Unsettling truths

Read this report on the untruth of Russia-based news coverage claiming Odesa’s Jewish community is making plans for a mass evacuation. Then let us think about the rather postmodern unsettling of truth in Ukraine today.

The Truth is Out There

It isn’t that the truth of a statement has become irrelevant, as strawman critiques claim as the basic postulate of postmodernism. Nor is it that words are simply reality–as though, because the world is known primarily through language, speaking a change immediately makes it so. Instead, the relationship between truth, statement, and time is complex. And as Putinism demonstrates, that relationship turns out to be manipulable. Continue reading


WWII and the power of stories


"Happy Victory Day!"

“Happy Victory Day!”

Russia is running out of stories.

On May 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law an addition to Russia’s criminal code that establishes severe penalties for “rehabilitation of Nazism.” As the law states, this could include denying the findings of the International Criminal Court at Nuremburg or spreading false information about the activities of the USSR during World War II. Those found guilty may be fined up to 300,000 rubles (about $10,000) or subject to up to three years imprisonment, or even more if they use mass media.

Many countries, of course, have similar laws. But Russia’s new law has little to do with concerns about Holocaust deniers and everything to do with the current political need for an unambiguously pro-Russian official history of World War II.

Continue reading

The fake

I’ve been thinking through fakes a lot over the past week as I watch media commentators and my social media friends respond to reports about an anti-Semitic letter being distributed in Donetsk. Purporting to be a letter from a pro-Russian separatist, the document demands that Jews register with the local government or risk deportation. Many responses online revolve around questions of authenticity: Is this document real or a fake? Who wrote it? Should we be worried?

Unfortunately, the last question isn’t necessarily related to the first two. Does it matter who wrote the thing? We’d like to think that if it’s a fake, then it has no power. It can be ignored. If we can prove that the authorities are not, in fact, planning to round up the local Jewish community for some yet-unnamed reason, then perhaps we don’t have to worry about pogroms and ethnic cleansings. A fake can be dismissed.

But is a fake really impotent? Even a fake document really exists, out there in the world. People read it, react to it, interpret it. The fake still carries meaning.

Continue reading

SCOTUS demands national minimum income

Where the magic happens

The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. It may not, however, regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), as amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), imposes two types of limits on campaign contributions. Base limits restrict how much money a donor may contribute to a particular candidate or committee while aggregate limits restrict how much money a donor may contribute in total to all candidates or committees.

In the 2011–2012 election cycle, appellant Mason contributed to 1  federal candidate, complying with the base limits applicable to that candidate. She alleges that poverty induced by a low minimum wage and lack of minimum income prevented her from contributing to 12 additional candidates and to a number of noncandidate political committees. She also alleges that she wishes to make similar contributions in the future, all within the base limits.  The District Court denied her motion for a preliminary injunction and granted the Government’s motion to dismiss.

Held: The judgement is reversed, and the Supreme Court hereby calls for the establishment of a guaranteed minimum income sufficient to allow unlimited political speech by all US citizens.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS, joined by JUSTICE SCALIA, JUSTICE KENNEDY, and JUSTICE ALITO, concluded that the minimum wage and lack of minimum income are invalid under the First Amendment.

(a) Significant First Amendment interests are implicated here. Contributing money to a candidate is an exercise of an individual’s right to participate in the electoral process through both political ex- pression and political association. A restriction on how many candidates and committees an individual may support is hardly a “modest restraint” on those rights. The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse. In its simplest terms, the high incidence of poverty caused by increasing income inequality and falling inflation-adjusted wages prohibit an individual from fully contributing to the primary and general election campaigns of as many candidates as she chooses, even if all contributions fall within the base limits. And it is no response to say that the individual can simply contribute less than the base limits permit: To require one person to contribute at lower levels because she has a low income is to penalize that individual for “robustly exercis[ing]” her First Amendment rights. Davis v. Federal Election Comm’n, 554 U. S. 724, 739.

