Archive for category Human Rights
The Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage caused great celebration, symbolized by the Rainbow White House. However, if you venture into the right side of the blogsophere there is a sense of anger and dismay. Erick Erickson at Red State paints a picture of a society that has “lost its mind” with a wildfire burning and “normal” people being trounced by the insanity.
To many of us who support gay marriage and welcome the cultural shift of the last few decades, such a view might seem bizarre. No one is hurt by allowing gays to marry, this simply expands freedom and one has to be a bigot to oppose that, right? That is a view I hear among young people who are just as perplexed and angry about such opposition as the red staters are about gay marriage being made the law of the land.
A bit of perspective. In the 1700s, centered in France, the enlightenment began. After the explosive advance of science in the 1600s, beginning with Galileo and ending with Newton’s discovery of classical physics, people turned their rational minds towards understanding society and humanity. They encountered a world built on tradition, religion and superstition, and started to tear apart that edifice.
It started with the Deists. Believers in God (usually due to the need for a “first mover” in order to get a “world in motion”), they tore apart the Christian Bible, finding contradictions and pointing out that the God of the Old Testament is more like a petulant child than someone worthy of praise and love. Some like Rousseau saw God’s word in nature, but after the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 Voltaire decided that while God made the world, there was no sign God really cared about it. God doesn’t need our love, our fellow humans do, Voltaire declared, beginning an approach that today is called “secular humanism.”
The attack on tradition began in earnest. In Great Britain this attack was pragmatic and gradual – the divine right to rule gave way to a parliament, and the power of the nobility and the Anglican church slowly waned as reforms dominated the 1700s and 1800s. In France the assault on tradition took the form of a radical revolution that wanted to change everything right away! That failed – and it showed a weakness of the enlightenment: reason is a tool, it does not provide the kind of values and core world view that a religion might. Once they pushed aside tradition, they couldn’t agree on how to move forward. Tradition and culture hold a society together; you mess with that at your peril.
Yet that is the enlightenment project – messing with tradition and culture. Edmund Burke, a conservative who hated the French revolution, didn’t oppose that project, he only insisted it move carefully and gradually, with progress showing respect for tradition, even as those traditions lose power.
Every step of the way, there were those convinced society was collapsing. Women getting to vote! That is not what God intended. In the South the assault on slavery led to a civil war. Women getting equal rights, entering the work force, not being subservient to their man – that to many seemed a direct rejection of Christian teaching. Every step of the way, society was seen as going deeper into the darkness.
In way, the critics were right. Unmoored from some kind of rule book, free to choose what we construct, we dabbled with Communism, Nazism, other forms of fascism and fought great wars. For awhile the West embraced radical racism, justifying conquest of virtually the entire planet, destroying cultures and looting natural resources. Many would say, with justification, we still do that, albeit in a less overt manner.
Yet there is no going back. If we opened Pandora’s box, it can’t be closed. Once we examine the world rationally and recognize that religious traditions are mythological and really can’t be true, we can’t say “oh well, it’s better just to believe in them.” Once women can work and succeed, we can’t tell them to just find a mate to serve. Once we make marriage about love, we can’t say that divorce shouldn’t exist and we should bring back “traditional marriage.” Once gays are accepted and can marry, we cannot tell them to scuttle back into the closet. And for all the difficulty our enlightenment freedom creates, it’s worth it.
The enlightenment is a process of human liberation. It is about freedom, it is about constructing a social world rather than adhering to past teachings and customs. It is a dangerous endeavor, as the holocaust, communist dictatorships, the French revolution, colonialism and capitalist sweatshops demonstrate. It is what has led to consumerism and global warming just as it has led to liberty.
That’s how we should understand opposition to gay marriage. They read this into the enlightenment’s dark side, a divorce from tradition, an anything goes mentality that can lead to chaos, lack of moral grounding, and collapse. Psychologically, they yearn for a “right answer,” stability, and a sense of security in the social world. Religion, tradition, and the values those represent are comforting and powerful to them. Symbolically, gay marriage represents a threat to all that.
But every step forward in the last 300 years has meant that. The rock band Rush sums up the enlightenment’s impact on the West well: “It’s the motor of the western world, spinning off to every extreme, pure as a lover’s desire, evil as a murderer’s dream.” Our freedom and rational thinking have led to advances in human dignity, as well as crimes against humanity. It’s a journey worth taking, even if landmines are scattered about.
