Sochi, Sexuality, and Empire

Only When in Russia

When were the last modern Olympic games that openly endorsed gay rights? Where were those Olympic games held? The short answer is: never, nowhere. However, suddenly, gay rights issues matter when deciding to attend the Olympics. Sochi, for reasons that are not altogether mysterious, now stands out as an exception being held as they are in nation that has not smoothly facilitated either EU plans for expansion or US plans for the political control of the entire planet, especially when this involves either military intervention against Russian allies, or an inappropriate and insensitive carping on convenient wedge issues that would open the door to greater global standardization under US dominance thus weakening adversarial states. Protesting the Sochi Olympics is a lot less about “gay rights” than it is about instrumentalizing divisive identity issues to serve US and EU geopolitical aims. It thus explains an otherwise exceptionally rich irony that French President François Hollande and the EU Justice Commissioner, among others, refuse to attend the Olympic games “as long as minorities are treated the way they are under the current Russian legislation“–without so much as batting an eyelid at the discrimination against Muslims in France and other EU member states (also here, and here). The only sports that will suffer the absence of such EU characters are likely to be the speciousness slalom, synchronized duplicity, and speed canting.

Meanwhile Obama is styling himself as the international defender of gay rights, and he has decided to include Billie Jean King, Caitlin Cahow and Brian Boitano in the US delegation to Sochi. He does so having recently discovered some level of current support for gay rights in the US which somehow authorizes him to act as if the US has always had gay rights, is the epitome of tolerance for gays, and has every right and responsibility to demand that all other states and societies instantaneously follow the US lead (even though, when it comes to gay rights, the US itself trails other Western states). Yet he also acts as the advocate for gay rights abroad when gay rights are opposed by substantial numbers within the US itself, where laws on gay marriage, for example, are still spotty and uneven to say the least. Moreover, some in the US find Russia’s so-called “anti-gay” laws to hardly be so extreme as to be worthy of comment, let alone outrage. Yet, when has either the lack of credibility or lack of a suitable provocation ever stopped a US president from aggressively hectoring other nations?

Human Rights Imperialism: It’s not about sexual rights, it’s about power

Events such as the ones pointed to above seem to lend some credibility to Wallerstein’s thesis that the geoculture of the capitalist world-system is liberal ideology. After all, it is the liberal ideology of individual rights, tolerance, and reform of traditional and anti-modern institutions that is barking at Putin, and Russia as a whole. Those of us who were not born yesterday will recognize that we have already been through this many times before: from projects designed to assimilate and school Indian children in North America and Aboriginal children in Australia, to the formulation of modernization theory, then the monumentality and global spread of developmentalism, followed by neoliberal structural adjustment and now human rights and then gay rights serving as a continuation of the process. The process is that of certain core states dictating the direction of change, the pace of change, and placing themselves at the zenith of human evolution.

Here again we see the marriage between neoliberalism and US imperialism. This undoubtedly ephemeral Sochi debate–a few months from now and hardly any US political leader or mainstream gay rights activist will ever mention the word again–is but a minor instance where this marriage is renewed. It provides an opportunity to issue commands, to shame difference, to diminish barriers to Western legal and political intervention, and to bolster possibilities for global standardization that serves the interest of Western elites. It is also a wild attempt by the Western state to claw back what it lost in 1968: “the Revolution of 1968 challenged the liberal verities, in all their manifestations. It challenged above all the belief that the state was a rational arbiter of conscious collective will,” Wallerstein argues, adding that there was belated recognition of “the inherent and necessary existence of sexism and racism” within those same liberal state structures (1991, pp. 11, 12).

The cultural evolutionist doctrine lurking in the background is unmistakable, along with its substitutes for racism when conceiving of other societies. Except that now, instead of the “psychic unity of mankind,” we are being treated to ideas of the “sexual rights unity” of humankind. The implication is the same, in that we are all required to be on the same page, turning the pages together, and events such as the putative gay rights scathing of Sochi is simply a training event, directed against all of us recalcitrant types. It also serves to create fictional reassurance to empire, that it exists for the good of all humanity, and that the US in particular has a right–no, a duty–to lead the world.

