November 30, 2005
GAY POLAND PROTESTS OFFICIAL GAY-BASHING
I wrote the following article for the new issue of Gay City News -- New York City's largest gay weekly -- in which it appears tomorrow:
Pro-gay demonstrations were held in cities all over Poland this past weekend to protest the banning and police repression of a gay March for Equality and Tolerance in Poznan on November 19, in which 68 of some 500 demonstrators were assaulted and arrested. Yet the major U.S. gay organizations -- unlike their European counterparts -- have remained silent on the events in Poland, just as they've largely ignored the anti-gay pogrom in Iran. (Photo above left, pro-gay demonstrators this weekend in Krakow).
Despite severe winter weather, thousands of demonstrators joined the weekend demonstrations not only in Warsaw, the capital (photo above left )but in the cities of Gdansk, Elblag, Rzeszow, Lodz, Torun (photo right), Wroclaw, Krakow, and even Poznan itself. The demonstrations were called by a hastily-formed Solidarity With Poznan National Committee; initiated by the Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH), the four-year-old, all-volunteer organization which is Poland’s largest gay group. The Solidarity Committee was co-sponsored by local branches of the Polish Social Democratic Party, the Green Party, the Democratic Party, the Young Socialists, and a raft of human rights, student, and women’s organizations.
In a statement, the Solidarity Committee said that the banning and repression of the previous weekend’s demonstration in Poznan “showed that Poland is not a place where the law is fully respected.” Targeting the pro-gay demonstrators, the statement said, proved that these “citizens are deprived of their right to express their beliefs and ideas , but the authorities let fascist groups and the police attack innocent people.”
In the banned Poznan demonstration, police did not intervene when members of the All Polish Youth -- the attack-dog militia of the virulently anti-gay, anti-Semitic, extreme-right League of Polish Families party -- threw eggs and projectiles at the gay demonstrators while shouting “Gas the fags!” and “We’ll do to you what Hitler did to the Jews!” Instead the police arrested the gay demonstrators marching despite the ban, who were carrying lighted candles and chanting, “This is a funeral for democracy.” The secretary-general of the gay group KPH, Tomasz Szypula (right) -- one of the 68 gay demonstrators arrested in Poznan -- said later, “The police treated us like they treat football hooligans.” (Photo above left, skinheads from the All Polish Youth heckle gay demonstrators this weekend in Wroclaw.)
The banning of the Poznan march was testimony to the new, aggressively homophobic climate in Poland since the new national government was elected on October 23. The new Polish President, Lech Kaczynski (right)-- head of the ultraconservative, pro-Catholic Law and Justice Party -- as Mayor of Warsaw had previously banned the capital’s gay pride marches two years in a row, declaring they’d be “sexually obscene” and that he was opposed to “propagating gay orientation.” Those elections also saw two extreme-right, neo-fascist, ultra-homophobic parties -- the peasant-based Self-Defense party and the League of Polish Families -- together rack up nearly a fifth of the vote. Altogether, right-wing parties got 77% of the vote in those Polish elections.
Also last week, a visit to London by Poland’s equally homophobic new Prime Minister, Kasimierz Marcinkiewicz (left), was met with a demonstration co-sponsored by the International Lesbian and Gay Association and the militant British gay rights group OutRage. When Marcinkiewicz arrived for a November 24 speech at Chatham House, he was forced to slink in through a side door to avoid the gay demonstrators. Marcinkiewicz is a fundamentalist Catholic who -- shortly after being named prime minister by the conservative parliamentary coalition led by President Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party -- declared homosexuality “unnatural,” adding, “The family is natural, and the state must stand guard over the family.” Marcinkiewicz went on to say that if a homosexual “tries to infect others with their homosexuality, then the state must intervene in this violation of freedom.”
One of the first acts of Marcinkiewicz’s government was to abolish the Office of the Government Plenipotentiary for the Equality of Men and Women, which was responsible for protecting sexual minorities against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Polish gay groups are concerned that there’s more to come on the new government’s agenda. The new president’s twin brother, Jaroslav Kaczynski (right) -- the de facto head of Poland’s parliament and chief of the Law and Justice party’s parliamentary group -- has previously proposed banning gay men from teaching in the schools.
Amnesty International, in a statement released November 25, warned of the heightened “climate of intolerance in Poland against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community,” and denounced the banning of the previous weekend’s gay march in Poznan as “dictated by intolerance.” In sharp contrast, there has been total silence on Poland’s new official homophobia from the largest U.S. gay groups, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Neither has bothered to issue so much as a press release on the banning of the Poznan march or a statement of solidarity with this past weekend’s gay protests.
This weekend’s Poland-wide gay Solidarity With Poznan demonstrations were a success, despite freezing weather. Over 1000 turned out in Warsaw. In Gdansk, where the union movement Solidarnosc was born 25 years ago -- an act which eventually led to the toppling of Poland’s Communist dictatorship -- Solidarnosc members joined hundreds of gay demonstrators, despite the fact that this march, too, had been banned by the city’s mayor. In Poznan, 300 police outnumbered the demonstrators. Simultaneous demonstrations sponsored by European gay rights organizations were held in front of the Polish embassies in London and Berlin. And earlier in the week in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, the sponsors of and attendees at the gay film festival Mezipatra joined in a protest at the Polish embassy there, handing in to the embassy a letter denouncing the banning of the Poznan gay march.
A new poll shows that Poland is one of Europe’s most homophobic countries. Released in Prague November 28 by the Czech polling institute CVVM, the four-country poll said 70% of Poles are opposed to gay marriage, compared to 58% of Czechs, and 69% of Slovaks and Hungarians. In the poll, asked if they knew a homosexual person, only 14% of the Poles, 8% of the Hungarians, and 30% of the Slovaks said they did, compared to 43% of the Czechs who knew someone gay. Registered partnerships of gay couples were opposed by 47% of the Poles, 58% of Hungarians, and 53% of Slovaks, but by just 30% of the Czechs.
On November 28, a prominent member of the European Parliament called for the European Union to take legal action against Poland in the wake of the banning of the Poznan march. Baroness Sarah Ludford (right), the British Liberal Democratic party’s European Justice spokeswoman in the EuroParliament at Strasbourg, demanded stronger EU action against Poland for its homophobia. “Repressive and intolerant behavior is quite rightly condemned when it takes place in a country seeking EU membership. But when it occurs in an existing member state, a blind eye seems to be turned. This is gutless hypocrisy,” she charged.
The MEP for London, Baroness Ludford added that “The Polish situation shows the need for three things. There should be wider EU gay equality laws going beyond the current coverage of employment rights; a political willingness from Brussels to treat homophobic speech and actions as a severe breach of EU human rights principles; and infringement proceedings for failure to implement specific EU laws on workplace equality.”
Poland is the signatory to two treaties obliging signatories to guarantee all individuals the enjoyment of their human rights without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. There has been, of course, no protest from the U.S. State Department of Poland’s violations of these two treaties.
For background on Poland's new ultraconservative and homophobic regime, see these previous DIRELAND articles: October 28: "Is Poland's New President Another Putin, or Another Peron?"; October 25, "Poland Could Lose E.U. Rights Over New Leadership's Homophobia"; October 24, "Poland Elects a Hard-Right, Homophobic President" ; November 21, "Poland: A First-Hand Account of an Official Gay-Bashing.:"
The problem of the isolationist attitude and lack of international solidarity on the part of U.S. gay groups -- once again evident in their silence on Poland's gay crisis -- is a serious moral challenge to the gay community. For more on this, see my article for Gay City News, "Iran and the Death of Gay Activism," and Rob Andersons excellent article in The New Republic, "The Quiet Americans: How America's Gay Rights Establishment is Failing Gay Iranians."
CANADA: TORIES WANT TO END LEGAL GAY MARRIAGE -- Today's Toronto Globe and Mail front-pages the news that, in the wake of the successful no-confidence motion that yesterday toppled the scandal-plagued Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Paul Martin, the leader of Canada's conservatives pledged to "restore the traditional definition of marriage." For details, click here.
November 26, 2005
PIERRE SEEL, Last Living "Pink Triangle" in France, Dies
Pierre Seel, the last known surviving French homosexual victim of the Nazi concentration camps, has died at the age of 82, it was announced in Paris yesterday. Anyone who has seen the remarkable documentary "Paragraph 175," by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman -- about the Pink Triangles, the homosexual victims of Nazi repression -- will remember the unforgettable sequence in the film in which Pierre Seel (above left) recounted his arrest and torture for being gay -- this included his multiple rapes, and being sodomized with a wooden stake, which left his ass bleeding all his life long --and how the Nazis fed his lover to be eaten by dogs before his eyes.
When Alsace-Lorraine was annexed by the Germans in 1940, the Nazis systematically began to weed out "anti-social" elements. They directed the French police to establish the notorious "Pink Lists" to keep track of homosexuals, a task the French carried out with enthusiasm. One of their targets was Seel, an Alsatien, who was arrested at the age of 17 -- by Vichy France's police -- for being homosexual (Vichy France had re-criminalized homosexuality, which had not been illegal since the Code Napoleon; most Vichy legislation was repealed after the war -- but the anti-gay Vichy law remained on the books for four decades until it was finally repealed in 1982.) Seel was turned over to the Nazis, and subsequently sent to the concentration camp of Struthof, the only German concentration camp on French soil during World War II. While in the camp, he discovered that his 18-year-old lover had also been arrested. Seel related that discovery, and the horror that followed it, in his 1994 autobiography, "Moi, Pierre Seel, déporté homosexuel" (cover above right) published by Editions Calmann Levy -- an English editon was published the following year by Basic Books.).Seel wrote:
"All the inmates were summoned to stand at attention in the camp's assembly ground. The camp commandant and all his troops were there. Into the center of the square we were ordered to form, two SS men dragged a young man. With stupefaction I recognized my beloved, Jo -- he and I hadn't seen each other since a few days before my arrest....The loudspeakers played noisy military music as the SS men stripped him naked, and violently jammed a metal bucket over his head. They unleashed on Jo the camp's ferocious guard-dogs, German Shepherds, who began to rip at his flesh -- first his genitals, and his thighs, and then they devoured Jo before our eyes. His screams of pain were amplified and distorted by the bucket over his head. Frozen in place and trembling, wide-eyed at seeing so much horror, I had tears running down my cheeks. I prayed that he would rapidly lose consciousness...." (My translation from the French edition-- D.I.) Upper left, the sign over the Struthof camp entrance, as it appears today.
