Pussy Riot and the Spectacle of Protest

Joshua Foust has been criticizing the attention paid to the Pussy Riot trial in controversial ways.

Before I explain where I believe he’s wrong, let me assert that the most effective protests in the US in recent years came when gay service members and veterans chained themselves, in uniform, to the gate of the White House. That protest was by no means an isolated event. Thousands of people were organizing to pressure the government to repeal DADT, and DADT wouldn’t have been repealed without that underlying organization. The protest offended a number of DADT repeal supporters, mostly because wearing uniforms violated restrictions against protesting in uniform, but partly because participants in the protest were branded by some as self-promoters. Nevertheless, because the protest muddled with the symbols of power–the White House, the military, and proudly out service members–it made it far more risky for Obama to continue treating DADT repeal activists like he treats all others pressuring him on politics, by ignoring them.

When I talk about the spectacle of protest, this is what I’m referring to. The spectacle is not primarily about the number of celebrities–or even people on Twitter–responding to it (though of course the spectacle does increase the likelihood it’ll go viral). It has to do with reprogramming symbols of authority in ways that undermine how they’ve been used. The White House protest, IMO, made sustaining DADT a slight on those men and women in uniform chained to the gate. The protest (and the subsequent charges) basically shuffled the symbolism tied to the White House and military in ways that might have been very risky for Obama.

The analogy to Kony is inapt

Which is just one of many reasons I believe Foust’s analogy between Pussy Riot and Kony 2012 is totally inapt. Here’s how Foust makes that analogy.

In a real way, Kony 2012 took a serious problem — warlords escaping justice in Central Africa — and turned it into an exercise in commercialism, militarism, and Western meddling. Local researchers complained about it, and a number of scholars used it as an opportunity to discuss the dos and don’t of constructive activism.

In Russia, Pussy Riot’s newfound Western fans are taking a serious issue (Russia’s degrading political freedoms and civil liberties) and turning it into a celebration of feminist punk music and art.

I agree with Foust’s assessment of the Kony 2012 campaign, and I told him on Twitter that I think it could discredit online activism in general, particularly formal campaigns.

But that doesn’t make these two unlike movements the same. First, Foust claims both “commercializ[e] political action.” Except that–as far as I know–there’s not one organization focusing attention on Pussy Riot; it’s not a formal campaign. As distinct from Kony 2012, no one entity is pushing Pussy Riot as an embodiment of its ideology and preferred solution (there is, but as far as I’ve seen, it’s not driving the social media conversation on this and their twitter handle has fewer than 15,000 followers). And while Foust might argue all those who focus on Pussy Riot are primarily feminists or hipsters hijacking the Russian opposition movement, not only is there plenty of counterevidence to that, but it would still ignore the organic nature of the focus on Pussy Riot.

Moreover, to suggest that Pussy Riot is like Kony 2012, you’d have to ignore that Pussy Riot is an integrated part of Russia’s opposition scene (a point Foust acknowledges), one that many Russian dissidents support. That is, the agency of the Pussy Riot protest starts in Russia, not in the US. It’s really no more Foust’s role to decide whether and how people should respond to Pussy Riot than it was Invisible Children’s role to dictate what the response to Kony should be.

Foust misunderstands the spectacle of feminism

Then there’s Foust’s uneven understanding of how spectacle plays here. He gets at least part of what Pussy Riot was aiming to do.

Pussy Riot are clearly not expressing hatred of Orthodox Christianity, but they are protesting the Church’s close relationship to Vladimir Putin and his regime. Hating Putin is not hating religion, unless Putin is now religion in Russia.

But then he seems to entirely miss that Pussy Riot–not people on Twitter in the US–have created the spectacle here.

Focusing on the spectacle of Pussy Riot actually obscures the real issues that prompted their trial in the first place. Pussy Riot are not peasants grabbed off the road and put on trial for being women — they are rather famous (at least in Russia) political activists who got arrested for political activism.

After all, these women are famous–and they are therefore somewhat (though that is all relative in Putin’s world) protected from the worst that Putin might do to them–because they have created a series of spectacles, spectacles that were problematic enough that the Russian state chose to prosecute them, creating the spectacle that has generated Western attention. That spectacle serves as a mockery of Putin’s power, one with the bravery to laugh as they are sentenced. Indeed, their mild sentence is akin to what the government tried to do with the DADT protestors: an attempt to reassert authority, but not too much, because doing so would betray a weakness precisely on the symbols they’ve mobilized. If Putin sent Pussy Riot away for 7 years, it’d be a tacit admission–while the whole world is watching–that both his performed virility and his feigned religion are just acts, acts he can’t have questioned.

