Same-sex Marriage Supporters Can Be Dickheads Too

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Last month Barclays was handed the ‘largest ever’ bank fine in UK history over its role in rigging foreign exchange (forex) markets and ripping-off customers. This is, of course, only the latest scandal to be exposed at Barclays and comes after its fines for attempting to rig Libor rates and attempting to rig the gold market. Nothing sums up the rotten culture at the core of Barclays (a culture which, it must be said, is clearly not isolated to a single bank) than the forex chat logs which revealed one trader stating “if you aint cheating, you aint trying”. Charming stuff.

Given these continuing scandals and Barclays’ involvement in the arms trade, food price speculation, money laundering and propping up dictatorships (to name a few things we know about), it was somewhat amusing to see their involvement in a project aiming to provide retraining to sex workers. It seems to me that providing retraining opportunities to employees of the socially destructive Barclays would have a far more positive impact on the world. Finance workers deserve basic human dignity too!

Still, no matter what Barclays does it can be sure of some good press this month as it again sponsors London Pride. This is, apparently:

…just one of the ways in which we show our commitment to the LGBT community. At Barclays we want our colleagues, customers and clients to feel free to express who they are at all times.

Far be it from me to suggest that profiting from lying, defrauding, stealing, exploiting, firing, starving, suppressing and killing people isn’t much of a ‘commitment’ to humanity at all. That would of course be churlish when Barclays will undoubtedly once again roll out their ‘gay cash machines’ and have their LGBT network tweet a lot of Hallmark sentiments. Inspirational stuff.

In the few years since Sarah Schulman applied the term to Israel , the practice of ‘pinkwashing‘ has ramped up to become a ubiquitous element in the marketing of corporations and countries. As we see with Barclays, being seen to be ‘LGBT-friendly’ attracts a progressive sheen which is viewed as separate from the social activities your corporation or government may engage in; indeed, it can serve to largely obscure these for certain audiences. Witness how Russia has become the bogeyman of Eurovision for its government’s totemic attacks on LGBT rights, while countries with terrible human rights records such as Azerbaijan or Israel pass largely without comment (and in fact the Swedish winner made some absurd homophobic statements only last year – consider whether forgiveness would have been so swift had he not been an attractive white man from a ‘civilised‘ country).

It was not surprising in the least, then, to see that a group of businesses in Australia placed an advert in support of ‘marriage equality’ in the wake of the Irish referendum result. It’s worth quoting at length:

Australian Marriage Equality national director Rodney Croome said the corporations approached the organisation send the message that Australia’s business community was behind marriage equality.

“It was about corporate saying it’s not just about us individually supporting this, we want to do it collectively and send the strongest possible message,” Mr Croome said.

He said corporations understood the importance of respect for diversity in the workplace and equality for staff and customers.

“They’re also very sensitive of course to Australia’s international reputation … that is at risk of suffering if we don’t catch up to countries that are most like us — New Zealand, the UK, the US, Canada and now, Ireland,” he said.

The businesses initiated the ad because they believe in ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ and are worried about lagging behind ‘countries that are most like us’. Mr Croome can be assured that his words won’t be parsed closely but they are quite illuminating if we consider them. I’ve written previously about how the ‘equality’ promoted by many ‘equal marriage’ proponents is only equality for some, a fact Emma Goldman could grasp back in 1911 (and that’s without even getting into the spousal veto). This is not in itself a reason to oppose the extension of marriage rights, of course, but it is an indication that we should be wary of uncritically accepting much of the rhetoric around a cause which is easily framed as a conservative one. These companies know that their ‘support’ will ensure that they are viewed as ‘progressive’.