After the war, gay concentration camp victims like Seel -- the Pink Triangles, named after the special badge homosexuals in the camps were forced to wear by the Nazis -- were shunned, and refused recognition or compensation from the state like other deportees received. After the war he was allowed back into his family under the condition that he never reveal the true circumstances of his arrest. He went into a downward spiral, entering a marriage of convenience and eventually becoming suicidal -- until deciding to take a stand and make his story public. Then, for the rest of his life, Seel fought for official recognition of the Vichy-Nazi deportation of homosexuals by the French authorities. Seel not only brought his witness before the public on many occasions, but he also fought for the inclusion of the representatives of gay organizations in the annual French ceremonies commemorating Nazi deportations of Jews, resistants, political prisoners, and others. In 2003, Seel (right) finally received official recognition as a victim of the Holocaust by the International Organization for Migration's program for aiding Nazi victims. But Seel said that, for as long as he would not be recognized by the French state as having been "deported for homosexuality," he considered himself a stateless person. That official recognition of Seel by the French government never came.
After his memoir was published, and following a TV appearance with other deportees, Seel -- a small, frail man then in his 70s --was assaulted and beaten in the streets by a group of young people shouting "dirty faggot." What shocked Seel the most, he said afterwards, was that those who attacked him were not skinheads, but jeunes bourgeois in coats and ties.
Seel will be buried November 28 in the cemetery of Brames, in the Lot-et-Garonne department of France.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. has an exhibit dedicated to the homosexual victims of the Nazis -- you can visit an online version of this exhibit by clicking here.
November 24, 2005
"SAVE US!"--A Gay Iranian Who Married His Partner Begs for Help from the West
I wrote the following article for Gay City News -- New York's largest gay weekly -- in whose new edition it will appear tommorow:
The lethal anti-gay pogrom in the Islamic Republic of Iran under recently-elected, arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (lower right) continues to send homosexuals to the gallows. In the latest hangings of gays, the semi-official, ultraconservative daily Kayhan reported on November 13 that two gay men, Mokhtar N., 24, and Ali A., 25, were publicly executed for “penetrative homosexual acts” in the Shahid Bahonar Square of the northern city of Gorgan, which has a population of some 200,000. Human Rights Watch, in denouncing these latest gay executions, said in a statement that, “These abuses have created an atmosphere of terror for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people throughout Iran.”
Three other homosexuals -- identified only by the names Youness, Hossein, and Ruhollah -- were hanged to death in the western city of Kermanshah on November 21, according to another Iranian press report relayed by Iran Focus, an exile website. The Iran newspapers said the men were charged with “rape” of a 19-year-old male. But phony rape charges are frequently used to hang gay people in Iran -- as they were in the hangings of two teenage gay lovers in the city of Mashad on July 19 (above left)-- because, under the Sharia law in force in the Islamic Republic, proving “homosexual acts” requires four witnesses, so it is easier for the regime to invent rape charges in order to eliminate gay people. Iranian gay groups and underground publications have repeatedly warned the West not to accept such charges at face value.
Mojtaba, 27, is the latest escapee from Iran’s anti-gay reign of terror to describe what life is like for same-sexers in Iran. (see also my earlier interview with 22-year-old Amir, "They'll Kill Me" -- A Gay Iranian Torture Victim Recounts His Ordeal.) In a two-and-a-half hour interview last week on the phone from Turkey, Mojtaba -- through a translator from the Persian -- told me his story.
Mojtaba, a soft-spoken young man, is from Shiraz, a city of some 1,100,000 people in southwest Iran that, in the 18th century , was the capital of Persia. “I was born in Shiraz to a middle class family -- my father has a small business. I was the middle child of four brothers and two sisters, and my brothers always taunted me with being a ‘sissy,’ telling me how embarrassed they were when I start to speak and how I move my hands. The only one who understands me is my mother -- she has never forced me to marry a girl, as other mothers would do. As a child I always felt and thought I was a girl, and my strongest desire was to grow up and marry and become a mother. I know that she has felt I’m gay -- she has treated me like a daughter -- but she keeps quiet and nurtures my secret inside.”
Mojtaba’s first sexual experience happened when he was in a boys’ dormitory at university, where he was studying business management. “I was a virgin until I was 17,” he says. “I had lived a completely fearful and isolated life. I was confused and scared. I finally approached my university roommate, telling him how much I liked him and offering to have sex with him -- I started with jokes and humor, then became more flirtatious. At first he responded that ‘you act like a pedophile,’ or ‘are you a fag?’ But his language gradually changed to a playful tone -- and finally, we had sex. That first experience -- one of joy and satisfaction -- assured me that I’m really a homosexual. Our sexual relationship continued for a long time -- but my roommate never let on how much he enjoyed it, although I know he did. He considered himself straight -- today he is married and has two children.” (Avove Right, 17th century Persian painting)
Mojtaba says that first sexual relationship “gave me self-esteem and courage. I had Internet access, and finally found a site about a group of gays in our city. I got in touch with them and I was invited to their parties, where I met many like me -- and for the first time I felt I’m not really alone, that I’m not really a sick person!”
Mojtaba was introduced to the lad who became his partner five years ago by a mutual friend. “Mehrdad is two years younger than me, from more or less the same socio-economic status, and has a high-school diploma. At the beginning of our relationship, we just got to know each other, talking about our selves, our feelings, needs, and identity -- Mehrdad, like me, had also felt lonely and isolated. He had been forced by his family to marry a girl, but was miserably unhappy. After several meetings, we became boyfriends.”
“We usually throw parties in our homes. Finally, in June this year, we decided to announce our commitment, to have a secret marriage and invite our group of friends. We rented a private garden usually used for wedding gatherings, and we provided all the traditional Persian trappings of a wedding -- we spread silk table clothes on the ground with food, flowers, fruits, pastries, honey, sugar cane, candles….” (Left, a traditional Persian wedding spread) Mojtaba and Mehrdad are religious, and the Koran was used in their marriage. “The wedding ceremony began at 8:00 AM and lasted until 9:00 P.M.. We exchanged wedding rings, everyone brought gifts, and we played music and danced the whole time. Only the 25 friends we invited knew about our wedding, none of our blood relatives knew.”
Mojtaba was already known to the police as a homosexual, because he had been among those arrested for attending a gay party in Shiraz a few years earlier. “The secret police attacked us, beat us, and took us to the prison of the Office for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. We were kept there for two horrible days of muscular interrogations, fined, but finally released because they could not find any documents to prove our crime of being gay. We were forced to sign a pledge not to engage in any ‘degenerate, anti-religious’ activities that violated the religious commandments, like gay sex. They threatened us that the next time they caught us, we’d be treated as criminals, locked up or executed. We found out later that it was a boy named Ahmad who had informed the police about our party.” Ahmad, the son of a high-ranking and influential military officer, was turned into an informer after he was arrested and condemned to death, Mojtaba says. “He agreed to save his life by becoming a spy on us -- now our fellows are scared to death of him. He’s very bitter because he’d asked one of our gay friends to have a relationship with him, but he’d been rejected. Now Ahmad abuses his power as a police informant, and tries to harm us in as many ways as he can.”
Mojtaba suspects that it was Ahmad, the police informer, who found out about his marriage with Mehrdad and ratted them out. The couple had made a videotape of their wedding, and Mehrdad had a copy. This video helped seal their fate.
“One day after our wedding, Mehrdad asked me, ‘Why don’t we rent a place and live together?’ It wasn’t possible in Shiraz, where we would be too visible and couldn‘t live our gay life together separately from our families. So we decided to go to Tehran, under the pretext of finding better jobs and a better future. Tehran is a huge city, about 14 million people, we thought we could lose ourselves in the city, and nobody would be suspicious of our decision to live together.”
“So I went to Tehran, and our plan was that when I got a job and an apartment, Mehrdad would join me. But after a few days, I got a call from my brother, telling me the police had been to my family’s home in Shiraz looking for me. ‘What’s this about a videotape?’ my brother asked. I quickly found out that the Office for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice had arrested Mehrdad, seized his videos -- including the one of our wedding -- and his computer and CDs, and thrown him into prison.” Members of the wedding party identified on the videotape have also been arrested. Because Mojtaba already had a police record as a homosexual, he knew he was in danger of imminent arrest. So, he says, “I immediately asked my brother to send me my passport via a bus driver -- and two days later I left by bus for Turkey.”
Once in Turkey, Mojtaba was able to get in touch with Arsham Parsi (right), the human rights secretary of the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization there, who helped him prepare an appeal to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) for recognition as a legitimate asylum seeker with refugee status. But, says Mojtaba, he has heard nothing from the UNHCR.
“Life in Turkey is unbearable,” Mojtaba says. “The government, the police, and the people treat us very badly -- they ridicule us and make fun of us. The Turkish police say, ‘Why don’t you go back to your country? Don’t you know that people in Turkey are very religious?’ I have to go to the police station three times a week to be fingerprinted and sign a paper affirming that I haven’t left the city. Every six months I will have to pay $200 to the police. I’m unemployed, I have no money, no residence permit, no identity card, no future. To find a job I need to learn the language, but to learn the language I have to have money to pay for the classes. I have nobody I can ask to borrow money just to live from day to day.”
Mojtaba is convinced that if he is deported back to Iran, he will be arrested and executed. “After the election of Ahmadinejad, the situation for gays has become so much worse. They have executed two gays in Mashad, two in Gorgan, and soon two more will be executed in Arak. I’m paralyzed. I can think of no other possibilities. And I have no news of my beloved Mehrmad -- his family will tell me nothing. Is he being tortured in prison, like so many others? And if they execute him, what will I do with my guilt?”
“I would like to ask a question of the people of the world: is there anyone who can listen and understand what I’m saying? Is there any one who can save us? To be gay and Iranian is worse than anything else! Do you think it is in my hands to change my gayness? I am not god, able to change myself. Are we made this way just to make you laugh? I think we gay Iranians have no future. We are marginalized and persecuted. Should I stay here in Turkey to die in isolation, or go back to Iran and be prepared for execution? Save us! Help us!”
If you are in a position to make a financial contribution to help Mojtaba, you may do so by bank transfer to the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PGLO) bank account in Turkey: Bank Name: KOC BANK; USD. Account NO.: 422 65 193; Branch Code: 975 Turkey. Or contact the PGLO’s human rights secretary, Arsham Parsi, at email@example.com
Ezzat Gourshegir, an Iranian playwright, provided invaluable translation assistance for this article.
For background on the new wave of anti-gay repression in Iran, see my previous articles: July 21 -- Iran Executes Two Gay Teenagers (Updated); August 11 -- Iran Sources Question Rape Charges in Teen Executions; August 12 -- Two New Gay Executions Scheduled in Iran, Says Iranian Exile Group; August 17 -- Iran's Deadly Anti-Gay Crackdown: With Two More Executions Scheduled, the Pace of Repression Steps Up.August 25 -- Iran's Anti-Gay Purge Grows: Reports of New Executions. September 8 -- Iran and the Death of Gay Activism. September 20 -- "They'll Kill Me" -- A Gay Iranian Torture Victim Speaks of His Ordeal ; September 29 -- Iranian Gays Urgently Appeal for Help ; October 6 -- Canada Introduces UN Resolution Condemning Iran's Human Rights Record
Also see Rob Anderson's excellent article in The New Republic, How America's Gay Establishment is Betraying Gay Iranians.