In this case, gay marriage is to me up there with giving women the vote and the right to work, ending slavery, and eliminating the aristocracy and the divine right to rule. It expands human dignity and value, making it compatible with what Martin Luther King Jr. calls natural law in his “Letter to a Birmingham Jail.”
It is, however, just a step along the path we in the West have been traveling for centuries. And while I see it as a very positive step, I appreciate those who fear losing tradition. To keep us along a sustainable path of progress, we do have to respect the dangers of moving too fast, as Burke might say. The enlightenment is need of a kind of spiritual core to help us avoid the negative extremes. Even if traditional religious stories cannot provide that, they point to the need to take values seriously – something I plan to write about soon.
On this issue I think we haven’t moved too fast. Support for gay marriage is now a majority position, and among young people it’s at near 80%. We’re changing along with the culture, not moving out in front of it. The enlightenment project of expanding human liberation, a difficult and dangerous journey, moves forward!
We talk about human rights as being extremely important. People like me who dislike war and militarism often support military action in defense of human rights. Everyone is appalled by ISIS atrocties. We look at the lack of intervention in the Rwandan genocide as failure of the world to adhere to the “never again” promise on preventing genocide.
But what are human rights? How are they determined? Can we enforce them? In the West there has been a focus on political rights – free speech, liberty, freedom of association, etc. In the third world the counter argument is that political rights are meaningless if people are starving and have no place to live. They focus on economic rights, such as a right to food and shelter. Others say that there are rights associated with identity and community.
Enlightenment rationalism led to the hope that if only we could find a first principle and build from there, it would be clear how to understand the world and human ethics. Many in the West thus follow John Locke’s argument that there are natural rights to life, liberty and private property which we get by dint of being human. To be human, one must be alive. To be human one must be able to feed and shelter oneself. That requires both property and liberty to go out and get the material needed to live. This way of thinking, called liberalism, generally stops with those rights – those rights are seen as foundational, no other true rights exist.
That approach has a glaring weakness – namely, humans can live as human without private property. Indeed through most of human history there was no such thing as private property. As hunter gatherers we just took what we could get. Property rights arose with the creation of agriculture, but most often these were collective/community rights governed by custom and tradition. So clearly there is no objective need for private property.
More fundamental to the problem is that the notion of “rights” doesn’t exist in nature. In nature you can do whatever you choose to do, limited only by your capabilities and the consequences of your actions. Nothing more. Locke’s argument assumes that there is some right to exist as a human which leads to those other rights. But no such right exists in nature, it only exists as a human construct, a belief that life is valuable and therefore should be protected. We have that belief for our species, but put a hungry tiger in your house and I guarantee he won’t care about your “rights.”
Similarly, when we down a burger and fries, we haven’t thought about the right of the cattle to live – let alone live naturally without genetic manipulation and inhumane factory farm conditions. Our hunter gatherer instincts show as much regard for animal rights as the hungry tiger has for our rights. The notion of rights is a human creation, reflecting what we think ought to be followed based on our experience, empathy, and context. This concept has practical use (hence most societies have traditional rules against theft and murder, even if they don’t talk in terms of rights) and abstract (how should humans treat each other, what is the best social order?)
If the concept of rights is a human creation, then so is every notion of rights, whether Lockean liberal, social democratic or communitarian. This means we have the freedom to create the idea of human rights and to determine which rights we want to create, defend and hold dear. We don’t find rights in the ether, there is no “first principle” to give us objective rights; rather, we create both the notion of rights, and what rights we choose to recognize.
So we are free to come up with whatever notion of human rights we want, including things like a right to a paid vacation or a right to bear arms. However, no notion of rights will be viable if it isn’t held by a vast majority of society. And if different “isms,” philosophies and religions have different notions of rights, it will be (and has been) hard to construct a viable, effective form of human rights.
So maybe the key is to look into our hearts. What makes us cringe? What is something that almost everyone finds repulsive? What acts illicit disgust and anger across cultures, and among people of diverse philosophical perspectives? Those acts certainly include beheading, torture, rape, murder, theft and array of actions. This doesn’t come from a rational argument, but a sense of common empathetic sentiment. Hollywood films work world wide because the emotions of certain core circumstances transcend boundaries.
