It was in November 2011, less than a year and a half ago, that the veteran far-left Jewish lesbian activist Sarah Schulman wrote an op-ed in which she introduced New York Times readers to a couple of unfamiliar terms. One was “pinkwashing,” which she defined as “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.” The other was “homonationalism”: the alleged tendency of gays who’ve won social acceptance and legal rights to identify with “the racial and religious hegemony of their countries,” and to “construct the ‘other,’ often Muslims of Arab, South Asian, Turkish, or African origin, as ‘homophobic’ and fanatically heterosexual.”
The thrust of Schulman’s op-ed was that gays and others should look past Israel’s gay-friendly image (which, she claimed, is the product of an intentional Israeli effort to bolster support abroad), focus on the terrible suffering of Palestinian Muslims at the merciless hands of the Israelis, and stop “constructing” Muslims as gay-hating. Schulman, it should be noted, is a leading proponent of the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign against the Jewish state.
Since writing that op-ed, Schulman has been a busy girl. Last week, her vision of a Pinkwashing and Homonationalism Conference at the City University of New York (where, although she has no scholarly record to speak of and no degree higher than a B.A. from Empire State College, she boasts the title of Distinguished Professor) became a reality. For two full days, dozens of participants from around the world gave talks and held panels. The event – which was streamed online – proved to be every bit as despicable as one imagined.
At the opening keynote, Jim Wilson, the director of CUNY’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS), fell all over himself expressing his “delight” over the fact that CLAGS was hosting this “vital, cutting-edge” event, which he described as his “most rewarding” experience after twenty years in academia. He then introduced Schulman (“my intellectual, moral, and spiritual guide throughout”), who triumphantly thundered from the lectern that, despite various pressures and challenges, “this conference is exactly the way we wanted it to be!” She derided a request that she include “a keynote speaker from the other side,” adding (to uproarious applause): “Like there’s two sides!”
Although the first keynote, by novelist Rabih Alameddine (“one of the greatest writers in the English language,” Schulman said), was anticlimactic – he read a short story – the second delivered the goods. In it, Palestinian lesbian and “world-class visionary” Haneen Maikey argued that “focusing on Western concepts of LGBT” (which involve such trivial matters as freedom and equal rights) distracts from the “central issue” of Palestine. As for the argument that Israel accepts gays and Palestinian authorities don’t, Maikey said that it’s vital to reject this “binary” and to pay more attention to nuance.
“Binary,” it should be noted, was a key word at this conference – in today’s academia, you see, anyone who presents an uncomfortable, irrefutable black-and-white truth, such as the fact that Israel has gay-pride parades and Muslim countries have gay executions, can always be dismissed as “inscribing” (as they say) a crude and oversimplifying “binary.”
Maikey also decried the acceptance into the “anti-pinkwashing” movement of so-called “good” Israelis, saying that such inclusion “undermines” the movement, reinforces Israeli supremacy, and is “a direct act of anti-solidarity.” She dismissed the argument that there are good and bad Israelis and good and bad Palestinians. No, she thundered: “There’s a colonizer and a colonized!” Nobody seemed to notice that in saying this, Maikey was (ahem) inscribing a binary.
In one particularly loathsome session, entitled “LGBT Rescue Narratives,” the speakers mocked the idea that for gays the Muslim world is a dangerous place and the West a sanctuary. Katherin Forbear of the University of British Columbia sneered about the Canadian refugee system, saying that its attitude – which she mockingly summed up as “Let’s help these poor people come to the great state of Canada” – simplifies a complex situation. (Exactly how many Canadians, Ms. Forbear, are seeking refuge in the Muslim world?)
Colleen Jankovic of the University of Pittsburgh savaged the 2006 Israeli film The Bubble, about an Israeli man and Palestinian man who fall in love, saying that it wrongly reinforces the idea that “homophobic Palestinian society” is at the “root of queer Palestinians’ problems.” And Emrah Yildiz of Harvard told the story of a gay couple from Tehran whom he described as being caught in a “double bind”: in Iran, they were officially viewed as deviant and harassed by the “moral police”; in the West, where they tried to secure refugee status, authorities at first didn’t accept that they were gay because they “acted straight” and therefore, as Yildiz puts it, weren’t “adequately deviant.” Yildiz’s point, in short, was to draw a moral equivalence between Iran’s treatment of these guys and the West’s. (After pushing this ridiculous equation at length, Yildiz admitted, during the Q. & A., that the two men are now living happily in Canada.)
