La Théorie Noblesse

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      James Joyce once wrote, ‘The English forced the Irish to speak their language, but the Irish taught them how to use it.” I was reminded of this poignant observation when reading the latest shabbily conceived polemic against the nascent pinkwatching movement. You might ask: what is a pinkwatcher? It is a person with a critical conscience who sees an Israeli “celebrating gay rights” at Tel Aviv Pride for what it is —- a cheap, cynical means of directing attention from the not-so-slow genocide of Palestinian people and does something about it. Remember those phrases: “critical conscience” and “does something about it.”

     The pinkwatching movement took the garbled and obscure concept of homonationalism and turned it into a viable framework for invigorating diverse social justice movements around the world, most significantly, Palestinian and queer justice movements. Pinkwatching grew out of the feverish activism of a few Palestinian queers. Queer people with an unrelenting commitment to social change and the foresight to see that local efforts toward social justice have meaningful consequences for movements globally latched onto pinkwatching and the movement grew. Think of an anticolonial theory junkie with a tactical mind, a queer heart, and an abysmally low tolerance for bullshit and you have a pinkwatcher!

      It is strange, then, to read, in Jadaliyya, “Pinkwatching and Pinkwashing: Interpenetration and Its Contents.” If pinkwashing is the broad effort to deflect attention from human rights abuses by focusing on a supposedly spotless record on LGBT rights, the article argues, then  pinkwatching is just the other side of the same coin. So says our dear professor, the one whose concept “homonationalism” we salvaged from the dustbins of queer theory journals, and her co-author. For those who have little patience for academic writing, their central arguments, in all fairness, are as follows. “The Pinkwatchers” do not “examine” or “expose” white settler colonialism in the US and they even “absolve” the US’s own pinkwashing in relation to Iran (“They kill gays!”) and Iraq (“They kill gays too!!”).  According to the authors, they also do not “expose the ways that discourses of sexuality operate to present natives and people of colour as always in need of redemption and education by the liberal state.” With Israel, Pinkwatchers treat it as as an exception, in its pinkwashing mission, for all their activism has focused with laser-like attention on the sixty-or-so-year-old Zionist state. When they talk about gay rights, according to the authors, they treat them “as if they operate in a legal vacuum, separate and separable from the legal system as a whole.” Pinkwatchers in the US “ignore final status issues” in Palestine and the question of Palestinians’ right to resist militarily.

What is most striking about these basic arguments is the conflation between tactics and vision. Disrupting pinkwashing efforts, which often bring social, cultural, and financial capital to Israel, is a crucial step towards encouraging support internationally for BDS from LGBT communities. The authors adopt the language of state actors to measure the merits of pinkwatching’s work as an organising tool through the dubious and tired political litmus tests of “final status issues”  (i.e. one state or two, Jerusalem, “the right (or not) to militarily resist”). It is worth questioning whether, as an example, any organiser would release statements advocating for “the right to resist militarily.” Certainly, in the post-911 era and in the political logic of white settler societies, of which the authors claim to be acutely aware, this is not a possibility, logistically or conceptually. Certainly, Pinkwatchers are in a position where they cannot afford to be neutral, nor can they risk merely “observing” other movements (as the authors claim they did), nor do they have privilege to engage and disengage from other movements with clinical indifference.

Pinkwatching does not resonate with those who read and interpret the world literally. Since it is premised on the ability to see the demolished village behind the beachfront home and the war criminal behind the rainbow flag, how could it? And so, it is bizarre and disappointing to claim that Pinkwatchers, in their zealous effort to combat Israel’s unrelenting gay propaganda apparatus, somehow lose sight of apartheid’s broader picture or fail to connect “gay rights” to the larger colonial legal system. 

And it is simply insulting to those who stand in solidarity with the pinkwatching movement, those who have decided to bow out of events, panels, products, gimmicks, and opportunities for career advancement, to think that focusing on Israel’s settler colonialism renders the US’s colonialism invisible. It is deeply, deeply insulting to assume that the “discourse” around Israel is the only thread that links Pinkwatchers in the US and abroad with Pinkwatchers in Palestine. Do the authors – another irony – assume that all Pinkwatchers abroad are white? Or, if they are, indeed, queer people of colour and First Nations queers that they would have the critical conscience to latch onto the pinkwatching movement, but not the conscience to connect their own experiences, voices, and understandings to it? That, in spite of the Israel’s experiments with military weapons on US soil and endless US aid to Israel, these diverse queer activists can’t see the forest from the trees? Some of the most vocal Pinkwatchers grew up under apartheid and in profoundly racist environments, such as in South Africa and the borderlands between Mexico and the US, and have made the connections between their own struggles and pinkwashing. It is simply naive and sloppy to assume that because such things are not written in a small pamphlet or available on Wikipedia that this isn’t taking place “discursively.”