More significantly, Foust seems to misunderstand what role feminism plays in all of this (though he left this bit out of his Atlantic piece). Read more

Putin Logic

To shamelessly borrow a great story from scoutprime:

Nicolas Sarkozy saved the President of Georgia from being hanged “by the balls” — a threat made last summer by Vladimir Putin, according to an account that emerged yesterday from the Élysée Palace.


With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr Sarkozy told Mr Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia’s Government. According to Mr Levitte, the Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls,” Mr Putin declared. 

Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. “Hang him?” — he asked. “Why not?” Mr Putin replied. “The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.”

Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: “Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?” Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: “Ah — you have scored a point there.”

You know, I know the Villagers have a lot of polite reasons for not holding Bush and Cheney accountable. But doesn’t this present a really compelling reason for investigations and consequences? Not so much to protect Mikheil Saakashvili’s balls, mind you, but as a check on Vladimir Putin?

Putin Invades Alaska

Apparently, while Alaska’s eagle-eyed governor has been traipsing about the lower 48 inciting lynch mobs, the Russians have invaded Alaska.

OAO Gazprom offered to help Alaska develop its natural resources, as Russia’s largest energy producer seeks to expand into the U.S. amid the worst chill in relations since the Cold War.

State-run Gazprom sent eight senior executives to Anchorage for talks yesterday with Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources and ConocoPhillips Chief Executive Officer Jim Mulva, state and company officials said.

Gazprom, which already supplies a quarter of Europe’s natural gas, is seeking to increase its reach with projects around the world, including in North America. The courtship of Alaska comes three weeks before the U.S. presidential election, in which Russia’s resurgence has become a campaign issue.

"The timing is as interesting as the visit itself,” said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib Financial Corp. in Moscow.

Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska and Republican candidate for vice president, has criticized Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for "rearing his head” over Russia’s sea border with her home state. Relations between the countries hit a low after Russia routed U.S. ally Georgia in a five-day war in August.

"Gazprom’s entire senior management goes into Sarah Palin’s backyard during a contentious election,” Weafer said. "There’s a message there.”[my emphasis]

Actually, I think one of two things is going on. Vote for which you think it is–or give your own explanation in the comments.

It’s possible that Vladimir Putin took one look into Sarah Palin’s eyes (between winks, of course) and saw they were soulmates: authoritarian, vindictive, and power hungry. So he decided Alaska was a place he wanted to be. (Plus, Putin’s been known to be impulsive when it comes to beautiful women.)

More likely, he saw Sarah Palin as an easy mark, and thought it’d be fun to fuck with Palin’s bid to be Vice President.

Update: Looks like the answer’s B! Putin snuck into Alaska and negotiated with Palin’s direct appointees without Palin knowing about it. 

Palin has argued that her state’s proximity to Russia, as well as trade missions between the between Alaska and Russia, have helped give her the foreign policy experience necessary to be Vice President. But the campaign said Read more

“No One Could Have Predicted,” Republic of Georgia Edition

Since Condi’s gone somewhere (probably buying shoes in NYC), let me anticipate what she’ll say when she ever gets back to work: "No one could have predicted that the Georgians would incite the Russians to pursue regime change in Georgia."

At least that’s the story the Administration has been feeding Jonathan Landay.

Bush administration officials, worried by what they saw as a series of provocative Russian actions, repeatedly warned Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to avoid giving the Kremlin an excuse to intervene in his country militarily, U.S. officials said Monday.

But in the end, the warnings failed to stop the Georgian president — a Bush favorite — from launching an attack last week that on Monday seemed likely to end not only in his country’s military humiliation but complete occupation by Russian forces.


Pentagon officials said that despite having 130 trainers assigned to Georgia, they had no advance notice of Georgia’s sudden move last Thursday to send thousands of Georgian troops into South Ossetia to capture that province’s capital, Tskhinvali.

Me, I agree with Jeff Stein, this is spin, presumably designed to excuse American impotence in the face of Russia’s aggression.

