Human Rights- A case study (Pussy Riot)

Frequent readers know that I have often complained about Westerners who attack Russians for supposedly not respecting human rights or progressive values without questioning whether anybody ever bothered to properly present those values in Russia or the illogical, yet natural associations Russians have with terms like “liberal” due to their national history. I have seen such Westerners react in horror to the way Russians denigrate the term “liberal” with the pejorative term “liberast.” What they fail to realize is that back in the late 80’s and early 90’s these people who called themselves liberals deliberately took the wrong side as the country descended into chaos. Rather than criticize the neo-liberal, “shock therapy” economics which were creating so much human suffering, many of these “liberals” praised the country’s morally bankrupt leadership and insisted that the horrors of the day were in fact the fault of Josef Stalin. So yeah, the Russian perception of what we call liberalism may be wrong, but it’s wrong for a reason and we have to understand that.

Now I complain about people not explaining these ideas to Russians, but what about me? The reader might ask what effort I’ve made to explain these ideas to Russians, at least for the sake of properly representing them. Truth be told quite some time has past since I had political discussions with Russians.In the past two years or so I’ve been far more concerned with work, family, and generally doing my own thing. I offer advice and opinions when asked for them.

Still, I do feel that just once perhaps I should try to explain one of these concepts myself, just to set an example for other English speakers who might be interested in discussing these ideas with Russians. I don’t put my explanation in Russian because I’d rather just explain it verbally if need be, but having this in English means that it won’t just reach English-speaking Russians but also those Western Team Russia fanatics who don’t seem to understand these concepts themselves. I’m often sickened by these people getting mad when Russia is criticized for something like suppression on freedom of speech, and then supporting the government when it actually engages in censorship. Either it’s all sensational propaganda or there really are limitations to free speech here and you support them for some bizarre reason.

For starters I’m not a liberal in any sense. I’m with Karl Marx, who found the classical liberal values of liberty, equality, and brotherhood to be positive and progressive, yet inevitably undermined by the needs of the capitalist mode of production. I’m also no fan of using the words human rights without qualifiers. For one thing, I’d rather have horse rights than human rights. Also, have you ever even read the UN Declaration of Human Rights? Just have a look at these two items from Article 25:

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

The United States is a flagrant violator of both these alleged rights, and virtually all nations violate number one. I can cut Morocco or India some slack on things like this, but world economic heavyweights like the US or UK have absolutely no excuses. Who sanctions the sanctioners?

Contradictory and ignored as many of those alleged rights may be, it does not mean that I oppose the idea on principle. In principle human rights is a morally progressive concept. The only problem is that it presupposes a type of human equality which the system not only cannot provide us, but in fact cannot have if it is to function. If by whatever means any society manages to fulfill rights such as Article 25 paragraph 1, the capitalists of that society will face disaster. They require the majority of people to be denied that right so that they will have to come to work for them, on the bosses’ terms.   But this is a digression. The only reason I’m bringing this up is because I’m trying to point out that flaws aside, ideas like human rights, equality, liberty, democracy, etc are inherently moral and good. Where governments fall short on any of these matters is a question of these ideas meeting contradictory conditions in the real word as a result of our mode of production.

Now that the preliminaries are taken care of, let me get to the subject of our case study, namely Pussy Riot.  I actually chose Pussy Riot because I find them to be both stupid and pretentious, their music being as bad as their understanding of politics. Their “feminism” is a complete joke and they’ve been involved in various stunts which can be called very misogynistic in nature. The Western media totally misrepresented them simply as “feminist punk rockers.” In short, I deliberately chose a subject that I strongly dislike and don’t agree with, because you shall soon see the concept of liberal values in action. Watch and learn.

First let’s start with some of the arguments which were made by Team Russia supporters and fans of the Russian government, and discuss why they are utter bullshit.

Argument: If they had tried that in Saudi Arabia, they’d be dead!

Answer: Is “slightly better than Saudi Arabia” what you’re aiming for? Some years ago there was an uproar in America about the construction of an Islamic community center in the proximity of “Ground Zero,” which became misconstrued as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. A common argument used by the child-like, mouth-breathing “patriots” was that Saudi Arabia would never allow somebody to build a church on their territory. The very simple answer to this was, and still is, “That’s Saudi Arabia, this is America.” The United States protects individual’s religious rights, Saudi Arabia doesn’t. And yes, the United States is “better” than Saudi Arabia for that reason alone. Russia should be better than Saudi Arabia in this matter too, not simply “we didn’t cut their heads off” better.