There is a more insidious aspect of Mr Croome’s rhetoric – the notion that gay marriage in itself is a marker of countries ‘like us’, listing off a series of ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ countries. He even includes the US despite it not having nationwide same-sex marriage. It was, I’m sure, a statement with little thought or intent behind it but given the use of LGBT rights as a marker of ‘civilisation’, it offers us a glimpse of a weaponised ‘equal marriage’ movement. The implications of this are clear when we consider its application to e.g. the Commonwealth (it’s not often noted that South Africa legalised same-sex marriage in 2006) but it also serves to obscure other human rights struggles within the countries presented as ‘civilised’. The academic Alana Lentin has, for example, noted how Labor in Australia have introduced an ‘equal marriage’ bill just as they support proposals to make it possible to strip Australians of their citizenship – proposals which are clearly aimed at Muslims. In the UK, Stonewall chose to tweet about the Tory-led coalition’s ‘impressive record’ the day after the Tories won the election on a platform of massive welfare cuts, repealing the Human Rights Act, implementing the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ and further demonising immigrants:

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After the referendum in Ireland, meanwhile, we have seen a flurry of commentary on how the country has ‘joined the 21st century’ and was a ‘changed country’. While it’s undoubtedly significant that a country so dominated by the Catholic Church for so long made such a decision, it’s notable that much of the ‘movement’ behind marriage has quickly moved onto securing it in Northern Ireland while the fact that, for example. Ireland retains some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world was largely an afterthought. Feminist Katha Pollitt noted a similar situation in the USA, observing that ‘equal marriage’  “won’t fundamentally alter our social and economic arrangements” while full reproductive rights would be transformative.

Yet such commentary not only remains marginal, it seems to be becoming increasingly marginalised as pinkwashing spreads. Even from the sidelines it was clear that much of the troubling rhetoric the UK saw deployed in favour of ‘equal marriage’, such as bashing single-parent families or polyamorous relationships, was ramped up to 10 in the Irish referendum; the response to companies which make nods towards LGBT ‘support’, meanwhile, is almost entirely uncritical. Truly we are a long way from the days when social justice and ‘queer rights’ were viewed as inextricably linked but there’s still a huge continuum between that and our current gloopy, undiscriminating praise at any notion of support for ‘LGBT equality’. We aren’t a separate class of people – we are as likely to be affected by Barclays screwing everyone over as the next person. We can do better than this.

Lord Browne – Drowning in Shit

The point at which you despairingly wonder “how much longer are we going to put up with this drivel?” came, went and died a lonely death years ago. Hardly anyone seems to have bat an eyelid at Lord Browne’s latest charm offensive promoting, without a hint of irony, a book about why coming out is ‘good for business’. Browne being, of course, a fellow who took out injunctions to prevent his former partner from speaking to the press to make allegations including misuse of BP funds and tax-dodging. He perjured himself in court regarding the relationship and was criticised by the judge for his “willingness casually to ‘trash’ the reputation of Mr Chevalier (the partner) and to discredit him in the eyes of the court”. Why he sounds just perfect to tell us about how great coming-out is!

He gets away with this nonsense almost entirely unchallenged because he’s played the ‘victim’ narrative like a pro and this has absolved him of all his sins. He periodically pops up to speak of how homophobic business is and how he was a poor victim of this. His conversion to the moral goodness of living an ‘openly gay life’ is music to the ears of a community and media which still treats LGBT people like cute little puppies to be cooed over and scratched on their bellies.

Lest we forget, this poor unfortunate graduated from the University of Cambridge and became, as Chief Executive of BP, one of the highest-paid people in the world. He was also a Director at that great vampire squid Goldman Sachs, as well as being knighted and made a Lord. Some of the information he attempted to prevent his former partner revealing concerned his regular meetings with senior members of government, including both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. This is not, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, someone who was an outsider. Yet the idea of the tortured homosexual ‘living a lie’ while enjoying unfettered access to the gilded halls of power rubs those proverbial tummies.

And so it continues. It’s no accident that Browne’s latest promotional round pushes the exact same lines as before. Witness the headline of his interview with The Guardian: “I Thought Being Gay Was Basically Wrong”. The opening is quite ridiculous:

When Lord Browne was in charge of BP, had anyone told him he would one day invite a journalist into his home to discuss his sexuality, he would have said they were insane. Homosexuality was the last thing he expected to talk about in public; after all, he never spoke of it even in private.

