Farewell, then, Ben Summerskill. We barely knew you. Can it be a coincidence that his departure came only a week after I blogged about the “self-serving and ultimately pointless” Stonewall Workplace Equality Index? Who can say? What I can say is that he name searches and as a result tweeted me to accuse me of ‘bullying’ as a result of my repeated criticisms of the organisation, which is a bit silly.

Some of my other blogs about Stonewall and its brand of politics:

Whatever good it may once have done I think Stonewall has become a largely useless organisation (I mean, its latest campaign needs no comment from me) which lends its services to the murky practice of pinkwashing dubious companies and organisations. There is much worth reading out there about its terrible record on transgender equality, while some have already noted its terrible boldness in claiming marriage equality as its own given that it was a very late convert to the cause.

This great piece touches on many of the current problems with ‘gay politics’. Ostensibly a look at a book which claims to ‘de-mythologise’ Matthew Shepard, it manages to be wide-ranging in its critique. The lede (“Many of us have a habit of being overly credulous to stories that flatter our biases”) is a succinct skewering of the banal clicktivism which passes for much current gay politics, with its endless e-petitions and inaccurate memes. Its questioning of why so many need Matthew Shepard to have been an ‘innocent’ in every possible sense (rather than a rounded human being who was the victim of an awful crime) is also highly relevant. I think this mentality in part feeds into why gay politics is so terrible when it comes to, for example, issues of immigration or why there is tunnel vision on Russia’s treatment of its LGBT citizens and not other marginalised groups.’Gay identity’ must be essentialised and presented as ‘pre-politics’ so that any perceived attack on it can be portrayed as an attack on ‘innocents’. Issues of immigration, sex work, drug use or even foundational questions of social justice are seen as post-politics: they are messy, complicated and open to debate because the ‘victims’ are not innocent but rather viewed as partly complicit. This also offers much to our understanding of why groups like Stonewall have had almost nothing to say about Chelsea Manning, who is seen to be targeted for her actions in leaking information rather than for being LGBT and so unworthy of attention. This piece interestingly presents this as a pathology of the wider left:

However well intentioned, the urge to treat Matthew Shepard as a blameless angel demonstrates so many of the pathologies in contemporary social liberalism. First is the left’s attraction to heroes and martyrs — a drive to personalize and individualize every issue, in a way that seems to directly cut against the theoretical commitment to identifying structural causes for social problems…

This seems very compelling to me and I’d extend it to include an attraction to villains and victims. Witness the endless Daily Mail-bating and the trend in current feminism to take endless photos of sexist products on supermarket shelves. These are big, complex structural issues reduced to us and them, and the ‘goodies’ tend to be the victims. Rather than argue for systemic change or a social justice which encompasses everyone we increasingly seem to focus on the ways in which we as good, deserving individuals are targeted by the bad guys – a mentality which surely ultimately leads to a cul de sac?

I’m not so lacking in self-awareness that I ignore the piece’s references to a :

proud, self-aggrandizing radicalism…the superior virtue of a radicalism that…had little personal investment, little risk. 

It is of course always important to acknowledge the value of incremental, practical gains. It’s also important to recognise, acknowledge and interrogate your own privilege, one which in my case allows me the luxury of exploring these issues in a blog without facing persecution or violence for it. In terms of LGBT politics this is particularly the case in the US, which clearly lags behind much of Europe in terms of LGBT rights. For all my issues with Macklemore and Same Love (and indeed with the gay marriage movement) for example, I can still acknowledge that it was quite a major deal for an American staple like the Grammys to prominently feature same-sex marriage. Crucially, however, this does not mean that any of this should be beyond critique. Many of the criticisms of Stonewall and wider gay politics could be met with ‘but they’re doing something good!’, an assertion which has the ring of a truism about it yet contains multitudes in terms of unchallenged ideologies and assumptions. We cannot allow critical thought to (further) be eroded by the oppressively banal ‘cult of positivity’ which, in guises such as twee/cupcake fascism, seeks to drain the politics (the conflict) from daily life and replace it with a reactionary detachment and ‘niceness’.

