatred in the world surely does stem from personal problems. We do not, however, exist in a vacuum. Our beliefs and ideologies don’t just appear within us like hairs upon our head; they come from our engagement with the world. Politics, the media, popular culture and more all shape us and people with agendas manipulate all of these to try and encourage us to think certain things. Failing to understand this makes demands to ‘do something’ little more than self-help speak encouraging us all to ‘be nicer’. Instead any artistic statement for ‘freedom’ must surely be a didactic one, encouraging people to think about the structures of society and the operation of power – it must be something which actually enables people to identify targets rather than leading them to believe that the world’s problems all arise because some folk are just dickheads.

Madonna’s failure to grasp this is evident in the interview where she keeps speaking about touring the world, seeing problems everywhere and feeling like everything was ‘collapsing’. She talks about it as if some black cloud just descended one day, complaining about people’s ‘consciousness not evolving’ and even seeming to blame the internet at one point. Aside from one throwaway comment in the film (drawn from her L’Olympia speech) she doesn’t draw links between the world’s unrest and the massive economic crisis which it is still going through. She certainly doesn’t draw any links between unrest and global capitalism (or neoliberalism).

The shallowness of her analysis is sharply illuminated when she gets onto geopolitical specifics. As she did at GLAAD and has done elsewhere, she points the finger at a series of acceptable ‘bad guys’. What is happening in Iran ‘breaks her heart’ but she insisted on starting her tour in Israel even when she thought the latter might be about to bomb the former. There is no hint of a notion that Israel could be at fault in that situation and certainly no consideration of Israel’s own diabolical human rights record when it comes to Palestine. She again speaks of Russia and Pussy Riot, complaining about Putin’s censorship and record on gay rights; nothing about Obama’s unprecedented persecution of whistle-blowers or the fact that America’s own gay rights record leaves much to be desired in many states. She again mentions Malala Yousafzai, a shooting which rightfully horrified her; nothing about the many shootings of children which have taken place in America even in the past year, let alone the drone killings of children (and others) led by the US. She again speaks of Le Pen in France, labelling her a ‘fascist’ and expressing bewilderment that France should ever be unwelcoming of ‘difference’; she has nothing to say about Obama’s record deportations or the fact that, under the guise of the ‘war on terror’, America has ramped up its own persecution of Muslims both at home and around the world.

It’s when Madonna explicitly speaks about America that her facileness simply becomes unavoidable. Her big problem with the Americans she encountered on tour? That they take ‘freedom’ for granted and many weren’t going to vote (and weren’t going to vote for Obama). She thinks you become complacent when ‘you can have whatever you want’, something which must be news for the millions of Americans living in poverty in one of the world’s most unequal countries. More unequal, even, than many of the South American countries which are, she says, riddled with ‘corruption and poverty’ (once again, an easy target). At one point the interviewer is clearly inviting Madonna to articulate some disappointment with Obama, asking her why so many were disillusioned by his first time. Her response is just embarrassing: he was left a bad situation by Bush (which didn’t stop him appointing some of the people responsible for that situation to his administration) and people didn’t trust him on the economy. Then, astoundingly, she says that she doesn’t want a ‘warmonger’ for President. For a second I took this to mean Obama, especially given her recent admirable stand on Syria. In the context of her continued defence of the current President and a comment about saving money for everybody, however, it would seem that she’s continuing her blinkered argument and criticising Romney.

I would never argue that people should ignore abuses and injustice around the world. I do however think that any starting point for this should be that old saying about throwing the first stone – we have a duty to speak out about the abuses and injustices in our own societies first and foremost. Avoiding this while proclaiming a desire to ‘give these (foreign) people a voice’ as Madonna does is at best misguided orientalism and at worse a path to brutal imperialism. This is why the critical thinking and political consciousness – the ability to think for oneself – is the best message which anyone could take from #secretprojectrevolution. Simply lifting its agenda whole-heartedly is missing the point. It remains to be seen how the Art For Freedom project develops but in its conception as a social media platform devoted to ‘freedom’ it’s certainly potentially exciting (the current ‘daily feature’ depicts a Palestinian man escaping from the Gaza Strip “about a mile from the northern Israeli border fence and under the watchful eye of an Israeli destroyer vessel in Beit Lahia”, already filling in a big gap in Madonna’s words). Madonna speaks of wishing to inspire others to thought and action; as a fundamental this is impossible to argue with, even if Madonna’s own thought and action here leave a lot to be desired (personally). At the very least, I’ve seen people discussing some of these issues on internet forums throughout the day. You wouldn’t get that from Celine Dion now, would you?

