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The Wrong Reasons to Back Pussy Riot | Vadim Nikitin

How many fans of Pussy Riot’s zany “punk prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s erudite and moving closing statement were equally thrilled by her participation, naked and heavily pregnant, in a public orgy at a Moscow museum in 2008? That performance, by the radical art group Voina (Russian for “war”), was meant to illustrate how Russians were abused by their government. Voina had previously set fire to a police car and drew obscene images on a St. Petersburg drawbridge.

Stunts like that would get you arrested just about anywhere, not just in authoritarian Russia. But Pussy Riot and its comrades at Voina come as a full package: You can’t have the fun, pro-democracy, anti-Putin feminism without the incendiary anarchism, extreme sexual provocations, deliberate obscenity and hard-left politics.

Unless you are comfortable with all that (and I strongly suspect 99 percent of Pussy Riot’s fans in the mainstream media are not), then standing behind Pussy Riot only now, when it is obviously blameless and the government clearly guilty, is pure opportunism. And just like in the bad old days, such knee-jerk yet selective support for Russian dissidents — without fully engaging with their ideas — is not only hypocritical but also does a great disservice to their cause.

A former Soviet dissident and current member of the anti-Putin opposition, Eduard Limonov, knows such cynicism too well. Thrown out of the Soviet Union and welcomed in New York as a Cold War trophy, Limonov soon learned that it wasn’t the dissent part that the United States loved about Soviet dissidents, but their anti-communism. A bristly and provocative anti-Soviet leftist, he got to work doing what he did best — taking on the establishment — and quickly found himself in hot water again, this time with the Americans. Limonov concluded that “the F.B.I. is just as zealous in putting down American radicals as the K.G.B. is with its own radicals and dissidents.” [++]

futurejournalismproject:

Pussy Riot and Massacres: Why We Cover What We Cover

Last week when news broke that a Russian court sentenced members of Pussy Riot to two years in jail, The New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner asked whether the case was getting too much coverage in the Western press.

In his article, Chotiner compared the guilty verdict coverage to the lesser coverage given to 22 Shias pulled off a bus in Pakistan and executed by the Taliban.

I don’t want to undercut the reporters who have chronicled Russia’s long, miserable record on free speech. Locking up a band for criticizing the president, or the church, is terrible. But I can’t help but think there’s something a little off-kilter in the sheer amount of attention Pussy Riot is getting. The coverage is morphing into the human-rights equivalent of the blanket coverage afforded to the lone white girl who goes missing on a tropical vacation.

Of course, you can’t measure every story by whether it is more or less outrageous than the slaughter of 22 bus passengers who happened to come from the wrong religious sect. But the media frenzy does make me think that for many people in the news business, the story of the band is appealing in large part because of its name and the camera-friendliness of its members–not to mention the celebrity of Pussy Riot defenders like Madonna, Sting, and Paul McCartney.

While apples and robots, the critique reminds me of something The New York Times’ Samuel Freedman wrote a week earlier about the killing of six Sikhs near Milwaukee.

In it, he notes that immediate media reaction was that the killings were most likely a case of mistaken religious identity. That the killer, Wade M. Page, thought the Sikhs were Muslim. But then he asks this important question:

Yet the mistaken-identity narrative carries with it an unspoken, even unexamined premise. It implies that somehow the public would have — even should have — reacted differently had Mr. Page turned his gun on Muslims attending a mosque. It suggests that such a crime would be more explicable, more easily rationalized, less worthy of moral outrage.

“Islamophobia has become so mainstream in this country that Americans have been trained to expect violence against Muslims — not excuse it, but expect it,” said Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and scholar on religion. “And that’s happened because you have an Islamophobia industry in this country devoted to making Americans think there’s an enemy within.”

As a Sikh, Vishavjit Singh has found himself wrestling with the subject these past few days. “If this had happened at a mosque, would our reaction be different?” asked Mr. Singh, a software engineer in suburban New York who also publishes political cartoons online at Sikhtoons.com. “I hope not, but the answer might be yes. You’d have the same amount of coverage, but you might have more voices saying, ‘Well, you know, it’s understandable, we’re at war, we’ve been at war.’ That’s an unfortunate commentary on our society today.”

These observations that violence against Muslims is expected, understandable and more explicable — yet, reminder, not excusable — gets to the crux of Chotiner’s Pussy Riot critique.