He didn’t? But his partner spoke of being present at dinners with the Prime Minister. He spoke of visiting Peter Mandelson’s home and Mandelson’s partner being there. These are hardly generic ‘social events’ as the article breezily puts it. Are we expected to believe that Browne was just dragging this guy around with him without telling any of these people who he was? It defies all reason – but it challenges the narrative and so any pretence of journalism is abandoned. Indeed, while Browne might think that homosexuality ‘was the last thing’ he’d be interviewed about, these days he’s far less likely to be challenged on his professional life. It’s a complete puff-piece which presents him as some kind of gay hero. There are brief mentions of ‘accusations’ that his savage cuts at BP were linked to a string of disasters and deaths including the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Surely this is something Browne should be challenged on every single time he is interviewed? (As a slight aside, it’s interesting to note that one of the journalists who most pursued Browne over BP’s safety record stated that his time as Chief Exec was characterised by ”a corporate court filled with sycophants and…an unhealthy glorification of a boss.”  Again, completely at odds with Browne’s own take on things.)

Similarly his key role in the introduction of tuition fees is completely glossed over – he’s not even asked about it. I don’t care what this privileged guy thinks of being gay. I care that he had, and still has, real power and access to government and is identified as responsible for a series of reprehensible outcomes. Even on the terms of his book it’s very easy to link these issues: tuition fees, student debt in general and the culture of austerity which Browne so buys into are viewed by many on the left as instrumental in the creation of aprecariat class of obediant and ‘flexible’ worker. This makes it all the more fascinating (and troubling) that the main thrust of Browne’s argument is ‘openly gay employees are good employees’. This may be so but why is it okay to instrumentalise my sexuality in this way and not other aspects of my being? Browne is essentially arguing that companies should get on board with gay employees cos they’re good for the bottom line. Great. What about employee conditions, including safety? What about jobs themselves?! On top of aforementioned cuts Browne also slashed thousands of jobs at BP. I’m sure some of those people were gay, maybe even openly so at work. Where is the regard for their wellbeing from this poor, tortured soul?

Browne’s use of homosexuality is not only self-serving, it’s blatant pinkwashing. The real ‘bottom line’ here is that if companies are seen to be ‘nice’ to their gay employees, they can get use this when the shit hits the fan regarding their business activities. Witness the utter absurdity of this man saying that companies should ‘send gay employees to Russia’ to educate the backwards barbarians. This is a quite literal reduction of ‘gay employees’ to a public relations vanguard for companies which are typically up to their eyeballs in human rights violations. The idea that a company like BP could be viewed in any way as concerned with human rights is laughable, and egregious drivel such as this from Browne acts merely to provide cover for business decisions which havealready demonstrated no such concern.

A serious media would put these arguments to Browne. To do so, however, would require them to move beyond their juvenile, patronising take on sexuality and engage in some real critical thinking. So instead we drown in this shit. I want to end with a quote I read yesterday in a typically superlative blog from the activist Scott Long, which is ostensibly about the Brunei hotel boycott but which here succintly skewers the entire media/LGBT rights industry:

In Europe and North America international LGBT rights are big news. There are big constituencies, too, of activists and tweeters who avidly absorb the stories of foreign abuse, and demand Action! Now! And there are more and more domestic LGBT organizations feeding on those audiences, and turning their eyes to foreign affairs, and pressing their governments for Action! Now! Neither the constituencies nor the organizations, though, know that much about the rest of the world, or human rights, or have patience for long-term efforts, or get the complexities of political action across borders. They just want Action! Now!, and the less they have to worry about subaltern voices muddying up the message, the better.The problem is that a lot of the new constituencies are idiots. I don’t mean they can’t tie their shoes or screwed up their SATs. They’re idiots in the root Greek sense, which is a lament rather than an insult:  ἰδιώτης, a too-private person, a consumer of politics rather than a participant in it. incapable of understanding the lives of others except as versions of himself.

