“Gay imperialism”: Postcolonial particularity

Those who oppose Marxism, Enlightenment, or even liberal ideologies on the ground that they are Eurocentric or colonial impositions, and propose as an alternative supposedly more organic, authentically indigenous lifeways and autochthonous, communitarian wisdom, are themselves simply victim to another European ideology: Romanticism. I hope it is clear in the following that I do not share the views of Massad or Bouteldja.

Homonationalism and “pinkwashing”

Since her refusal to accept the Berlin Pride Civil Courage Award, Judith Butler has been a leading critic of “homonationalism” and the closely related phenomenon of so-called “pinkwashing.” Homonationalism is understood here as an ideology which uses a nation’s liberal attitudes toward homosexuality as a means of encouraging racist attitudes toward other nations, on the grounds that they are supposedly less enlightened. Butler stated in a May 2010 address on “Queer Alliance and Antiwar Politics” in Ankara, Turkey that “in some parts of Europe and surely in Israel as well, the rights of homosexuals are defended in the name of nationalism.” Or as she put it in Berlin, what was supposed to be her acceptance speech: “Lesbian, gay, trans, and queer people can be used [by] warmongers involved in cultural wars against immigrants through Islamophobia and military wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. In this time, through these instruments, we become recruited for nationalism and militarism.”

Reference is only made in Butler’s latter statement to NATO and the US — which partly rationalized their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or at least made them more palatable to left-liberals, by presenting them as an opportunity to liberate women — but Israel is clearly also implied. Tel Aviv’s vibrant LGBT scene has been deservedly praised for its openness and acceptance of different sexual orientations and gender identities, but this reputation simultaneously serves propagandistic ends. Juxtaposed against daily life in the Gaza strip, where Hamas is in power and things are difficult due to crippling economic blockades, Tel Aviv is made out to be a gay oasis surrounded by a desert of Islamist homophobia. Israel uses this contrast to present a tolerant image of itself, and to divert attention away from the bitter realities of occupation. Forget for a moment the string of stabbings last summer at the Jerusalem Pride festival by Yishai Schlissel, an ultra-orthodox Jew.

In November 2011, New York Times ran a brief op-ed by Sarah Schulman on the “pinkwashing” practice of modern Israel. According to Schulman, the official government as well as unofficial travel agencies instrumentalize the country’s strong record on gay rights (compared to the rest of the region, anyway) as a “messaging tool” to counterbalance some of the bad press it’s received from ongoing human rights abuses. Schulman’s original article was decent, but much of the subsequent debate dismal. Discussions of Israeli public relations, commonly euphemized as “explanation” [hasbara], tend to devolve rather quickly. They either veer into conspiracy theory, repeating the old charge that Jews (er, Zionists) control the media, or end up denying such a policy even exists, when fellowships are regularly awarded to advocates on Israel’s behalf. Forward, the bilingual Yiddish daily founded in 1897 by followers of Daniel De Leon, had a sensible take: “Not all Israeli gay messaging is pinkwashing. Most of it is just adspace meant to attract gay tourists to Tel Aviv. Which it does.” Jay Michaelson, the author of the piece, nevertheless took issue with a highly manipulative full-page ad placed by Rabbi Schmuley in December 2014.

Butler and Schulman are of course right to point out that Israel’s progressive views on gay rights do not excuse its national oppression of Palestinians or ethnic chauvinism toward Arabs, but the inverse should also hold true: Hamas’ so-called “resistance” to Israeli militarism does not excuse its organizational antisemitism or illiberal stance on rights for women and gays.

Selective “shibboleths”

Many leftists stop short of this basic equipoise, however. For example, Butler herself is ready to excuse organizations guilty of or complicit with other forms of oppression. At a 2006 antiwar teach-in, watchable below, she affirmed the “progressive” credentials of brazenly antisemitic and homophobic groups like Hezbollah and Hamas:

Yes, understanding Hamas and Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, on the Left, part of a global Left, is extremely important. That does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements. It doesn’t stop those of us who are interested in non-violent politics from raising the question of whether there are other options besides violence. So again, a critical, important engagement. I mean, I certainly think it should be entered into the conversation on the Left. I similarly think boycotts and divestment procedures are, again, an essential component of any resistance movement.

