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.

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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.