Every so often, it seems, our planet produces a country with a government so objectionable, so wicked, so self-evidently evil, all of humanity is able to briefly unite in righteous indignation against them.
For much of the 20th century, that country was South Africa, whose racist apartheid government was taken to be so clearly, clearly in the wrong almost no vindictive punishment from the international community was considered too severe. South Africa was booted from the British Commonwealth in 1961, the Olympics in 1964, FIFA in 1976, and then finally the United Nations in 1981. For the remainder of the 1980s, much of the western world then became deeply pre-occupied with what was known as the South African “disinvestment” movement, in which any businesses, governments, schools, organizations, or individuals with holdings, clients, franchises, outlets, offices or other commercial ties to the nation were encouraged to further weaken and isolate the country by withdrawing as much financial sustenance as possible from it.
In the post-apathied era, however, the pickings for designated global leper have gotten decidedly slimmer. A disinvestment movement has started to arise in some quarters in opposition to Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian territories (a situation often dubbed, uncreatively, “Israeli apartheid”), but it hasn’t gained much mainstream traction. For all the Jewish state’s warts, after all, Israel is a secular, liberal democratic society in which attempting to resolve the Palestinian question is both a deep anxiety and perennial debate of domestic policy. And the Palestinian resistance, for its part, certainly lacks the appeal of Nelson Mandela.
What good news then that Russia has come along and filled the pariah vacuum. On July 29 of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law — which had been unanimously passed by parliament — criminalizing the so-called “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors.” As NPR notes, the law is worrisome mostly for its vagueness. Though we might sympathize (at least in theory) with the need to protect minors from erotic displays of any sexuality, the Russian law seems to be worded in such an open way as to give law enforcement virtually free reign to crack down on open talk and displays of homoseuality in virtually any place — online or off — on the specious grounds that “children might see it.”
How far the cops will actually go in this regard is obviously unclear at such an early date; NPR says “most activists believe that the law will not be widely enforced,” and Russia-watchers have been similarly quick to deem the law a mostly symbolic act of generic conservative disapproval of homosexuality, rather an actionable agenda. Some good writing has been done on the role of Orthodox Christianity as a cornerstone of Putin’s political machine, as well as the longstanding Russian inclination — dating back to Soviet times — to regard gayness as a disgusting foreign illness of the decadent west. That today’s Russia would produce legislation like this does not seem to have surprised anyone paying attention, in other words.
Yet the international backlash has been extraordinary. Two of the west’s highest-profile gay celebs, George Takei and Stephen Fry have called for a boycott of the looming Sochi Olympics and a petition at Change.org has 158,000 signatures demanding a switch of venue. Gays across Europe and North America have taken to pouring bottles of vodka on the steps of Russian consulates, and many LGBT bars have stopped stocking the stuff at all. On Tuesday, Democratic leaders in the California legislature announced plans to cease investing government employee pensions in Russian companies, while the Canadian immigration minister pledged to make his country a safe haven for fleeing gays.
As a gay man myself, my heart obviously goes out to Russia’s LGBT population, and the truly appalling bigotry many of them face in their daily lives. I was on TV the other day, and the guy in the studio before me was this Russian refugee who had explicitly left his homeland to escape its omnipresent homophobia. He shared all sorts of monstrous stories, including the time he went on a long date only to learn the guy was actually just a liar setting him up, and had lured him back to his apartment so a bunch of waiting thugs could beat him. Such stories are hardly uncommon in Russia. Indeed, they’re often even more bloody and paranoid, like the infamous case of the 23-year-old who was raped to death with a broken beer bottle simply because he seemed gay. This sort of hysterically frightened worldview is what the Russian government now tacitly accepts as reasonable.
All that being said, it’s worth remembering that the Putin administration ain’t exactly a picnic for a lot of other folks, either — inside or outside Russia’s borders. This summer, for example, marks the fifth anniversary of Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia on behalf of the country’s northern separatists, a brazen attempt to intimidate and destabilize a sovereign neighbor. 162 Georgian civilians died in that conflict, while another 150,000 were forced from their homes and have yet to return. It’s hard to say how many deaths in the Syrian civil war we can blame on Russia, but considering Moscow continues to ship weapons to the Assad dictatorship, their responsibility is hardly incidental — much like their culpability in Iran’s quest for nuclear arms.
Putin’s government has been plausibly linked to the poisoning of the dissent Russian spy-turned-journalist Alexander Litvinenko and the anti-Kremlin Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. Other high-profile critics, from the “Pussy Riot” rockers to chess master Gary Kasparov have been banned from television, jailed, roughed-up, or exiled. And of course questions loom about the not-so-mysterious deaths and disappearances of countless others.
The global democracy monitors at the NGO Freedom House considers Russia “not free” for its rigged elections and largely state-controlled press, while Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented and denounced all manner of government crackdowns on free expression and civic activism. Russian human rights groups would probably say the same, were their leaders not constantly getting beaten up and thrown in prison.
The problem with the modern movement to boycott Russia over its anti-gay laws, in short, is that it elevates one group of the country’s victims above all others, and picks a rather arbitrary standard on which to judge the overall morality of Mr. Putin’s administration. The Russian president has not tainted an otherwise unobjectionable administration with a couple homophobic laws (which, for all their odiousness, are hardly even the world’s most draconian); his government has always been cruel and oppressive to everyone because it’s a paranoid, authoritarian police state and that’s what paranoid, authoritarian police states do. His Russia may be well worth boycotting, but there was no reason for the disinvestment campaigns to start in 2013 as opposed to 2008, or for the Olympic relocation movement to begin now, a few months before the games begin, rather than in 2007, when Russia won the bid.
Like the furious boycotts of South Africa or Israel, it’s hard to escape the impression that much of the west’s aggressive posturing against Russian homophobia is really more about us than them, and our insecure need to demonstrate domestic tolerance by passing sweeping judgments of foreign bigotry. To put it another way, no westerner gets nearly as excited about run-of-the-mill tyrannies because their styles of oppression — rounding up dissidents, censoring the news and whatnot — are unfamiliar and exotic, while the cruelties of racism and gay-bashing are uncomfortably well-known.
There’s thus something more than a little parochial, if not outright insensitive, about using a couple of fashionable western political causes as as the universal ruler for measuring the rest of the planet’s evil; a sheltered perspective that elevates discrimination and intolerance — the worst offenses we can imagine our own governments imposing against us — as the worst injustices that can ever happen to anyone.
It’s a smallness of ambition that guarantees a lot of worse crimes will invariably get lost in the shuffle.
In the case of Russia, a lot already have.