In assessing the First Amendment interests at stake, the proper focus is on an individual’s right to engage in political speech, not a collective conception of the public good. The whole point of the First Amendment is to protect individual speech that the majority might prefer to restrict, or that legislators or judges might not view as useful to the democratic process. The interest of large businesses and the wealthy in reducing their tax burden, holding the minimum wage to a poverty level, and refusing to pass a guaranteed minimum income is in clear conflict with poor citizens’ First Amendment rights.

Money given to the poor may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech supported by a guaranteed minimum income despite popular opposition.

[Thanks to the justices for the original text.]

Homophobia as part of traditional culture?

(I found this post from July in my ‘drafts’ folder, and don’t seem to have ever pressed [Post] on it for some reason. Oops! It’s kind of an important issue.)

One problem with recent English-language coverage of homophobia in Russia is the tendency to attribute anti-LGBT violence simply to “traditional attitudes,” which in the first place reinforces the religious-nationalists’ own claim to tradition and authentic Russian identity. “Tradition” is, of course, not a fact but an argument for legitimacy, one which is made from moment to moment. We establish certain practices or ideas or objects as part of “tradition” by saying so, more or less. The more people repeat the idea, take it up on their own, teach it to their children or place it in museums, the more that claim is successful [1]. But it never stops being a claim, and it’s always (at least potentially) up for debate. So in the first place, journalists are not obligated to pass along the claim that homophobia is part of “traditional” Russian culture.

In the second place, like any part of culture, “traditional” attitudes are not only able to change, but constantly do. The polling organization VTsIOM has been taking periodic surveys, and the results here are interesting:

Screen shot 2013-07-26 at 6.47.33 PM

How should the government and society react to non-traditional [that word again!] sexual orientation? The top line (“It should be a criminal offense, including imprisonment”) was in decline from 2005 (23%) to 2007 (19%), until it shot up to 42% support in 2013. Interestingly, in 2005 the most popular answer (34%) was “The government and society shouldn’t get involved in it, this is a personal matter for each individual.” But by 2013, only 15% of respondents thought homosexuality was a private matter.

It’s a complex issue, and clearly there’s a lot going on here. But interpreting negative attitudes toward LGBT people as an expression of Russian “tradition” doesn’t really fly.

[1] Hobsbawm and Ranger’s 1983 The Invention of Tradition is of course the classic text on this subject.

On protest without risk

This post last week by NYTimes columnist Frank Bruni didn’t get a lot of traction, but it caught my attention because it illustrates an approach to protest that is fairly widespread. 

Bruni describes a campaign/fashion line by Alexander Wang, Principle 6, which refers to Principle 6 of the Olympics charter:

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race,
religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic

Olympics participants/spectators are to buy clothing with a “P6” graphic as a visible reference to this principle. According to Bruni, this is a way “to get spectators and athletes in Sochi to register their opposition to outrageously repressive, regressive anti-gay laws in Russia without running afoul of one of them.” Continue reading

Mercy, not justice

Last week, the Magic 8-Ball that is the Russian blogosphere read “Signs point to…Pussy Riot being released from prison.” Perhaps an amnesty. Perhaps the verdict would be overturned. And lo, the amnesty was passed. But I’m holding back my cheers of triumph; releasing the two still-incarcerated members would be not a belated exercise of justice, but a continued manipulation of young women’s lives to demonstrate the authority of powerful men.

You may remember Pussy Riot from such actions as “Kiss a Cop,” “A Punk-Prayer,” or perhaps their more recent material, performed in uncharacterically dull costumes: testimony at a politically-motivated criminal trial and prison hunger strikes to protest living and labor conditions. Nadya Tolokonnikova, Masha Alekhina, and Katya Samutsevich were convicted in 2012 of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” thanks to an unauthorized performance in a major Moscow cathedral protesting their government’s reactionary gender politics and the increasing political influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Katya was released a few months later, but Nadya and Masha have been grinding out their terms in labor camps.

