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Saturday, November 15, 2014

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The "Gay CEO" and the liberal distortion of the politics of representation

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Apple CEO Tim Cook: Even his most disapproving critic “probably has an iPhone in his pocket,” says one observer. Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press / AP

When Apple CEO Tim Cook openly came out as gay a couple weeks ago, the announcement was hailed by liberals as brave and heroic. In a piece titled "Why it still matters that Apple CEO Tim Cook is gay", Thomas Lee describes what why he sees it as a great feat for the gay rights movement:
"Just a few years ago, states were writing into constitutions that marriage was strictly between a man and a woman. Now the CEO of the world’s most valuable company can proclaim that he considers 'being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.'"
And indeed, for a great section of the gay-rights movement in the USA, this announcement may give some serious leverage against the homophobic currents in America. But there is something deeply wrong with this approach to representation.

Thomas Lee presents the fact that Cook is the "CEO of the world's most valuable company" as the reason why him coming out as gay is important. There is a two underlying assumptions here - and it ties into the entire ideological universe surrounding liberal approaches to social issues.

First, there is the success narrative. To prove that deep rooted prejudices against a group are wrong and must be changed, the liberal desperately searches for members of that group that can be said to be "successful" according to the modern capitalist definition of success. To prove the bigots wrong, it is assumed, one must first find examples of who are "just like us", i.e just like the privileged society that is prejudiced towards the group.  And to completely destroy bigotry, we must find some individual in the group who is better than us - a CEO, a politician, or a famous celebrity. This conditions the legitimacy of whether or not a social group should be oppressed, slandered, marginalized and excluded on whether or not they meet social standards of success.

But the truth is that it doesn't matter if individual members of a marginalized group are "successful" - homophobia is wrong and needs to be fought even if no gay CEO existed. And what is "success" in this context? There are hundreds of gay people who fight everyday against violent, bigoted communities, threats of homelessness and disproportionate unemployment. Tim Cook is one of the most privileged people in the entire world, with a salary of $74 million dollars. Why is the working class gay community not hailed as heroic, brave  and successful in their everyday struggle, while the second-highest paid CEO in the US tech industry receives praise?

There doesn't need to be any "successful" LGBTQ person in order for us to fight for the liberation of the LGBTQ community. Those who society deems as bitter failures are in fact more worthy of protection and praise than any CEO, banker or politician. This contempt for what liberals deem as "weakness" is more often than not the source of most of the bigotry the liberal claims they are fighting.

Secondly, it legitimizes oppressive power-structures and institutions. It presumes oppressed communities can justifiably receive rights and freedom not just because individuals of oppressed communities are successful, but because they are successful in oppressing, exploiting and dominating others. Tim Cook is not just CEO of the 'most valuable company in the world', he is the CEO of one of the most oppressive, corrupt, exploitative and destructive companies in the world. Here it is not just the question of success as being an equal member of society, and therefore worthy or rights and respect that is at work. You must not just prove that you are equally fit to the exist in society, you must also prove that you're equally fit to dominate and oppress other people. Tim Cook must prove that he is equally capable of exploiting child labor in the third world as any other straight CEO, Obama must prove that he is equally capable of illegally invading sovereign nations as any other white president of the US, and Ann Coulter must prove that she is equally capable of being homophobic and sexist as any other male conservative political commentator.

This twisted form of the politics of representation is profoundly toxic. We need oppressed people to be represented in society, but this cannot mean representation in oppression. The difference between liberal and radical approaches to representation is that the liberal merely seeks to make marginalized groups represented in already existing institutions of oppression, while the radical seeks to build a society where marginalized groups are represented in institutions of liberation.  We don't want our butcher to represent the marginalized groups we belong to, we want to get rid of the butcher! We must not ask if Tim Cook represents, we must ask what he represents. Apple, represents imperialism, capitalism, consumerism and the exploitation of the third world. We don't want to represented by them, or any corporation - we want to be represented by us

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