The loveliness of Putin

Elton-John
Sir Elton John

Some readers may have noticed a news story a few weeks back about Elton John and Vladimir Putin. Yes, that’s right, Elton John and Vladimir Putin.

In an interview, Elton had expressed concern about gay rights under Putin, whose 2013 law banning “propaganda about non-traditional sexual relations” helped spike gay-bashing in Russia. Elton has long been outspoken on gay rights, and last year, writing on his website, he discussed his latest visit to Russia, in December 2013: 

putin19On that trip I met with members of the LGBT community in Moscow. Although I was still welcomed as an openly gay foreigner, I wanted to really understand at first-hand what difference the legislation had made to Russian LGBT in their own country. What I heard reinforced all the media stories that have been circling since the propaganda bill became federal law: that vicious homophobia has been legitimised by this legislation and given extremists the cover to abuse people’s basic human rights.

The people I met in Moscow – gay men and lesbians in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s – told me stories about receiving threats from vigilante groups who would “cure” them of homosexuality by dousing them with urine or beating them up. One young man was stalked outside a gay club by someone posing as a taxi driver who tried to garrotte him with a guitar string because he was a “sodomite”. Everyone shared stories of verbal and physical abuse – at work, in bars and restaurants or in the street – since the legislation came into force last June. And, some of the vital work providing HIV prevention information to the gay community has been labelled “homosexual propaganda” and shut down.

In September of this year, while visiting the Ukraine and voicing support for LGBT rights in that country, Elton told the BBC that he wanted to talk LGBT rights with Putin himself: “It’s probably pie in the sky….He may laugh behind my back when he shuts the door, and call me an absolute idiot, but at least I can think I have the conscience to say I tried.”

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Vovan and Lexus

This statement caught the attention of a couple of Russian TV comedians, Vladimir “Vovan” Krasnov and Alexei “Lexus” Stolyarov, who are apparently famous in their country for pranking celebrities. They duped Elton with a phony phone call, pretending to be Putin and inviting the singer-songwriter to come to Moscow for a friendly chat. John accepted the invitation. Later, when he found out he’d been pranked, he took the news in good spirits.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. In mid October, it was reported that Putin, after learning about the gag, actually did call Elton.

FILE - In this photo, Sir Elton John, left, and husband David Furnish attend the Ninth Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation benefit 'An Enduring Vision' at Cipriani Wall Street in New York. John and Furnish have become parents to a 7-pound, 15-ounce baby boy born on Christmas Day. The news was first reported Monday night by USMagazine.com and confirmed to The Associated Press by John's Los Angeles-based publicist. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)
Elton John and David Furnish

The source for this report was none other than John’s husband, film producer David Furnish. Appearing at an awards ceremony in London on Wednesday, Furnish said that John and Vlad had actually made plans to meet and discuss gay rights. Apparently they got off to a very friendly start. As the Daily Mail put it, Furnish “described the man who backed a civil war in Ukraine and sent forces to help Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, as ‘so polite and lovely.’” Furnish repeated: “He’s genuinely lovely.” And then he added this baffling remark: “Besides, this isn’t about politics – I’m not a politician – it’s about humanity.”

Meaning what, exactly? When a man’s “politics” are inhumane, not to say downright brutal, how to pry loose the concept of “politics” from the concept of “humanity”? Does Elton, whose devotion to LGBT rights is surely admirable, agree that Putin, who has imprisoned and murdered his political opponents, is lovely? Does it really take a simple phone call to make Furnish, and maybe Elton too, decide that a tyrant is perhaps actually not a tyrant at all? Or that a tyrant can remain a tyrant but still, somehow, be lovely? Does this fall into the same category as Hitler loving his pet dog?

With all due respect to Elton’s activism, we’re admittedly scratching our heads over that one.

“Lessons” from Roger Waters

On April 28, Salon ran a remarkable piece by Roger Waters, the musician and former member of Pink Floyd. In it, Waters addressed an upcoming Tel Aviv gig by British singer Robbie Williams. Noting that Williams was “UNICEF’s UK ambassador and a declared supporter of its Children in Danger campaign,” Waters charged him with “showing a chilling indifference” to the well-being of Palestinian children and called on him to cancel his appearance.

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Robbie Williams

“Dear Robbie,” wrote Waters, addressing the singer directly, “playing this concert on May 2 would be giving your tacit support to the deaths of over 500 Palestinian children last summer in Gaza…and condoning the arrest and abuse of hundreds of Palestinian children each year living under Israeli occupation.” Informing Williams that Israeli officials are racists who view Palestinian children merely “as grass to be mowed,” he told Williams that

If you cannot see yourself in the eyes of a Palestinian father, you should do the decent thing and resign from UNICEF, or failing that, UNICEF should let you go.