When these remarks were brought up again in 2012, Butler revised her claims somewhat: “These political organizations define themselves as anti-imperialist. Anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the global left. On that basis one could describe them as part of the global Left.” Even with this qualification, describing Hezbollah and Hamas as progressive or leftist organizations based solely on their resistance to Israeli militarism is laughable. Still, like the Marxist academic Susan Buck-Morss, Butler maintains that some Islamist groups may be included under the broad umbrella of a “global left.” Buck-Morss wrote in “Can there be a Global Left?”, the final chapter of her 2003 book Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left: “Islamist politics has been multiple and contentious, spanning a wide variety of political positions, including a critical Left… ‘Left’ here would mean radical in the critical sense [and] also mean cosmopolitan: it would define social justice in a way that excludes no group of humanity from the benefits of, and moral accountability within, the global public sphere.” For a scathing review of this work, see Arya Zahedi’s 2009 piece for Insurgent Notes.

Frantz Fanon was far too committed an atheist to entertain the possibility that religious revival might play a progressive political role in the struggle against imperialism. Though by then he had abandoned the cosmopolitan humanism of Black Skin, White Masks in favor of all-out war with colonialism and the West, Fanon conveyed his skepticism to his admirer Ali Shariati. He wrote in a letter to Shariati:

Even if I do not share your views with respect to Islam, I respect your view that in the Third World (and if you don’t mind, I would prefer to say in the Near and Middle East), Islam, more than any other social and ideological force, has had an anti-colonialist capacity and an anti-Western nature. I hope that your intellectuals will be able to instill life in the inert and drugged body of the Muslim East so as to raise the consciousness of the people… in order to found a different kind of man and a different kind of civilization. I, for one, fear that the fact of revitalizing the spirit of sectarianism and religion may result in a setback for a nation that is engaged in the process of becoming, of distancing itself from its future and immobilizing it in its past.

Later, after he supported the nationalist uprising in Algeria, Fanon expressed his deep misgivings. “My leftist leanings drove me toward the same goal as Muslim nationalists. Yet I was too conscious of the different roads by which we reached the same aspiration. Independence, yes, I agreed. But what independence? Were we going to fight to build a feudal, theocratic Muslim state in Algeria frowned on by foreigners?” At least in this regard, despite his capitulation to nationalism, Fanon remains superior to the decolonial dumbasses who idolize him.

Sadly, this habit of ignoring irreconcilable points of disagreement in the name of an anti-imperialist coalition or popular front is not limited to academics. Numerous activists and even some left-wing populist (“grassroots”) politicians have succumbed to it as well.

Lindsey German, to take one activist, notoriously announced in 2004 that she was willing to compromise on certain issues but not on others. At the time, German was a member of the British SWP and Stop the War coalition. Women’s rights and gay rights were for her negotiable, while anti-Zionism was not: “Stuart King says some Muslims are anti-gay, and this is perfectly true. But it is not a question we pose to Christians who join the Socialist Alliance, is it? Now I’m personally in favor of defending gay rights, but I am not prepared to have it as a shibboleth, created by people who won’t defend George Galloway, and who regard the state of Israel as somehow a viable presence, justified in occupying Palestinian territories.” Galloway himself is unwilling to defend women’s reproductive rights in parliament, decrying abortion as infanticide and spouting other sexist tripe. Of course, none of this matters. His anti-Zionism allows leftists to overlook a plethora of reactionary positions, a selective blindness he is happy to extend to fellow anti-Zionists. Yusuf al-Qaradawi — an Egyptian televangelist cleric who defends wife-beating and female genital mutilation, as well as corporal punishment (either by lashing or stoning) for those guilty of homosexual acts — was invited to London by Galloway in 2005. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, lauded al-Qaradawi as “a leading progressive voice in the Muslim world.”

