Saturday, February 08, 2014

Why I'm uneasy watching the Olympics

I think anyone who has thought seriously about Nazi Germany has probably asked herself: if I had been a Jew in that time and place, would I have been smart or lucky enough to get out? Would I have chosen uprooting and exile, if such was possible?

Russian gays are asking themselves the same thing, for the same reason: they are targeted by their own state for who they are, not anything they have done.

An authoritarian state apparatus has chosen to mobilize Russia's latent cultural homophobia to fuel nationalist zeal. Russians need an ego boost. Communism and the country's imperial superpower status collapsed in the 1990s; Russians were left with a kleptocracy and a secret police thug for a permanent president. It has not been an inspiring trajectory. Where else in the world did life expectancy fall during the 1990s? Maybe Afghanistan?

Last November, journalist Jeff Sharlet captured this explanation for Russia's surging homophobia from a journalist named Elena Kostyuchenko.

"Putin needs external enemies and internal enemies. The external enemies are the U.S. and Europe. Internal enemies, they had to think about. The ethnic topic is dangerous. Two wars in the Caucasus, a third one, nobody knows how it would end. Jews? After Hitler, it's not kosher. We --" she waves a hand at herself and Zhenya [Sharlett's lesbian translator] -- "are the ideal. We are everywhere. We don't look different, but we are." She inhales. She's one of those smokers who hold your eyes when they're smoking. Cigarettes disappear into her lungs. She says, in English: "It's our turn. Just our turn." She exhales. She has a pleasant smile.

She met her girlfriend four and a half years ago, at a lesbian movie night in a club. The movie was Lost and Delirious, translated into Russian as They're Not Gonna Get You. Mischa Barton, prep-school lesbians. They both thought it was a little childish. Elena liked Anya's seriousness and her broad grin; she liked her earnestness and her calm. Their love was quick and deep and strong. Soon Elena was thinking about a home together. "Then I was thinking, ‘I have health issues. I'm hospitalized once in a while. I can be unconscious—who will come and make medical decisions for me?' Then, at one moment, I realize Anya is the one I want to have my children with." That's when she got scared. "Before that, I didn't feel like I was discriminated against. Then Anya appeared."

Kostyuchenko was beaten so viciously at a Gay Pride demonstration that her skull was cracked and she lost most of her hearing. The whole Sharlett article is chilling and absolutely essential reading if you care about LGBT people.

David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, asked two former Pussy Riot activists how the Olympics fit into Putin's plans when they were in New York last week speaking for prisoners' rights. They'd just been released after serving nearly two years for an episode of pro-feminist iconoclastic performance art they'd done in a Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Such cultural sacrilege is punished in contemporary Russia.

“For Putin, the Olympic Games are an attempt to inflate the inflatable duck of a national idea, as he sees it,” Tolokonnikova told me. “In Russia today, there are no real politics, no real discussion of views, and meanwhile the government tries to substitute for this with hollow forms of a national idea -- with the Church, with sports and the Olympics. … "

These Olympic Games are central to the meaning of his life -- they are as important to him as anything he has done,” Alekhina said.

So these Olympics are the play fantasy of a fascist gay basher of the most vicious sort: not just a bigot, but a manipulator who incites the resentments of others for his own purposes. These women think we in the outside world fail to realize how hollow Putin's autocracy is. May they be right.

Meanwhile, no opening pageantry can make me feel the Sochi games are anything by putrid, through and through.
Yet I'll probably watch, at least bits and pieces. I couldn't get behind the call for a boycott; that would have primarily hurt athletes in obscure sports for whom these extravaganzas are their only wide exposure. Olympic sports bureaucrats, the TV broadcasters, and advertisers do have responsibility here. I hope we hear from them, again and again, that Russian persecution of gays contradicts everything the Olympics are supposed to stand for.


Rain Trueax said...

To prevent any unfairness where it comes to Civil Rights, it demands that those speak up who are not being impacted by it. We have Americans who would do everything that is happening in Russia; but we have more and more willing to stand up for gay rights even though they aren't gay, their kids aren't gay, but they see it as impacting them anyway as living where there is bigotry and unfairness is unhealthy.

It worked when women didn't have the vote and men could have blocked it longer but finally realized it wasn't right to deny them. Enough men listened to the arguments made by the women that finally (and it took in Oregon until the year my mother was born) the ones blocking it gave up. It worked to take us to where we are with minorities (which isn't there yet) and it will work for this but only if the majority stand up and demand it.

I just saw where a Republican woman from Michigan is demanding they purge all gays from the Republican party. Sometimes women can be the worst where it comes to something like this. The rest of us have to stand firm and if the Republican party is so stupid as to do that, they deserve to go the way of the Whigs and all the other parties that used to be with a new party rising to stand up for conservative values. We do need two parties to present alternative views, to force dialogue. One of ours though has forgotten what conservative really means and it's a pity.

Russia, after spending all that money, is only revealing its own lack of values. It just didn't get it that when you present something poorly, you can throw any amount of money at it but you just don't get it what is important. The gay issue is important there but they clearly have a culture that isn't nearly ready for the more developed world to admire. They apparently don't even know what that means from what we've been hearing about their hotels. Someone said it's like they are jumping from the Middle Ages straight to 2014 and skipped everything in between that Europe and much of the world went through to culturally mature.

Michael Strickland said...

I watched the opening ceremonies last night and what was really repulsive was listening to the NBC commentators emit a steady stream of Russia bashing for over three hours. Not only were most of their historical nuggets wrong or completely out of context, but their smug certainties about how the West was such an examplar of all virtues over the last ten centuries ("Russia never had the Renaissance while we did") was offensive and ahistorical. As for Putin's gay/lesbian bashing, it seems to be backfiring badly on the world stage. Good.

janinsanfran said...

Yes Mike -- 'tis the season when we'll have to hate NBC once again. If only they'd broadcast these things as sports!!

I watched very little of the opening extravaganza; not my stuff, any more than ice skating is. Not surprised the commentators were our own nationalist idiots -- guess they've forgotten we displaced much of poor, Black Atlanta for those games and did a round up of street people prior to the LA version.

But something extra-ugly for LGBT people is going on in Russia ...

Kay Dennison said...

From what I'm reading, it's really terrible. I decided to boycott watch it the minute I heard about it.

Rain Trueax said...

My feeling is they would not have gone back to Putin if they had had a clue for real values. This guy has been a thug, a scary character, an assassin, and yet he got re-elected-- assuming they do have real elections...

Yes they've had some times of cultural beauty but they are also a culture that has been brutal over and over

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