Ari Ezra Waldman | Boycotts | Law - Gay, LGBT | News | Olympics | Russia | Sochi Olympics | Vladimir Putin

Russian Hate, An American Boycott, And The Sochi Olympic Games

By ARI EZRA WALDMAN

O-STOLI-VODKA-facebookI attended a professional/social networking event recently where, after listening to one gentleman tell his friend about the "awesomeness of Kathy Perry" (Who's Kathy Perry, I asked? "The pop star, of course," he said with all the cocky self-assuredness of Anthony Weiner), I decided to change the subject.

"I'd like to know what we all think about the vodka boycott?"

As Towleroad has been reporting, the combination of draconian anti-gay laws in Russia, roving bands of gay hating pogroms (a term used for the roving bands of anti-Semitic attackers in Russian history), and the upcoming Winter Olympics in the otherwise pleasant resort town of Sochi, Russia, has caused many in the American gay community to issue calls for the United States to drop out of the Games, on-the-ground activism, and/or vodka boycotts.

The last one got me thinking: Is a boycott of alcohol (and alcohol produced by a company not owned by Russia, at that) the best focus of our community's energy?

This led to what I think is the most important question: How do we define "best"? Is our goal an end to anti-gay hate in Russia? Better understanding and acceptance of LGBT persons? Safety for openly gay athletes at the Olympic Games? What are we trying to achieve?

For Dan Savage, the Stoli boycott would "show solidarity" and "draw international attention" to the persecution of LGBT Russians. That's it? That's all he wants? Scott Shackford, the needlessly condescending writer on gay issues over at the libertarian Reason.com, thinks the boycott is misguided, but can't offer any alternative beyond his general dislike of all things coming out of the mainline gay movement these days. Michelangelo Signorile has some advice: boycott a whole slew of companies, from Proctor & Gamble to Holiday Inn, because these companies do business with Russia and have influence here in the United States.

The problem with all these ideas is that they are haphazardly approaching a problem without a clear idea of the goal they want to achieve. None of these will help LGBT Russians; some may hurt. A Stoli boycott is a drop in the bucket, harmless to Putin, to his nationalist allies, and to anyone who could possibly influence them. Mr. Signorile's insightful idea is focused here at home, hoping that the United States can ultimately help things change in Russia. But will a hoped-for, but unlikely drop in Proctor & Gamble's profit margin push President Obama to make more than statement of concern to Mr. Putin.

If we want to achieve all these noble and important goals -- helping LGBT Russians, pushing the United States and others to act -- then it seems to me that we can only do one thing: Go to the Olympic Games, have our openly gay and our supportive athletes make physical and verbal statements of LGBT support, and embarrass and hurt Mr. Putin's standing among his people. Let's find Putin's Jesse Owens rather than let Putin laugh at us from afar. Let's hurt Mr. Putin, not the independent owner of a vodka company.

AFTER THE JUMP, I consider the options and show how we can focus and the get the most out of our activism.

The question we have to ask ourselves is this: What are we trying to achieve? Once we know that, we can tailor our actions to it.

Showing solidarity is great, but it seems limited. We can do that a thousand different ways. It also seems more about us than the actual victims of Putin's hate.

Drawing international attention is also fine, but completely ineffective against a maniacally self-aggrandizing man like Mr. Putin, running a declining former empire that is self-conscious of its declining standard of living and place in the world. If anything, united international opinion against him would make him stronger and galvanize the virulent nationalist streak running across the Ural Mountains. 

Trying to get policy changed on this side of the world seems more attractive, but, again, wildly ineffective against a man so far immune to international pressure.

These ideas aren't bad. They simply smack of intellectual complacency and well-meaning, yet self-centered indignation. They take old-line street activist tactics and try to fit them into new problems. 

Stolichnaya Vodka is neither owned by the Russian government nor Mr. Putin. It does employ some Russian citizens. It is run by a very rich man who has shown support for the LGBT community before. Despite this, Mr. Savage thinks a boycott on Stoli vodka would send a message and galvanize the international community. He has chosen a convenient target, but like many convenient targets, they are not the right ones.

Focusing on Stoli vodka is not only ill-conceived, but may play right into Mr. Putin's hands. It sends the message that the gay community can't tell the difference between a company that makes its vodka in Latvia and a company that is owned by the Russian government. What's more, it gives Mr. Putin ammunition to mischaracterize our community and further his anti-gay propaganda to this people -- "Look what they're concerned about. Alcohol, their bars, their parties". You can just imagine the rhetoric.

