Monday, January 4, 2016

NY Times Claim That Anti-Gay Laws in Africa Are Blowback for U.S. Intervention: Critical Reflections

I have to admit that I raised my eyebrows a few weeks ago when the New York Times published Norimitsu Onishi's article citing various African commentators claiming that stepped-up anti-gay legislation in a number of African countries is "blowback" for U.S. support of LGBT rights in Africa. I did so because so much that I heard the African voices cited by Onishi saying sounded precisely like what I remember white Southern "liberals" saying during the period of the Civil Rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s in the U.S.

If they'd only leave us alone and let us solve our own problems. No one understands the complexity of our situation better than we do.  
The more they push, the more we react: it's human nature. Stop ramming civil rights down our throats. 
We'll move ahead with all deliberate speed, once you take your boots from our necks.

And, of course, nothing happened. Nothing at all happened to move our segregated society, with its denigration of people of color, in the direction of human rights until we were pushed, and pushed hard, by people outside our culture (and outside our control) who were determined to see a commitment to human rights prevail in the segregated South, and who imposed that determination in the form of federal law. 

"With all deliberate speed" was a mockery. It was a ruse and a lie. We'd still be talking today, in the South, about solving "our" own problems without "them" interfering and pushing, if federal action had not forced us to respect the rights of people of color. 

And so please forgive me if I listen with a certain tinge of cynicism to the claims of African "liberals"  that Africans will solve their little problem of anti-gay prejudice and discrimination in their own good time, in their own way, if outsiders stop pushing them. Forgive me if I have strong reason to distrust the claim that it's that outside pushing that's causing the blowback, and if I am more than a little suspicious about the way in which Africans resisting the push of the U.S. government to respect the rights of LGBT human beings echo the worst sentiments of "liberals" when the U.S. Civil Rights movement came along and forced these self-serving white racist "liberals" to begin according rights to a long-despised minority group.

Given my reaction to the Times article, I'm happy now to see Jay Michaelson's recent essay at Daily Beast noting that the Times piece was "error-filled" and failed to quote a single African advocate for LGBT rights who sees Western attempts to call African nations to accountability for anti-LGBT discrimination in a positive light. As Michaelson also points out, this is not the first time the Times has published an article by Onishi in this vein — and that raises questions for me about why the Times is pushing this angle: Western agitation for human rights = continued colonialism = fuel for anti-LGBT backlash.

Part of the answer to that question, I suspect, is that this line of analysis neatly reflects the claims of a growing number of influential American commentators who want to maintain that political correctness run amok in the U.S. is fueling Mr. Trump's rise to power. Push people to accede to new social norms prohibiting open expressions of disdain for people of color, LGBT people, Muslims, etc., and you get Trump and his crude loud-mouthed supporters, working- and middle-class Americans tired of being pushed around (except, evidently, by Mr. Trump and other members of the super-rich class who are responsible for those Americans' loss of economic security, jobs, benefits, etc.)

You can see this argument — the left, with its political-correctness police, is feeding Trump's rise to power — on stark, stolid display this morning in Tom Nichols' essay about Trump and the "p-c police" at Daily Beast

But I'm with Alyson Cole in her blunt analysis of what's really going on with the attacks on political correctness supposedly run amok, and with the astonishing attempt to attribute Trump's rise to power to the left's desire to impose political correctness on everyone else: 

Let's be honest: The war on p.c. is really a war on minorities and others who dare raise their voices in protest. . . . It is no coincidence that concerns about victimhood culture arise precisely at the moment when demands to address the systemic threat to black lives are growing in number and intensity. Perhaps Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol best revealed the politics catalyzing this revived gripe when she criticized President Obama for inviting Ahmed Mohamed (the 14-year-old student whose school science project rendered him a terror suspect) to the White House. Tellingly, she explains that with this invitation Obama promotes "more racial strife that is already going on with the 'Black Lives Matter' crowd and encourages victimhood." And, just a few days ago, the president of the American Enterprise Institute cautioned that victimhood undermines the ethos of individualism and self-help. 
Despite the supposedly objective scholarship undergirding the current preoccupation with victimhood culture, and the claim to have discovered something new about American society, these alarm bells ring familiar — a revival of the old culture war-era effort to suppress claims about gender and race inequality, silence particular modes of protest deemed "victimist," and thereby uphold the status quo.

In 2016 politicians and pundits will certainly continue to pontificate about the pitfalls of political correctness. There just isn't any downside to attacking this imaginary monster of groupthink, so we can expect to hear speakers trumpeting their own courage in "not being pc" as they attack especially vulnerable groups in society. Ted Cruz has already set a high bar for aggressive vapidity in declaring "political correctness is killing people," but we should expect other candidates to fall over one another in showing they can stand up to this phantom force against speaking one's mind. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on pc elitism, so I fear we will only see more of this in 2016.

There's something particularly nasty about blaming oppressed people or their allies who speak up against oppression for the very oppression heaped on them, with claims that this oppression is "blowback" because they dared to open their mouths and defend themselves. That argument did not hold water when "liberal" white Southerners (read: polite as opposed to loud, overt racists) used it in the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century. Nor should it hold water when it's revived by people nattering on about p.c. police in the early 21st century, or about how Western attempts to call African nations to accountability for their treatment of LGBT citizens are eliciting the mistreatment Western nations are decrying.

As the Nigerian Christian activist for LGBT rights Davis Mac-Iyalla, whom Michaelson cites, states, "homosexuality is not a Western import to Africa—homophobia is." There was long a space within various African cultures for same-sex intimacy before Western missionaries closed that space — and so how strange it is today to hear Africans opposed to according rights to LGBT people claiming that the call to respect LGBT rights is a Western colonialist imposition on traditional African values. 

Especially when, as the ground-breaking work of Jeff Sharlet (see, too, the video at the head of the posting) and others has shown us the considerable extent to which the U.S. religious right is driving anti-LGBT movements in Africa at present . . . .

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