The Real Cynicism Behind E-Petitions

I’ve already made my feelings about e-petitions clear and don’t wish to repeat my complaints but, dear God, I feel like I’m drowning in the fucking things. Increasingly it seems like the first response to any perceived injustice in the world is to rush to the computer and create an e-petition. The sad thing is that I haven’t always been so averse to them – no-one would have to convince me that they could play a part in engaged activism. Yet I think the way they are deployed is often counter-productive, even harmful. At the core of this harm is a profound and lazy arrogance. It’s completely absurd that any of us could sit at our computers and dot around the world, from e-petition to e-petition, and feel that we are ‘making a difference’. It’s even more ridiculous that we would feel that we had a right to do this. It would be charitable to say that the way e-petitions are wheeled out against non-Western countries carries an implicit message that they are barbaric and inhumane – because it often seems that this is the explicit intent. Those countries are bad; they do bad things; we enlightened Westerners need to save the poor people of those countries. Sign the petition! Read the paragraph of explanatory text and share, share, share! Don’t make the slightest effort to actually learn and think about what’s happening. Don’t engage with anyone within the countries we’re petitioning. Don’t consider for a second the West’s brutal and bloody history in almost all of these countries. Don’t dwell on the fact that our countries have been and continue to be built on the backs of the ‘developing world’ or that ‘aid’ could be more accurately called ‘reparations’ if it didn’t come with so many strings attached. Don’t get angry about the fact that our own governments and businesses continue to support and arm brutal regimes provided they are amenable to ‘our’ interests. And don’t for a second display the slightest self-awareness and focus on the shit our own governments do in our own countries. Instead, let’s tell ourselves we live in a comic book world of clear good and clear evil, where the good guys can fix things by entering their e-mail addresses.

Whenever I complain about e-petitions the response is predictable: “well what do you do about it?” As if signing a fucking e-petition is an unquestionable good and thinking that maybe we should shut the hell up, listen and learn is enabling tyranny. No, the truly fucked up position is one where we don’t hold our own governments, corporations and NGOs to account but instead unthinkingly buy into the notion that we are the saviours of a world that is otherwise populated by savages who don’t speak our language and more often than not don’t share our skin colour. The real arrogance is not in questioning the efficacy of a petition against the government of Uganda or Russia but in believing that these countries are so slack-jawed that they would be dictated to by 200,000 Westerners who’ve read a couple of articles in-between posting pop videos and memes.

There is a deep sense here that the people of these countries are lesser and beholden to superior Westerners, not only in terms of their politics but also with regards to their activism. The words of Ugandan activists like Sexual Minorities Uganda, led by Frank Mugisha, aren’t ringing around the world and there isn’t a clamour to support them. Instead everyone is sharing the umpteenth petition from AllOut.org, an American organisation which has already demonstrated that it has a shaky understanding of what’s happening at best while turning the situation into a fundraising opportunity. As you’ll see from that link, it’s not exactly the most transparent organisation when it comes to how it spends its money, much of which comes from donations. AllOut’s own website notes that:

All Out is a combined effort of two organizations – Purpose Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit advocacy organization focused on changing policy, and Purpose Foundation, a related 501(c)(3) charitable organization focused on education and changing culture.

Purpose Action had revenue of $1.78 million in 2012 and spent $334,657 campaigning for gay marriage in America and on engaging ‘more than 1,000,000 people globally on LGBT equality issues’. The latter presumably means…e-petitions. There is nothing about grants to organisations within countries like Uganda, Russia or Cameroon which give AllOut its most high-profile campaigns. It spent over $200,000 on ‘campaigner fees and expenses’ and ‘website and technology’ costs, and over $120,000 on the salary of its President.

Then there is Purpose Foundation which had revenue of over $1,000,000 and spent $1.2 million. Over $500,000 of this was on salaries and, again, ‘campaigner fees and expenses’ and ‘website and technology’ claim over $300,000.

Where things get really interesting is with the existence of a third organisation – Purpose Campaigns LLC. This is a consultancy firm which is FOR-PROFIT. It claims credit for AllOut, as well as Avaaz, on its website, where it also lists clear links with the World Economic Forum renowned for its Davos meetings of the world elite. Fascinatingly, both Purpose Action and Purpose Foundation employed Purpose Campaigns for ‘contracted services’ of over $120,000 (that I can see). All three organisations may share board members but don’t fret – apparently these people ‘did not participate’ in the decisions to hire themselves. Phew!