The United Nations has several human rights documents and treaties, though they remain aspirational rather than legally enforceable. That’s a start. As we see ISIS butcher innocents, children being used as pawns in war, women being kidnapped and used as slaves in the sex trade industry, and governments torturing enemies, it’s time to work harder to create and enforce a core standard of human rights.
The first step is to recognize we don’t have to ground our rights in nature, religion, or some external factor. We work together, look inside our hearts and minds, and determine what we humans want to recognize as basic rights. From there we can decide that we will work together to defend those rights, whether deep in Iraq or in a small town in Missouri.
One of my projects this year is a series of lectures as part of the “World in Your Library” series sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council. Saturday I traveled to beautiful Southwest Harbor, Maine, a delightful community on Mt. Desert Island. The island, home to Acadia National Park and the tourist destination Bar Harbor, is stunningly gorgeous and I never knew what a gem Southwest Harbor was. In the next two months I have talks in Bangor and two in Kennebunk.
The topic of today’s talk was “Children and War.” The topic is important to me thanks to a course I co-teach with Dr. Mellisa Clawson, a professor of Early Childhood Education. She and I started teaching that course in 2004, and over the years thinking about how war affects children world wide has changed my view on how we in political science think about conflict. “Children and War” is a subject that elicits emotion and pain. One woman said after the talk that her stomach hurt, and she had a hard time taking in the information, even though she was glad she came. She gave me a hug and thanked me. After the talk the Q and A ran almost an hour, perhaps the most flattering response one can receive!
I ended the talk with the video above – “Vagina” by Emmanual Jal. Jal is a former child soldier from the Sudan, whose musical ability and creativity helped him escape and recover from the trauma of being a child soldier witness to and participant in atrocities and horrors. The video is crude in some ways – “stop treating Mama Africa like a vagina, she’s not your whore, not any more….” One woman, a feminist, was at first put off by what she saw as the derogatory use of the term “vagina.” But others pointed out that the video was saying the beauty of Africa – and the vagina – was being misplaced by violence and rape; in this case, rape of Africa’s natural resources, leaving the people poor and subject to horrific violence.
And Jal is, sadly, correct. Our lust for diamonds, oil and gold have lead us in the industrialized West to be complicit in horrific crimes in Africa. We provide the demand for demands, gold and of course oil, and big corporations in collusion with African governments (read: organized criminal gangs aka mafia) provide it. The people who live and work there are left poor, and wars to try to control the resources leave thousands dead and provide the fodder for the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
There are many organizations now that try to “rescue” and rehabilitate former child soldiers — children who have perpetrated atrocities that here would yield the death penalty. Former child soldiers recall how they would feel proud of the terror they’d instill going into a community and killing indiscriminately. Sometimes their leaders would scratch their skin open and rub cocaine into their blood to create a sense of power. They’d tell them they were invincible; the LRA in Uganda would have the children rub palm oil over their body, saying it would protect them, if they believed the Lord was true. If comrades died, they lacked belief.
Up to 40% of child soldiers were girls, all of whom were raped and used as sex slaves, home keepers, and soldiers. If they have children from the rapes, those children would be raised to fight. They often avoid rehabilitation in order to avoid the stigma of having been part of the militias – the stigma of having been raped and used, making them “undesirable” by men in that culture.
But as Jal’s video shows, we are complicit. Our big corporations work with their corrupt governments to cheaply mine diamonds, gold, oil and other minerals. We don’t know or care of the social impact. We pretend it’s just “the market,” and that any problems in Africa are endemic to those countries. We are blameless.
Yet we are not – we make those atrocities possible, and our forefathers through colonialism and greed destroyed the old functioning culture on the African continent to bring them “civilization” – Christianity, government and science. Thus they went from being self-sustaining and balanced to impoverished, unstable and dependent. Crudely, we (in the West overall) raped the continent saying “it’s good for them and they like it.” Yeah, Jal’s metaphor is discomforting, but accurate.
To solve these problems it’s not enough just to try to help former child soldiers. We need to work to build communities with a sense of purpose and identity. Military intervention can’t work without a lot of effort to help rebuild social structures, providing education, basic necessities, and stability to allow community building. But those efforts work against the desire of big corporations of the West – joined now by groups from China also wanting cheap resources – to maximize profit, while keeping Africans poor and divided.