Just as individuals with a sophisticated and deep, daily commitment to social justice recognise the global in the local, the macro in the micro, and the historical moments and structures permeating through even the slightest and most normalised injustices, so too do Pinkwatchers recognise that pinkwatching – small and specific though it is – contains important practices and themes for other movements, struggles, and provides a crucial point of departure for other organisers. The authors’ argument that pinkwatching deliberately omits  - they use the word “ignore” multiple times – the most obvious and trenchant connection between oppression in Palestine and abroad (i.e. white settler colonialism) echoes a bit too closely the oft-quoted and totally disingenous Zionist response that Palestinian voices in the US confront: “Oh and what about China’s record on human rights? What about the occupation of Lebanon? What about honour killings?” Indeed. And what about “the gays”?

It is deeply distressing that a member of the first solidarity delegation to Palestine of LGBT people still thinks – in spite of vast military infrastructure, through which specific cultural, social, and political discourses are mounted against a nation lurching towards its first century of genocide – that any point of conflict between “Israel” and Palestine can ever, ever be symmetrical. The author demonstrates a persistent ignorance of the relationship between military technologies and media and a strange disavowal of what she witnessed and experienced there. To travel through Palestine, especially under the auspices of solidarity work, is to travel through a place of unrelenting brutality and a labyrinthine system of racist control.  For the occupation’s chauvinistic administrators, our professor’s body – a brown, queer, female body – poses a question, even a threat. Yet, she remains, perrenially, the “observer” – only watching, noting, clearly not feeling. If she was unable to experience, on a deep, bodily level the ways in which the occupation consumes Palestinians, how could the Palestinian struggle touch other emotional and intellectual places? And how could she imagine why, beyond the analysis pinkwatching offers, so many queer people find Israel’s occupation repugnant? Perhaps she missed a crucial opportunity to explore these questions with Pinkwatchers in Palestine and now chooses to berate the efforts of their colleagues abroad. If the fact the delegation to Palestine was organised by Pinkwatchers themselves does not disprove to the author that the pinkwatching movement is short-sighted, single-issue, and committed to a bizarre form of “exceptionalism,” it is unclear what would.

The writers of the article obsess over the orientation of pinkwatching activists, both sexually and geographically. If they are living in Palestine and reach out to activists in the US or Europe, this is problematic. If they are living in the US or Europe and they reach out to Palestinians, this is problematic. Indeed, one wonders in what ways, if it all, should a critique of pinkwashing that is actionable  - and not merely a dilettante’s exercise in rhetorical equivocation –  be oriented? “Where to,” “from where,” and “how” are essential questions of any movement towards greater social justice. For Pinkwatchers, they are the questions. This also brings up an essential question for our authors. Towards what are they oriented? “Observing” the pinkwatching movement, our Promethean theorists present ‘a clue for a people from a people without a clue,’ la théorie noblesse, the How-To-Do from Outside and Above, it seems – though they intimate they once were, at least a little bit, “in.” The article begins contesting Pinkwatchers’ focus on Israel as an object of intense critique and mobilisation and ends with an insistence that other things – one might surmise from the article that these represent all other things crucial for Pinkwatchers  – be “exposed” and “examined” ( i.e. settler colonialism, Iran, Iraq)  to provide theoretical weight to the Pinkwatchers’ movement. Though the pinkwatching movement has made significant strides in meaningfully connecting queer people in struggle throughout the world, it seems it is only the authors who remain profoundly disconnected from the larger implications and possibilities of pinkwatching.  In doing so, they (and not pinkwashers, curiously) are the ones who put us on a “feedback loop” —  one in which we must have hope again, that some prominent intellectuals, after a visit to occupied Palestine, might engage in the by-gone ethic of critical movement-building and not the easy, sloppy, caviar-gauche pontificating too often found at the corporate universities that pay their rent. 

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