Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Gay rights are human rights and we have the right to defend them everywhere. No ifs, no buts

Well, it had to come. Over the last year or two, the far left has shown its tolerance of sexism of the most unpleasant variety, thanks to the treatment of rape allegations about “Comrade Delta” in the SWP, among other things. Similarly the tolerance to anti-Semitism shown by some of those who purport merely to campaign for the respectable cause of a free Palestine.

But for the British left throughout the 1980s, when practically all its other policies were a disaster, one of the few things on which it was a light in the darkness was the rights of those discriminated against because of their sexuality. Alas, it seems, no more.

Stephen Fry surely knew that he was never going to get David Cameron to boycott the Winter Olympics in Russia over his homophobic legislation. We can certainly debate the very old argument about politics and sport being kept separate (for those who might not remember, the US boycotted the last Russian Olympics in Moscow during the Cold War). 

We might take issue with his comparisons with the Munich Olympics in 1930s Germany. We might even take the view that Cameron obviously has, that realpolitik dictates that engagement with a newly resurgent world power we might disagree with is better than bilaterally breaking off relations with it. All of these are legitimate arguments.

But one would have thought that the last thing that might happen on the left would be an apology for Putin’s behaviour per se.

To see this, let’s first take a brief turn through the wonderful online-age world of Pravda. In my Cold War youth, it was the organ of shameless Soviet propaganda. Today, it is the organ of, well, shameless Russian propaganda.

Despite there being not the remotest pretence of any kind of left-wingery about the rapacious capitalism of modern-day Russia – if you can get past the Mail-style headlines of “Vampires were real – Here’s the proof” and “Revealed – humans to develop beaks in future” – you can see almost identical conspiracy-led narratives about the West which still appeal to a certain type of leftist.

Naturally, it decided that the West should keep its nose out of Putin’s unpleasant persecution of gays, because it is “cultural imperialism”.

What we might not have expected, though, is that Pravda’s argument be echoed free of charge in Britain’s very own Socialist Unity, which accused Fry of “hypocrisy” and called homosexuality a “lifestyle choice”. Yet, next to a piece showing various stout socialists marching on a Pride march, it saw no inconsistency whatsoever in telling us how we should mind our own business and let Putin get on with persecuting gays, if that was what he wanted. I shall leave it to your judgement as to whether the second piece might not have been hurriedly rushed out so as to compensate for complaints received about the first.

In other words, the conclusion was essentially that we should not raise the issue because we have no right to challenge another country on human rights abuses.

The feeble-mindedness of the argument is remarkable: Putin creates clearly discriminatory legislation against homosexuality, like the Tories’ rather nasty Section 28, which we fought against a quarter-century ago, but considerably worse. But Russia is another culture, and if that’s what they want to do, fair enough. And, hey, what about those “illegal wars” we made? We do bad things, too, y’know?

Socialist Unity is a website apparently run by three people, at least one of whom is now a Labour member (editor Andy Newman reportedly rejoined in 2010). John Wight, who wrote the article and also blogs at the Respect website, also wrote a piece defending George Galloway earlier this year, in which you can probably guess that he failed to mention his remarks about rape which largely caused the disintegration of said party.

They are entitled to their views, which are probably roundly ignored by most Labour members. So why should we care?

We should care because one seductive argument I see seeping outside of the far left and into other parts of the party is this: we haven’t the right to complain about other countries’ abuses of human rights. We lack the “requisite moral authority”.

Not that we judge it counterproductive, or the sanction does not fit the crime. But simply that we have no right to criticise because they are “a different culture”. Or because we have done something for which we may legitimately be criticised ourselves.

The first excuse is merely the “soft bigotry of low expectations”, that others cannot aspire to the things we wish for ourselves. And the second is moral relativism; just as many of us can pat our heads and rub our bellies at the same time, we can criticise the West for not closing Guantanamo and, amazingly, Putin at the same time for locking up gays, journalists or punk rockers.

Both are also arguments which can be conveniently applied to chopping people’s hands off, Female Genital Mutilation, torture and a long list of other atrocities. And the peddling of this thinking is, I’m afraid, for a rather different motive, less overtly stated: it is down to that old and utterly foolish adage, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

Deep down, “my enemy’s enemy” adherents don’t really mind whatever awful regimes like Putin’s does: it is a sufficient price to pay, as long as he continues to poke America in the eye with a sharp stick from time to time.

Vladimir Putin, twister of constitutions, lip-service democrat, authoritarian par excellence, should be considered a friend to no right-thinking person. And an enemy to all who believe in freedom.

Labour MPs may not always be placed to call out human rights abuses or, at least, they may need to make calculations about when and where. Ordinary Labour members may, in contrast, feel anobligation to speak out against them, and all power to them.

But none of us should ever, ever feel that we do not have the right.

This post first published at LabourList

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