If the people of Africa are kept down, treated as worthless as powerful states and corporations use “the market” to rationalize the plunder their wealth, the people may strike back. In an era of terrorism, new media and easy to obtain WMD, that anger could be given substance. The anger implicit in this video could magnify. It’s in our interests to work together now, rather than close our eyes and simply enjoy the lifestyle we receive by tolerating the violence and abuse by corporations and governments worried more about the bottom line than humanity.
Paranoia on the right about the United Nations is nearing the point of clinical insanity. For some reason the far right sees the United Nations as a dangerous evil organization bent on implementing some kind of internationalist/socialist world order. This gives rise to delusional fantasies.
This week the US Senate sought to ratify the UN Treaty on Disabilities, a treaty modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It failed by a vote of 61-38. 61 voted “yes,” but in the Senate you need 2/3 of the vote to ratify. Former Presidential candidate Rick Santorum praised the vote, stating that the treaty would have given the UN power to intervene in the choices parents make about their handicapped children.
The same kind of hysteria made the Senate unable to ratify the Rights of the Child Convention. The US is joined by only Somalia and South Sudan in rejecting this effort to support children. The US refused because a right wing group called “Focus on the Family” said that the convention would prevent parents from using corporal punishment (spanking) on their misbehaving kids. That’s absurd, but somehow they convinced the Senate not to act.
Imagine a scene. The UN pulls up with some jeeps and a black helicopter sweeping down to a suburban house. Across the street a neighbor looks out the window, “looks like Ralph spanked his boy again.” This is a level of paranoia so bizarrely irrational that it defies explanation!
The UN can’t do any of that. These treaties have no enforcement except through the UN Security Council. The US has a veto on the Security Council. And earth to self-centered American nationalists: the treaties aren’t aimed at us! The treaties are aimed at trying to counter problems in third world states where children and disabled people don’t have the benefits they receive here. UN bureaucrats don’t care how you are going to deal with your disabled child or whether or not you spank your kids!
When work was done to create an International Criminal Court (ICC) in order to make it easier to go after brutal war lords who get away with atrocities in third world conflicts, the US actively sought to fight that court’s very existence. Rather than recognizing its use in dealing with groups like the brutal LRA in Uganda or the Janjaweed in Darfur, they were scared that the ICC might arrest Americans and accuse them of atrocities. They even passed a law in 2002 saying the US could invade the Netherlands to rescue any Americans arrested by the ICC!
Of course, there is no such danger. Not only is the scope of the ICC limited, but it only gets involved if a state can’t or won’t prosecute its own war criminals. The US military justice system is one of the most advanced in the world, and it recognizes as crimes the same ones that the ICC deals with.
The insanity continues.
After his experience in Rwanda and his struggle with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Romeo Dallaire has become involved in effort to end the practice of using children as soldiers in war. Dallaire had been UN force commander in Rwanda as the 1994 genocide took place. He had only 240 troops and pleaded with the UN to at least send supplies so he could feed the people he was protecting. He was ignored. He has since become an activist against the ravages of conflict in Africa.
One problem he notes is the ease in which small arms flow into combat zones from elsewhere, allowing war lords and other nefarious figures to easily get the means to create child armies. He called on the UN to work to limit small arms trade, and now they are working on a UN Small Arms Treaty, designed specifically to make it harder to arm combatants in places like sub-Saharan Africa.
Alas in the US the reaction is predictable. The UN is going to come for our guns! The treaty will make it illegal to sell small arms, the treaty will undermine the Second Amendment!
*Eyes rolling* Sigh. No, the UN won’t come for your guns — remember, the UN has no army and can only enforce international law through a Security Council Resolution. The US can veto those. The Supreme Court has ruled that any treaty that violates the constitution is invalid. No treaty can undermine the constitution.
So while the US claims to want to do what it can to prevent children being used as soldiers, support individual rights in the third world, and bring war criminals to justice, an insane paranoia about an organization utterly impotent to do anything against the US prevents the Senate from ratifying needed treaties.
The world is in transformation and only by recognizing our interdependence and need to cooperate across borders can we solve the problems ahead. A paranoid inward looking irrational nationalism hurts both us and the rest of the world. The fantasized conspiracies aren’t there, but the problems we need to solve are real.