Waters actually had the nerve to close this arrogant edict as follows: “Love, Roger Waters.”

Williams went ahead with his concert. But that didn’t discourage Waters. Only a couple of weeks later – again in Salon – he was haranguing singer Dionne Warwick, who, like Williams, was planning to perform in Israel. “I believe you mean well, Ms. Warwick,” he wrote, “but you are showing yourself to be profoundly ignorant of what has happened in Palestine since 1947.”

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Mark Blacknell

Meanwhile, yet another voice of reason had tried to get through to Waters. Writing in the Times of Israel, film director Mark Blacknell reminded the Israel-obsessed Waters that the target of his wrath enjoys such charming neighbors as Hezbollah, “Assad the Butcher,” ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the “Houthi Shiite rebels in Yemen,” the “jihad-plagued, complete insanity of Sudan,” the “ultra-religious, feudalistic Mecca of Islam, Saudi Arabia,” and the “’end of days’ cult of the Ayatollah in Iran.” Blacknell asked Waters why, if he cares so much about Palestinians, he doesn’t “talk about the historically brutal Jordanian oppression of Palestinians, the Egyptians’ crackdown on Gaza or the hellish conditions in the Palestinian camps of Lebanon and Syria.” Why, he asked, “has no Arab nation granted Palestinians a place in their societies? Why won’t you criticize Jordan, Egypt, Syria or Lebanon for their treatment of innocent Palestinians?”

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Roger Waters

Blacknell made a couple of points worth repeating. First, he noted that pollsters had recently asked Israeli Arabs the following question: “If Palestine becomes a fully independent state will you renounce your Israeli citizenship and become a Palestinian citizen?” Seventy percent had said no. Blacknell also recalled that during the two years he’d spent making a documentary about Jews and Arabs, he’d had to face some unpleasant truths. “Every Israeli I interviewed said something like this, ‘I don’t hate Arabs, I just don’t think there’s anyway to satisfy them, so we have to protect ourselves?’ Every Palestinian I interviewed, said something like this, ‘The Zionist regime is occupation. It must be destroyed.’” If only “Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah and their supporters in the Arab world acknowledged and accepted Israel today, the era of peace would begin tomorrow and Israel would lead the way.” That being a seemingly impossible dream, Blacknell had a proposal for Waters:

Supporters listen as Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas Gaza government, speaks during a Hamas rally marking the anniversary of the death of its leaders killed by Israel, in Gaza City March 23, 2014. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem (GAZA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST ANNIVERSARY)
A March 2014 Hamas rally in Gaza City

Since Israeli fans no longer deserve your presence in the only democratic nation of the Middle East, I encourage you do a show in the heart of Gaza City. You could float one of your giant, pig balloons in the air with an Islamic Crescent moon and caricature of Muhammad on it. Then, you could utilize the freedom of speech that you currently use to voice your sophomoric (at best) understanding of the Middle East by telling Hamas that it’s the real enemy of the Palestinian people. I think only then, as the crowd publicly stomps you into the ground and drags you half-alive through the streets of Gaza, will you understand the true nature of Israel’s predicament.

But we’ll save Blackwell’s best sentence for last, and italicize it for emphasis:

What is presented to you as innocent victims struggling for freedom, is in reality uncompromising cultural intolerance at a level so antiquated that is difficult for many westerners to comprehend.

Not even this, however, stirred Waters out of his moral slumber. In fact – as we’ll see tomorrow – he took his attacks on fellow performers to a new height.

Whitewashing Stalin: Seumas Milne

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Norman-bates (3)Our subject this week has been Seumas Milne, Guardian columnist turned British Labour Party spokesman. Before we move on, a quick question: have you taken a good at his pictures? Yes, he’s handsome. But what about that look in his eyes? Is it just us, or – no, no, never mind. 

Anyway, on to our final couple of points. We’ve already witnessed Milne’s readiness to stand up for Stalin in the face of criticism. But it’s worth underscoring that he gets especially worked up whenever anyone dares to mention Stalin’s name in the same breath as Hitler’s. This is a thread that runs throughout his work, but two examples will have to suffice.

First, in a 2002 article, Milne slammed Martin Amis’s new book Koba the Dread, a passionate polemic about the evils of Soviet Communism and the moral obloquy of its Western apologists. In response to Amis’s cogent indictment of the Kremlin dictator, Milne argued strenuously that Stalin was nowhere near as bad as Hitler: “Despite the cruelties of the Stalin terror, there was no Soviet Treblinka, no extermination camps built to murder people in their millions.”