Again, it’s apples and robots, but the infatuation with the Pussy Riot case is how mundane the original protest is to Western eyes and ears, and how disproportionate the punishment is to the original “crime”. Wouldn’t a simple fine and some community service have done the trick?

The absurdity of the Pussy Riot case encapsulates a wide swath of what’s happening in Russia today. It provides an easy peg to explore the return of Vladimir Putin to official power in Russia’s strange political landscape, the country’s tenuous straddling between East, West and somewhere in between, its desire to still be considered a superpower and the fledgling democracy movement within the country.

Here’s Julia Ioffe, also writing in The New Republic:

[T]he case of Pussy Riot had become an easily consumable image of good and evil: Three young women against an Evil Empire. The heretofore little-known punkettes received such unanimously positive international publicity that one began even to pity the Kremlin and the Church a little: They had clearly and severely miscalculated.

As is so often the case with the Russian government, it was Putin himself who dramatized the pathos. Just before Putin’s departed for the London Olympics—halfway through the trial—London mayor Boris Johnson spoke up for Pussy Riot; upon his arrival, Prime Minister David Cameron broached the issue with Putin in their private meeting. Putin took notice of these slights; as swaggering and rude as he is (he’s been late to meet just about every foreign leader, including the Queen), he very much cares about his image in the West. It is where, after all, all his friends and subjects have their money. It is also important to Putin to be the leader of a world superpower, which is what he thinks Russia still is. He cannot be an Assad or a Qaddafi; it is very important for him to be what the Russians call “handshakeable” abroad. And so, while his instinct is often to hit first and think later, Putin knows it’s in his interest to cultivate the image of a centrist.

And this, I think, makes the continued coverage legitimate. It’s a story that helps us pull back the onion peel that is Russia.

For the unfortunate in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world we aren’t necessarily learning anything “new” by the atrocities taking place. These humanitarian catastrophes have become expected, understandable and more explicable.

Deserving of coverage, always, and certainly, and not ever, excusable. — Michael

Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic. Is Pussy Riot’s Persecution Getting Too Much Coverage?
Samuel G. Freedman, The New York Times. If the Sikh Temple Had Been a Mosque
Julia Ioffe, The New Republic. How Three Young Punks Made Putin Blink

Garry Kasparov wrote an interesting op-ed contradicting (by opinion) a bit of Ioffe’s piece. Read that here.

Also, be sure to read the closing court statements by Pussy Riot for an even deeper look into Russian politics.

Nationalists promote their agenda by masquerading as rights advocates | Glenn Greenwald

[Human] rights advocacy is typically used by the west’s establishment media … as a thinly disguised instrument for advancing nationalistic goals and, more insidiously, for their individual and collective self-affirmation. There is a huge industry of American political and foreign policy commentators who love to prance around together flamboyantly condemning the rights abuses of other people’s governments, while spending very little time and energy condemning abuses by their own.”

Readers of the American and British press over the past month have been inundated with righteous condemnations of Ecuador’s poor record on press freedoms. Is this because western media outlets have suddenly developed a new-found devotion to defending civil liberties in Latin America? Please. To pose the question is to mock it.

It’s because feigning concern for these oppressive measures is a convenient instrument for demeaning and punishing Ecuador for the supreme crime of defying the US and its western allies. The government of President Rafael Correa granted asylum to western establishmentarians’ most despised figure, Julian Assange, and Correa’s government then loudly condemned Britain’s implied threats to invade its embassy. Ecuador must therefore be publicly flogged for its impertinence, and its press freedom record is a readily available whip. As a fun bonus, denunciations of Correa’s media oppression is a cheap and easy way to deride Assange’s supposed hypocrisy.

(Apparently, activists should only seek asylum from countries with pristine human rights records, whichever countries those might be: a newly concocted standard that was conspicuously missing during the saga of blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng at the US embassy; I don’t recall any western media outlets accusing Guangcheng of hypocrisy for seeking refuge from a country that indefinitely imprisons people with no charges, attacked Iraq, assassinates its own citizens with no due process on the secret orders of the president, bombs funerals and rescuers in Pakistan, uses extreme force and mass arrests to try to obliterate the peaceful Occupy protest movement, wages an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, prosecutes its Muslim citizens for posting YouTube videos critical of US foreign policy, embraces and arms the world’s most oppressive regimes, and imprisoned Muslim journalists for years at Guantánamo and elsewhere with no charges of any kind.)