While courts and state legislatures have legalized same sex marriage in the past, whenever the issue came before the people in a referendum it failed — 32 times in all. Here in Maine the legislature approved same sex marriage in 2009, only to have it overturned by a people’s veto that November by a margin of 53 to 47. At that time I wrote that same sex marriage had been “postponed.” Social conservatives complained that the courts and legislatures were responding to special interests while the people clearly opposed giving marriage rights to gays.
On November 6, 2012 the tide turned.
In Maine, Maryland and Washington State voters approved legalizing same sex marriage by votes of 53-47 in Maine and 52-48 in both Maryland and Washington. An effort to pass a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage failed in Minnesota 48-51. Beyond that Wisconsin elected Tammy Baldwin to the US Senate. She will be the first openly gay Senator. It does not appear that her sexuality was an issue in the contest.
To be sure, in much of the country approval of gay marriage would have no chance. However the writing is on the wall – it’s only a matter of time until gay marriage is as controversial as interracial marriage. It’s a true sign that tolerance is on the rise in America; one of the last groups to suffer legal and accepted bigotry and discrimination are finally being recognized as equal.
Thinking back, it’s amazing how different things are now than from when I was in college. The first time I recall encountering someone who I knew was gay was in German class in high school. He was obviously a character (his name was Randy, I can’t recall his last name) and he had spent time in Germany. He helped me ask a girl to the prom by distracting the girl’s twin sister. The girl turned me down and Randy seemed genuinely disappointed. Although he never openly said he was gay, we’d chat all the time in German class and I was pretty sure he was “one of those.”
Any doubts I had about his sexuality were put aside the next year when Walter Cronkite reported that my old high school had made the national news by having a gay couple attend prom. I quickly recognized that it was Randy from my German class and while a lot of people were appalled (they needed police protection due to threats), I thought it was a cool way for Sioux Falls Lincoln to make the news. Would a gay couple going to a high school dance get reported on the national media these days (I mean, that was Walter Cronkite!)?
When the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared same sex marriage legal in 2003, many people were shocked. Social conservatives were convinced that there would be mass outrage. In an on line discussion board one argued that if this wasn’t stopped there would be a Constitutional Amendment within a year to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. He couldn’t comprehend that “normal” folk would stand for such a thing.
Yet slowly other courts and some state legislatures followed suit. Still it remained an issue that couldn’t win a public referendum. Even with polls showing a radical increase in acceptance of gay marriage to well over 50%, opposition played on fears and got people to the polls to stymie efforts to either pass gay marriage rights, or at times to overturn those passed by the legislature.
In 2012 that changed. A look at demographics suggest the change will continue. In Maryland, exit polls showed 70% of people under age 29 supported gay marriage. For age 30 to 44 it was 60%. People over 45 narrowly opposed it, and those over 65 voted against it by two to one. Simply, opposition to gay marriage is doomed to die out. Today’s youth don’t view homosexuality the same way as their elders.
It will take awhile for this to spread throughout the US. After all, in parts of the deep south interracial marriage is still seen as something unnatural and unholy. Once whites and blacks could marry, they argued, it wouldn’t be long until people started marrying animals. But people with signs yelling “perversion, bestiality, and sodomy” at gays get rolling eyes from youth and are seen as the functional equivalent of knights of the Ku Klux Klan – a sad group of bigots who fear people who are different than themselves.
Those who once saw this as a threat to societal norms are slowly realizing that allowing gays to marry expands family values and reasserts the importance of a committed relationship. The youth of today, connected via social media and the internet, already are comfortable with difference. The idea that a couple can not marry because of their sexuality is seen as being as irrational as not allowing marriage between red heads and blonds.
Marriage as an institution has constantly been redefined through the millennia. There is no age old standard definition; the idea that it is primarily about love is relatively recent. Marriage is a social construct, defined to reflect the customs and norms of the culture in which it is found. Expanding marriage rights to gays shows that our culture is becoming more tolerant and acceptant of difference.
There is still a long way to go, but the elections of 2012 mark an important step on the road to increased liberty and tolerance. That is worth celebrating. That this happens the same year an African American gets re-elected President in a contest against a Mormon in which neither race nor religion are prominent issues is something we can be proud of!