November 23, 2005
GEORGE GALLOWAY PANDERS TO THE HOMOPHOBES (Updated)
The leaders of the British anti-war party Respect -- which managed to elect its only member of parliament, George Galloway (left), earlier this year -- have demonstrated their lack of principle in a blatant act of electoralist pandering to homophobia. U.K. Gay News reports that, at the Respect party's conference on Sunday, November 20, a grassroots revolt by party members passed a resolution denouncing the party's leadership for vetoing the inclusion of gay and lesbian rights in the party platform. George Galloway MP is a crucial member of the Respect party leadership -- which is dominated by the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party, who created Respect.
The reasons that Galloway and the Respect leaders killed any reference to gay rights in the party's platform -- or its electoral "manifesto," as party platforms are called in the U.K. -- are quite simple. The district in which Galloway deliberately chose to run had a huge Muslim population, and it was thanks to the votes from that population that he was able to be elected. The party "manifesto" is to be the basis for Respect's campaign in municipal elections this coming May, and the party leaders' strategy is to try to elect local city council members from ares that have high Muslim populations. Moreover, “Respect is in alliance with the right-wing, anti-gay Islamist group, the Muslim Association of Britain [MAB],” as Peter Tatchell (left) -- the veteran gay and human rights campaigner who heads the militant British gay rights group OutRage -- pointed out, adding that the party does not ally with liberal and left-wing Muslims. And, U.K. Gay News reported, "Respect’s right-wing Islamist backers demanded the axing of gay rights as a condition of their electoral support for the party."
The grassroots resolution, passed at the Respect party's conference over the objections of the party's leaders, called their failure to include gay rights in the party platform "unacceptable." From the podium of the conference, Respect leader Lindsay German, who is also a senior leader of the Socialist Workers Party, disparaged the resolution, claiming it had a “hidden agenda” and was moved in “bad faith” according to the U.K. Gay News account. .The resolution read, "“Conference regards it as unacceptable that our manifesto for the general election did not contain any reference to the defence of LGBT rights.” Rather significantly, the account of the conference in the Trotskyites' newspaper, Socialist Worker, didn't even mention the successful rank-and-file rebellion in support of gay rights against the SWP-dominated Respect leadership.
OutRage's Tatchell went on to say, “The MAB [the ally of Galloway and Respect]endorses the recreation of an Islamic Caliphate where Muslims would be subjected to the barbarism of Sharia law, which includes the execution of unchaste women, apostates and gay people. Respect has betrayed progressive Muslims, in favour of an alliance with Islamist conservatives and fundamentalists... Respect has failed to defend gay Muslims against fundamentalist Islamists and it attacks gay rights groups that support Muslim queers.The politics of Respect on LGBT rights is reformist at best. Its policies are far less radical than those of the Liberal Democrats. Unlike Respect, the Lib Dems included gay rights in their manifesto.” You can read the entire U.K. Gay News article on all this by clicking here.
When Galloway spoke to the Respect conference that repudiated his and the leadership's refusal to include a forthright endorsement of gay rights (photo left), he did so from a podium decorated with a banner that proclaimed the party's commitment to "Justice" and "Equality." But the party leadership's suppression of any reference to gay rights in its platform makes a mockery of those two words. Galloway has long made common cause with despicable, homophobic dictators, from Saddam Hussein to Syria's Bashir Al-Assad, without ever denouncing the reign of terror and repression their despotic regimes have visited upon gay Arabs and Muslims in their own countries. Now, Galloway and the leadership of the party whose principal spokesman he is have demonstrated beyond argument that, from them, gays and lesbians can expect no....respect.
I've been a lifelong opponent of American imperialism, and have written reams of articles and columns against the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq. But Galloway is not a genuine democrat, and for that reason I always thought it was a serious mistake for some sectors of the U.S. anti-war movement to have embraced Galloway as an anti-war spokesman on his recent American speaking tour. Now, this repulsive and opportunistic pandering to homophobia by Galloway and his party's leadership as part of their electoral strategy ought to make American opponents of the war shun them. Period.
UPDATE: A bit of research unearhed some interesting facts about the funding of the Respect party. Eric Lee -- who runs the excellent trade union-funded, London- based labor news website LabourStart (which mobilizes support for striking workrs around the world) -- checked out Respect's required financial filings this year with the U.K. Electoral Commission. It turns out that half of Respect's money comes from one man, Dr Mohammed Naseem (upper left).. This Naseem, who was been a Respect candidate for Parliament in 2005, is also a leader of something called the Islamic Party of Britain IPB) -- a tiny sectarian group whose website claims that "Islam is the solution to the world's problems. No other religion, way of life or culture can possibly succeed." Naseem's IBP also put out a statement claiming that the London bombings of buses and subways last July weren't carried out by Islamic fundmentalists but (as Lee summarizes the IPB document he links to on his personal blog) "the attacks were a provocation, staged by the police, the Blair government, or the Mossad -- or all of them together." Naseem repeated his claim that no Islamic fundamentalists were involved in the bomings even after the arrest of Yasin Hassan Omar, an Islamist who helped plan the bombings. Naseem is also, according to a BBC profile of him, Chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque, "one of the largest Islamic instutions in Britain." Since Respect gets half its money from a Muslim religious leader whose IBP (for which he is Home Affairs spokesman) denounces secularism as the basis for organizing government and claims that only a strict interpretation of the Koran can guide the world -- includng on homosexuality -- it's not surprising that Respect's leaders would be reluctant to defend gay equality, a secular principle which Naseem and his coterie oppose. According to the Islamic Party of Britain’s website: “People afflicted with unnatural conditions like homosexuality or pedophilia (sic) need treatment, not encouragement." The IPB’s home affairs policy would “safeguard public decency by preventing any public advocacy for homosexuality”. A violation of this law would fall under “public incitement” -- meaning gay publications or broadcasts or posters would be illegal. For “public displays of lewdness witnessed by several people”, (e.g., having sex in a public park or toilet), the “death penalty” would apply (George MIchael better get ready for the gallows if the IPB takes power.) To read the IPB website entries on homosexuality, click here and here. ) Respect's accepting half its funding from a man who holds such abhorrent views, and making him its candidate for parliament earlier this year, is stomach-turning.
November 22, 2005
ED FLANAGAN, THE REAL HERO OF VT.'S CIVIL UNI0NS FIGHT, SERIOUSLY INJURED
I 'm very cut up to have to report some very bad news about my friend Ed Flanagan, the Vermont State Senator who -- as Vermont's openly gay elected State Auditor for two terms-- played such a crucial role in securing passage of Vermont's civil unions law. Ed received serious head injuries in a car accident last Friday when his car over-turned, Ed was trapped in it, and he wasn't discovered for 12 hours, when a 19 year old hunter who was looking for deer found him in the snow-covered vehicle. Although the news was in New England papers, like the Boston Globe, over the weekend, I only heard about it now in an e-mail from his longtime partner, attorney Isaac Lustgarten.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, a college All American football player, and a Harvard-trained lawyer, Ed was elected Vermont's State Auditor in 1992, came out while in office, and was re-elected with an even bigger margin to his second-four year term, after having turned the state-wide office into a Nader-style consumer advocacy agency that fought special interests and exposed the state's "corporate welfare" subsidies. When Vermont's Supreme Court ordered the state legislature to provide the rights of marriage to gay people, Ed played an absolutely critical role in personally and tirelessly lobbying legislators to pass what eventually became Vermont's civil unions law (which then-Gov. Howard Dean didn't lift a finger to pass. It's worth remembering that Dean -- who ran away from the civil unions bill until it passed --finally did sign it, but behind closed doors, in his office, with the press excluded. It wasn't until he decided to run for president and wanted to raise gay money, which he did in the millions, that Dean began taking credit for the civil unions bill. But Ed was the real hero of that fight.)
In 2000, Ed became the very first openly gay person in the country to win nomination as the Democratic Party's official candidate for U.S. Senate. Although he was unfortunately defeated, by incumbent Senator Jim Jeffords, he was elected last year to the Vermont State Senate.
All of us who know Ed as a wonderful human being, a sterling progressive politician, and a tireless fighter for gay equality wish him a complete and speedy recovery. His partner Isaac -- an attorney with the New York firm of McDermott Will & Emery -- says that "He seems to be receiving excellent care at Fletcher Allen [Hospital in Burlington ] and we are all hopeful."
SPEAKING OF HARVARD, Ed's alma mater, a new book details Harvard University's "secret court" that directed a purge of homosexuals in 1920. For an intelligent review of this book in the San Francisco Chronicle, click here.
November 21, 2005
POLAND: A First-Hand Account of an Official Gay-Bashing
On November 19 in the Polish city of Poznan, an entirely peaceful March for Equality organized by gays and lesbians and left-wing groups, which had been banned, took place anyway -- but it was brutally broken up by the police, who arrrested 68 of the marchers. Demonstrators protested against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender, race, and disability. In banning the march, the mayor of Poznań, Ryszard Grobelny (left), surrendered to the demands of far-right parties (including the ruling Law and Justice Party and the League of Polish Families) and the Catholic clergy, who believed the demonstration was "immoral," the independent Radio Polonia reported.
On October 23, Poland had elected a virulently homophobic new president -- the Law and Justice party's Lech Kacyzynski (upper right), who in his previous job as Mayor of Warsaw had banned that city's Gay Pride march. The 68 arrested marchers could face fines of up to 5,000 zlotys (US$1500) or up to one month in prison, according to Miroslaw Adamski, spokesman for the district prosecutor's office in Poznan. Poznan's repression of this gay-organized march signals that the gloves are off under the new homophobic government, and provides a frightening picture of the climate in Poland today.
What follows is a first-hand account of the repression of the Poznan march by Tomasz Szypula (left), Secretary-General of the Polish Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH), which the KPH e-mailed me this morning:
"I'm 25. I was born four months before the Solidarity began its revolution in August 1980. The only Poland I can remember is time after 1989. The time of democracy. At least until last Saturday.
"In the morning of Saturday, Nov. 19, I arrived in Poznan to take part in a Days of Equality conference and the Equality March. Already on Friday I learned that the leftist voivode [A voivode is one of Poland's 16 regional governments--D.I.], or a central government representative, had agreed with the mayor of Poznan and upheld his ban of the march. But I had confidence in the Constitution, the EU laws - for sure the police would protect us.