Russia as an Introduction to Homonationalism

The discussions around what’s happening in Russia and Western responses to it are a good entry point to concepts of homonationalism and ‘gay imperialism’. To borrow from this handy primer:

Homonationalism functions in complementary ways to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, which describes how the West produces knowledge and dominates ‘the Orient’ through academic, cultural and discursive processes. Like Orientalism, homonationalism speaks to the ways Western powers (such as the U.S. and Canada) circulate ideas about other cultures (like Arab and Islamic cultures) in order produce the West as culturally, morally, and politically advanced and superior. However, unlike Orientalism, homonationalism speaks particularly to the way gender and sexual rights discourses become central to contemporary forms of Western hegemony.

This speaks to the narratives perpetuated by and consequences of our actions re: Russia which have so concerned me and why, for example, it’s notable that the deployment of LGBT rights in an international context tends to align with the interests of Western powers.We don’t tend to make any links between the lies and propaganda which took us to war in Iraq and the stories which we’re presented with regarding Iran but they are most certainly there.

There are two pieces I’ve read on this recently which are illuminating. The first is this one called “Challenging the liberal fascination with gay, international violence.” All four parts of that ‘Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression’ series are worth a read, providing some much needed context and history re: LGBT Russia and the Olympics’ dire history concerning human rights. This one is, however, most appropriate here, noting as it does that “violence and injustice against LGBT individuals” garner far more Western attention than “violence and injustice against people of color (poc) and socioeconomically underprivileged (low sec) communities.” (I should note, here, that I’ll use ‘LGBT’ throughout this but it’s almost entirely the LG which we’re speaking about, with the BT being of little interest even within the UK.) The examples used of the mass evictions, displacements and environmental destruction being committed in the names of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics are good ones but as a British writer I don’t even have to go that far. The evictions, displacements, pre-emptive arrests and general authoritarian policing, privatisation of public space and transfer of wealth which took place before, during and after London 2012 was met with mass indifference. More than that, those attempting to raise these issues were seen as bitter and frequently told to shut up. Yet these issues were very real. Discussion of ‘privilege’ may have become a trite on-line punchline but there are few more potent (if little-acknowledged) examples of the concept than that people living in estates in East London lost their homes, vulnerable people were displaced from the surrounding areas and activists were locked up so that we could get drunk on Summer evenings watching Mo Farah. Yet these issues are seen as somehow more ‘complex’ and open to interpretation than any perceived injustice against LGBT people, which invariably meets with an instant and strident response led by ‘generally white, able bodied, middle/upper class’ men. Poverty in particular barely registers, seen as apart from the essentialist ‘human rights’ possessed by LGBT victims of oppression. This view of human rights is now strongly contested and arguably in decline (see this series of articles from Open Democracy for good discussions on that) yet it’s undoubtedly the view which dominates LGBT politics, from Stonewall and GLAAD downwards. It is because of this, for example, that Stonewall see no issue in aligning itself with hugely problematic companies like Barclays and Stephen Fry has no qualms about heaping praise on David Cameron in his ‘open letter’ re: Sochi. The human rights of, for example, the poor and homeless are seen as completely separate issues – even (wrongly) as ones which do not disproportionately affect many LGBT people.