Vikings kicker Blair Walsh and punter Chris Kluwe had very good weeks, though in different ways. Walsh, a rookie playing his first NFL regular season game was called upon to tie the game with a 55 yard field goal as time expired. He did it. My youngest son had soccer, so I cheered him on while watching play by play updates appear on my Iphone, meaning I tended to cheer at inappropriate times.
Walsh’s holder was Chris Kluwe, who punted five times for an average of 44.4 yards, keeping returns to 4 yards on average. Kluwe’s consistency is why he’s been the Vikings punter since 2005. He’s one of the league’s best.
His biggest contribution of the week was off the field, however.
It started when Baltimore linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo donated two Ravens season tickets to a group supporting the ballot initiative to allow same sex marriage in Maryland. His support of same sex marriage isn’t new; he wrote about it in 2009 for the Huffington Post and made a video to support the Maryland effort for marriage equality. This incensed Maryland Democrat Emmett Burns, who serves in the State House of Representatives. The black veteran of the civil rights movement felt compelled to write to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to shut the trouble maker up.
He said he thought it “inconceivable” that an NFL player could support gay marriage (I mean, the NFL is for the tough guys, not the sissies, right?)
“Many of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide and try to sway public opinion one way or the other. Many of your fans are opposed to such a view and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment and excitement,” Burns said, noting that the Ravens should “inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions.” Instead the linebacker should “concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base.”
Burns, a 72 year old black Minister might be excused for simply being behind the times. He’s old, after all. On the other hand, one wonders what he would have thought if someone had made comments like that about support for blacks during the civil rights movement!
So Vikings punter Chris Kluwe decided to stand up for his fellow NFL player and wrote an open letter in response, which can be found here: Kluwe’s letter. It is one of the most refreshingly honest and hard hitting take downs of a politician I can remember, even if you don’t like the “colorful” language. A tidbit (but read the whole thing):
I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population, rights like Social Security benefits, childcare tax credits, family and medical leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA health care for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gay Americans? Full-fledged citizens, just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?
In closing, I would like to say that I hope this letter in some small way causes you to reflect upon the magnitude of the colossal foot-in-mouth clusterfuck you so brazenly unleashed on a man whose only crime was speaking out for something he believed in. Best of luck in the next election; I’m fairly certain you might need it.
P.S. I’ve also been vocal as hell about the issue of gay marriage, so you can take your “I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing” and shove it in your closed-minded, totally-lacking-in-empathy pie hole.
It ends well. The Ravens stood solidly behind their player. Others came out in support of Ayanbadejo, showing that the cultural change in attitudes on gay rights is evident even in the macho world of professional football. Burns has backed down, saying on reflection the first amendment does indeed grant the right for football players and politicians to state their opinions.
Sadly, it seems lost on Burns how ironic it is that he fought for civil rights for blacks while now wanting to deny them to homosexuals. He’s old physically but that’s no excuse for him to close his mind and hold on to past bigotry. From his tone, though, it sounds like his contribution to this civil rights movement is to make those on his side look ridiculous.
As a human who believes in equal rights, I applaud Ayanbadejo and Kluwe for speaking out. As a Viking fan for over forty years, I’m proud that Kluwe puts my team in a good light. It may be a small story in the grand scheme of things, but it’s symbolic of how our culture is changing. And with all due respect to Reverend Burns, it’s changing for the better.
Their names are Nadezhda “Nadya”Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina “Katya” Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina. They are on trial for disturbing the peace (or ‘hooliganism’!) in Moscow. “I am not afraid of your poorly concealed fraud of a verdict in this so-called court because it can deprive me of my freedom,” Maria Alyokhina said. “No one will take my inner freedom away.”
The women symbolize the divisions in Russian culture and politics, and as such their trial has come under intense focus. They are part of a punk a group called Pussy Riot, which formed in 2011 as a collective of about ten members who perform provocative songs in provocative locals, usually masked with colorful balaclavas, and using pseudonyms when giving interviews. As they put it: “What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse and a non-standard female image.”
On February 21, 2012 members of the group went to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow with short dresses, colorful balaclavas and sang a “punk prayer” to the Virgin Mary to make Putin go away. The Orthodox Russian Patriarch Kirill, who had already urged believers to vote for Putin, called the President when he saw the video to make sure the women be arrested. They have been held in extended detention since March, and will be sentenced August 17. Two of the women have small children, and they have gained support from international human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
Pussy Riot was formed as part of the anti-Putin protests that emerged last winter, and represent a Russian youth angered by the return to authoritarianism that Putin represents. They want an open and free Russia, and Pussy Riot reflects an audacious in your face attack on politics as usual. In a country where traditional taboos are still strong — sexism remains rampant and anti-LBGT feelings are intense, for example — they’re the new generation demanding change.