"There were some 100 people at the conference, university students, mainly girls. Most of them had no affiliation, while the rest were feminists from the Konsola Women Association, the Greens 2004 activists, several people from gay organizations from all over Poland. We're talking about exclusion of not only gays and lesbians, but news
media and politicians referred to the Days of Equality as 'the Gay
"At 3 p.m., we're walking out of the Bookarest bookstore and we're going down the Polwiejska Street. We're just several hundred meters away from the Old Market Square.There may be several hundred of us. Maybe three, maybe five hundred. After just several minutes the police stand in our way, both in front of us and behind us as well. We're surrounded and can't move. We're shouting: 'Let us through! Freedom! Equality! Tolerance!' The people behind the police officers yell: 'Faggot! Perverts!' Eggs begin to fly. I get one on the ear. I wipe it off. The ear hurts a little, but it's nothing - I continue: 'Tolerance!'
Photo left, Poznan police charge the gay demonstators
"After a moment we realize that the police will not let us go anywhere. So we begin walking around between the police cordons and shout: 'Democracy all around!' After half an hour of walking like that, waving rainbow flags, and shouting 'Equal, but Different,' we take out candles and light them. Several hundred people hold the candles and shout: "This is a funeral of democracy." After a moment, the girls who lead this demonstration enter a podium and begin thanking people for coming to the march. We're all wondering how to get out. And that's when it began.
"I turn around and see disguised police offices with shields, running to get us. I grab my friends and we all sit on the street. The policeman tries to pull a girl out of the crowd. She's screaming, but the guy is two meters tall and she gives up. I'm holding on to the other people and then a disguised police guy grabs my leg. Someone's holding me' but he's trying to pull me out. He's shoving me around on the street and I say: "Let me go!' When I get up, the police office grabs my hands, takes them behind me, and pushes me in the direction of a car. I'm scared. There's some eight people at the prison van. 'Name!' the police officer wants to know. 'Szypula,' I'm trying to answer. The girl next to me is weeping. Another one is vomiting. The crying one bursts out in tears. I hold her, her name is Dabrowka. 'Don't worry, they won't do anything to us,' I say. Dabrowka is 20 and she was at the march with her sister, who was also detained. They're both college students who came to show their solidarity with the march.
"They're speeding us to the police station, the siren's on. There are some nine people in the van. I call my boyfriend and say: 'They're driving me to a police station. Love you, call you later.' A dread-haired guy turns pale. We stop, the door opens. The police officer reads out our names. We're taken to the third floor. There are 22 people in the room, including us. I don't know where I am. Somebody from Poznań looks out the window and says that it's the Poznan-New City police station. The pale dread-haired guy asks for water.
"During the interrogation, I learn I'm suspected of breaking Article 50 of the Misdemeanors Code. I reply that I don't understand. The policewoman answers: 'taking part in an illegal concourse.' She's asking me how I plead to the charge. I can't stand it any longer: 'What about the Constitution, what about the EU laws, what about the freedom of gathering?' She replies that it's her job. A phone interrupts the
interrogation, it's her boyfriend on the phone. 'Honey, we won't make it to the movies - I still need to hear from six of them," she says. I'm angry. I plead not guilty. I'm starting a speech about the Constitution blah blah, the EU blah blah, citizens' rights. She writes it all down unemotionally.
"I sign in the box that states 'Suspect.' I get out of the station. I feel horrible. I wonder what is less horrible - to be beaten by a far-right fanatic from the All-Polish Youth [the attack-dog militia -- including many skinheads -- of the League of Polish Families party-- D.I.] or to go through the police procedure. I think I prefer to get a beating.I get back to the Old Town. At Cafe Miesna, there's a concert going on as part of the Days of Equality. We share our stories with other demonstrators. My friends were taken to a different station. We try to calm down.
"Seven brave girls my age organized this march. It wasn't a gay demo, and there were more girls there. But the mayor, the voivode, and bishop concluded that we pose a threat. The police treated us like they treat football hooligans. If that's the beginning of the 'New Republic' as Law and Justice' Party politicians say, then yes, we're a big
danger to it. Because we believe in democracy." -- Tomasz Szypula
For background on Poland's new ultraconservative and homophobic regime, see these previous DIRELAND articles: October 28: "Is Poland's New President Another Putin, or Another Peron?"; October 25, "Poland Could Lose E.U. Rights Over New Leadership's Homophobia"; October 24, "Poland Elects a Hard-Right, Homophobic President"
November 19, 2005
FRANCE AFTER THE RIOTS: 'Autism,' Repression -- and the Socialists' Impotence
My apologies to DIRELAND readers for not having blogged for much of the last two weeks -- I've been seriously under the weather, am now on the mend, and will endeavor to resume my usual regular drumbeat of reports, analyses, and commentary, beginning with this new one below. -- D.I.
""The urban guerrilla confrontation...is just one more piece of evidence of the total disconnection between French society as it has evolved and the political classes that have never changed. The French State (that is, those who run it) for thirty years has displayed a remarkable autism that equally affects all political parties -- all of which recruit in the same backwater defined by the elite national graduate schools of public administration whose task is to form each new generation of French bureaucrats....The State has no clothes-- but doesn't know it. Hidden away in their 18th century palaces, this unrepresentative political class, more than ever pre-occupied with its internal quarrels, has as its principle objective its own survival. The autism of the State appears incurable. Meanwhile, France -- the real France -- is burning....
"Can one imagine, then, that this political class will admit it has badly mismanaged the State for three decades? That it will recognize the inanity of its archaic republican discourse [against ethnic 'communitarianism'] even though those real communities exist? That it will admit that 'affirmative action' American-style should have been tried long ago, because discrimination is real? In the real world the State is totally inept: two years ago it let 30,000 old people die of dehydration in barracks for retired seniors utterly devoid of air conditioning...This political autism is the true cause of the arson that has touched 274 French cities and towns. Instead of pointing the finger at a handful of incendiary adolescents, we should ask why the State didn't see them coming. Who created the lawless zones where the fires started: the adolescents? or the autistic State?"
What makes this acid diagnosis remarkable is that this guest commentary was written by Guy Sorman (left), a well-known conservative, free-market essayist who frequently appears on television. That a neo-Hayekian like Sorman endorses affirmative action by the State is powerful testimony indeed to the all-pervasive racism that was the principal root cause of the ghetto youths' rioting (see my own long analysis, "Why is France Burning? The rebellion of a lost generation.")
Unfortunately, not a single major political figure or party supports adopting an affirmative action policy -- and it is unlikely to happen any time in the near future. Affirmative action runs counter to that "archaic republican discourse" which, in asserting all French citizens are "equal," refuses to recognize race or ethnicity as the basis for any government action --and which even prevents the government from gathering statistics based on race or ethnicity, making the socio-economic and educational progress of minorities impossible to measure, and rendering them officially invisible for all intents and purposes. (Unofficially, of course, people of color are routinely targeted by the police on the basis of ethnicity, and frequently discriminated against by government agencies.)
THE GOVERNMENT'S RESPONSE -- It wasn't until the 13th day of the rebellion -- when arson, vandalism, and rioting, which had begun in the suburban ghettos of Paris, had spread right across the country, as youths of color imitated the violence of their generational peers as seen on TV -- that the French government finally reacted. The aristocratic Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin (right) at last went on television to announce the government's response to the racism and social rot that had caused the rebellion: repression. The conservative government of President Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency, using a 1955 law passed during France's colonial war in Algeria that permits the imposition of a curfew and suspension of civil liberties, including those of the press, and permits detention without trial, the use of military tribunals and bans on public meetings. The Syndicat des avocats and the Syndicat de la magistrature (the lawyers' and judges' unions) issued a cry of alarm, denouncing the "disastrous war logic" inherent in invoking the law. Pointing out that this law was not even used in the May 1968 student-worker rebellions, their joint statement said: "Stopping the violence and re-establishing order in the suburbs is a necessity. But must that imply submitting them to emergency legislation inherited from the colonial period? We know where the cycle of provocation and repression leads.... The ghettos have no need of a state of emergency. They desperately need justice, respect, and equality." But the cowardly opposition Socialists -- frightened by opinion polls showing huge support for a hardline law-and-order policy -- meekly acquiesced in the State's use of this liberty-shredding colonial law. (Only the Communists, the Greens, the extreme-left Trotskyists of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, and the anti-globalization movements denounced this policy of blind repression.) (Upper left, a student poster from May 1968 -- the text reads, "Be young and shut up," and the figure in black silhouette is that of Gen. Charles de Gaulle.)
The ghetto youths' violence was already diminishing significantly when the state of emergency was declared -- even as anti-Arab incidents reflected the sharp increase in racism which the rebellion had motored. In the waning days of the youth rebellion, three mosques were firebombed within days: two Molotov cocktails where thrown into a mosque in Carpentras at the hour of prayer, when the house of worship was filled with the faithful -- and France's largest mosque (left), in Lyon (France's second-largest city), was firebombed, as was a mosque in a ghetto suburb in the Loire.
The curfew authorized by the state of emergency was imposed by prefects -- who are closer to the situation on the ground than their Paris-based masters -- in only 6 of France's 92 departments. Clearly, the prefects thought it a useless and needlessly provocative measure when aimed solely at the ghetto youth. But among the repressive measures adopted by the government was the punishing of parents for the alleged crimes of their children, including curfew violations. For example, on the 13th night of the rioting, the primetime newscast on France 2 public television profiled the arrest of a single mother of four -- a simple, working-class Pakistani woman overwhelmed by the task of raising her large brood alone. Her crime? Her 16-year-old son had been arrested for crouching behind a car, which -- the police claimed -- he was about to set aflame (even though no incendiary equipment was found on the youth.) "I can make him behave when he's at home," the woman weeped, "but when he's in the street with his pals I have no control over him" The woman was hauled off in front of her minor children, incarcerated, sentenced to a training course in how to control her kids, and finally released. Every ghetto kid in France who saw this (and repeated similar arrests) on TV could easily imagine his own mother being carried off in a police paddy wagon -- a sure prescription for further bitterness and alienation from authority. Such repressive actions may have contributed to ending the riots -- which were already sputtering out -- but at what social cost? (Above right, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy congratulates police on riot suppression)
There was another contributing factor to the end of the rebellion, as my old friend Helene Hazera -- the host of a broadcast on France Culture public radio who has a prodigious knowledge of Arab and Franco-Arab music and culture -- reminded me on the phone from Paris: "Algeria just went through an incredibly bloody civil war that lasted a decade, and that took the lives of over 100,000 civilians. Every Franco-Algerian family has relatives or friends whose lives were consumed in that horrible civil war, found it traumatic-- and had no wish to see any imitation of it on French soil where they live." (Above right, residents of Hattatba, Algeria examine blood-stained clothes after armed attackers killed six people in their village in March 1999.)