Aufheben, an independent Marxian theoretical journal in Britain inspired by Italian autonomism and Dutch-German councilism, chronicled the farcical effort of the antiwar Respect Party to win over the “British Muslim community.” In its 2009 article “Croissants and Roses: New Labour, Communalism, and the Rise of Muslim Britain,” Aufheben reconstructed the tailist logic of Respect’s SWP leadership as it desperately sought to house this new milieu within its ideological headspace. Some of the old Swapper stances on women’s and gay rights had to be jettisoned to make room for this new crowd, it was believed (though Cliffite Trotskyism always has plenty of room at its disposal, so vacuous is its ideology). Happily, this pandering was met mostly with indifference on the part of British Muslims:

Vital to the success of this project, particularly as the anti-war movement began to subside, was the need to bring the “British Muslim community” on board. So as not to put Muslims off, the SWP insisted that Respect eschew left-wing “shibboleths” such as women’s and gay rights. They went to the mosques and echoed the arguments of the more radical political Islamists by claiming that Bush’s “Global War on Terror” was in fact a war on Muslims — both abroad, with the attack on Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also at home with the succession of anti-terrorist legislation — that should be opposed by all Muslims as “Muslims.” And like the more radical political Islamists they denounced New Labour as Islamophobic and racist. Yet for all their efforts to pander to muslim sensitivities, Respect failed to win over the “British Muslim community,” which remained wedded to New Labour.

Is there a reason leftists are so ready to condemn queer and feminist organizations that sanction or lend ideological support to imperialism, yet hesitate to condemn anti-imperialist groups which espouse hatred and violence toward women and gays? To be absolutely clear, both ought to be condemned. But leftists often equivocate before condemning the latter. Why are they so reluctant to criticize reactionary forms of anti-imperialism, especially outside the West?

Postcolonial particularity

Usually at this point some sort of “irreducible particularity” is invoked, which is supposed to prevent a universal judgment from being formed. Radical otherness [l’altérité radicale] demands that the object of critique be treated on its own terms, rather than subsumed under familiar categories. (Nine times out of ten, the particularity in question is cultural. See, in this connection, Butler’s 1997 article “Merely Cultural,” defending particularism against its universalist detractors). Claims to universality, it is objected, in reality fact reflect the experience of a very particular culture — namely that of Europe, or “the West” — which has been surreptitiously elevated to the status of a normative ideal. Expecting everyone to conform to Eurocentric norms of gay rights or gender equality places an unfair burden on non-Western cultures, to which these concepts do not apply. Joseph Massad’s postcolonial reading of what he calls “the Gay International” is at times almost akin to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s flip reply to students at Columbia University, where he was visiting in 2007 (and where Massad continues to teach). Asked whether homosexuals in his country have rights, the Iranian president answered: “We don’t have homosexuals in Iran.” Massad, not to be confused with the Israeli secret service Mossad, writes in Desiring Arabs:

The advent of colonialism and Western capital to the Arab world has transformed most aspects of daily living; however, it has failed to impose a European heterosexual regime on all Arab men, although its efforts were successful in the upper classes and among the increasingly Westernized middle classes. It is among members of these richer segments of society that the Gay International found native informants. Although members of these classes who engage in same-sex relations have more recently adopted a Western identity (as part of the package of the adoption of everything Western by the classes to which they belong), they remain a minuscule minority among those men who engage in same-sex relations and who do not identify as “gay” nor express a need for gay politics.