Even more fascinatingly, Purpose Campaigns were paid almost $400,000 by American billionaire conservative Pete Peterson to scaremonger about the American deficit and fuel his interests in dismantling Medicaid and other ‘safety net’ programmes. As that last link surmises, they appear to have been hired precisely because their progressive image made them a Trojan horse for the message – and that public image relies overwhelmingly on sites like Avaaz and AllOut.

It’s clear, then, that the people behind these sites not only have a massive material interest in pushing them but do almost nothing substantial in order to support the activists around the world whom they raise funds on the back of. If the neo-imperialistic overtones of these e-petitions weren’t clear before, they certainly are now. It should also be clear that e-petitions aren’t necessarily ‘doing something’. They aren’t necessarily useful. They aren’t necessarily informative or educational. They can be the cynical tools of clever people who get rich from them. Next time you read about something in some far-off country which shocks you, don’t click on the inevitable e-petition link. Go do some reading of your own and, if you truly want to help, devote time to educating yourself about the situation and what helping really means.

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.

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged…Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns

Her failure to confront the issue of women acquiring wealth allows her to ignore concrete systemic obstacles most women face inside the workforce. And by not confronting the issue of women and wealth, she need not confront the issue of women and poverty. She need not address the ways extreme class differences make it difficult for there to be a common sisterhood based on shared struggle and solidarity.

Even when I disagree with her, bell hooks is an inspiration: a fiercely intelligent thinker and cultural critic who forces you to critically examine aspects of society, and of yourself, which you may not even have consciously thought about before. This piece on Sheryl Sandberg and ‘faux-feminism’ really hit home. brilliantly articulating some inchoate thoughts I’ve had about feminism, yes, but also (and more prominently for me personally) about the ‘gay rights’ movement, which so many of its critiques could be applied to. I’ve been inching my way forward in that regard over the past year or so, much of it inspired by the responses of the ‘gay movement’ to the issues of gay marriage and of Chelsea Manning.

The central theme here has to be the failure of imagination of these movements, the conservatism which sees them as vehicles for people to take their place at the table with ‘successful’ members of the prevailing power structure. The primary role of class in causing and perpetuating inequalities and injustices is almost always elided (and, as hooks notes, race is usually absent too – this is certainly true of gay politics). If these concerns are present, they are hand-wringing liberal concerns where those firmly ensconced at the table fret over how to best improve the opportunities for ‘the disadvantaged’ to join them. The myth of meritocracy underlies everything, the sense that if we can just sort out certain kinds of sexism, racism, homophobia, then the most able will always be able to work their way to the ‘top’. As for questioning the stratifications which even mean there is a ‘top’, or asking what it means for society to do the things involved in being part of it – don’t even go there. Why we fight is not for a truly transformational human emancipation but rather to make it easier for talented, intelligent folk from ‘minorities’ to achieve success. The fact that these folk are overwhelmingly of a particular class – well, it may be unfortunate but it’s never going to be the point.

This failure to, as hooks puts it, dig deep means that as high-profile movements both feminism and gay ‘liberation’ can seem horribly one-dimensional and even harmful. Writing as a gay man I’ve addressed what I see as the horror of thinking that being directly marketed to is in any way liberatory. More widely I’ve seen how the gay movement has been commandeered by people of privileged backgrounds who, being unable or unwilling to address substantive issues of class and social justice, instead fixate on facile notions of inequality which affect the lives only of people like themselves (if that, at times). Seeking out the ways in which being gay might put you at even the slightest disadvantage of reaching the neoliberal top and being blinkered to all other concerns results in a truly counter-productive fixation on ‘gay’ as an all-encompassing, immutable identity; an identity which must, no matter how privileged you may be, be inextricably linked to victimhood. This is something which I’ve noticed with a certain strand of feminism also – a strand which bell hooks tackles here and which unfortunately is enormously popular at the moment. At its most egregious this trend, in both movements, finds men and women in positions of great power and/or wealth actively exploiting their perceived victimhood in order to further their own positions – whether that be writing endlessly about their exploitation without ever venturing beyond the most superficial analysis or actively using their ‘disadvantage’ to conflate legitimate criticism with sexist/homophobic abuse.

