Friday, 24 January 2014

Sochi, sexuality and empire

Analysis below is written by author and researcher Maximilian Forte. He is the author of Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO's war on Libya and Africa. Forte breaks down the politics of Sochi Olympics and the tensions between the US and Russia as the Olympics approaches. The role of sexuality, masculinity machismo, the head scratching emergence of in President Obama's sudden interest in gay rights in Russia, human rights and the responsibility to protect is examine in full. Enjoy the read. 

Sochi, Sexuality, and Empire

President Vladimir Putin, center, meets with the volunteers taking part in preparing and holding the 22nd Winter Olympic Games and 11th Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi. (RIA Novosti/Aleksey Nikolskyi)

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 Fran├žois 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 Security:
Liberal Empire at Home and Abroad
Edited by
Kyle McLoughlin
Maximilian C. Forte
Montreal: Alert Press.


AFP. (2013). France’s Hollande won’t attend Sochi GamesSydney Morning Herald, December 16.
Amnesty International. (2012). Muslims discriminated against for demonstrating their faithAmnesty International, April 23.
Gorlick, Adam. (2010). Stanford study shows Muslim job discrimination in FranceStanford Report, November 22.
Lauter, Devorah. (2010). Muslims in France feel the sting of discriminationLos Angeles Times, July 21.
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 delegationReuters, December 20.
Taylor, Adam. (2013). 77 Countries Where Homosexuality Is A Crime [MAP]Business Insider, December 11.
Wallersein, 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 OlympicsLos Angeles Times, January 16.

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