The problem, as Russian scholars will tell you, is that Mr. Putin represents a strong nationalist and xenophobic streak in his country. He has tapped into the fear his ordinary citizens have that Russia is in decline. To some extent, people like Michelle Bachmann and the National Rifle Association do that here: they're paranoid, xenophobic, and scared. And they get stronger when they feel it is them against the world. Gang up on them and they grow, like a gym rat on steroids. You don't fight a person or movement like that by building international pressure and raising awareness. Instead, you have to undermine his power base from within and save the LGBT lives he's endangering.

How can we do that? I think we have three options:

1. We could boycott the Olympic Games entirely, punishing the Russian economy and highlighting the terror that Mr. Putin is executing on his people as he inches that country ever closer to autocracy. The athletes who have trained for their moment in the Sochi sun would be collateral damage, victims in a greater war. In fact, I spoke with one former Olympic alternate who told me that he would, though with great heartache, give up the "luxury" of competing if it meant saving a defenseless LGBT Russian's life.

220px-Carlos-SmithBut if you think about great protests in Olympic history, what do you remember? Jesse Owens showed up and embarrassed Adolf Hitler in 1936. Tommie Smith and John Carlos showed up and lifted their fists in protest of racial inequality and human rights abuses in the so-called "Black Power" protest of 1968. In 1980 and 1984, the United States and the Soviet Union boycotted each other's games. And we all know that nothing really became of that other than broken dreams.

2. We can do what Israel did to Russian Jews before and after the fall of the Soviet Union: airlift them to safety in Israel. Currently, there is no government willing to do that, no private billionaire willing to fund it, and the plan would be susceptible to the response that the way to deal with Mr. Putin isn't to run, but to stand and fight. The last argument smacks of ill-conceived detachment: try telling "stand and fight" to the innocent gay kid being beaten by a band of neo-Nazis.

It would be great if we could find a government-owned Russian company to boycott, but that country's economy is so focused on mining natural resources that it's hard to find something viable. But the alternative is not to boycott other things just because a boycott seems right. Better to send our athletes to Sochi and not only embarrass Mr. Putin like Jesse Owens embarrassed Hitler but also show him who we really are.

3. Law can play a role. We should start advertising the fact that LGBT Russians should come to the United States and seek asylum. We have video evidence that being gay in Russia is very nearly a death sentence or, at least, a sentence of torture. When a country grants asylum to the citizens of another country, the protector nation is using its law for good, to actually protect and save lives. My Olympian friend had it right. Our goal should be to save lives. Our community leaders calling for boycotts just don't think big enough.

***

Follow me on Twitter: @ariezrawaldman

Ari Ezra Waldman is the Associate Director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy and a professor at New York Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. Ari writes weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues.

 

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Comments

  1. the purpose of the buycott is to bring attention to the human rights violations in Russia. the buycott has put this issue front an center in the LGBT and mainstream media. as Savage stated, it does give us a thread of solidarity. one has to begin somewhere to raise awareness and the buycott certainly has done that. will it affect Putin/Russian policy? probably not. but now we have NBC weighing in as well as the IOC. who will be next? the buycott has brought greater awareness outside of the LGBT media. while economically ineffective i think it has been great publicity for the plight of our Russian LGBT comrades. for certain, they have seen the press from the states and around the globe. we are sending them a powerful message of support and solidarity. i do not believe the buycott is a toothless gesture.

    Posted by: deedrdo | Jul 30, 2013 12:16:34 PM


  2. the purpose of the buycott is to bring attention to the human rights violations in Russia. the buycott has put this issue front an center in the LGBT and mainstream media. as Savage stated, it does give us a thread of solidarity. one has to begin somewhere to raise awareness and the buycott certainly has done that. will it affect Putin/Russian policy? probably not. but now we have NBC weighing in as well as the IOC. who will be next? the buycott has brought greater awareness outside of the LGBT media. while economically ineffective i think it has been great publicity for the plight of our Russian LGBT comrades. for certain, they have seen the press from the states and around the globe. we are sending them a powerful message of support and solidarity. i do not believe the buycott is a toothless gesture.

    Posted by: deedrdo | Jul 30, 2013 12:16:34 PM


  3. I feel like this column ended in the middle of a

    Posted by: Mike8787 | Jul 30, 2013 12:23:17 PM


  4. Why am I not surprised you got this wrong?

    Posted by: oncemorewithfeeling | Jul 30, 2013 12:28:14 PM


  5. Why does Towleroad provide this tool with such a platform. When I read, "Talking Points with..." I vomit a bit.

    Posted by: mitch | Jul 30, 2013 12:34:49 PM


  6. As has been pointed out, the value of the vodka boycott is PR, and apparently it's getting plenty of it - and has provided the necessary hook for the lazy media to report on the gay progroms and barbaric laws in Russia. It's already working. Yes, let's figure out what else might be done. But the vodka boycott is a success.

    Posted by: Zlick | Jul 30, 2013 12:37:44 PM


  7. "Is a boycott of alcohol (and alcohol produced by a company not owned by Russia, at that) the best focus of our community's energy?"