What is more remarkable perhaps is the continuing Western conceit of the legal as the source of solutions. The unspoken but pretty obvious assumption in all of the lectures demanding gay rights now, is about producing, amending or abolishing written laws enforced by the state. Somehow, some convince themselves that a de jure transformation will be sufficient, and helpful to those directly benefitting from the law (even though it may provoke resentment and aggression). It thus ignores long-term de facto realities of custom and convention. In other words, if the majority of Russians find homosexuality to be reprehensible, no law will change that. Similarly, no amount of legislation hostile to gay rights can change the fact that homosexuality will continue to be, as it has been for countless millennia, a natural and normally occurring feature of any human population. This is not a matter of law, and these protests are thus not really about gay rights. By focusing on law, they imply political power, and that is really what is at the centre of this struggle between the EU-US and Russia.

From the Masculine Empire…

This takes us to some of the workings of gender, sexuality and empire as critically addressed in the chapter by Nicole Pas, “The Masculine Empire: A Gendered Analysis of Modern American Imperialism,” published in the recently released volume, Emergency as Security, and some of the surprising transformations that appear in the discussion toward the end of the chapter.

Nicole Pas argues that modern American empire-building adopts traditionally heteronormative objectification in affirming its national power. This acts to “project dominant micro-familial ideology that is developed at home, overseas, deployed on the level of the international system of nation-states” (p. 47). Thus she argues that we must understand U.S. imperialism as assuming and constructing “a narrative of heteronormative domestic patriarchy in foreign affairs—serving to empower the home country and its military while simultaneously effeminizing the host country to rationalize its successful heterosexual objectification and subsequent domination” (p. 48). Her analysis takes her through episodes of the “war on terror” specifically in relation to Iraq and in particular Afghanistan. Pas ranges from discussion of the history of colonialism’s effeminizing of the other (focusing on the British in India), to the sexuality of empire-building, as well as the sense of emasculation brought on by 9/11, the development of “security feminism,” the construction of “female engagement teams,” the tactical instrumentalization of girls’ schools, and finally the unsettling dimensions of the queering of empire and militarism.

To begin with, the emphasis in Pas’ work is on the assertion of heterosexual norms in the way US leaders construct, manipulate, and dominate the Muslim other. As she explains,

The American public needs to be reminded of what defines their citizenship, their national identity, and their freedom; this is done through reminders of what Afghanistan and Iraq lack—they lack these fundamental ideologies that allow for a supposedly “free” America. Thus the oppressed Islamic “other” needs to be continuously acknowledged as a reminder of what it means to be a “free” American and keep the public’s eyes off of the imperial project. This is done through “peacebuilding operations” and “liberation” projects which act to feminize these countries, further warranting and rendering their penetration heterosexual and thus made “safe”. (pp. 49-50).

American standards of masculinity have adopted the same standards of “chivalry” to be found in British ideological constructions of their female colonial objects in India, deemed to be victims of barbaric male oppression in need of rescuing by British men. The “damsel in distress” motif is quite useful in this regard. This act of liberating female others (constructed as hapless victims), in the context of US invasions and occupations, is part of what Pas refers to as “security feminism,” one that simultaneously effeminizes the male objects of US domination.

But what happens when the “damsel in distress” turns out to be a man? What happens when the liberator turns out to be gay?

…to the Queer Empire?

Pas herself believes that, while ostensibly “incorporated” and legalized, the inclusion of homosexuals in the US military, for example, is something that is ultimately antithetical to the imperial project. On one level, this makes sense: if we accept the thesis, and the history that supports it, concerning the effeminization of the colonized by the colonizer, then splitting the identity of the imperial dominator/liberator renders such a discourse unstable to the say the least. The US military thus also experiences this bifurcation: homosexuals are now tolerated in the armed forces, but there are no benefits for same-sex couples (meanwhile, Obama, under military guard, flies around the world lecturing others about gay rights). The only way for US military “liberators” to retain an old-fashioned sense of their manly chivalry is to cast themselves as tolerant, yet still “normal”.

On the other hand, adding oppressed queers to the list of sexual minorities awaiting salvation by the US, turns out to be quite a convenient addition, even if not unproblematic. As Pas puts it, “the racial other, the woman, and the queer other all stand as symbols of amalgamated ‘otherness'” in contrast with “markers of American freedom, liberty, civil modernity, and most of all, masculinity” (p. 68).