Yildiz defended Iran passionately. Reacting to the charge that Iran has executed innumerable people for being gay, he complained: “There’s no other country in the world that gets targeted like this!” He also suggested that Iran’s “heteronormativity” (a euphemistic way, apparently, of referring to its habit of arresting, torturing, and, yes, executing gays) “opens up the possibility of not identifying” as either gay or straight – a plus for the many contemporary academics who, viewing such labels as bourgeois, prefer the chichi concept of “queer.” Yildiz also stood up for Islam: “We don’t ask Christianity to account for sexuality in the West,” he asked bemusingly, “so why are we asking for Islam to account for sexuality in the Middle East?”
Another panelist, Fatima Jaffer of the University of British Columbia, slammed the Canadian media for “constructing” Muslim immigrant families as patriarchal for and describing them as hostile to gays. After all, she said, in the West Islam is itself a “queer movement,” given that its adherents reject normative “Canadian values.” While whitewashing the treatment of gays in the Muslim world, Jaffer insisted that “it’s not so great in the U.S. and Canada for gays.” She did talk frankly about the oppression of gays in Uganda – a reality she was able to acknowledge because the oppressors in this case, as she underscored, are Christians – and described Mombasa, her hometown, as the “queer capital of Africa,” a paradise for gays marred only by Christian homophobia imported from the West.
During the Q. & A., somebody actually asked the panelists a question based on real-world considerations: “Are you saying people shouldn’t be leaving these [i.e., Muslim] countries?” In reply, Jankovic hemmed and hawed; Jaffer, for her part, actually said (and this is a direct quotation): “There’s a split between what happens on the ground and what we talk about in academia.” Truer words were never spoken. There’s the facts, and then there’s contemporary academic ideology – and never the twain shall meet. Full points to Jaffer for honesty – though I wonder if she kicked herself afterward for making such a candid admission.
The sneering at “rescue narratives” continued at a session called “Psychology of Pinkwashing,” in which one J. L. Haycock – echoing the oft-cited reference by Columbia University professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a founder of postcolonialist studies, to misguided, racist white people who seek to save “the brown woman from the brown man” – waxed sarcastic about “white queers saving brown queers from brown society.” Western gays who seek to help gays in Muslim countries, Haycock argued, are committing the sin of viewing the latter as objects, not subjects; they’re denying them agency; they’re perpetrating an “erasure of identity.”
Another session, “Pinkwashing Beyond the LGBT,” illustrated that “pinkwashing” has been quick to spawn ideological offshoots. Samantha King of Queens University in Canada examined “estrogen-washing” – the purported use of Breast Cancer Awareness programs to propagandize for Israel and the West, to promote such evils as “individualism, the free market, and private property,” and to “pathologize local cultures,” such as Palestine’s, as “toxic and dangerous.” (In passing, King put in a good word for the United Arab Emirates’ health-care system.) Sam Markwell talked about “greenwashing” – the supposed use of the environmental movement to make Israel look good. Apparently, anything good about Israel that happens to be mentioned in the international media can be denounced as this or that kind of “washing.”
And so it went. At another session, Dina Georgis of the University of Toronto referred to the “Jenin Massacre” as if it were an established fact and not a proven lie. Trish Saleh, a male-to-female transsexual, said she’d idolized Israel’s 1998 Eurovision winner, transsexual singer Dana International, as the embodiment of transgression – until the performer publicly supported Israel’s actions against the 2010 Gaza flotilla. And Alex Shams of Harvard maintained that two teenagers hanged in Iran in 2005 for being gay were in fact being punished for rape. Omitted from his presentation was the fact that whatever the facts of this particular case, “sodomy” is indeed one of the offenses punishable by death in Iran, along with lesbianism, adultery, blasphemy, alcohol consumption, and many others.
This was an overwhelmingly female conference, and most of the females were of a type – white girls, either grad students or very junior faculty, who bore all the marks of privileged youth. Most of their voices were well-nigh indistinguishable. “They all sound like Barbie dolls!” commented the poor soul who watched some of the live stream with me. Yes, or like Valley girls. Every sentence sounded as if it ended in a question mark; while their papers were jargon-ridden, their Q. & A. responses were packed with the words “like” and “basically” (one of them expressed approval of the event by referring to it as “this super rad conference”); and both before and after the sessions, several of them kept giggling inanely, like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert.