    Why reduce it to that? Why does it have to the best focus? As if we can only have one action? Particpate in the boycott, do the get-arrested-in-Russia thing, whatever. Do what you can to bring attention of this to folks who don't know in as many ways possible. What a dumb post...

    Posted by: Anthony | Jul 30, 2013 12:42:30 PM


  8. What??? And I assume you will be there to protect and defend them against the laws of Russia? I have a suggestion, you should go to Russia today and take your own advice and proudly begin making pro-lgbt statements.

    Posted by: Don | Jul 30, 2013 12:46:14 PM


  9. Surely you can't be that dense Ari.

    The Stoli boycott is entirely PR based #1, and #2, Savage already addressed the Latvian argument in numerous subsequent posts on The Stranger.

    I'm with Don - take YOUR ass over to Russia and scream loud as yell you self-righteous high-and-mighty prick.

    And while you're there, I sincerely hope you and that speed skater aren't arrested and god knows what else by the Russian government that WILL deliberately defy the IOC, I guarantee it.

    You're braying with no substance just like the ones you critique so quickly Ari.

    Leave your pontificating to court battles and stop pretending you're remotely contributing otherwise.

    Posted by: Leo | Jul 30, 2013 3:35:45 PM


  10. Who is the "we" to whom you refer. There is no unified gay movement. Not all gays, lesbians, transgendered, bisexual, intersexed, and questioning people have the same goals. I hope that everyone can support all who attempt to influence Russian society and the Russian government to do the right thing, even if everyone does not agree on the specific methods utilized to achieve change

    Posted by: rayrayj | Jul 30, 2013 3:45:19 PM


  11. I am willing to go to the Olympics and wear rainbow colors 24/7, or even sponsor a gay Russian refugee. Too bad I am not a rich lawyer who can afford such things. Boycotting a visible Russian brand (even if they are not 100% Russian, they still have a presence there), costs me nothing, and adds my small voice the the PR campaign against this legislation.

    Posted by: PDX Guy | Jul 30, 2013 3:47:41 PM


  12. GLAAD and HRC are silent on this boycott. (Probably because they take donations from Stoli...)

    Posted by: Rik | Jul 30, 2013 3:47:44 PM


  13. Pretty much the last person who should be offering advice on this issue is you, Ari Waldman. You are a despicable human being. Championing the plight of Dharun Ravi, the homophobic bully who helped Tyler Clementi into a grave at age 18. Ari Waldman is the vile individual who wrote that poor Dharun Ravi's life had been "destroyed" because he was being held accountable for his actions in court. He actually spoke of Ravi's prosecution as if it were equivalent to Clementi's death. Ravi, the arrogant bully who yawned during his trial and issued a perfunctory apology after which he promptly appealed his ridiculously lenient sentence. This is what tugged at Ari Waldman's heartstrings.

    Now Waldman is here to explain Russia to us. No thanks Ari.

    Posted by: Jake | Jul 30, 2013 3:49:30 PM


  14. Ari, you are so wrong and too late. The amount of deliberate disinformation excreted in this missive ....

    Posted by: Gilbert | Jul 30, 2013 3:52:41 PM


  15. Your post literally gets more inane every time I read it Ari.

    "...it gives Mr. Putin ammunition to mischaracterize our community and further his anti-gay propaganda to this people -- "Look what they're concerned about. Alcohol, their bars, their parties". You can just imagine the rhetoric."

    OH NOES! THEY'LL THINK WE DRINK! THEIR WORDS HURT!

    What are you 12?

    What the hell Andy sees in you other than a human reference for legal definitions I have no idea.

    Its SO easy to cast stones from your ivory tower and feel like you've accomplished something isn't it?

    You're a worthless excuse for an advocate and a complete disgrace to the movement. Screw you.

    Posted by: Leo | Jul 30, 2013 4:01:35 PM


  16. Good luck finding consensus in the gay community, let alone solidarity. There is no "Gay Pope", or even a leader most people follow.

    Calling for a boycott on anything will cause a blip at best. At worst, it will demonstrate the impotence of these threats & empower homophobic interests to do what they wish with impunity.

    Posted by: JonnyNYNY2FLFL | Jul 30, 2013 4:02:44 PM


  17. Good luck finding consensus in the gay community, let alone solidarity. There is no "Gay Pope", or even a leader most people follow.

    Calling for a boycott on anything will cause a blip at best. At worst, it will demonstrate the impotence of these threats & empower homophobic interests to do what they wish with impunity.