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Martin Amis

No. But there was a deliberately engineered Ukrainian famine that took millions of lives; there was a policy of forced collectivization that also led to millions of deaths; and there was a national network of prisons, the Gulag, in which yet more millions perished. Unlike the Nazi death camps, the Gulag endured for decades; yet it has never received even a fraction of the attention in the West that has been devoted to Hitler’s atrocities.

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Niall Ferguson

Example #2. In a 2009 piece reacting to Niall Ferguson’s statement that Stalin was “as much an aggressor as Hitler,” Milne again rushed to Stalin’s defense, insisting that “Soviet and Russian acknowledgment of Stalin’s crimes already goes far beyond…any such apologies by Britain or France for the crimes of colonialism” and fervently denying that “Soviet repression reached anything like the scale or depths of Nazi savagery – or that the postwar ‘enslavement’ of eastern Europe can be equated with wartime Nazi genocide.” As part of his effort to whitewash Stalin, Milne shamelessly smeared some of the nations Stalin subjugated – namely, Poland and the Baltic republics – as Nazi allies and collaborators.

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Milne sends his kids to the Tiffin School, Kingston-upon-Thames

Enough. One last, unsavory detail: on top of everything else, Milne turns out to be a world-class hypocrite. While championing the public sector over the private, posing as a champion of working people, and cheering on totalitarian regimes that force “equality” on the proles at the point of a gun, Milne lives like any other man of privilege, luxuriating in a £2 million mansion in the exclusive London suburb of Richmond and sending his kids to a fancy private academy when there are at least four free public schools (note: we’re speaking American here) closer to home.

No wonder foreign correspondent Kate Godfrey was so exercised over Milne’s appointment. Addressing Corbyn directly in an article for the Independent, she asked:  

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Josef Stalin

How could you? How bloody could you? How could you appoint Seumas Milne to be your voice, your eyes, your hands?…Mr Corbyn, you say that you want to listen to us, the people; and then you pick Seumas Milne – the one journalist who always knows better than the people who were there….You pick a man who never heard an opinion that he didn’t filter; a truth that he didn’t dismiss as an orthodoxy, or a story of pain on which he didn’t have superior information.

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Kate Godfrey

Citing her own background reporting from places like Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Lebanon, Yemen, and so on, Godfrey wrote:

I’ve seen a bit bloody more than Mr Winchester-and-Balliol Milne. And yet, it is Seumas Milne who is the expert on foreign affairs. And although, somehow, his is always the foreign affairs of dictators misjudged, and chemical weapons unused  —  of pure ideology and never people.

Godfrey’s conclusion: “The decision to appoint Seumas Milne devalues everything that Labour stands for, and everything that Labour is. It is morally and ethically wrong.”

We couldn’t agree more. 

Stella McCartney: partying with “Fidel” and “Che”

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The first pages of Vogue‘s notorious March 2011 profile of Asma al-Assad

It was back in March 2011 that Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, ran a long, gushing profile of Asma al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria. In addition to painting her as a glamorous, sophisticated “Rose in the Desert” – the title of the piece – author Joan Juliet Buck served up a flattering picture of her subject’s hubby, dictator Bashar al-Assad, who came off as a charming and down-to-earth family man. Wintour was manifestly shocked when this piece of inane propaganda sparked worldwide outrage; within days the piece had disappeared from the magazine’s website.

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Stella McCartney

No, you can’t expect people in the fashion business to be world-class models of social awareness. On the other hand, you might at least think they’d have learned a lesson from that episode. Nope. In early June, fashion designer Stella McCartney – Paul’s daughter – held her annual garden party in New York. The theme: “Cuba Libre.” There were “chocolate cuban cigars, Coco Rico, Cerveza Hatuey, special rum cocktails, and various hors d’oeuvres, like vegetarian Cuban sandwiches.” And one more thing: while models showed off McCartney’s new collection, the guests mingled with actors dressed up as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Adorable.

We’ve scoured the Internet for any indication that any of McCartney’s high-profile guests – among them Alicia Keys and Maggie Gyllenhaal – found Stella’s party theme distasteful. Nothing. The media, for the most part, also responded with a hearty thumbs-up. Note this passage from the Hollywood Reporter‘s account of the event:

From the stilt-walkers in colorful costumes to the multicolored ribbons streaming from the trees, attendees agreed that the party indeed matched McCartney’s exuberant ideas. “When you walk around Havana, it really is like this, music and life in the streets,” said Alan Cumming….he was happy to get into the spirit of the event: “I was just in a Fidel and Che sandwich,” he joked of posing with the actors impersonating Castro and Guevara.