My questions are: to what extent do we stand on the threshold of a major reversal? If the newer narrative focuses on the oppression of gays by heterosexuals, apparently preempting any attempt to question the autonomy and manhood of heterosexuals, how can effeminization work? Does it need to “work”? Or is it just sufficient to produce “gay rights” as if playing an ace, or a joker, in a card game? Either way, this is clearly a very productive avenue of investigation and it’s worth looking out for further research in this subject area.


EMERGENCY AS SECURITYEmergency as Security:
Liberal Empire at Home and Abroad

Edited by
Kyle McLoughlin
and
Maximilian C. Forte

Montreal: Alert Press.

.


References

AFP. (2013). France’s Hollande won’t attend Sochi Games. Sydney Morning Herald, December 16.

Amnesty International. (2012). Muslims discriminated against for demonstrating their faith. Amnesty International, April 23.

Anthrobase. Postulate of the psychic unity of mankind.

Gorlick, Adam. (2010). Stanford study shows Muslim job discrimination in France. Stanford Report, November 22.

Lauter, Devorah. (2010). Muslims in France feel the sting of discrimination. Los Angeles Times, July 21.

Huffington Post. (2013). Gallup Gay Marriage Poll Finds Majority Of U.S. Citizens Would Support Nationwide Marriage Equality Law. HuffPost Gay Voices, July 31.

Pas, Nicole. (2013). The Masculine Empire: A Gendered Analysis of Modern American Imperialism. In Kyle McLoughlin and Maximilian C. Forte (Eds.), Emergency as Security: Liberal Empire at Home and Abroad (pp. 47-71). Montreal, QC: Alert Press.

Spetalnick, Matt. (2013). Obama sends message by including gay athletes in Sochi delegation. Reuters, December 20.

Taylor, Adam. (2013). 77 Countries Where Homosexuality Is A Crime [MAP]. Business Insider, December 11.

Taylor, Adam. (2013). Pat Buchanan Tells The Truth About Vladimir Putin That American Conservatives Don’t Want To Hear. Business Insider, December 17.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. (1991). Geopolitics and Geoculture: Essays on the Changing World-System. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wharton, David. (2014). Gay rights remain controversial for 2014 Sochi Olympics. Los Angeles Times, January 16.

13 thoughts on “Sochi, Sexuality, and Empire

  1. Well said Comrade, the hypocrisy of the West in this would be comical – if it wasn’t so tragic. I wonder what kind of Gay Rights Obama’s Islamic Contras afford the peoples of Syria and Libya?

  2. Yes, I didn’t even want to mention how the UN representatives of the West’s “new Libya” stood up at a session of the UN Human Rights Commission to virulently denounce homosexuality as a threat to humanity. It seemed like such an easy target.

  3. You have encouraged me to read more from the article by Nicole Pas and from the book generally, although I may find some of the language somewhat over-academic. The historical link with the British is revealing, although also a little depressing, as astute observers – English and other- were already noting a century ago that the would-be “masculine” self-image of the Empire-builders was a load of puerile excretion. Then, as now, the Rambo-esque , sinister clowns who parade their putative “masculinity” lack humour and humility. Truly, in Robert Bly’s phrase, a “sibling society” . The history of the US, sadly, makes it all too susceptible to macho posing – or, I should say, American “leaders” are exploiting the tendency to hollywoodise reality which is probably as vital to seduce the general public in the US as anywhere.

  4. Thanks David. I also am considering how US “over-reach” might extend to ideology–retaining the masculine ethos, but then then incorporating women and gays. Ultimately the whole construction becomes vulnerable: “parts” don’t fit, or one-size-fits-all solutions are attempted, cracks are papered over–I don’t want to take this analogy too far.

  5. Max – Do you mean that sending some people who happen to be gay or lesbian to represent the US at Sochi is a form of “aggressively hectoring other nations”? (Since when is sending uncloseted gay athletes somewhere a form of aggression, or hectoring?) And how does the fact that many in the US oppose gay rights (mostly Republicans, as everyone knows) take away from Obama’s credibility as a defender of gay rights? Isn’t it exactly the opposite? Doesn’t he usually get criticized for caving in to Republican and centrist demands? Aren’t there some complex intersectionalities here that you’re missing in your analysis?