This takes me back to Stonewall and how criticism of its work is framed as ‘bullying’. This riposte hinges on the ‘fact’ that it’s doing ‘nice things’ and so should be beyond reproach (an argument which was also made to me re: Ben Cohen). But this presents politics as a zero sum game where people and actions can only ever be ‘good’ or bad’ and where the politics of the ‘goodies’ is all that can be seen to exist. This is not the case. Interrogating these assumptions can help us understand the ideology behind them; they can help us understand our world in a deeper, more critical sense. In this way we can begin to see that our activism is not inherently good and we are not heroes for engaging in it. Indeed, sometimes our well-intentioned activism can be harmful and sometimes it can rest on mistaken assumptions about people which come from the blindness of our own privileges. Rather than seeking to further mystify this by presenting critics as ‘baddies’ who need to be shut up, we should be open to it and the insights it can offer. We should celebrate it, even. Critique is not the enemy of action:  our politics can encompass both and it’s necessary that they complement each other.

Ben Summerskill steps down as Stonewall boss

I find this piece fascinating in its highlighting of what infuriates me about much of the independence debate. It’s certainly a level beyond Better Together’s ‘independence will be armageddon’ or the Yes campaign’s obsessive sniping at ‘unionists’ but it highlights just how inadequate this debate is in many ways.

Greig complains of “the UK goggles which say you never ask questions” but then we’re later told “Greig said that the outburst in October by the comedian Russell Brand, who said he had never voted, was a symptom of wider alienation with the democratic system in England”. Brand’s words clearly hit a nerve, suggesting the idea that people in the UK are generally living in some catatonic trance is rather misguided at best. Yes, there is much disillusionment with the UK political system – that is different from ignorance which Greig initially complains about. There is a tangible sense that a significant proportion of people in the UK want political change – indeed, there is this sense in most of the developed world. 

This leads us onto Greig’s big point:

“When the City of London wields such astonishing power, it entirely dictates the terms of how we view each other as human beings. We’ve lost the idea that an economy exists to make sure we’re happy and fed. It’s as if we exist to feed the economy.”

What Greig is complaining about here is capitalism and, with his words about being estranged from the economy, he is echoing Marx’s theory of alienation. The City of London could be described as ‘hyper-capitalism’ but given that we all live in a capitalist system, its ‘faults’ are by no means unique. The idea that an ‘independent’ Scotland could reject these basic tenets of capitalism is naive, to say the least. Greig states that “London is essentially an entirely different economy, an entirely different society”. Reading this as a socialist, I find it pretty harmful stuff, eliding the common class interests which exist across the UK and indeed the world in favour of some notion that London is the Capitol in contrast to the rest of the UK’s Districts. People in London are not the enemy and most of them share the same concerns, fears and hopes as most people in Scotland…or Greece, or Spain or etc.

(As an aside, it’s also worth noting that under the independence proposals Scotland would retain the pound and so the Bank of England, based in the City of London, would still exercise strong influence.)

Since the (ongoing) financial crisis, there is a widespread sense that capitalism is deep inside one of its periodic moments of crisis. This brings misery but also opportunities to expose the fundamental contradictions of capitalism and drive change. Much of the political action we’ve seen around the world in recent years, from Occupy to SYRIZA to the Scottish independence movement, seems to largely be a response to, and attempt to capitalise on, this crisis.

In order to do this, however, we need to know what we’re fighting against. Greig says “We don’t need to reform the House of Lords: we need to start again” yet in failing to identify ‘capitalism’ as the fundamental problem he’s discussing he ends up advocating a different kind of reform. Indeed, it’s noted that he would be open to rejecting independence if the ‘pro-UK’ parties offer “greater devolution and reform.” Fine, in and of itself, but ultimately nothing that will address the roots of Greig’s disaffection. When he says that “Scotland’s first independent government would make mistakes and disappoint people who had campaigned for it” it’s difficult not to conclude that this is the inevitable result of a capitalist democracy with social democratic leanings under the current system of global neoliberalism.

Indeed, it’s notable that the sole mention of the EU in the piece is in reference to the ‘modernisation’ of the ‘old nation state’. One of the biggest issues I have with the independence movement is that it seeks to critique the union of the United Kingdom yet, because of the offer on the table, has nothing to say about the European Union and in fact tacitly accepts that it’s a ‘progressive’ institution. Yet by any stretch of the imagination the EU is far less democratic than the UK. It also has immense power over the future of any independent Scotland. From the actions of the Troika to its current negotiations regarding the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement, far-reaching and possibly mendacious decisions are made with little-to-no scrutiny in the UK (or Scotland). A large part of the reason for this is that ‘anti-EU’ rhetoric has been largely lost to the right, despite the efforts of coalitions like No2EU, so the idea that the EU could be pushing austerity, privatisation and an attack on welfare states is at best mocked, at worst ignored. Similar points could be made regarding NATO, the Council of Europe, the UN and the IMF. There is no such thing as true ‘independence’ and we cannot choose to criticise one ‘membership’ while deeming the others to be off-limits.