On a macro level, meanwhile, hooks notes how feminist rhetoric has been instrumentalised and used by, for example, Western governments to provide cover for their imperialism. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention in the past year will easily see that the same use is being made of gay rights. Indeed, less than 2 weeks ago I wrote about the instrumentalisation of homosexuality as a tool for marketing and for leveraging profit” while the ongoing saga of Russia’s anti-gay laws has revealed the arrogant cultural superiority of many in the gay movement.

hooks ends by observing that the ambition of feminism must be to “change the world so that freedom and justice, the opportunity to have optimal well-being, can be equally shared by everyone”; this must surely be the goal of any emancipatory movement, including those seeking ‘gay liberation’. Such liberation surely can’t mean the ‘freedom’ to enjoy your privilege and even become one of the 1% while deploying your one-dimensional minority status to combat criticism when it suits; it can’t mean ignoring the immiseration of millions in favour of being ‘represented’ at the higher levels of amoral corporations; it can’t mean not only disregarding the myriad barriers which hold countless people back but refusing to understand that their removal does not necessarily challenge the wider oppressive system. Dig deep, then, is an important message far beyond feminism and it’s one we should all heed.

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In

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?

Sexy Domestic Abuser Loves The Gays and Hates Russia!

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I’ve written previously about how “gay magazines still have an unhealthy affection for straight men who say they like gays while posing in their pants, how “we’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’”  and how “the collective bogeyman that is homophobia can…prove to be enabling of behaviour few liberal-minded people would tolerate from straight men.” Well, examples of all these things come no greater than the new issue of Gay Times, featuring straight rugby player Stuart Reardon on the cover. The intro to the accompanying feature would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic:

He loves the gays, hates Russia’s treatment of us and works with underprivileged kids. Rugby ace Stuart Reardon is like the Mother Theresa (sic) of Warrington – only with thighs that could crack a coconut under his wimple.

Yes, apparently ‘loving the gays’ and thinking it’s jolly bad for a country to persecute minorities makes you a candidate for sainthood. Rather than, you know, a patronising git in the first instance and just your average person who isn’t a total dick in the second. So far, so insipid and predictable. Where it gets quite incredible is in the fact that this saintly figure has a criminal conviction for assaulting his wife. That picture up there is him leaving court. The details of this conviction are quite something:

Stuart Reardon, 27, pleaded guilty at Bradford Magistrates’ Court to assaulting his estranged wife, Kay, after finding out she was seeing another man, while Leon Pryce, also 27, admitted assaulting her new partner.

The court heard the defendants had both been drinking before going to the flat of Reardon’s new boyfriend, Damon O’Brien, and forcing their way in, leaving the couple “terrified”.

How did they force themselves in? Well:

When neither Mrs Reardon nor Mr O’Brien opened the door to the second-floor flat, Reardon sent a text message to his wife’s new boyfriend claiming their young son was in hospital.

That’s right – when he couldn’t gain access to attack his wife, he lied and said that their son had been taken to hospital. He sounds positively delightful, doesn’t he? But hey, he apparently loves the gays and he’s fit! What are we gays for if not to provide handy PR opportunities for straight sportsmen whose professional careers are over? It has, after all, worked so well for Ben Cohen. It makes you so proud:

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It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the teams behind these magazines: the print market in general is clearly in decline and ‘gay lifestyle’ publications seem increasingly irrelevant. You have the sense that they’re trapped in the realm of soft porn and undemanding content. Even so, surely there have to be some standards?! This is just tragic.

An added irony – one of the main cover splashes is “Meet the gay men who are fighting eating disorders.” Appearing alongside the heavily-airbrushed photo of a semi-naked model. Indeed, GT is kinda renowned for its airbrushed covers. It is, of course, hardly alone in that but I’d be curious to see if the article acknowledges the potential role that the endlessly manipulated imagery and strident consumerism of such media could play in these illnesses.

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

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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.