Here one is reminded of Bouteldja’s denunciation of “gay imperialism” [impérialisme gay]. According to her, there are no homos in the banlieue: “The homosexual lifestyle does not exist in the popular quarters [Le mode de vie homosexuel n’existe pas dans les quartiers populaires],” Bouteldja baldly asserts. For her co-thinkers Félix Boggio Éwanjé-Épée and Stella Magliani-Belkacem, gay identity is already a form of colonial imposition: “Homosexuality is a Western invention forced upon Africa and Mahgreb via an ‘imperialism of lifestyles’ [L’homosexualité, invention occidentale imposée à l’Afrique et au Maghreb, via un «impérialisme des modes de vie»].” Something similar was claimed by Azedine Berkane in 2002, after he was arrested for stabbing Bertrand Delanoë, the first openly gay mayor of Paris. Berkane, a known homophobe, explained to reporters his belief that “Muslim fags don’t exist [Musulmans pédés, ça n’existe pas].” Perhaps Bouteldja & co. would agree with him? Despite differences of confession, might they not also agree with Pope Francis’ recent reactionary hogwash about the “ideological colonization” of less developed nations by marriage equality and “gender theory”? Or Bishop Victor Messalles of Santo Domingo, who recently decried “gay imperialism”?

Massad told Boggio Éwanjé-Épée and Magliani-Belkacem in a 2013 interview, tellingly titled “Empire of Sexuality,” that sexuality as such originated in the West. It was subsequently exported through imperial conquest, along with a set of rigid binaries like homo/hetero, etc. (Claims that binary thinking is peculiar to Western Europe, and was only brought to the rest of the world on galleons and steamships, are never elaborated or substantiated. The assumption that precolonial cultures were some sort of genderqueer paradise seems naïve). At any rate, the notion that gay identity is a relatively recent development is plausible. Drawing on the insights of John D’Emilio, who barely warrants a mention in Desiring Arabs, Massad stated:

“Sexuality” itself, as an epistemological and ontological category, is a product of specific Euro-American histories and social formations: i.e., a Euro-American “cultural” category that is not universal or necessarily universalizable. Indeed, even when the category “sexuality” has traveled with European colonialism to non-European locales, its adoption in those contexts where it occurred was neither identical nor even necessarily symmetrical with its deployment in Europe and Euro-America. John D’Emilio argued many years ago that “gay men and lesbians have not always existed. Instead, they are a product of history, and have come into existence in a specific historical era… associated with the relations of capitalism.” We must add… that their historical emergence and production was also specific to those geographic regions of the world and those classes within them where a specific type of capital accumulation had occurred and where certain types of capitalist relations of production prevailed. As capitalism is the universalizing means of production and it has produced its own intimate forms and modes of framing capitalist relations, these forms and modes have not been institutionalized across national laws and economies, and in the quotidian and intimate practices of various peoples, in the same way.

D’Emilio sought to demonstrate that the effect of capitalism on the emergence of gay and lesbian identities in the West was both an outcome of labor relations that required new residential and migratory activities, the dissolution or weakening of kinship and family ties, and the development of a consumer society and the emergence of social networks that produce, shape, and articulate sexual desires that are commensurate with these changes, which led to the development of sexual identities… That Gay Internationalists seek to assimilate these identities by forcing them into the frame of the homo-hetero binary is itself a culturally imperialist symptom of imperial capital’s penetration of peripheral countries, and not the outcome or effect of such penetration, since in most cases it was unable to reproduce or impose normative European sexual identities on the majority of the population. Here, we must bear in mind that, as Edward Said reminds us, “imperialism is the export of identity.” It operates in the register of producing non-Europe as other, and sometimes as almost the same as (or potentially the same as) Europe.

Nonetheless, though he sets out from solid foundations (D’Emilio’s), Massad soon finds himself on unsure footing. He specifies capitalism as “the universalizing means [he probably means ‘mode’] of production,” but alludes to its historic spread across different geographic regions to eventually wrap the whole globe. This supposedly accounts for the “historical difference” theorized by postcolonial writers like Dipesh Chakrabarty, the unsublated remainder left over by prehistoric alternatives to primitive accumulation — a remainder which can never be fully integrated into the regime of abstract labor. Chakrabarty designates this the second of “two histories of capital.” Whereas History 1 is “the universal and necessary history we associate with capital,” History 2 encompasses the particular and contingent formations “encountered as antecedents” by History 1. Marx was too stubbornly Hegelian for Chakrabarty’s taste, or rather insufficiently Heideggerian: “In a properly Heideggerian framework… both the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand retain their importance without gaining epistemological primacy over the other; History 2 cannot sublate itself into History 1.”

Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said are more relevant references for Massad, but the schematic distinction between History 1 and History 2 from Provincializing Europe is instructive here. Massad’s argument proceeds along essentially these same lines. “The categories gay and lesbian are not universal at all and can only be universalized by the epistemic, ethical, and political violence unleashed on the rest of the world by international human rights advocates whose aim is to defend the very people their intervention is creating,” he contended in Desiring Arabs, anticipating Butler’s speech in Berlin a couple years later. Against this particularist onslaught, what hope remains for Marxist universalism?

To answer this, the connection between capitalism and civilization must be clarified.

6 thoughts on ““Gay imperialism”: Postcolonial particularity

  1. Pingback: Lying About Sex | Printculture

  2. As a founding member of Toronto Gay Action and the Body Politic collective in the early seventies, I came out of the radicalization on Canadian campuses in the sixties which activism ultimately included involvement in the anti-war movement, women’s liberation, trade unions, support of U.S. civil rights, the Cuban revolution and other third-world liberation struggles, actions in support of an independent Socialist Quebec and Canada’s social democratic party, the NDP. – all the while at modest personal sacrifice and, aside from being beaned a few times by the cops, with little fear of serious physical violence.

    As I became involved in the gay liberation movement, I drifted away from the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvriere, the then leading Canadian wing of the Fourth International, because it left its gay members out on a limb by waffling on supporting our activities in that nascent movement; notwithstanding our unwavering commitment to the core Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist view that only a world-wide proletarian-led uprising leading to a socialist future could lead humanity out of the morass of capitalism.

    The debate revolved around the question: “What is the revolutionary potential of the gay liberation movement?” My currently surviving gay comrades are mightily pissed off at the assimilationist reality in the Western LGBTQETC stew, let alone homo-nationalism. I reminded them, I think the wrong question is being asked. Not how did this happen? But why should it not have happened?

    The fact of the matter is that there is nothing that can be pointed to that would suggest being gay would immunize us from a trend which affected the entire left, from the extreme members of the Weather Underground (whose survivors now long out of prison are mostly middle-class academics or, at best, community organizers), to the Black Panthers (its leadership murdered, demoralized or co-opted), the women’s movement (a much larger cohort than we gays), the trade union movement (the pork choppers having sold out their membership and any principles of real solidarity), the NDP (having put all its political eggs into the electoral basket), etc.

    Our movement has joined other identity-based organizations in the race to the lowest common denominator of basic human rights and electoral “democracy” – not that there is anything wrong with that – and the majority of gays and lesbians in Europe and North America care little if anything at all about the atrocities in Syria or those perpetrated by Israel in Gaza to the present day.

    It is this reality that makes a mockery of Ms. Butler’s positions (and many others of her ilk) on the chaos unfolding in the Middle East and Africa, whereby (and I would be happy to be corrected) she herself has no skin the game. Can she imagine a man, either gay or a member of Fatah or both, awaiting his turn to be thrown off a tall building saying to his masked Hamas minder, “[this] doesn’t stop those of us who are interested in non-violent politics from raising the question of whether there are other options besides violence.” Your only possible hope for rescue being a lucky (for you) hit by Israel on the last tall building left standing in Gaza, and living to crawl out of the rubble. Reductio ad adsurdum? Not if you are simply trying to keep yourself and your family from being killed by any side in this cluster fuck, rather than a woman of relative privilege speaking at a teach-in.

  3. Pingback: “Gay imperialism”: Postcolonial particularity — The Charnel-House | communists in situ

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