The Chirac-Villepin government's response to the root causes of the rebellion was pitiful -- and reflected Guy Sorman's diagnosis that, as he put it, the French political classes "believe that nothing should change because France is perfect as she is and perfect as she was." The centerpiece of the paltry social measures announced with great fanfare by Prime Minister Villepin was lowering the legal age for apprenticeships in manual technical trades -- to only 14 (multiple police reports at the height of the violence suggested the average age of arrested rioters was 16). This age-lowering twist shredded a century and a half of formal French educational policy, which has always been to maximize the educational experience of children; and it now gives an official imprimatur to permitting kids to end their schooling just when it becomes most crucial. (Left, the 19th century politician Jules Ferry, architect of the modern French "republican" educational system.)
No new measures to improve or desegregate the rotting, impossibly overcrowded ghetto schools were announced by Villepin -- and the government did not explain where it would find employers willing to take on inexperienced, delinquent, non-scholastic, barely post-pubescent kids and train them in plumbing, electrical work, baking, or other not uncomplicated trades. Aside from restoring some of the devastating cuts in subsidies for the locally-run neighborhood associations in the ghettos that work with youth -- budget-slashing which had contributed mightily to causing the rebellion -- Villepin had nothing more than rhetoric and repression to propose. Nor did the government choose to restore the "emploi-jeunes" program of temporary minimum-wage youth jobs, an inadequate invention of the previous Socialist government which Chirac and the conservatives had completely abolished.
When Chirac himself (left)-- whose invisibility during the violence had been much criticized in the press -- finally went on TV this week to address the nation, he, too, had little more than empty words. His only concrete proposal was the creation of a "youth volunteer service corps" to help prepare kids for careers in the army (half of the program), the police, and health services, with a goal of 50,000 such minimum-wage posts within three years -- a drop in the bucket. But even that was a phony -- within 24 hours, the press reported that Chirac had simply consolidated and given a new name to already-existing programs in the three sectors. No new money was involved.
Perhaps the biggest void in Chirac's and Villepin's proposals was the absence of any new money or enforcement mechanisms to fight racial discrimination in hiring and housing. France has laws on the books against such racial bias -- but spends almost no money to make them stick, so employers and landlords are free to discriminate against people of color with impunity. And they do. Life in the 750 suburban ghettos throughout France will go on as before, except that the already-deep alienation of ghetto kids from the larger society will be intensified by the repressive measures -- earlier this week, even though major violence has ended, the government renewed the state of emergency for another three months. No wonder that a poll for the Journal de Dimanche last week showed that only 29% of the French thought Chirac had anything to offer to cure the causes of the rebellion -- while a new poll released today on France 2 TV said Chirac's overall approval rating had plummeted to just 35%.
Yesterday the emergency congress of the French Socialist party began its deliberations. What led to this special party congress? It had been called in the wake of the May 29 referendum on the proposed European Constitution -- which had been a disaster for the party's leadership under the colorless, uncharismatic neo-centrist Francois Hollande (right). The party's patron (or boss) as its elected First Secretary, Hollande had imposed a Yes vote for the Euroconstitution as party policy, even though nearly half the party membership was opposed to it. The referendum was a stinging rebuke to Hollande and the other "elephants" (as they are referred to) of the party's well-known Old Guard -- a whopping 70% of the broad left electorate (including 75%of the working classes) voted No in the referendum to a Euroconstitution seen as setting in concrete a corporate-dominated Europe.
Hollande's alliance with the conservatives in the referendum campaign was symbolized by his posing for the cover of the large-circulation weekly Paris Match (left) in tandem with the hardline conservative Minister of the Interior, the demagogic Nicolas Sarkozy (the leading candidate for the right's presidential nomination in 2007) to urge a Yes vote. But the left electorate's huge disavowal of the official Socialist position demonstrated that Hollande was tone-deaf to the left's electoral base, and provoked a daggers-drawn internal party conflict between supporters of the Yes vote and the more left-wing supporters of a No -- a precursor of the increasingly bitter contest for the Socialists' 2007 presidential nomination. It was in an attempt to defuse this internecine war that Hollande had called this week's unusual party congress, which will put his leadership of the party to a vote.
But in fact, the outcome of the congress was already decided on November 9, when an internal party referendum on its future platform and orientation was held in the middle of the youth rebellion. In this vote, in which the party's 127,000 dues-paying members cast ballots in their local party sections, there was a choice between three principal platforms (or "motions" in party parlance): that of Hollande (right), an indigestible mish-mosh of non-specific, boiler- plate party rhetoric; the left-wing motion championed by Laurent Fabius (a former Socialist Prime Minister in the early 80s under President Francois Mitterrand, Fabius -- left -- is an aging yuppie dandy, and a champion of pro-corporate market economics who -- in quest of his party's presidential nomination in two years -- recently gave himself a political face-lift, leading the No campaign against the pro-corporate Euroconstitution and, in an alliance against nature, making common cause with the party's left wing); and the motion of the Nouveau Parti Socialiste reformist faction led by Socialist deputy (member of parliament) Arnaud Montebourg (left) and European parliament member Vincent Peillon (upper right), whose principal innovation is crusading for a new French Constitution that shears presidential powers and gives them to the prime minister -- they have a tactical alliance with former party chief Henri Emmanuelli (right), a principal leader of the party's left.
In that party referendum ten days ago, Hollande and his Old Guard allies -- all of whom are of the Mitterrand generation (like former Culture Minister Jack Lang, in glasses, upper left; former Employment Minister Marine Aubry, now mayor of Lille -- lower left; and former Economics Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, right, all with presidential ambitions) -- rang up a solid enough victory, with ten percentage points more than the two other opposition motions combined. The Montebourg-Peillon-Emmanuelli faction's motion got 24.5%, making it the largest bloc opposed to the Hollande leadership; while the motion presented by Laurent Fabius and his left-wing allies, led by Senator Jean-Luc Melanchon (right), got just over 21% -- not much more than Fabius and his supporters had harvested in the last party congress before "Fafa" (as Fabius is derisorily known) had his left-wing face-left, which appears to have little credibility with the party militants. Despite charges by the two opposition factions of ballot-stuffing and inflated membership rolls in fiefdoms controlled by the dominant Hollande leadership (charges which, according to press accounts, appeared to have some merit), Hollande's ten-point victory margin in the internal referendum was more than enough to assure that he will be re-elected the party's leader in the coming days by the party congress. Autism, indeed -- plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
But the Socialist congress is having to digest two new public opinion polls out this week that are devastating for the party's image and electoral chances. A poll taken for the weekly L'Express and released two days ago showed that only 23% of French voters think the lot of their personal socio-economic category would be improved if the Socialists re-took power, while 58% of all French voters (and 54% of left voters) judge the programatically bankrupt party "inefficient" (read: impotent) on the political stage.
Simultaneously, a poll for Le Monde released four days ago showed that 60% of all French voters don't think the Socialists can win the next elections (that number goes up among younger voters -- 63% for the under-30s, and 66% for the 30-49-year-olds.) Moreover, 59% say the Socialists are fulfilling their role as an opposition party "badly," 57% say the party isn't listening to the real concerns of the electorate -- and on the crisis in the ghettos, 52% say the Socialists would have acted "the same" as the right. In summarizing its extensive poll, Le Monde noted that "The disconnection between the Socialist party and its base is clear, even though the right is having difficulties. 'What is striking,' says poll director Stephane Rozes, 'is the gap between a country that by a large majority wants a different governmental course, and the Socialists as the tool to achieve that difference.'"
The left, after all, has been in power for 14 of the last 24 years -- while the ghettos festered. And an official study released last year showed that 70% of the children of the working class remain workers like their parents. France is still a terribly class-bound society, with restricted social mobility up the economic ladder. The Socialists haven't had a vigorously left economic program since the cyncial Mitterrand (left), and his then-P.M., Fabius, imposed austerity, tax cuts, and denationalizations and took their party to the right on economic issues in 1982. This lack of a real alternative economic program to that of the right is a large part of the Mitterrand legacy -- along with a long history of party corruption and the shaking down of corporations for campaign cash in scandals that made headlines for a decade, and an imperial abuse of power. Just two weeks ago, a French court finally issued a guilty verdict in the illegal wiretapping by the Elysee Palace (the presidential residence) during Mitterrand's presidency -- the targets were journalists, writers, politicians, show-business figures, and even of some of Mitterand's own associates -- and in stinging language the court held that Mitterrand himself was directly responsible for initiating and approving the wiretaps, which he read with great gourmandise. Wiith all that unappetizing Mitterrand-era baggage in the Socialists' caboose, is it any wonder voters are cynical about the party?
The lack of a substantially different economic policy from that of the right was a major reason for the Socialists' huge national defeat in 2002, when its presidential candidate (then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, left, who is now agitating like a man who wants to run again) was defeated for a place in the runoff by neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen (right). But the Socialists' leadership seems to have learned very little from either its crushing 2002 defeat, or its defeat on the Euroconstitution earlier this year, in which it was rejected by three-quarters of the left electorate. (See my article for The Nation on the Socialists' 2002 defeat.)
Now one of the biggest fears of the Socialists' leadership is the spectre of an independent presidential candidacy by Jose Bové (left), the articulate and highly popular leader of the Confederation Paysanne (the peasant farmers' union) who's become a major figure in the international anti-globalization movement, and a French media star frequently seen on television. Bové has been mulling a run as the candidate of the "left of the left." The highly media-savvy Bové has considerable support in the Green Party, might get the support of the largest Trotskyist formation (the LCR), and could command enthusiastic troops from the anti-globalization and ecology movements, as well as attracting younger voters. A Bové candidacy could produce a repeat of the 2002 disaster, when disaffected left voters deserted the Socialists for two Trotskyists -- especially the attractive, mediatic young postman Olivier Besancenot (right), the LCR's candidate then. The pipe-smoking farmer Bové has already served jail time for leading a protest against the lack of nourishment in fast food that ransacked a McDonald's franchise -- and last week he was again condemned to four months in prison for leading ecology activists (including two parliamentarians) in the destruction of a field of genetically-modified corn. These deliberate brushes with the law have made him even more popular as a selfless martyr, one who could attract voters fed up with politics-as-usual.
There are no fewer than eight major presidential candidates vying for the Socialist party's 2007 nomination -- including not only party leader Hollande but his common-law wife and the mother of his children, Segolene Royal (left), a neo-centrist "family values" advocate who heads the regional government in Poitu-Charentes, and who has displaced Jack Lang as the most popular left politician with the general electorate in public opinion surveys taken in the last several weeks since she declared her availability for a presidential run. And the pollsters say the public believes the Socialists are more preoccupied with "personal quarrels" rather than with "principled arguments." In the party congress's back rooms, a game of "liars' poker" (to use the phrase in today's Liberation) is being played, as the party's leaders try to paper over their differences and come up with a face-saving "synthesis" of the divergent factions' positions that will allow the party to present the semblance of a united front. But from the polls it's obvious the voters aren't being fooled.