A "surprise." My, oh, my.Except I don’t believe it. As easy as it is to believe that the CIA, etc., blew another huge event, I find it impossible to accept that not one of the 127 Pentagon advisors in Georgia, including Special Forces and intelligence contractors, were clueless about Tblisi’s intent — and preparations — to move into South Ossetia.That just doesn’t pass the laugh test.On July 15, for starters, amid rising tension between Moscow and Tblisi over South Ossetia, some 1,200 U.S. troops launched a three-week long joint military exercise with Georgian troops. Three weeks later, on the night of Aug. 7, "coinciding with the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, Georgian President Saakashvili ordered an all-out military attack on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia."It is simply inconceivable that the Pentagon wasn’t wired to the helmets of Georgian troops, despite the denials of U.S. military officials.

See also this quote one of those military trainers gave Danger Room:

One of the U.S. military trainers put it to me a bit more bluntly. “We’re giving them the knife,” he said. “Will they use it?”

As I said, I think the presumed spin is designed to excuse US inaction in the face of an utter lack of means to respond to Russia. Read more

AP Calls BushCo on Its Spin

Tell me. When you saw this headline in the WaPo today, who did you think wrote the story?

Bush Aides Put Upbeat Spin on Summit

Dan Froomkin, perhaps?

Nope. It was an AP story, tracing, in detail, the Administration’s efforts to get the press to back off its conclusion that Bush’s summit with Vladimir Putin was a disaster.

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE — White House officials waged an extraordinary campaign during an 11-hour Air Force One flight to put a positive spin on the outcome of Sunday’s summit talks between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Four times on the long flight back to Washington from Sochi, Russia, Bush aides trooped back to the press cabin to make the case that the summit had turned out well, particularly on missile defenses.

It was the heaviest lobbying campaign veteran reporters could recall ever occurring on the president’s plane. Press accounts of the summit had been sent to Bush’s plane and administration officials thought they were too negative. Clearly, Bush’s aides were disappointed.

Some of the officials’ statements were on the record. Some of them were off-the-record _ not to be used _ or on "deep background" _ not to be attributed to anyone in the administration. Some were on "background" _ to be attributed to a senior administration official. It was hard keeping track of the conditions.


There had been an anticipation in the White House press corps that Bush would invite reporters up to his conference room on the plane to reflect on the trip, as he has done on occasion. Four additional reporters were allowed to fly back with Bush, heightening those expectations. But it did not happen and White House officials did not dispute that Bush was steamed with the coverage.

AP reporter Terence Hunt goes on to explain the Administration’s desperate efforts to get Putin to agree to say Bush Administration efforts at assuaging his concerns about the missile defense plans for Europe have, indeed, assuaged his concerns. He describes Stephen Hadley going to absurd lengths to redefine the definition of what success looks like.

Wow. Imagine such reporting on the machinations aboard Air Force One if it had come from the week of July 7, 2003 (though, to be fair, Matt Cooper tried to write just such an article, though without the necessary cooperation of John Dickerson).

Read more

The Uninvited Guest

The symbolism of Vladimir Putin inviting himself to NATO’s gala banquet should not be missed. I’ve already suggested that Bush’s efforts mark his–and our–declining influence in Europe. Leave it to the old KGB spook to capitalize on that reality.

The presidents and prime ministers and their spouses had gathered at the Athenee Palace Hilton hotel for a gala dinner on the final night of the NATO summit when suddenly an unexpected visitor crashed the party — Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Although Russia does not belong to the alliance, and Putin had not been invited to the dinner, he showed up anyway, to everyone’s surprise. The NATO leaders politely made room for him — as it happened, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had backed out at the last minute, leaving an open seat — but they were all buzzing at the breach of protocol and its larger meaning.

As Peter Baker suggests, its larger meaning is fairly clear.

Russia succeeded this week in staring down NATO on where it should expand next, persuading Europeans dependent on its plentiful energy supplies to defy President Bush and refuse membership road maps to the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia. Anxious about the U.S.-Russia dispute over missile defense, NATO endorsed Bush’s system but appealed to him to cut a deal with Putin to avert a new arms race.

"Russia is stronger than it used to be," said Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If Russia objects and is alienated by NATO enlargement, the cost to the West potentially grows higher. . . . We should not allow such objections to dictate NATO policies. On the other hand, to proceed with a plan for European security that doesn’t take into account Russian positions would be shortsighted."


"What we’re seeing in Europe is interest in what Russia can give European countries and particularly European business," Celeste A. Wallander, a Georgetown University specialist, said by phone. "European business is very interested in Russia . . . and the business interests are very important in foreign policy."

And, as Baker points out elsewhere, Europe is fairly reliant on Russia for energy.

Don’t get me wrong–I fault no one for treating Bush with disdain. Read more