Anne (ajva) wrote,
Anne
ajva

Boycotts

I had a really interesting exchange with Lauren Close today on Marcus's Facebook page. Marcus had posted the link to this wonderful thing on Americablog about the New York Times' report on November 6, 1935 that "German Chancellor Adolf Hitler promised International Olympic Committee (IOC) chairman Count Henry Baillet-Latour that he would take down anti-Jewish signs during the two week period of the Berlin Olympics of 1936." The NYT at the time added that IOC chair Baillet-Latour was “well satisfied” with Hitler’s assurances to temporarily pause his campaign of hate against Germany’s Jewish minority.

This is being highlighted as a very close parallel (as indeed it is - strikingly so) with Russia having brought in its own particularly brutal Section 28 equivalent and the international outrage this has prompted in advance of the Sochi Winter Olympics next year, and the IOC's somewhat weak reassurances about having received equally dubious reassurances from the Russian government that the new laws won't apply during the Olympics for visitors.

Lauren made her point that she thought a boycott worthwhile, I argued against it rather forcefully, to the point where she seemed to worry that I might soon explode. If you're reading this, Lauren: don't worry. I'm happy to agree to differ as you suggested, and although I feel strongly about this you were not provoking me at all unfairly. I thought you made your case with mindfulness and respect and I enjoyed the exchange. I hope you didn't feel as if you'd had your head bitten off - I can only apologize if that's how I came across, which it may well have been. It was not my intention. :o)

So on my LJ tonight I'd like to explore this issue a little further. My basic position is that a boycott of the Olympics will not add anything of merit to the cause, but it will cause blameless athletes to suffer the loss of one of the few towering opportunities available to them in their relatively short-lived careers to distinguish themselves in their respective disciplines. The main beneficial thrust of protest happens in the initial objection to the horrendous anti-gay policies that have just been introduced in Russia: sure, let's get angry in our media and online spaces; let's make angry complaints to the IOC and put pressure on them. But a boycott adds very little on top. The Olympics will still happen, and if some countries were to stage a boycott it just means the pool of competing athletes would be a bit smaller. Importantly, I think that even in the unlikely event of a massive (or perhaps more likely, a bit smaller) boycott happening, it would only serve to entrench the anti-gay rights positions of those in Russia who hold such views, so pissed off would they be by what in their view would look like anti-Russian sentiment. And they'd get even more defensive.

Don't forget that there remains to this day a very large nationalistic Russian constituency that perceives its country to be a strong if sleeping bear, and so it will become dangerous if the issue of gay rights comes to be seen mainly as a foreigner's imposition - which I don't think it is quite yet (certainly not as it surely is somewhere like, say, Saudi Arabia, which is a whole different kettle of fish - so let's not push that idea too much into the consciousness of the Russian public at large): gay rights in Russia have to be won by the gay community in Russia, or they won't be sustainable. Maybe we can support it from the outside, but we can't effectively make it happen unilaterally (or at least have it perceived to be such). In trying to, we could provoke a dangerous backlash that will be more harmful than helpful. That might sound like appeasement, but there's a basic truth there, I think, that means we have to be careful. At the very least, we must tread much more carefully than Lauren on my "strongly-held beliefs". ;o)

In terms of the story of the Berlin 1936 Olympics, direct comparisons are difficult because it was a very different era. We're talking about a time when "foreign policy" was, to most people, just that: something left to the politicians, something outside of the common person's experience, and upon which they could have no influence, even should they have wanted to. Unless they decided, for example, to take up arms themselves in a foreign country, as happened, for example, during the Spanish Civil War. This easy international activist culture we experience so freely, so dear to our hearts these days, is very much a product of our 21st-Century well-connected world, and is a relatively recent development. Let's not forget that the very idea of universal human rights as something that can be realistically implemented is a post-war one: in modern terms it derives from 1948, which is when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in Paris at the UN General Assembly of that year.

Don't get me wrong: boycotts can be powerful - because they can be effective. Most effective, perhaps, in a situation like boycotting the products of a company taking a position with which we disagree. If the company is small enough, its bottom line will be hit by an organized group of people refusing to buy its products, and it will be forced by the resulting financial pressure to sit up, take notice, and change its position. Another situation where boycotts can be effective is in raising awareness of an issue, if ultimately that leads to an egregious situation being exposed, and resulting public pressure rendering a previously held position untenable. Often, a mixture of these two effects can also work well to achieve a good result.

But that's not the situation here. As much as we'd like to, I don't think we can be effective in changing the anti-gay atmosphere in Russia just with a boycott. It would be an accurate reflection of our displeasure, but it would simply mean that lots of individual athletes suffer for no good political return.

In a way, I think we've been spoiled a bit in the UK and in other similar countries by experiencing an extraordinary liberalization of attitudes towards gay rights in a relatively tiny amount of time. Our experience is unusual. I mean, I'm not even 40 yet, but in my lifetime I've seen the general perception of homosexuality in the population at large move from very negative to the point where we routinely have civil partnerships announced as a matter of course in that bastion of the British establishment, the Times newspaper. In 1990, OutRage! was formed, their first action being on 7th June of that year at Hyde Park Public Toilets to protest against Metropolitan Police entrapment of gay men cruising. Only 15 years later, Captain Jack Harkness - an openly bisexual swashbuckling hero - made his first appearance on British TV, during peak-time family viewing, and nobody batted an eyelid. Sometimes I think we forget how astonishing the speed of that change was, maybe partly because to most of us, it represented quite a big proportion of our own lives' timespans so far. As I said on Marcus's FB page, gay rights polarizes world opinion like perhaps no other issue of our day. We want to make it happen as fast for everyone, but we can't - it has to come from them. Let's give all the support we can, but we could ruin things for the local activists if we try to force other countries' hands too fast.

Of course, I fully expect you all to provide me with links to Russian gay activists supporting a boycott. In fact, I hope so! Prove to me I'm totally misguided, and I'll be right in there with you.

Over and out. xxx
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