The same is true of ‘English nationalism’. The Scottish independence debate has been pushed by the Scottish Nationalist Party and is seen as a progressive force. Yet in complaining that such a debate isn’t happening in England, it’s impossible to ignore that anyone labelling themselves as ‘English nationalist’ is immediately viewed with distrust. It’s ground which has again been abandoned to the right. Clearly there are complex and often legitimate reasons for this, with the legacy of Empire having damaging effects on the English psyche. However this narrative obscures Scotland’s own history as a partner in Empire and its own current problems with racism. As we’ve seen, a ‘progressive’ discussion about the future of the political system can originate in England.

Some argue that independence is a way for Scotland to move beyond its tendency to positively contrast itself with England/London/Westminster. This would undoubtedly be healthy and I find it to be one of the most compelling arguments in favour. It would also be remiss not to note campaigns such as Radical Independence, which has offered critiques from a left perspective. Yet the debate generally seems to insert damaging division where there should be class solidarity. It’s completely lost, for example, that most people in England did not vote for the Tories or that no-one voted for the Bedroom Tax. It’s also completely lost that “Although Scotland is more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best.”  ‘Westminster’ is not waging a war against Scotland but rather conducting a class war across the whole of the UK.

It seems clear to me that the argument which needs to be won is not whether Scotland is capitalist within the EU or within the EU and the UK; rather, we need to be reminding people of their class solidarity regardless of nationality and encouraging further debate regarding capitalism and our current global political system. There are certainly arguments that independence can play an important role in this but, on the whole, I see only the naive and obfuscatory narrative found in the article above which confounds matters at a time when the majority in the UK should be united.

Scottish independence yes vote would drive change in England, says writer

Spotify playlist at the link above. Last year I initially didn’t think much of Call Me Maybe, the song that ended up being my favourite single of the year. That’s kind of a theme this year, with at least half the tracks being ones which I either purposefully avoided for a while (hello, Miley) or which took their time to grab me (I hated Mirrors for a while, Full Of Fire was difficult to extricate from the album). It’s difficult to pick one of these songs as my favourite – Roar, Royals, The Next Day and Flatline are probably my most listened to. I only very recently discovered Song for Zula and it instantly blew me away.

Wrecking Ball – Miley Cyrus
Royals – Lorde
Reflektor – Arcade Fire
Roar – Katy Perry
Rewind The Film – Manic Street Preachers
The Next Day – David Bowie
The City – The 1975
Get Lucky – Daft Punk
Everything is Embarrassing – Sky Ferreira
Flatline – Mutya Keisha Siobhan
You’re In Love – Betty Who
#Beautiful – Mariah Carey ft. Miguel
Hold On, We’re Going Home – Drake
Full Of Fire – The Knife
Mirrors – Justin Timberlake
Song for Zula – Phosphorescent
Sweeter Than Fiction – Taylor Swift
Drew – Goldfrapp
Copy of A – Nine Inch Nails
After You – Pulp

My Singles of 2013

Click on the title for the Spotify playlist. I’ve not put them in any particular order but suffice to say that Bowie’s comeback was my musical highlight of 2013. I thought nothing could beat the rush of waking up to his surprise single in January but watching him back in action in the The Stars (Are Out Tonight) video was awe-inspiring. Nothing else comes close, which is saying something as there are some astounding albums in this list.

They Die By Dawn & Other Short Stories.. – The Bullitts
Pale Green Ghosts – John Grant
Rewind The Film – Manic Street Preachers
Pure Heroine – Lorde
Electric – Pet Shop Boys
Upstream Color – Shane Carruth
Beyoncé – Beyoncé
Once I Was An Eagle – Laura Marling
Immunity – Jon Hopkins
The Electric Lady – 
Janelle Monáe
{Awayland} – Villagers
Pedestrian Verse – Frightened Rabbit
Reflektor – Arcade Fire
The Diving Board – Elton John
The Thieves Banquet – Akala
Mosquito – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Tales of Us – Goldfrapp
Trouble Will Find Me – The National
The Next Day – David Bowie
The 1975 – The 1975

My Albums of 2013

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

It’s interesting the way this survey was reported as showing that homophobia was ‘rife’ in the UK. In actuality it doesn’t even begin to demonstrate that – instead it shows that the expectation of homophobia is present with many gay (the report uses ‘gay’ interchangeably with ‘gay, lesbian and bisexual’) people. This being Stonewall, the expectations of trans people were obviously absent.