  6. I am certain there is a lot that is missed in such a brief piece. In terms of “aggressively hectoring other nations”, I don’t believe that I suggested that the one main example of that is sending those three athletes to represent the US–I am referring to a much broader pattern, that goes well past Russia. See our report from several months ago on Obama’s African tour, for example. It is, however, hectoring because the “sending” of those individuals is not a mere, lone act, but part of a much larger, much louder propaganda assault on Russia that has been incessant. It is meant to be “instructive,” in an unwelcome and intrusive manner. As for the fact that many in the US oppose gay rights, it means that Obama, as the US’ international representative, cannot claim the moral high ground in any unqualified and absolute sense. In other words, many in the US would agree with Russia’s laws–so for whom does Obama really speak? And who is he speaking about? Where is the “universe” that stands behind his assertions of universality? Why the focus on Russia, when so much remains to be done at home? What was also missed here of course is the element where Obama is using the gay rights issue abroad, to secure the gay vote at home. I don’t think I can wrap this all up in one reply, thankfully, in large part because this is such a broad, complex, and very fertile topic.

  7. “Why the focus on Russia, when so much remains to be done at home?”
    I guess I don’t see much of a focus on Russia at all (not that I would recommend it). Mostly Obama seems to be focusing on domestic affairs, and Syria and Iran (both also reluctantly) and a very few other things. The anti-gay laws in Russia merely provided a pretext to make one fewer trip abroad.
    Consider Ukraine: it’s now in the midst of a revolution that could easily slip into civil war and/or a division of the country into two — a division that Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions have a great deal of interest in. Yet everyone there knows that neither the US nor Europe give a damn about them (except for Poland and Germany, a little), and that they have to take their fate into their own hands.
    Anyway, I agree it’s a complex and fertile topic…

  8. Well I am not sure that I can agree that there is not much of a focus on Russia at all. In no particular order, we can think of the fact that,

    • there are the constant polemical battles against Russian foreign policy, in the context of the UN Security Council;
    • there are challenges to the Russian sphere of influence by luring Georgia towards NATO, and a raft of border states from Moldova to the Ukraine into the EU;
    • the so-called “anti-gay laws” in Russia is the latest attempt to attack Russia, using “soft power” means, that has ranged from Pussy Riot, to the conduct of elections, to its policy on Syria;
    • and that Obama is arguably focusing very little on domestic affairs, where he is generally ineffective anyway, and is now the paramount example of a foreign policy president, even a “war president”.

    Obama does not seem to have lost interest in foreign trips. His real challenge now is getting invited, thanks to the NSA revelations, or in getting those he has invited on state visits to actually come, such as Dilma Rouseff. With an ever growing crisis of international legitimacy for the US, every second of attention deflected to Russia is a supposed gain for the US.

    Lastly, I don’t think that the Ukraine is now in the midst of any kind of revolution. Our Western media and political leaderships have significantly exaggerated the degree of popular opposition, and the protests have shown very little ability to sustain themselves beyond a small core of hardline opposition activists. In recent elections for vacant parliamentary seats, the ruling party swept up 75% of them, and it is governing from a position of strength (it was the popular choice of voters, after all). I don’t think we will see civil war there any time soon, although I am sure some in or close to US policy-making circles would love to encourage one, and are probably very happy with current events.

  9. I received this comment via email, from a reader annoyed with the difficulty in getting comments to come through:

    “Agree with Max-no way the USA is unconcerned with Russia. This is geopolitics and Russia was a huge part of Obama’s last election debates. You can only miss it all if you havent been interested in reading newspapers for many years. Max-somewhat frustrated you didnt say much more about NGOs and media in the USA that are all full of fury with Russia on this gay stuff especially because theyre the choir behind the preacher and theyre the ones adding so much noise. And Obama is not ineffective-he just couldnt care less about bankrupt cities and poor black youths when his team is Goldman Sachs. Im really fed up with pushy nosy Americans bashing our countries for not being even more like them than we already are and with other Americans playing innocent like they dont even know this is happening.”

    From Issa Mohammed
    25-01-14 0444 GMT

Comments are closed.