But this behavior illustrates how purported human rights concerns are cynically exploited as a weapon by western governments and, more inexcusably, by their nationalistic, self-righteous media enablers. Concern over a foreign regime’s human rights abuses are muted, often nonexistent, when those regimes dutifully adhere to US dictates, but are amplified to deafening levels when nations defy those dictates and, especially, when it’s time to wage war against them. This is why attacks on protesters by US-supported regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are typically described by western media outlets with the innocuous-sounding, both-sides-are-to-blame term “clashes with rebels”, while villain-of-the-moment regimes in Iran, Syria or Libya are said to be slaughtering their own citizens. It’s why arming Syrian rebels to enable them to defend against regime oppression is conventional wisdom, whereas arming Palestinian rebels to defend against Israeli violence is criminal.

The classic case of this dynamic is the outburst of indignation in 2003 over – all together now – Saddam’s “gassing of his own people”: something he had done 15 years earlier, in 1988, when the US was arming and funding him and had multiple interests in its relationship with Iraq, and thus evinced little care about any of that. It was only when it was time to demonize Saddam in order to justify the attack did western governments and their media outlets suddenly discover their retroactive rage over those crimes.

This exploitation of human rights concerns drives even the most seemingly straightforward cases, such as the universal condemnation among All Decent People of Russia’s obviously repellent punishment of Pussy Riot, the anti-capitalist, hardcore-leftwing punk rock band. … [Western] denunciations of Russia’s disregard for free speech are shaped far more by opportunism than anything authentic.

Read the whole piece

Mr. Putin is not worried about what the Western press says, or about celebrities tweeting their support for Pussy Riot. These are not the constituencies that concern him. Friday, the Russian paper Vedomosti reported that former Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann could be put in charge of managing the hundreds of billions of dollars in the Russian sovereign wealth fund. As long as bankers and other Western elites eagerly line up to do Mr. Putin’s bidding, the situation in Russia will only get worse. … Mr. Putin could not care less about winning public-relations battles, … or about fighting them at all. He and his cronies care only about money and power. Today’s events make it clear that they will fight for those things until Russia’s jails are full. Garry Kasparov: When Putin’s Thugs Came for Me

Pussy Riot found guilty for stunt against Putin - AP

Read the amazing closing statement from Pussy Riot here (from Guernica). Seriously. Read it.

I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we now expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. Now the whole world sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial. Once again, Russia looks different in the eyes of the world from the way Putin tries to present it at daily international meetings. All the steps toward a state governed by the rule of law that he promised have obviously not been made. And his statement that the court in our case will be objective and make a fair decision is another deception of the entire country and the international community.

Pussy Riot’s Closing Statements | Guernica

Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of this media image, generated and maintained by the authorities for so long, and revealed its falsity. In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to combine the visual image of Orthodox culture and protest culture, suggesting to smart people that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it might also take the side of civic rebellion and protest in Russia.

Perhaps such an unpleasant large-scale effect from our media intrusion into the cathedral was a surprise to the authorities themselves. First they tried to present our performance as the prank of heartless militant atheists. But they made a huge blunder, since by this time we were already known as an anti-Putin feminist punk band that carried out their media raids on the country’s major political symbols.

In the end, considering all the irreversible political and symbolic losses caused by our innocent creativity, the authorities decided to protect the public from us and our nonconformist thinking. Thus ended our complicated punk adventure in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we now expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. Now the whole world sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial. Once again, Russia looks different in the eyes of the world from the way Putin tries to present it at daily international meetings. All the steps toward a state governed by the rule of law that he promised have obviously not been made. And his statement that the court in our case will be objective and make a fair decision is another deception of the entire country and the international community. That is all. Thank you.

nickturse:

Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 3, 2012. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Thursday criticized the feminist punk rockers facing trial for performing a “punk prayer” against him at Moscow’s main cathedral, but said that a punishment for them shouldn’t be too severe. AP

nickturse:

Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 3, 2012. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Thursday criticized the feminist punk rockers facing trial for performing a “punk prayer” against him at Moscow’s main cathedral, but said that a punishment for them shouldn’t be too severe. AP