I’ve written previously about the facile notion of ‘equality’ adopted by groups like Stonewall and how:

Their entire existence rests on cosying up to power, pointedly avoiding radicalism but flattering the perverse blend of exceptionalism, victimisation and self-entitlement of a largely-privileged group of (mostly) metropolitan white gay men.

Clearly a survey showing that gay people still feel discriminated against is manna from heaven for Stonewall. Indeed, they need a new cause given that Ben Summerskill claims in his introduction that “one strand of Stonewall’s domestic focus – legislative equality – is effectively complete.” Quite remarkable that he appears to be claiming credit for gay marriage when he had ‘no view’ on it in 2010 but thought it would be very expensive and would make no “real, practical difference to people’s lives”. And of course the ‘T’ part of LGBT would have something to say about having achieved ‘legislative equality’ but again, it’s Stonewall so we can’t expect too much there. Summerskill presents the survey as showing that gay people “continue to face disadvantages in many walks of life”. Yet how can we possibly know that’s what it shows? It looks at expectations and nothing else. It’s well-documented that surveys of the public find the fear of crime to vastly outweigh the actual risk and much is written looking at why this is so. Indeed, it’s noted that “both risk of crime and fear of it are higher in areas of poverty, unemployment and deprivation”, a finding which raises issues of class and how it affects your reality. Such issues are entirely absent from the Stonewall survey as is any discussion of the possibility that the expectation of homophobia may be exaggerated or even unfounded in some circumstances. For example, the survey finds that “More than six in ten (63 per cent) gay and bisexual men and four in ten (38 per cent) lesbians and bisexual women would expect to experience homophobia if they took part in team sport and were open about their sexual orientation.” Which team sport?! The pull quote is from Matt Jarvis, the West Ham player who posed for Attitude, so it seems clear that we’re pretty much talking about football here rather than, say, water polo. This clearly carries very tradionally male, macho connotations which perhaps explain why far less gay women seem to be worried about it. There are so many questions and challenges here yet the analysis is entirely absent and instead we’re presented with instance after instance of presumed homophobia. Instances which can’t help but sometimes seem absurd – does anyone really have an opinion on whether Sky One portrays gay people ‘realistically’ or if Channel 5 would tackle a complaint about homophobia worse than the BBC?! The fact that over twice as many respondents believe Channel 5 would indeed be worse at this (with ITV and Sky also doing badly in that regard) doesn’t seem to be down to anything other than perceptions of the channels – perceptions which can’t help but seem tied up with class.

Issues of class loom large over the survey. The hypothetical situations asked about carry strong class connotations –  becoming a school governor, adoption and fostering, running for political office. The sweeping heading of ‘Equal Legal Treatment’ covers only gay marriage and “tackling homophobic abuse around the world”, the two causes célèbres of Stonewall’s constituency. The ‘Police and the Criminal Justice System’ section does cover expectations when suspected of committing a crime but it’s so bereft of context that it’s almost laughable. There are a myriad of reasons why people may experience the law differently – one big one is touched on with reference to how gay people from “black and minority ethnic backgrounds” expect worse treatment from the police etc but this is bizarrely glazed over. In fact there are a few references to how people of colour have worse expectations than their white counterparts yet there are zero mentions of ‘racism’ in the survey and Stonewall’s ‘recommendations’ make absolutely no reference to these findings. This underlines one of the main flaws of the survey, namely that people have a myriad of reasons why they may ‘expect’ discrimination, whether justified or not, and it’s an incredibly difficult task to even begin to unpick them all. Would a 40 year old wealthy white gay lawyer expect to be more discriminated against when, say, dealing with the police than a 20 year old black male from Hackney? What are we comparing here? The words ‘poverty’, ‘homeless’ and ‘unemployed’ appear nowhere, with the only references to welfare being in the context of seeking advice at the Citizens Advice Bureau and a mention of “applying for social housing” (there is a page on “public services” but it’s not explained what this refers to, given that we have separate sections for criminal justice and schools.)  The sole mention of class (‘social group’) is in a paragraph looking at which ‘occupational groups’ are more likely to be out at work; three short paragraphs later and we’re being told that ‘gay consumers’ are more likely to spend their money on organisations which they think are nice to gays. The survey presents some mythical world where sexuality is the sole determinant of how we interact with and experience society.

