Over the weekend, the British surveillance agency GCHQ — the most extremist and invasive in the West — bathed its futuristic headquarters with rainbow-colored lights “as a symbol of the intelligence agency’s commitment to diversity” and to express solidarity with “International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.” GCHQ’s public affairs office proudly distributed the above photograph to media outlets. Referring to Alan Turing, the closeted-and-oppressed gay World War II British code-breaker just memorialized by an Oscar-nominated feature film, Prime Minister David Cameron’s office celebrated GCHQ’s inspirational lights:
This is so very moving. Gay Brits are now just as free as everyone else to spy on people, covertly disseminate state propaganda, and destroy online privacy. Whatever your views on all this nasty surveillance business might be, how can you not feel good about GCHQ when it drapes itself in the colors of LGBT equality?
This is all a stark illustration of what has become a deeply cynical but highly effective tactic. Support for institutions of militarism and policies of imperialism is now manufactured by parading them under the emotionally manipulative banners of progressive social causes.
The CIA loves this strategy. It now issues press releases hailing LGBT Pride Month and its “Agency Network of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Officers and Allies (ANGLE),” which “heralded the start of Pride Month by unveiling a photography exhibit at CIA Headquarters showcasing LGBT officers, allied employees, and their families.” Last month, the spy agency actually set up a recruiting tent at the Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade. Also last month, it summoned Maureen Dowd to Langley to interview female agents — ones whom the NYT columnist hailed as a “perky 69-year-old blond” and a mid-30s “chic analyst” — to produce a glowing portrait of “the C.I.A. sisterhood.” What Good Progressive could possibly view such such a pro-gay and feminist institution with disdain?
Neocons have long adeptly exploited this tactic and are among its pioneers. Before the invasion of Afghanistan, Americans were inundated with stories about the Taliban’s oppression of women: as though feminism was part of the cause of that war. To help justify the invasion of that country, the Bush State Department suddenly discovered its profound concern for the plight of “Afghan women and girls.” Some American feminist groups dutifully took up the cause as U.S. bombs were falling and U.S. soldiers were invading that country, as though it were some sort of War for Feminism and the Liberation of Afghan Women.
What Good Progressive could oppose a war like that? The fact that the U.S. not only refrained from invading, but lavishly supported, all sorts of regimes that were at least as repressive to women as the Taliban went unmentioned. That might suggest that liberation of women was merely a propagandistic pretext for that war rather than an actual desired outcome — just as Saddam Hussein’s “gassing of his own people” and other human rights abuses (committed when he was a close U.S. ally) had exactly zero to do with that war other than providing a feel-good means for liberals to support it.
These days, animosity toward leading U.S. adversaries — Vladimir Putin and Iranian mullahs — is bolstered through a sustained focus on their maltreatment of their LGBT citizens. The most war-craving neocons endlessly focus on the plight of gay Iranians — as though that’s what motivates their hostility, as though neocons care about any of that in the slightest — while completely ignoring brutal LGBT suppression by regimes that are highly deferential to the U.S. and Israel. All of this, though blatantly manipulative, is also a remarkably effective tactic: Obama-aligned gay groups in the U.S. such as Human Rights Campaign regularly churn out anti-Russia screeds, and do the same for Iran.
Like any effective propaganda, all of this is grounded in some semblance of truth. The Taliban really are grotesquely oppressive to women; Saddam really was a severe human rights violator; Iran really does punish and sometimes even executes its gay citizens, while Putin has cultivated an anti-gay climate for domestic political benefits.
But none of that has the even the remotest connection to U.S. foreign policy or to the reasons these countries are deemed American adversaries. Just as is true for the Taliban’s treatment of women, the regimes the U.S. loves and supports the most are at least as oppressive to LGBT individuals as Iran is (or, when compared to Russia’s actual record on gays, far more oppressive). The U.S. government doesn’t mind in the slightest if a government is oppressive to its gay or female citizens: quite the contrary, as a look at its closest allies proves. It just exploits those social issues as a means of propagandizing the public into hating the regimes that oppose its dictates, and well-intentioned people then dutifully march into line (just as some Iraq War supporters, and Libya War supporters, genuinely got convinced that invading and bombing those countries would somehow improve “human rights” — as though that were the goal or the likely outcome).
As a general matter, this tactic for Washington is far from new. The U.S. media has long hyped human rights and civil liberties abuses when perpetrated by governments disliked at the moment by the U.S. government, while ignoring far worse ones committed by subservient regimes. That’s why “Pussy Riot” has become a household name among Americans, and why the U.S. media developed an acute interest in the press freedom record of Ecuador as soon as it granted asylum to Julian Assange, but there is almost no interest in hearing about the systematic abuses of the Gulf tyrannies most commonly hailed by the U.S. media as “Our Friends and Partners in the Region.” This is human rights concerns as a cynical propaganda tactic, not anything remotely approaching an actual belief.
But the exploitation of these specific progressive social issues — especially women’s and LGBT rights — is a relatively new modification of this long-standing tactic. It has found expression in the “pink washing” of Israeli aggression: all Good Progressives are supposed to side with Israel because they provide better treatment to LGBT citizens than Palestinians do. Anti-Muslim fanatics use this same tactic constantly (literally every day, I’m told I should never oppose persecution and imperialistic aggression against Muslims because of “their” anti-gay fanaticism: why are you defending “them” since “they” would throw you off a roof, etc.). Similarly, the (genuinely exciting) milestone of the first African-American president was effectively used to obscure what the CIA itself in 2008 regarded as Obama’s irreplaceable value in protecting status quo militarism, while the milestone of the first female president will be used to obscure Hillary Clinton’s similar role.
Figuratively dressing up American wars in the pretty packaging of progressive social causes, or literally decorating pernicious spy agencies with the colors of the LGBT cause, should leave no doubt about what this tactic is. Militarism and aggression don’t become any more palatable because the institutions that perpetrate them let women and gays participate in those abuses, nor do American wars become less criminal or destructive because their targets share the same primitive social issue stances as America’s closest allies.