    Posted by: JonnyNYNY2FLFL | Jul 30, 2013 4:02:45 PM


  18. Translation: I am stuck teaching at a third tier law school and I am desperate to advance my career and make more money. So I write this column here at Towleroad where I make a special effort to be provocative and unconventional. In this way, I seek to establish a rep as a "rebel" and an "iconoclast" on which to market myself to a better law school where I can earn more money. If I have to sacrifice some tortured Russian teenagers to do it, no problemo.

    Posted by: Dianne F. | Jul 30, 2013 4:03:13 PM


  19. BULLS-EYE DIANNE! Thank you.

    High time someone called him out on B.S. I'm FINISHED.

    Posted by: Leo | Jul 30, 2013 4:08:52 PM


  20. 1. Russians LGBT people already can get asylum in the US. Putin has made that even easier.

    2. The Stolichnaya vodka in the US may be distilled in Latvia, but the base comes from fields and factories in Russia.

    3. The prestige of the USSR suffered a lot from the 1980 boycott. I remember: I was there in 1981 and they were still smarting.

    4. It's all about PR and information. There was no major press about gays in Russia before this. Now everyone is talking about it.

    5. There is one major Russian product that an embargo would really hurt: Oil. We don't buy it, but Europe does. They should be pressured to do something (like ban Mizulina, Milonov, and others from travel to Europe, where they have their money and educate their kids and grandkids).

    Posted by: KevinVT | Jul 30, 2013 4:10:42 PM


  21. Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics worked so well to combat the anti-Jewish, anti-gay, anti-Roma regime, it should work just as well this time against the neo-fascists in Moscow. In 2023, at the end of World War III, there'll be 175 million dead (the world population's increased since 1936), gays and lesbians will be exterminated from Russia, and entire nations will be razed to the ground. Forgot to mention a small difference that might change these calculations - Hitler didn't have nukes.

    Posted by: Hue-Men | Jul 30, 2013 4:36:07 PM


  22. Hey Ari - Instead of tearing down, perhaps try building upon.

    Where I think you lose people is your belittling how this whole conversation started. Is boycotting short sighted? Yes I agree with you there. It usually doesn't have a direct impact on those you're trying to force change upon. You've made that crystal clear.

    Dan Savage and Michelangelo Signorile's calls for boycotting started the conversation and perhaps could lead to real change. You might want to start by thanking them for bringing what's going on in Russia to the public's and media’s attention, politely disagree and offer (which you've done and all sound great) how we can evolve this boycotting/movement because the fact is real people are going to jail for being gay. Real people are being humiliated and tortured because they're gay.

    SIDE NOTE: I won’t get started on how this all of a sudden became so very important because it’s a predominately white country. What’s been going on in Africa is outright disgusting put not much of a public outcry!

    However, you just demean the conversation, and them, they started to give a spotlight to what you say is REAL change.

    No movement to effect change, in society, culture, politics, a former communist country etc, starts BIG. Most start small, shortsighted as you say, usually in gut reaction to something horrible and evolve from there.

    I usually enjoy your columns on Towleroad but this one just came off as catty and spiteful with some great options but hard to hear that part.

    Posted by: Eddy | Jul 30, 2013 4:44:16 PM


  23. Dumping Stoli is PR 101. While it may not do much for gays in Russia today, it's the first step in getting the message out there in the mass media as to what's going on in the country. The image of bars pouring alcohol down the drain plays well in the news cycle.

    Posted by: Fox | Jul 30, 2013 4:46:07 PM


  24. As others have said, the boycott is meant primarily to call attention to the gross human rights violations in Russia, and it is doing just that. Stoli is also more linked to Russia than you and other opponents of the boycott are saying. The boycott is supported by leading Russian activists, including Masha Gesson. (She literally wrote the book on Putin.)

    The vodka boycott doesn't have to be the only strategy. It is a beginning and can be part of a multi-pronged strategy and pressure campaign.

    Your options at the end are naive. There are arguments to be made for boycotting the Olympics entirely, but you don't seem to support it and many don't. Nor do you seem invested in your second option. Your third option is already happening. My husband (an expert on Russia) regularly testifies on behalf of gay Russians seeking asylum and has for years now.

    I value your legal insights for Towleroad, but you're out of your area of expertise here, and it shows.

    Posted by: Ernie | Jul 30, 2013 5:04:05 PM


  25. Russian lawmakers stated clearly, AFTER Olympians were assured by the US government of safety in Russia, that all foreign nationals, including Olympians, would be subject to arrest for breaking the law (the law prohibits showing support of any kind for gay rights). I beieve the answer is to demand the Olympics be moved from Sochi. If not possible due to late date, ALL civilized nations should boycott the Olympics, not just America. Networks should rfefuse to cover, sponsors should refuse to participate. Let Russia feel the economic brunt of losing ALL revenue from the Olympics. That will get their attention.

    Posted by: Mark Ramsey MD | Jul 30, 2013 5:12:59 PM


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