Then we have issues around race, which brings me to the second piece I’d say was essential reading for anyone interested in this. The problems surrounding overwhelmingly white Western LGBT voices perpetuating simplistic, misinformed or simply plain wrong stories about certain ‘Muslim countries’ (rarely ones which are Western allies – Dubai for example remains a popular holiday destination for many British gay men) and their treatment of LGBT people should be clear enough. What’s perhaps more interesting are the ways in which issues of race and LGBT rights interact within national contexts, tackled in this article on LGBT activists in Africa and immigration policy within the Netherlands. It notes that a campaign to support LGBT rights in Africa “con­structs the fantasy of “Europe” as a bas­tion of free­dom for LGBT people” and “ ends up jux­ta­pos­ing a “homo­phobic Africa” with a “lib­eral Europe.” This is a narrative common to the West and there has been much LGBT support for, for example, calls to link international aid to a country’s record on ‘gay rights’. This not only infantilises and ‘others’ these countries, it erases the human rights abuses endemic within Western nations and in particular demonstrates zero understanding of the violence (both physical/verbal and structural) faced by ethnic minorities here. It’s of particular note that while LGBT voices seek to intervene in other countries or link immigration to attitudes towards LGBT people, there is little interest in the bigotry and violence inherent in our own immigration systems and discussions surrounding them. It was with particular distress that I read about how support for the racist ‘Go Home’ van was on the rise and apparently constitutes over 50% of British adults. Read about this particular issue and it won’t be long before you encounter many voices complaining that the term ‘racism’ is thrown around with abandon and that using rhetoric such as ‘Go Home’ is not racist. In quotidian homonationalist terms, this same attitude can be found in overwhelmingly white gay men insisting that Lady Gaga’s appropriation of (and song about) the Burqa or drag act Queens of Pop’s use of blacking up and other racist tropes are not in fact racist. Indeed, my own piece about the homonationalist message behind Madonna’s speech to GLAAD was much criticised by other gay men and led to me (hilariously) being labelled a ‘hater’ of Madonna for perhaps the first time in my life.

We’ve seen how insidious homonationalism can be on the streets of my home city of London. Beginning with some homophobic stickers and an offensive, inflammatory and ignorant piece from serial liar Johann Hari, a perception of a ‘Muslim problem’ in East London took hold in certain quarters (I discuss many of the problems with that perception in that linked article and in these pieces, so I’m not going to rehash the arguments here.) This led to statements from LGB (given the presence of Bindel, I’ll refrain from using the ‘T’) activists and calls for an East London Pride march through overwhelmingly Muslim areas. This march turned out to have links with the English Defence League but its at best unhelpful, at worst offensive message was clear even before this became known. That so many LGBT people were eager and willing to be used as part of an anti-Muslim movement was (and remains) deeply worrying.

Discussions of homonationalism and of racism within the LGBT community do not tend to be popular, perhaps due to the widespread liberal ‘othering’ of LGBT people themselves as fabulous and facile creatures. The comments here are overwhelmingly mocking and/or negative, while a piece (click to download) which “uses the work of activist Peter Tatchell, founder of Outrage!, as an example of how white gay activists can become complicit with this agenda by painting Islam as inherently homophobic and misogynist, and appointing themselves as the saviours of non-white queers” was met both with a negative response and was quickly censored due to its ‘defamation’. It’s heartening, however, that Judith Butler’s refusal of the ‘Civil Courage Prize’ due to ‘racism and especially anti-Muslim racism’ met with cheers of support. When I wrote previously than ‘doing something’ was not an inherent good and that “reflective engagement with a critical approach to our own position must come first”, this is exactly what I was meaning. Hopefully the interest in Russia and the discussions which it has generated in the LGBT community will lead to more of us learning about and considering homonationalism and thinking about our own roles in it.

If you don’t follow Scott Long’s blog, you really should. Not least because it’s the sole outlet I’ve seen which has attempted to examine the providence of the horrendous images of torture which have been spread far and wide re: Russia and LGBT rights. After the initial, visceral repulsion the first instinct of any thinking person would surely be to ask “what, where, who, why”? The website which initially brought them to people’s attention has had a swift overhaul and now features a prominent button where you can donate money. Its address remains a PO Box in America. Yet almost no-one paused even momentarily before spreading these horrible images. As it happens, Long details a bleak story behind them, albeit one more complex and wide-ranging than we’d been led to believe. It is indeed curious that Russia’s human rights abuses have been elided to LGBT ones, with other issues actively removed from discussion by the idiotic torrent of “if this happened to blacks/Jews/disabled people et al’ comparisons.