The class connotations are nowhere clearer than in Stonewall’s own presentation of the report which leads with an explicit link between paying tax and experiencing discrimination when using public services. An implicit positioning worthy of the Daily Mail, instantly linking the right to be free of discrimination to the ability to financially contribute. You’ll struggle to find this observation anywhere in the media, which instead as we’ve seen has focused on the ‘rampant homophobia’ angle. We’ve seen before how expectations of homophobia can run far away from the reality and can be manipulated to divisive and damaging ends. Half-baked surveys like this and their hysterical coverage seem certain only to make that situation worse.

Homophobia still rife in UK, survey claims

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

This is as neat an illustration of my previous blog as could be. Without wishing to repeat myself, a few brief points about it:

  • As is already typical of this issue, it’s a column written by a Westerner which features absolutely no voices from within Russia. It seems a no-brainer to me that any boycotts (or indeed other action) should not only be informed, but meaningfully led by, activists in Russia. If people in other countries had decided to boycott the UK when it introduced Section 28, without actually speaking to anyone in the country, we would have found them utterly absurd. It’s an illustration of our Western arrogance that we feel completely justified leading on action in a country most of us have never set foot in.
  • An ignorance which is aptly illustrated by a series of links to reported events which we still known next to nothing about. The ‘Neo-Nazi skinheads torturing gay kids’ thing is reported on the website of a ‘human rights’ organisation which pretty much no-one had heard of last week. Its ‘base’ appears to be a PO Box in America. It provides almost no actual evidence for its claims and we have no reason to treat it as a credible source. Yet the story has still been reported worldwide. This isn’t to deny that it may be happening but we surely have an obligation to properly look into it rather than indignantly posting some links while demanding our boycotts which it’s clear some Russian activists think are utterly pointless?
  • She also posts the Buzzfeed link which everyone has been sharing. A link where you can see some harrowing photos surrounded by links such as “Your Favorite Celebs Decked Out In Lisa Frank”, “20 Signs that Jennifer Lawrence is Your Spirit Animal” and “27 Occasions That Definitely Call For Cake”. It’s cheap and tawdry. Buzzfeed could easily have a) written more than 50 words about the issue and b) linked to further reading. They don’t do either because they want to keep people’s attention and they don’t want to drive traffic away from the site. The fact that the story was apparently their most read of the week explains why they’re doing so many (facile) follow-ups. Seriously, what is this shit?
  • Thinking that the IOC actually cares a jot about human rights suggests at best a staggering naivete and at worst an incredulous stupidity. As I previously wrote, the IOC has history both of lending credence to repressive regimes and of demanding authoritarian crackdowns in ‘democratic’ countries which are hosting the games.
  • Indeed, it’s somewhat ironic that this author brings up the Nazi comparison and the Jews given that almost no countries boycotted the Olympics when they were held in Nazi Germany in 1936. The UK has never boycotted the Olympics, even during the US-led boycott of the Soviet Union in 1980.
  • The point she makes however, that everyone would boycott the Olympics if Russia was persecuting Jews, is a bit of an odd one given that Russia (and indeed previous host cities like China) have a track record of oppression which long pre-dates…last month. The clear implication that the Russian authorities could continue to harass, attack, jail and murder its opponents, feed and use far-right nationalism and racism, crack down on basic human rights and engage in brutal crackdowns as long as no-one was subject to any of this solely because of their sexuality is embarrassing, if not blatantly offensive.
  • Twenty-first century queers aren’t going to wait quietly for a diplomatic solution while each month more of us are tortured and more of us are murdered.” You’re right, not drinking vodka and calling for Olympic boycotts is far more appealing and productive. Yet in the next paragraph she pretty much attributes the end of apartheid to the actions of world governments.
  • Which is in itself obviously hugely problematic, completely ignoring the long and often violent struggle which took place on the ground within South Africa. It certainly became an international movement but it was not one which was imposed on South Africans from the West. Plus, Russia clearly isn’t South Africa and its dominance of the EU’s oil and gas supplies is enormously relevant here.
  • In short, this is the kind of indignant and ill-informed response which unfortunately seems to be driving this whole thing.

