This week I was wandering around my local supermarket when I spotted something very unusual for Central Texas. A young woman was wearing a shocking pink T-shirt that read FREE PUSSY RIOT. I thought, Wow, they’re megastars now! Yet, although I more or less agreed with the sentiment on the T-shirt, I did wonder why these young women receive so much attention, when their protest was so asinine, and there are so many more causes in the world deserving of attention. For instance, that little girl who got shot in the head in Afghanistan earlier this week… where are the T-shirts demanding justice for her? Nowhere. Or, what about Mali, overrun by radical Islamists who are busy destroying ancient Sufi shrines? When is Paul McCartney going to tell them to stop? Never. Then, there’s NATO member Turkey, which imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world… when is Sean Penn going to speak up for them? He isn’t.
What’s going on here? Well, first of all, Russia’s very easy to understand. Russians are always the bad guys in Hollywood movies, and Putin is ex- KGB, so the Pussy Riot case is an incredibly easy narrative to frame. However, that’s not the complete explanation, because many people in Russia’s opposition are much more coherent and intelligent than Pussy Riot, but nobody in Texas is wearing hot pink T-shirts in support of Aleksei Navalny or Sergei Udaltsov. Is it because Pussy Riot consists of young women and mothers? Certainly, that increases sympathy for them, but I still don’t think that’s the core of the matter. Rather, I think it’s because their protest was extremely Western in style, as if designed to trigger a massive nostalgic response in Europe and America.
You see, punk music, feminists with attitude, irreverence for church and state… once upon a time, all that stuff was very exciting for us. Now, it’s incredibly boring. Punk music? In the 1970s, it was a bit shocking, what with all that spitting and saying rude things about the Queen. Today, the most famous punks are millionaires in their 40s or late 50s who live in mansions. As for blasphemy, you can dunk a crucifix in urine or incorporate elephant dung into your picture of the Virgin Mary and most people will yawn, whilst the artist reaps handsome rewards. See how boring that is? The ennui is terrible; there’s no risk involved. You need to go back 30 or 40 years for any of it to have meaning. In Russia, however, you’ll still get bashed on the head if you irritate the wrong people, and… as we have seen… singing a rotten song in a church can land you in jail. As the writer Zinovy Zinik once said, Russia is a vast erogenous zone for bored Westerners, close enough to provide a vicarious thrill, but sufficiently distant that it poses no risk of infection. Russians won’t protest in their thousands in front of Google’s offices in London if you say rude things about them on Youtube, for instance.
This meanwhile leads to an interesting question… how can you become an international celebrity protester? Well, if you live in the Middle East, or Africa, tough luck. Those places are too exotic, and much too dangerous. The best you can hope for is that a celebrity mediator might stop by and pick up your cause… like George Clooney in Darfur, or Sting wherever it is he hangs out these days. No, you need to live in a country that can be easily encapsulated as authoritarian, and preferably ex-communist. Thus, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei managed to achieve some renown, although he is much less successful than Pussy Riot. Retro youth culture is the way to go; you have to appeal to Western nostalgia. The problem is that punk’s been done, and protesting in a church has been done, so what’s left? I think you have to go further back in time, to the 1960s. None of that Black Panther, Weather Underground terror stuff, though; it isn’t fashionable any more. No, the protest has to be really asinine… like getting naked in public for instance. Ah, wait… FEMEN in the Ukraine have already done that (and scored decent media coverage).
Wait, I’ve got it! Here’s the height of pointlessness, the most ridiculous protest of all. Stage a bed-in, like John and Yoko! Decades afterward, people still remember that the ex-Beatle and his undertalented wife slept in late one day for the sake of… world peace, was it? Or, were they raising our consciousness? Maybe Garry Kasparov could lie in bed with Eduard Limonov and refuse to get up until Russia changes. Of course, I think President Putin would be perfectly happy if they did just that.
17 October 2012