Of course it’s odd that Long complains about the “ceaseless circulation of these images of violence” yet embeds so many in his post. They inspire emotional responses – of course they do – which threaten to overwhelm the text. Gore Vidal made an off-the-cuff remark in an interview in 2009 which I think is quite illuminating here:

Does anyone care what Americans think? They’re the worst-educated people in the First World. They don’t have any thoughts, they have emotional responses, which good advertisers know how to provoke.

He was (perceptively) discussing gay marriage in America yet I think his words have a far wider application. We have seen before how easily stories and images of barbarity are shared and spread without thought. It is almost always done in the name of ‘raising awareness’ but it always and inevitably has an impact (and role) beyond that. It has most definitely been used to justify war, for example. You’ll note, then, that in one of the comments on Long’s piece someone takes him to task for “imperialist propaganda” and observes that it’s oddly convenient that this ongoing story, with roots dating back years, has suddenly blown up when Edward Snowden has exposed a ‘national security’ state in Western countries to rival the best (worst) of the Soviet Union. Snowden has, of course, been forced to flee to Russia to evade the ongoing persecution of whistle-blowers which has been such a brutal hallmark of the Obama administration. Yet in the space of a week more people rallied to the cause (and protest) of ‘LGBT rights in Russia’ than have ever done likewise for Manning and co.

This doesn’t, of course, negate the brutality of what is happening in Russia but it does mean that as Westerners we should take a moment to examine our responses and who they serve. Homophobia is after all not confined to Russia, even at a governmental level. Yet it would not serve our governments well for us to be mobilising against the authorities in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE or Bahrain, to name a few. Hell, many of the same gay men who went to protest at the Russian embassy on Saturday were certainly happy to support Eurovision when it was held in the brutal dictatorship of Azerbaijan which has a history of torture, indefinite detentions, kidnappings, politicised arrests and more. Then again, any educated person reading that sentence will have alarm bells going off in their head because the United Kingdom and United States have their own recent (and current) history of these things too.

This complexity is seen by some as detracting from the issue at hand: easily the single largest response to the blog I wrote about this previously was “at least they’re doing something!” I find this dispiriting. Rushing to ‘do something’ is not an inherent good, especially when there is little effort to understand the situation beyond conveniently simple responses. As Long reveals regarding that truly appalling photo of the Western activists recreating one of the torture images with rainbow flags, it can exacerbate situations. It can spread disinformation and fear. It can and is used as propaganda against countries which are not amenable to Western interests. Most importantly, it can (and does) crowd out the voices of those experiencing the reality of the situation who should *always* lead such movements. The bizarre debates in the media and on social media over whether there should be a boycott/ban/change of venue are all conducted by Western voices with zero stake in the outcome who make no reference to views in Russia. It reads like egoism but worse than that, it reads as smug superiority and racism. The speed with which Stephen Fry has distanced himself from his letter, describing it as unrealistic, is staggering. In the middle of all of this confusion, what is the actual point? Why were all of those people waving the bizarrely homophobic placards of Putin-as-effeminate-homosexual and expressing their desire to ‘piss on Putin’? To ‘raise awareness’. To ‘do something’. I pointed out in my last post that the UK sells arms to Russia (amongst many other despotic regimes) and haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere since. Surely that’s something people in the UK could take a lead on today in order to make some material difference, something which doesn’t involve imposing views onto people in a country few of us have set foot in?

I don’t doubt that people feel angered by what’s happening but the speed with which this has become the cause du jour and the drums beating for ‘doing something’ against actually thinking and listening (from many, certainly not all) instantly bring that Vidal quote to mind. They are emotional responses, easily manipulated and prone to self-aggrandisement rather than reflective engagement. It’s not a sign of how ‘civilised’ we are as a people that we spread stories of murder from dubious sources and without the slightest clue of what we’re talking about; on the contrary, that’s a sign of profound and disturbing arrogance.There are people out there who are trying to tread lightly in all of this, very conscious of their position and the dangers of ‘speaking for’ people in Russia and I know some of them were at the protest on Saturday. So yes, thinking about something should never replace campaigning but the two must go together and reflective engagement with a critical approach to our own position must come first. Racing to pat ourselves on the back merely for “doing something”, as if this has no possible negative connotation or consequence, is little more than well-intentioned vanity. 

Scott Long looks at the torture images from Russia

LGBT Rights in Russia and our Western Fantasies

image

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.