The men, for their part, were the usual castrated feminist fellow travelers who meekly accepted their subordinate role, one of them apologizing for “the privileges I have as a man” (what privileges? in the academy? in 2013?) and another one insisting that “queer women and trans people,” certainly not gay men, should be in charge of all gay organizations and events like this one. None of these craven apologies kept the conference from being a riot of male-bashing – specifically, gay-white-male bashing. Perhaps the most vigorous offender in this regard was Elena Kiesling, who ranted at length about the unbearable “whiteness” of the public image of the “gay community” and charged that the “gay white male” is the “poster boy” for gayness. (Leaving aside the absurdity of this charge, it was hilarious to hear it voiced by a six-foot-one blonde Aryan goddess who, in addition to being a graduate student in American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität in Mainz, plays on a championship beach volleyball team in Bad Soden, Germany.)
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the callowness, mediocrity, and intellectual laziness on display at this conference were through the roof. I’ve been to more than my share of inane academic confabs, but never have I heard so many stupid, inarticulate people put so much ideology and jargon between themselves and their purported real-world topics. This little get-together wasn’t just an attack on Israel; it was a two-day-long expression of antipathy for capitalism, for white males (gay and straight), for law and order, for economic development, and for any concept of human rights that hasn’t been run through the P.C. wringer.
Enmity for the police was expressed more than once (one of the young ladies actually used the word “pigs” to describe officers of the law). “Gay” itself was a dirty word here: the right term, you see, is LBGT. (One speaker actually slipped up and used “gay” in a positive way, then, quickly catching his mistake, said, “Oops, I mean that in a broad way, an LGBT way – sorry, it’s early!”) “Liberal,” too, was a pejorative, as was “neo-liberal”: these terms, in the participants’ view, describe complacent, squishy pro-capitalist types who, unlike their own radical selves, don’t have the guts to mount the barricades.
To listen to these absurd papers, all of them utterly ignoring the most basic facts about Islam and Israel and the West, was, in one sense, deeply depressing: the line of argument that Schulman set forth in that Times op-ed, and that one might have been tempted to brush aside as the mad ranting of a single fringe wacko, is now, it seems, very quickly blossoming into an entire academic discipline that has taken root at several major centers of learning. Then again, the conference provided reason to hope. For several of the participants made it clear that they were moving beyond pinkwashing into territory that promises, shall we say, to lead to some very interesting developments indeed.
The first hint of this new direction came when Jaffer began her presentation by thanking the Algonquin tribe, noting that the conference was taking place on their ancestral lands. At another session, a speaker informed the audience that “we’re on Lenape territory.” And at a third, a young woman named Rachel Byrne solemnly pronounced, “We are on stolen land” – a prelude to her denunciation of affluent gay white men’s gentrification of the Castro district in San Francisco. Later, Tallie Ben Daniel picked up on the same theme, arguing that the “settler logics” in Israel and the Castro are in fact very similar: both are occupied territories (one taken from Palestinians by Jews, the other from working-class San Franciscans by affluent gays) that present themselves as miracles of rejuvenation (flowers blooming in the desert, a slum given a “massive facelift”) but that are, in fact, the consequences of violent capitalistic dispossession.
Daniel went on to link both the “myth” of the Israeli miracle and the “myth of gay urban renewal” to the “myth” of the American pioneers who settled the West. Similarly, on a panel about “The Canadian Colonial Settler State,” a participant posed a question: how can he and other opponents of “pinkwashing” work for Palestine while being indifferent to native Americans who want to reverse the colonization of North America?
Some of the participants joined merrily in on Daniel’s hand-wringing; others resisted it – perhaps because they could discern where this kind of “analysis,” if taken to its logical conclusion, would lead. For if it’s just as evil for them to live in “occupied” North America as it is for Israelis to live in “occupied” Palestine…what does that do to the “pinkwashing” movement? How can they continue to demonize Israel once they’ve already, in effect, demonized themselves? How do you boycott yourself, divest from yourself, impose sanctions on yourself? It’ll be entertaining to see how these puerile clowns react when they realize they’ve painted themselves into an ideological corner, and drawn targets on their own backs.
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