And the most popular political figure in the country remains the demagogic, right-wing Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy (upper right, as his Pinochet-like puppet character on the popular TV show "Les Guignols" -- the text of the balloon has him saying, "Too much liberty kills liberty.") "Sarko's" popularity jumped 15 points over the 18 days before the ghetto youths' violent rebellion finally subsided....at least, subsided temporarily. (Sarkozy, by the way, last week called the publisher of a tell-all book by his estranged wife on the scandal that separated them into his Interior Ministry office, threatened legal action, and browbeat the publisher into withdrawing the book from sale -- even though 25,000 copies had already been printed, were warehoused in a Paris suburb ready for distribution, and suppressing the book cost the publisher a bundle. This led the TV humorist Laurent Ruquier to joke, in prime time, that "if the suburban youth had burned down that warehouse, Sarkozy would have given them a bonus!" The suppression of the book by Sarkozy made headlines.)
Meanwhile, there was a mini-riot last night in the university city of Grenoble in which 30 people (half of them police) were injured by bottle-throwing students. It's cause? The annual festival to celebrate the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau (a particulary insipid and inferior wine I never cottoned to). No curfew was invoked, no riot police sent for -- because (as could clearly be seen on French TV's news reports) the middle-class students confronting the cops were, of course, all white.
FOR BACKGROUND ON THE STATE OF FRANCE'S SOCIALIST PARTY, and more on its major players, see my previous reports: May 29, "A Political Revolt in France: What Defeat of the EuroConstitution Means"; June 4, "A Suicidal Purge by France's Socialists"; August 24, "France's Socialists Threatened with a Split"'
November 06, 2005
WHY IS FRANCE BURNING? The rebellion of a lost generation
Saturday night was the 10th day of the spreading youth riots that have much of France in flames -- and it was the worst night ever since the first riot erupted in a suburban Paris ghetto of low-income housing, with 1295 vehicles -- from private cars to public buses -- burned last night, a huge jump from the 897 set afire the previous evening. And, for the first time, the violence born in the suburban ghettos last night invaded the center of Paris -- some 40 vehicles were set alight in Le Marais (the pricey home to the most famous gay ghetto in Paris), around the Place de la Republique nearby, and in the bourgeois 17th arrondissement, within walking distance from the dilapidated ghetto of the Goutte d'Or in the 18th arrondissement. (Upper left, a fireman tries to extinguish a burning car in the surban ghetto of Les Mureaux northwest of Paris, yesterday.)
As someone who lived in France for nearly a decade, and who has visited those suburban ghettos, where the violence started, on reporting trips any number of times, I have not been surprised by this tsunami of inchoate youth rebellion that is engulfing France. It is the result of thirty years of government neglect: of the failure of the French political classes -- of both right and left -- to make any serious effort to integrate its Muslim and black populations into the larger French economy and culture; and of the deep-seated, searing, soul-destroying racism that the unemployed and profoundly alienated young of the ghettos face every day of their lives, both from the police, and when trying to find a job or decent housing. (Above right, two buses burned by the rioters).
To understand the origins of this profound crisis for France, it is important to step back and remember that the ghettos where festering resentment has now burst into flames were created as a matter of industrial policy by the French state.
If France's population of immigrant origin -- mostly Arab, some black -- is today quite large (more than 10% of the total population), it is because there was a government and industrial policy during the post-World War II boom years of reconstruction and economic expansion which the French call "les trentes glorieuses" -- the 30 glorious years -- to recruit from France's foreign colonies laborers and factory and menial workers for jobs which there were no Frenchmen to fill. These immigrant workers, primarily from North Africa, were desperately needed to allow the French economy to expand due to the shortage of male manpower caused by two World Wars, which killed many Frenchmen, and slashed the native French birth-rates too. Moreover, these immigrant workers (especially Moroccans, particularly favored in the auto industry) were favored by industrial employers as passive and unlikely to strike (in sharp contrast to the highly political Continental French working class and its militant, largely Communist-led unions) and cheaper to hire. In some industries, for this reason, literacy was a disqualification -- because an Arab worker who could read could educate himself about politics and become more susceptible to organization into a union. This government-and-industry-sponsored influx of Arab workers (many of whom then saved up to bring their families to France from North Africa) was reinforced following Algerian independence by the arrival of the Harkis. (Above left, Arab workers at a French Renault factory.)
The Harkis ( whose story is movingly told by Dalila Kerchouche in her Destins de Harkis, at right) were the native Algerians who fought for and worked with France during the post-war anti-colonial struggles for independence --and who for their trouble were horribly treated by France. Some 100,000 Harkis were killed by the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) after the French shamelessly abandoned them to a lethal fate when the French occupying army evacuated itself and the French colonists from Algeria. (Above Left, a Harki with his throat slit by the FLN.) Moreover, those Harki families who were saved, often at the initiative of individual military commanders who refused to obey orders not to evacuate them, once in France were parked in unspeakable, filthy, crowded concentration camps for many long years and never benefited from any government aid -- a nice reward for their sacrifices for France, of which they were, after all, legally citizens. Their ghettoized children and grandchildren, naturally, harbor certain resentments -- the Harki tragedy is still an open wound for the Franco-Arab community.
France's other immigrant workers were warehoused in huge, high-rise low-income housing ghettos -- known as "cités" (Americans would say "the projects") -- specially built for them, and deliberately placed out of sight in the suburbs around most of France's major urban agglomerations, so that their darker-skinned inhabitants wouldn't pollute the center cities of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Lille, Nice and the others of white France's urban centers, today encircled by flames. Often there was only just enough public transport provided to take these uneducated working class Arabs and blacks directly to their jobs in the burgeoning factories of the "peripherique" -- the suburban peripheries that encircled Paris and its smaller sisters -- but little or none linking the ghettos to the urban centers.
Now 30, 40, and 50 years old, these high-rise human warehouses in the isolated suburbs are today run-down, dilapidated, sinister places, with broken elevators that remain unrepaired, heating systems left dysfunctional in winter, dirt and dog-shit in the hallways, broken windows, and few commercial amenities -- shopping for basic necessities is often quite limited and difficult, while entertainment and recreational facilities for youth are truncated and totally inadequate when they're not non-existent. Both apartments and schools are over-crowded (birth control is taboo in the Muslim culture the immigrants brought with them and transmitted to their children, and even for their male grandchildren of today --who've adopted hip-hop culture and created their own French-language rap music of extraordinary vitality (which often embodies stinging social and political content) -- condoms are a no-no because of Arab machismo, contributing to rising AIDS rates in the ghettos. (Above left, ghetto housing in Aulny sous Bois.)
The first week in December will mark the 22nd anniversary of the Marche des Beurs (Beur means Arab in French slang). I was present to see the cortege of 100,000 arrive in Paris -- it was the Franco-Arab equivalent of Dr. Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. The Marche des Beurs was organized from Lyon's horrific, enormous suburban high-rise ghetto, Les Minguettes (right), with the help of a charismatic left-wing French Catholic worker-priest, Father Christian Delorme, and its central theme was the demand to be recognized as French "comme les autres" --- like everyone else....a demand, in sum, for complete integration. But for the mass of Franco-Arabs, little has changed since 1983 -- and the integrationist movement of "jeunes beurs" created around that march petered out in frustration and despair as the dream of integration failed. In recent years, its place has been taken by Islamist fundamentalists operating through local mosques -- the mediatic symbol of this retreat into a separatist, communitarian-religious politics is the slick demagogue Tariq Ramadan (left), a philosophy professor who uses one cosmetically democratic discourse when he's speaking on French TV, and a fiery, hard-line fundamentalist discourse in the Arab-language cassettes of his speeches that sell like hotcakes to Franco-Arab ghetto youth. (Ramadan's double language has been meticulously documented and exposed, and his deep ties to the extremist religious primitives of the Muslim Brotherhood (founded by his grandfather) detailed, by Arab-speaking journalist Caroline Fourest in her book published last fall by Editions Grasset, "Frere Tariq: discours, methode et strategie de Tariq Ramadan," extracts from which have been published in the weekly l'Express. ) But the current rebellion has little to do with Islamic fundamentalism. It is the anguished scream of a lost generation in search of an identity, children caught between two cultures and belonging to neither -- a rebellion of kids who, born in France and often speaking little Arabic, don't know the country where their parents were born, but who feel excuded, marginalized and invisible in the country in which they live.
"What hope does a young person have who's been born in a quartier without a soul, who lives in an unspeakably ugly high-rise, surrounded by more ugliness, imprisoned by gray walls in a gray wasteland and condemned to a gray life, with all around a society that prefers to look away until it's time to get mad, time to FORBID."
Well, Mitterrand's perceptive and moving words remained just that -- words -- for his urban policy was an underfunded, unfocussed failure that only put a few band-aids on a metastasizing cancer -- and 15 years after Mitterrand's diagnosis, the hopelessness and alienation of these ghetto youths and their "gray lives" has only become deeper and more rancid still.
The response to the last ten days of violent youth rebellion by the conservative government has been inept and tone-deaf. For the first four days of the rebellion, Chirac (left) and his Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin (right) decided to let the hyper-ambitious, megalomaniacal Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, lead the government's response to the youths' violence and arson. Chirac and Villepin detest Sarkozy, who has been openly campaigning to replace Chirac as president in 2007 (Villepin was made P.M. in the hopes that he could block Sarkozy for the right's presidential nomination), The President and his P.M. thought that "Sarko," as he's commonly referred to in France -- who won his widespread popularity as a hardline, law-and-order demagogue on the issue of domestic insecurity -- would be unable to stop the violence, and thus damage his presidential campaign.
But Sarkozy (left) only poured verbal kerosene on the flames, dismissing the ghetto youth in the most insulting and racist terms and calling for a policy of repression. "Sarko" made headlines with his declarations that he would "karcherise" the ghettos of "la racaille"-- words the U.S. press, with glaring inadequaxcy, has translated to mean "clean" the ghettos of "scum." But these two words have an infinitely harsher and insulting flavor in French. "Karcher" is the well-known brand name of a system of cleaning surfaces by super-high-pressure sand-blasting or water-blasting that very violently peels away the outer skin of encrusted dirt -- like pigeon-shit -- even at the risk of damaging what's underneath. To apply this term to young human beings and proffer it as a strategy is a verbally fascist insult and, as a policy proposed by an Interior Minister, is about as close as one can get to hollering "ethnic cleansing" without actually saying so. It implies raw police power and force used very aggressively, with little regard for human rights. I wonder how many Anglo-American correspondents get the inflammatory, terribly vicious flavor of the word in French? The translation of "karcherise" by "clean" just misses completely the provocative, incendiary violence of what Sarko was really saying. And "racaille" is infinitely more pejorative than "scum" to French-speakers -- it has the flavor of characterizing an entire group of people as subhuman, inherently evil and criminal, worthless, and is, in other words, one of the most serious and dehumanizing insults one could launch at the rebellious ghetto youth. Kerosene, indeed.