Shame on the IOC, NBC and foreign governments for turning a blind eye on Russia’s LGBT hate campaign

It seems to me that the ‘manif pour tous’  was attempting in a confused and deeply reactionary way to address  this deeper set of questions  concerning the relation between biology and social destiny and the destabilising of both family and community values. A  vacuum has been  created by the absence of a progressive engagement with such issues at the level of popular culture and everyday life;  it has been filled by  institutionalised forms of ‘political correctness’, and  the ideological  hothouse of  identity politics. Against this background, the dream of a simpler world, a world  of make-believe freed from the ambiguities and confusions of contemporary sexual politics, indeed a world liberated from sexuality altogether in the name of more innocent pleasures becomes ever more attractive.

I’m not sure that this piece entirely gels as a coherent whole but it’s an admirable effort nonetheless. The section I’ve quoted above is absolutely spot-on. I don’t wish to repeat myself at length but the shrillness of the ‘gay marriage debate’ certainly hasn’t been monopolised by the homophobes. The issue raises interesting questions, not least about marriage and about the nature of ‘equality’, which have been almost entirely ignored by the ‘progressive’ supporters of the cause. Instead, as the quote succinctly puts it, we’ve had “institutionalised forms of ‘political correctness’, and  the ideological  hothouse of  identity politics”. The automatic (and smugly expressed) assumption that any criticism or opposition = homophobia, something we’re seeing again tonight with the ‘oh now the world will end waaaah!’ crowing online. It’s not exactly been dignified. It seems even less likely tonight that any of these issues will be thought about in any depth – indeed, there’s a Twitterstorm currently brewing over alleged Tory plans to ‘get tough on teenage single mothers’ yet absolutely no-one is drawing any connection between it and the question of ‘marriage equality’. Yet notions of ‘marriage’, particularly the morality behind it and its privileged status in society, are clearly relevant. Indeed, the ‘letting gays get married will mean less single parents’ argument has been wheeled out in favour of ‘equal marriage’. There are implicit judgements there, assumptions about the way a relationship is supposed to work and how a ‘family’ is supposed to be constructed. Once you start thinking about these connections it sheds new light on tweets like this, where we’re supposed to coo at some gays becoming respectable, making their love ‘official’. We’re not supposed to ask questions about why their love wasn’t good enough already or how folk in ‘non-traditional’ relationships which remain beyond the realms of ‘marriage’  fit into all this.

Gay marriage, whatever its merits, is as an issue a big old plaster which we nice liberal folk can slap over ourselves to feel good and superior without having to think about any of the uncomfortable stuff. In recent days we’ve seen the same with the Trayvon Martin verdict, where I’ve seen folk in the UK who only weeks ago were spouting reactionary drivel about the Woolwich attacks, who abandoned all pretence of ‘liberalism’ during the 2010 riots and who rarely have much to say about racism in the UK  wailing loudly about the injustice. Racism in this case is not only on the other side of the world, it’s big and it’s obvious. That’s racism. They’re racist. We’re not racist. Again, there’s no need to think about anything. No need to consider the subtle and insidious ways in which racism manifests itself, no need to consider our own positions, our own privileges, our own attitudes and actions. At the root of both responses lies a conception of ‘equality’ which is woefully trite, naive and shallow. This lack of critical thought, this aversion to seriously looking lest we don’t like what we see, feeds into the vacuum which the author of the above piece mentions. And so we can tweet our support for the further privileging of certain kinds of relationships in society while seconds later complaining with disbelief that a government is yet again taking aim at a stigmatised form of ‘family’. 

Edit – I’m compelled to add this story here as a further illustration of what I’m talking about. The full-on assault on those claiming benefits appeals to many prejudices and ill-founded assumptions but the benefits cap in particular rests on the basis that only those who can ‘afford’ it should a) have children and/or b) live in ‘desirable’ areas. This is exactly the kind of thing people mean when they describe ‘marriage equality’ as equality only for the already privileged, who already have choices and opportunities. Those who don’t due to whatever circumstances find themselves stigmatised and subject to the cruel whims of a baying mob. Look at the bottom of the linked article – it rather incongruously mentions a proposed tax break for married couples. You can safely assume that Osborne is not pitching this to the married couples who will be hit by the benefits cap – no, instead it’s aimed at the wholesome, ‘good’ families who pay their way and don’t rock the boat. They are the chosen ones. Now we gay folk can be the chosen ones too. ‘Equality’.

Living the dream: a letter from Paris | openDemocracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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