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This and the following pictures were all taken at Stella McCartney’s party

Explaining the party’s theme, McCartney gushed: “I simply wanted to have a fun party, and I think Cubans know how to do that.” She recalled that she’d “visited Cuba over 20 years ago, when Cuba was really Cuba” (a statement she didn’t explain) and called her collection “a celebration of spring: new life, color, hope, energy and fun….Cuba is just to have some fun. Fun on top of fun!” Commented Fashion Week Daily: “McCartney is fun on top of fun; we have to thank her for reminding everyone that fashion is as well.”

stella8We’ve looked at a couple of dozen fashion websites that reported on McCartney’s party; with a single exception – which we’ll get to in a moment – none of them so much as hinted that its theme was in poor taste. Style magazine titled its cheery article Cuba Libre! Liv Tyler, Amber Valletta, and More Turn Out for Stella McCartney’s Colorful Garden Party.” Calling the bash “a colorful nod to Cuba,” Style quoted attendee Liv Tyler‘s words of praise for Stella: “I always learn something new from her.” The Fashionista website was also ebullient, congratulating McCartney for “manag[ing] to bring the feel and flavor of Cuba to Nolita” by transforming “a garden on Elizabeth Street…into a lively, Cuban-themed fiesta, complete with street performers on stilts, rum cocktails and cigars passed on trays, Che Guevara lookalikes playing dominos as models looked on, and a live band with salsa dancers on hand to set the groove.”

stella4Nor was there a trace of criticism in Women’s Wear Daily, which described the fête matter-of-factly as “a nod to Cuba, complete with costumed characters on stilts, a live salsa band and dancers, and two men who looked remarkably like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro enjoying a beer and chocolate cigars at a picnic table with some models.” In sum: “a cheeky, festive and timely photo-op.” Even Vogue seemed not to have learned from its own Syrian misadventure: “Stella’s world,” concluded its account, “is always sweet.” Elle UK enthused, too: “Stella McCartney knows how to throw a good party….don’t you wish you were there?”  Not even The New York Observer saw anything unsettling about the theme of the fiesta, which it dubbed “the garden party of the century.”

stella9At least the feminist website Jezebel got it. Reproducing several tweets that included photos taken at the party, Jezebel commented:

Guests included big names like Cara Delevingne, Miranda Kerr, Liv Tyler, and—most noteworthy of all—two men posing as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Not present: anyone who’s suffered through Castro’s half-a-century-long dictatorship. How fun!

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New York Magazine‘s Instagram post, later removed

Jezebel suggested themes for future McCartney parties: “Sensual Stalin! Kim Jong’s Krazy Korea!” The Yahoo news site, to its credit, also recoiled, noting that “McCartney famously heralds cruelty-free clothing, while Guevara and Castro aren’t exactly, uh, pacifists—the former leading execution sweeps and training Congo rebels; the latter denying many of his citizens basic civil liberties.” Yahoo noted that New York Magazine had posted a picture from McCartney’s shindig on its Instagram account, only to remove it later after commenters expressed disgust at the apparent homage to a half-century of tyranny.

We mentioned earlier that we found exactly one (1) fashion writer who was actually appalled by the theme of McCartney’s soirée. The writer in question: Anna Quintana, who, quoting a bubbleheaded, self-flattering statement made by McCartney at the event – “I’m just too global for my own good” – suggested that “McCartney was not ‘global’ enough to understand the complex and sensitive nature of the Cuban story, especially given that she had men dressed up as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro mingling and playing dominoes with the guests and models.” Quintana added:

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Anna Quintana

As a Cuban-American, I find it hard to process how a designer I have long admired, and one who prides herself on being ethical when it comes to her cruelty-free designs, could feature a garden party with walking caricatures of Castro and Che Guevara, two figures that many, if not all, in the Cuban-American community would consider to be the epitome of cruelty.

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Humberto Fontova

Bingo. Another Cuban-American writer, Humberto Fontova, also castigated McCartney – and, in addition, made this highly salient observation:

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara…made it a criminal offense for their Cuban subjects to listen to Stella’s Dad’s music. During the mid ’60’s Castro and Che’s ever-vigilant STASI-trained secret police was very scrupulous in ferreting out the counter-revolutionary crime of listening to the Beatles. The hapless Cuban youths detected in this crime were herded into forced labor camps at Soviet bayonet point.

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Collier Meyerson

Finally, there’s MSNBC journalist Collier Meyerson. She was offended by the party’s theme, too – but for another reason: in her view, McCartney’s capitalistic “commodif[ication]” of “the iconic faces” of the Cuban people’s “struggle” – she was referring, of course, to Castro and Che – showed “disrespect” for those two great socialist revolutionaries.

And having quoted that, what more can we say?