The response of the Russian Orthodox church has been one of anger, with demands that the women be punished for blasphemy and an assault on the Russian soul. That sounds silly — and, to be blunt, it is silly — but there is a segment of traditional Russian society appalled by what the women did. The Orthodox Church is still a powerful institution and Putin needs to make sure it stays on his side.
The women have pleaded not guilty, claiming they were not trying to be offensive. They were responding to Kirill’s instructions to vote for Putin. The Courtroom prosecutor Nikiforov told the Judge that by swearing in church the girls had “abused God.” But the girls claim that not only is Russia a secular state, but that they want dialogue. “I’m Orthodox,” said Maria, “why does that mean I should vote for Putin?” Kirill who has called Putin’s rule in Russia “a miracle from God,” yearns to rekindle the old Czarist era connection of Church and State.
In the Capital of Moscow there is general support for the group. The trial has gathered large crowds who often cheer the defendants or laugh at the prosecutor. At times the Judge had to plead for quiet, telling those gathered that “this is not a threater.” When they laughed at some of the claims the prosecutor made, courtroom observers were told this was “no laughing matter.”
Ultimately Putin will decide the fate of these women — it’s his country, and his court. That’s part of what they are protesting! In London to watch some of the Olympics he said he thought they should be “treated leniently.” But no one doubts that the sentence depends on what he wants, not the judge in the case.
The case is important. Russia stands at a cross roads. Putin, having weathered the winter protests against his re-election, would like to see Russia return to business as usual: Power in his hands and a partnership with the Orthodox church to keep the public in line. Profits from oil and gas going to give the people enough largesse to keep their support, and some market openness to make it worth the while of the middle class to support the regime.
And the youth? They’ll get older. They’ll realize that it’s not worth rocking the boat. But women like Nadia, Katya, and Maria reflect a youth that sees the wider world, and understands what a free Russia could become. They don’t want post-Soviet Russia to continue the slide into Czarist like leadership and control. Putin apparently had enough, and decided to use a show trial of the three women to strike terror into would be protesters to force the youth into submission.
A successful show trial requires the authorities to control the show – to script it and make certain the public learns about it in a way that achieves the desired result. That’s not happening. Public interest in the trial has made it a sensation. The world watches, while Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and host of musicians and human rights activists world wide speak out. The Russian youth follow on Facebook and Youtube, and the trial has become a symbol of the stark division between the traditional world of the Orthodox church and the globalized modern ambitions of Russia’s young people . Quite possibly Putin won’t be able to keep all these things under control.
The trial originally was video streamed to make sure other would be protesters could see what might happen to them if they anger the authorities. But that backfired; the women refused to be docile, they and their attorneys asked tough questions and helped make the witnesses for the church look ridiculous. Video streaming was stopped, but it was too late – the trial had become a farce. The judge moved to a smaller court room, and to wrap the case up more quickly the proceedings were dragged on for over 12 hours a day with the women getting little water or food while in their glass “cage.” The result was to amplify the inhumane treatment of three young women.
So the world watches, Russia watches and Putin squirms. This case shows the regime’s vulnerability. The fact they so misjudged the impact of this show trial makes it clear they don’t understand the forces they’re dealing with. They have a late Soviet mentality in a world that is much different than that of the 20th Century.
The bizarre almost comical testimony of the church witnesses show a miscalculation of immense proportions. They were meant to create a sense of anger at the women for defying honored Russian religious traditions; instead they made the church comes off as petty, the state as authoritarian. The show trial actually demonstrated the bankruptcy of the Putin regime.
No one knows for sure what direction Russia will take moving forward. Putin controls the media, the courts, the military and the police. Russian history suggests the state will prevail at the cost of human liberty. But this is a new era. Globalization and the social media led information revolution are changing the rules of the game, as long time dictators like Mubarak, Gadaffi and Assad have learned. Right now three heroic young women refuse to back down and have come to symbolize the desire for an open, tolerant, free Russia. Perhaps their actions can inspire others to join.