As the rebellion has spread beyond the Paris suburbs as far south as Marseilles and Nice and as far north as Lille, Sarkozy has been thundering that the spreading violence is centrally "organized." But on the telephone this morning from Paris, the dean of French investigative reporters -- Claude Angeli, editor of Le Canard Enchaine, one of the most perspicacious political analysts I know (at right with his wife, author Stephanie Mesnier) -- told me, "That's not true -- this isn't being organized by the Islamist fundamentalists, as Sarkozy is implying to scare people. Sure, kids in neighborhoods are using their cellphones and text messages to warn each other where the cops are coming so they can move and pick other targets for their arson. But the rebellion is spreading across the country because the youth have a sense of solidarity with each other that comes from watching television -- they imitate what they're seeing, they have experienced themselves the same racist police abuse that helped spark the riots, and they sense themselves targeted by Sarkozy's inflammatory rhetoric. The rebellion is spreading spontaneously -- driven especially by racist police conduct that is the daily lot of these youths. It's incredible the level of police racism -- these young are arrested or controlled by the police, shaken down, pushed around, and have their papers checked simply because they have dark skins, and the police are verbally brutal, calling them 'bougnoules' [a racist insult, something like the American "towel-heads", only worse], 'dirty Arabs' and more. The police bark, 'Lower your eyes! Lower your eyes!' as if they had no right even to look a policeman in the face. It's utterly dehumanizing. No wonder these kids feel so divorced from authority."
A team report in today's French daily, Liberation (where I was once a columnist), interviews ghetto youths, and asks them to explain the reasons for their anger. And, the paper reports, "All, or almost all, cite 'Sarko'....a 22-year old student says, 'Sarkozy owes us his excuses for what he said. When I see what's happened, I come back to the same image: Sarkozy when he went to Argenteuil, raising his head and thundering, Madame, we're going to clean all that up. Result? Sarko sent every body over the top, he showed a total disrespect toward everybody' in the ghetto." A 13-year-old tells the Liberation reporters: "'It's us who are going to put Sarkozy through the Karcher...Will I be out making trouble tonight?' He smiles and says, 'that's classified information.'"
Another 28-year-old youth: "Who's setting the fires? They're kids between 14 and 22, we don't really know who they are because they put on masks, don't talk, and and don't brag about it the next day...but instead of fucking everything up where they live, it would be better if they held a demo, or went and fucked up the people and the stores in Paris. We've got a minister, Sarko, who says 'You're all the same.' Me, I say Non, we all say Non -- but in reply we still get, 'You're all the same.' That response from the government creates something in common between all of us, a kind of solidarity. These kids want to get attention, to let people know they exist. So, they say to themselves, 'If we get nasty and create panic, they won't forget us, they'll know we're in a neighborhood where we need help." (Above right, arson in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers)
Yesterday, when Sarkozy (left) -- who is Minister of Religion as well as Interior Minister -- wanted to make an appearance at the Catholic Bishops' conference in Paris, they refused to let him speak -- and instead, the Bishops issued a ringing statement denouncing "those who would call for repression and instill fear" instead of responding to the economic, social, and racial causes of the riots. This was an unusually sharp rebuke directed squarely at Sarkozy.
Under the headline "Budget Cuts Exasperate Suburban Mayors," Le Monde reports today on how Chirac and his conservatives have compounded 30 years of neglect of the ghettos by slashing even deeper into social programs: 20% annual cuts in subsidies for neighborhood groups that work with youths since 2003, cuts in youth job-training programs and tax credits for hiring ghetto youth, cuts in education and programs to fight illiteracy, cuts in neighborhood police who get to know ghetto kids and work with them (when Sarkozy (right) went to Toulouse after the first riots there, he told the neighborhood police: "You're job is not to be playing soccer with these kids, your job is to arrest them!" With fewer and fewer neighborhood cops to do preventive work that defuses youth alienation and violence, the alternative is to wait for more explosions of violence and then send in the CRS (Compagnies Republicaines de Securite, hard-line paramilitary riot police noted for rightwing political and racial prejudices). Budget cuts for social programs plus more repression is a prescription for more violence.
That's why Le Monde's editorial today warned that a continuation of this blind policy creates a big risk of provoking in the elections two years hence a repeat of 2002, when the neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the presidential runoff.
And a majority of the country, empoisoned even more by racism after the violence of the last ten days, seems willing to accept more and more repression: a poll released last night on France 2 public TV shows that 57% of the French support Nicolas Sarkozy's hard-line approach to the ghetto youths' rebellion, now spreading right across France. Despite the mushrooming rebellion, Sarko (no doubt thinking of the polls) wrote an op-ed in today's Le Monde entitled, "Our Strategy Is Working." Well, the barely-concealed racism of Sarko's demagogy may be working with the white electorate -- but it won't stop the violence, it will only increase it. And the violence will only further increase the racism among the French whose skins are white. So it is inevitable that what the French refer to as the "social fracture" will only get worse. UPDATE -- for a more recent analysis, see my November 19 article, "France After the Riots: 'Autism,' Repression, and the Socialists' Impotence."
CHURCH FOR ANTI-WAR SERMON Today's Los Angeles Times reports on how the Bush Internal Revenue Service is threatening to take away the tax-exempt status of an Episcopal church in Pasadena California because its rector, Rev. J. Edwin Bacon (right), delivered an anti-war sermon. The church got a warning from the IRS that it was being investigated, the L.A. Times says, because the IRS' letter said the sermon was a "searing indictment of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq" and noted that the sermon described "tax cuts as inimical to the values of Jesus." For a theocratic administration that is funneling huge amounts of money to politically friendly churches and religious groups -- political patronage disguised as "faith-based initiatives" -- it apparently isn't kosher for a pastor to indicate disagreement with Bush's policies. This selective IRS persecution is another example of the Bush administration's theocratic hypocrisy. Read the entire L.A. Times account of it by clicking here. (My thanks to my excellent cybercomrade Crooks & Liars for calling this to my attention.)
November 05, 2005
GORE VIDAL'S AMERICA
The following is an expanded version of my review of Dennis Altman's just-published book, Gore Vidal's America, which appears in the latest issue of In These Times, of which I am a contributing editor.
Just in time to help us celebrate Gore Vidal’s 80th birthday -- he turned 80 on October 3 -- comes Dennis Altman’s Gore Vidal's America.
This is not a biography. Fred Kaplan’s admirable Gore Vidal: A Life, published by Random House in 1999 (and now available in paperback), definitively fills that niche. But the great value of Altman’s book-length essay is that it gives us an understanding of the central project of America’s most visible radical public intellectual in a writing career that has spanned six decades: to help us imagine a different United States and develop alternatives to the dominant understandings of American society.
“Vidal’s constant pre-occupation,” Altman writes, “has been to excavate the past, to explain the present, and forewarn us of the perils of the future, and to do so by reaching the largest possible audience.” A brilliant novelist, political essayist, literary critic, historian, scenarist, television pundit, actor, raconteur extraordinaire, political activist and candidate (right, a button from his 1960 Congressional campaign) , a talented lecturer and platform performer, polemicist, and pamphleteer in the Tom Paine tradition, Vidal‘s “quite calculated creation of himself as a celebrity has given him a significant audience for half a century.” Vidal’s celebrity has helped him explain to a large public the insidious effects of America’s domination by a ruling class of power elites bent on imperial expansion, and how this has led to “the destruction of any meaningful choice or genuine information in an electoral process which is increasingly irrelevant to most Americans.”
It may surprise some readers to learn that one of America’s most erudite and cosmopolitan writers is largely an autodidact who never went to university, eschewing Harvard to pursue the writing career on which he had decided as a schoolboy. The grandson of a United States Senator, Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma, and the son of a high-ranking government aviation bureaucrat, he attended the elite Phillips Exeter Academy (Vidal at Exeter, right) and a character fashioned after him appears in John Knowles’ Exeter-based novel A Seperate Peace.) Enlisting as a teenager toward the close of World War II, the precocious Gore drew on his military service to write his first novel when he was only 19 (at left, Gore in 1948, photo by Carl Van Vechten): the finely-chiseled Williwaw -- a tale whose cynicism about war was compared to that of Stephen Crane (whom Vidal admired), and which brought Vidal recognition in a Life magazine cover story on literary newcomers that also featured Truman Capote (his later rival in a feud that lasted decades). (Left, Gore with Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, 1948)
After a brief stint as an editor at Dutton (where he championed the young James Baldwin and unsuccessfully sought to publish an early version of Go Tell It On the Mountain.) Vidal turned fulltime to writing. With his third novel in 1948, The City and the Pillar, Gore achieved a notoriety that would never leave him. It was an extraordinarily courageous and daring book for a young writer at the beginning of his career, because it broke new ground as the first major post-war literary work of quality to deal with homosexuality -- which was presented as a normal variant of human existence -- and also popularized the particular, same-gender meaning of “gay,” long a code-word used by the underground homosexual subculture. Excoriated by the critics, including The New York Times, in the most violent homophobic terms (the Times even refused ads for the book), it severely damaged Vidal’s reputation -- the oh-so-prejudiced lit-crit biz viciously pigeon-holed him as a “fag” writer of “pornography“ (although there is little description of physical coupling in any of Vidal‘s fictions) -- and savaged or ignored altogether Gore’s output for years. The City and the Pillar nonetheless had an unusual impact and a long life, selling more than a million copies in paperback and, as Altman correctly notes, for decades afterward helping a great number of “same-sexers” (a preferred Vidalian vocable) to accept their homosexuality and come out (the author of this review among them.)
Politics has always been central, in one way or another, to Vidal’s fiction. He first seriously dealt with U.S. imperialism in the 1950 novel Dark Green, Bright Red, about American interference in Central America (a book I like more than Altman does). Set in Guatemala, where Vidal lived for a time, the novel prefigured the coup the CIA organized at the behest of United Fruit, four years later, against the radical left-wing government of President Jacobo Arbenz (above right) (the company’s colors were green and red).
By the time he was 30, the prolific Vidal had produced eight novels under his own name and -- to supplement his income when they didn’t sell -- another five under pseudonyms, which he dashed off in a few weeks. The latter included the entertaining detective novels Gore signed as “Edgar Box”; but, unusually for genre fiction, even these were both political and presented homosexuality as normal -- like the delightful 1952 Death in the Fifth Position, which satirizes McCarthyism, and one of whose main characters is a sweatily masculine ballet dancer who chases everything in pants. (Above left, Gore with former ballet dancer and Broadway musical comedy star Harold Lang, with whom he had a torrid affair, in 1947.)