Among liberal Westerners, the group has been widely celebrated as heroic, martyrs for free speech and political expression. Some of us took particular note of their self-identification as feminists and felt a combination of awe and pride at these women, risking their freedom and lives to stand against the patriarchy and the Patriarch.

I was doing ethnographic research on political protest in Moscow when Pussy Riot first broke into international media, and conversations I had through my research cued me in to significant differences in how the group was received at home. I’ve been working primarily with feminists, LGBT activists, and radical leftists; even in such company, Pussy Riot evoked mixed feelings. Many people objected to the form of their punk-prayer: it was incomprehensible to the average person, it was unnecessarily provocative, or its message wasn’t radical enough. (I would hereby like to nominate the latter group to become our new radical queer global overlords.)

But they all agreed that the prosecution of the group was unjust, a clear sign that the government was becoming increasingly repressive. This was not a universal opinion in Russia; the case was incredibly polarizing. The mass anti-Putin protests going on at the time blossomed with neon balaclavas, while at the same time public officials and media figures talked about how the “girls” were demonic blasphemers or deviant children who should be whipped for their misbehavior. All the worse that two of the women charged were mothers.

If you’re hearing strong notes of misogyny with BDSM undertones, you’re spot on. Anya Bernstein suggests that the women’s bodies were read by Russians as objects upon which the sovereignty of the Russian state was enacted. Young women protesting the Church and President in a symbolically charged cathedral were an insult to state power that simply could not be borne. And so they paid for it on their bodies–spanked and whipped in the imaginations of prominent men, growing cold and gaunt and sick in the prison system. A public sacrifice of deviant women to reinforce the symbolic power of the masculine state.

Have they paid enough? Last week saw two official announcements that may affect the fates of Nadya and Masha, who remain in prison at the moment. First, the Russian Supreme Court issued a statement ruling the initial verdict was unlawful and calling for a review. Around the same time, word came that the Duma (the Russian Parliament) was planning to pass a wide-reaching amnesty in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. Among the groups to be forgiven: mothers of young children, and those convicted of hooliganism.

Cue cheers?

It’s important to note that several other activists, albeit less celebrated internationally, should also be released if such an amnesty passes. I’m sure those Greenpeace activists are eager to get home, not to mention a handful of people who were prosecuted for being involved in mass street protests last year. And by no means do I want to understate the importance, for any individual finding herself in a Russian prison, of getting out as soon as possible. (Well, make that any prison. There are good reasons California prisoners have been striking, and many US prisoners also do sub-minimum wage labor.)

The troublesome thing is that such an amnesty would only reinforce the problematic power arrangements that Pussy Riot was protesting in the first place. Their prosecution allowed Putin and the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church to demonstrate their authority to the public. An amnesty would permit them to demonstrate magnanimity, to show audiences at home and abroad that they’re really not so harsh after all. It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that talk of forgiveness is ramping up shortly before the Sochi Olympics, when an international audience will be momentarily tuning in. The amnesty would take a few months to come into effect, by which time Nadya and Masha’s sentences would be up anyway. Why not take credit for something that would happen anyway?

Whatever the motives and whenever the timing, the point remains that both prosecution and forgiveness reinforce the basic structure of political authority: power inheres in personal decisions and happenstance, not in the institutional workings of objective rules that apply equally to everyone. Of course, there’s nothing unusual, nothing particularly Russian, about state power operating personalistically. What else does the US annual ritual amnesty of poultry signify, but that the President himself embodies the disiplining power of the state? A little show of mercy for the cameras, and we’ll turn a blind eye to the violence carried out behind the scenes.

I’ll beg forgiveness from Pussy Riot for comparing them to turkeys. (Although I suspect Masha, at least, is familiar with The Sexual Politics of Meat –vegetarian feminists represent!–and perhaps wouldn’t mind too badly.) I hope Nadya and Masha are released, and soon. But when they are, be careful to read the signs carefully. Never mistake selective mercy for justice and rule of law.