There followed the years of writing over 50 scripts (often quite political) for live television dramas in the 1950s, the screenwriting for Hollywood, his first-best-selling novel, Julian (a witty meditation on religion and power set in ancient Rome -- Gore always proudly proclaimed himself an atheist), the success of plays like Visit to a Small Planet and The Best Man (the latter also a film, and one of the best movies ever about politics), and his captivating appearances as a witty raconteur on the late-night TV chat shows that further implanted his celebrity. (Gore in the late 1950s, above right)
Radicalized by the Vietnam war and the social movements of the 1960s -- Vidal had a keen interest in the New Left -- and by his profound disillusionment with the John F. Kennedy administration -- codified in his famous 1967 Esquire essay, “The Holy Family” (left, Gore between JFK and Gore's step-cousin Jackie). Vidal was a founding essayist for The New York Review of Books, where many of his best political essays have appeared -- like the ones collected in such essential books as Homage to Daniel Shays, Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship, and The Second American Revolution, among others. [Vidal also has been arguably our most formidable and perceptive literary critic, bringing to American readers' attention for the first time such enormous talents as Italo Calvino (right) -- for Gore's moving essay in the NYRB on "Calvino's Death," click here. ]
Then came Gore’s best known fictions. The 1968 Myra Breckinridge was in the forefront of the “cultural assault on assumed norms of gender and sexuality which swept the world” in the late ‘60s and 70s, as Altman puts it. The chapter on Vidal and Sex is the best in Altman’s book, and charts the consistency of Gore’s critique of American puritanism, the radicality of his approach to sexuality, and the way in which Myra (and its sequel, Myron) “said more to subvert the dominant rules on sex and gender than is contained in a shelf of queer theory treatises.” [Gore's Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings, is available in peperback.] (Above right, Raquel Welch as Myra in the film version -- Above Left, Gore on the cover of Christopher Street magazine)
In his chapters on Politics and on History, Altman walks us through Vidal’s radical critiques of power and government in his American Chronicles series of novels that included such magnificent best-sellers as the meticulously-researched Lincoln and Burr -- which, as the critic Harold Bloom has written, tell us more about what really happened in American history than do many orthodox historians. (Left, Gore in 19th century garb on the cover of TIME. To read Gore's essay for Vanity Fair, "Was Lincoln Bi-Sexual?" click here.) Vidal has often taken his critiques to the little screen (right, Gore debating William F. Buckley on TV) , delivering regular “State of the Union” dissections for the late David Susskind’s TV show in the ‘70s, and most recently writing and hosting the TV series “The American Presidents (originally produced by Britain’s Channel 4, the series was purchased here by The History Channel -- for which it was way too radical, and so given only one late-night airing, then permanently shelved. A pity, for it should be required viewing in civics and history classes instead of the bowdlerized pablum they normally serve up.)
Altman performs a signal service by refuting in detail the absurd accusations of anti- Semitism against Vidal, whose life-partner, the late Howard Austen -- with whom he lived for 55 years -- was Jewish. Gore also wrote the seminal essay, “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” on the shared concentration camp experience of Jews and gays. Altman demonstrates how these nasty accusations by neo-cons like Norman Podhoretz actually put words in Vidal’s mouth that Vidal never said or wrote, and stem from Gore’s tart critiques of Israel’s apartheid government and its defenders here at home.
This is not, however, an uncritical appreciation of Vidal. Altman’s first book -- the 1971 Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, which owed much to Herbert Marcuse and became the most influential of the early gay liberation texts here -- was written when Altman was quite left-wing. Unfortunately, as Gore has become more radical, Altman (left) has become less so: he finds Vidal’s attacks on American imperialism “overstated” (I do not), and, as a sociologist, skewers Vidal for not having a “sociological imagination” (a rather silly objection) and for failing to write more about the working classes (which, it seems to me, is rather like taxing Proust for not being Emile Zola -- it is the dissection of the ruling elites he knows so well that has been Vidal’s primary goal). With somewhat more justice, Altman notes Vidal’s “failure to grasp the full magnitude of the scars left by race on the United States” (true in the sense that this is not a topic frequently addressed in Vidal's writings.)
But this is still a useful book, because it gives us the sweep scope of the career of an extraordinarily courageous writer who refused to deny his sexuality while also refusing to let it, alone, define him, and who has been a great radical teacher of a mass audience. Happy Birthday, Gore -- Cent'anni!
P.S. An excellent introduction fo the work of this great writer is The Essential Gore Vidal, edted by his biographer, Fred Kaplan, and which contains many important essays and excerpts from his fiction.
THE GORE VIDAL INDEX: I heartily recommend to you the very best of the numerous websites devoted to Gore Vidal -- The Gore Vidal Index, lovingly assembled and kept up to date by the University of Pittsburgh's Harry Kloman. This first-rate, multi-media website has an extensive collection of written and audio-visual work by and about Gore -- including dozens of long and short film and video clips on-line that show Vidal being interviewed, making speeches, or sparring on television with his adversaries, excerpts from Vidal's own writings, a smart and sensitive opening biographical introduction by Kloman, and much more.....this site is a treasure trove, both for those who admire and esteem Gore Vidal, and for those deprived souls who are unfamiliar with him and his work. No wonder this site has already attracted a half-million visitors. To visit the Gore Vidal Index, click here.
November 02, 2005
ALITO the HUN
The following is a slightly expanded version of a column written for the new issue of the L.A. Weekly, and will be on the paper's website tonight and in its new print edition tomorrow:
THEY DON’T CALL JUDGE SAMUEL ALITO “Scalito” (meaning “Little Scalia”) for nothing. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more reactionary judge than Bush’s new nominee for the Supreme Court. Theocratic pit bull Gary Bauer (lower right), the dwarf former presidential candidate of the Christer hard right, crowed that the appointment of Alito (upper left) was “a grand slam,” and crackpot antediluvian Phyllis Schlafly — who called Bush’s corporate flunky Harriet Miers a dangerous “feminist,” of all things —likewise gave her enthusiastic blessing to the “terribly impressive” Alito.Indeed, there’s no question that the Alito appointment was dictated by the ultraconservatives: before his name was announced in public, Karl Rove (left) went out of his way to personally call a gaggle of them — like the Southern Baptist Convention’s chief judicial enforcer, Richard Land — to boast that they’d be satisfied with Alito, the Moonie Washington Times (the Bush White House’s favorite daily) reported.
“There are a number of cases on which we know that he’s to the right of where the Supreme Court currently stands, and the way we know that is that the Supreme Court and he disagreed about a legal issue,” Pam Karlan, a professor of public-interest law at the Stanford Law School, told the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, citing abortion, the Constitution‘s equal-protection clause and the rights of those accused of crimes. And a profile in the National Law Journal of the court of appeals on which Alito sits called him “much more of an ideologue than most of his colleagues.”
That Alito would gut Roe v. Wade is clear from his 1991 decision in a case brought by Planned Parenthood, in which he argued that a Pennsylvania law requiring women to notify their spouses before having an abortion was constitutional, a big issue for battered women. The Supreme Court later struck down this legalized form of slavery, arguing that “Women do not lose their constitutionally protected liberty when they marry.”
Alito doesn’t have much use for the Bill of Rights’ guarantees of freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures. For example, he argued that police had a right to traumatizingly strip-search a 10-year-old girl (and her mother) while carrying out a search warrant that only authorized the search of a man and his home (Doe v.Groody, 2004). Did I hear someone say “Gestapo tactics” And the excellent Declan McCullagh just reported yesterday on C-Net that, In a case decided last year, “Alito ruled that the FBI did not need a warrant to outfit the hotel suite of a boxing official with a hidden audio recorder and remotely controlled video camera that could swivel 360 degrees. The devices were activated when a police informant was also present in the room of the official, who was suspected of taking bribes. Alito's fellow Judge Theodore McKee, a Clinton appointee, dissented on the grounds that advances in surveillance technology would eviscerate the privacy principles found in the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of ‘unreasonable searches.’"
Alito doesn’t think Congress has a lot of power, and would shrink the federal government’s ability to protect its citizens. For example, Congress doesn’t have the right to prohibit the transfer or possession of machine guns under the Constitution, Alito declared as the lone dissenter to a conviction of a violator of federal gun laws (U.S. v. Rybar, 1996). He argued that Congress didn’t have the power to pass the Family Medical Leave Act — which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a loved one — and said that state employees therefore had no right to sue for damages to enforce their rights under the act (Chittester v. Department of Community Development, 2000). Alito’s heartless view was effectively reversed by a Supreme Court decision three years later.
In a homophobic decision aimed at striking down protection of gay kids in public schools, Alito held that prohibiting harassment against students because of their sexual orientation or other characteristics was unconstitutional — in a case involving a disabled kid who was repeatedly a target of nasty anti-gay epithets (Saxe v. State, 2001). Although the school’s policy focused only on harassment that had the purpose or effect of interfering with a student’s educational performance, or that created an intimidating or hostile environment that prevented study, Alito’s opinion dismissed the vicious verbal gay bashing of the disabled kid as “simple acts of teasing.”
Civil rights? Fuhgeddaboutit, Alito has said in a raft of dissents to 3rd Circuit decisions — like the one in which Alito would have imposed an almost impossible burden of proof on victims of employment discrimination by “immunizing an employer from the reach of Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act] if the employer’s belief that it had selected the ‘best’ candidate was he result of conscious racial bias,” as a majority of Alito’s court colleagues lectured him in Bray v. Marriott Hotels (1997). In several other dissents, Alito wanted to make it harder for victims of discrimination based on disability and gender to prove their case. The court’s majority in Nathanson v. Medical College of Pennsylvania (1991) explained that under Alito’s restrictive standard for proving disability discrimination, “few if any Rehabilitation Act cases would survive summary judgement.”
And Bush’s new Supreme Court justice is pretty hostile to immigrants — as in his dissent from a ruling that an immigration judge should reconsider a claim from an immigrant that he’d be persecuted if returned to his home country. A majority of Alito’s colleagues in the 2003 case Dia v. Ashcroft sneered at Alito that his dissent would effectively “gut the statutory standard” for evidence of danger to the immigrant and “ignores our precedent.”
There’s tons more like this in Alito’s judicial past — and the profile of Alito in Aspen Publishing’s Almanac of the Federal Judiciary reports that his opinions, though scholarly, are “very, very conservative . . . he plants language [in his decisions] that moves the law further to the right."
At the age of 55, Alito is young enough to stay on the Supreme Court for decades. If the Democrats don’t filibuster the nomination of this archreactionary, “Scalito” will help guarantee a Scalia-like court majority for a long, long time. But will “Holy Joe” Lieberman (right), and the other right-wing Senate Dems who engineered the sellout compromise on judicial confirmations that avoided the so-called “nuclear option,” throw in the towel, vote to short-circuit any filibuster, and cave in to the Bush-Rove Republicans on Alito? If they do, you can kiss a lot of your rights and liberties goodbye — permanently.