Argument: Most Russians approve of the punishment they got.

Answer: This is a logical fallacy known as an appeal to popularity, which incidentally is very popular among government supporters. Most Germans at one time approved of the Nazi regime, which in 1941 set about the murder of over 25 million Soviet citizens. Popular doesn’t mean right.

Argument: Are you familiar with the disgusting stunts Pussy Riot members were involved in before the “Punk Prayer” incident which landed them in jail?

Answer: Yes, I am. I also believe that some of the stunts they engaged in, such as putting on an orgy in a public museum, could be prosecuted and perhaps should have been. I do not know the details of the museum incident, but I’m quite certain they would have received heavy penalties for that in the US. Of course none of this is relevant to what Pussy Riot was actually jailed for.

Argument: Pussy Riot is a plot by the West to overthrow the Russian government! (Yes, I’ve seen this argument made by some pretty big Kremlin supporters and “intellectuals”)

Answer: If your government is so weak that it can be realistically threatened by three pretentious, self-important women singing an incoherent song in a church, perhaps it deserves to be overthrown. Seriously you would have the Democratic Republic of Congo pointing and laughing at how fragile your regime must be.

So now that we so easily smacked down those pathetic arguments, let me explain what lessons we can learn from the Pussy Riot case. First of all, I’m not making an argument that they should have gone free. They did indeed commit a crime; in Russian law it’s known as hooliganism whereas in America it would probably be something like criminal trespassing or more likely disorderly conduct since the church would be considered private property. Freedom of speech is never absolute, but in this case the right to free speech was infringed by deliberately modifying the charge so that the perpetrators could be severely punished.  In the US or most industrialized countries they would never have seen jail time for such a stunt.  And just as an aside, keep in mind that the Russian court over-turned their conviction shortly before the Sochi Olympics earlier this year. That means the court is tacitly saying that they were not guilty of the very charge they concocted to send them to a labor colony for nearly two years, i.e. “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” If you believed the court was right when they were convicted, you have to explain why it was wrong when it changed its mind.

Of course this all leads us to a bigger issue, which is the concept of rule of law. Like any liberal concept, it has its limitations, but it sure is better to have it instead of being without it. See in the US, where rule of law does exist, church owners could press charges against someone putting on an impromptu demonstration inside their chapel during services, and a prosecutor can certainly charge them. But he can only charge them according to the law. He can’t charge them with sedition because their protest was political. In sentencing, in an American court at least, they would be protected by the eighth amendment when it comes to sentencing. This is why they’d most likely be convicted of some misdemeanor and forced to pay fines, do community service, and perhaps attend some classes on anger management or whatever. The Russian penalty for hooliganism is a very modest fine, and I would not condemn the Russian judge one bit if they increased that genuinely tiny fine at their discretion in this case. The point I’m trying to make here is that in a society run by laws, it doesn’t matter how angry everyone is with the defendant, or if the defendant is genuinely an asshole. What matters is what the law says, and every citizen should be subject to this law equally.

Now at this point I can predict the beardos*, Russian and non-Russian alike, should be worked up into a frothing rage. I just compared the US to Russia, and suggested that the American way of doing things is superior. Well American or not, it is.  Also let me head off the typical beardo response to this topic of equal rights, which usually involves insisting that Russians have a “different culture” and therefore don’t need rule of law or rights or whatever. First of all, this is racist and anti-Russian, regardless of who is saying it. If you’re Russian and you believe this, you are a self-hater, plain and simple. Second, the idea that Russians don’t value being able to express opinions or that they have no interest in being treated equally under the law is simply nonsense. Any Russian you meet can tell you at least one story about some activity they witnessed where someone in their life was able to skirt the law due to connections or their wealth.  They are visibly upset when they discuss these stories. You will never hear a Russian say, “Yeah I get dicked over by the police, my boss, and bureaucrats all the time but it’s cool because I’m Russian and our culture is different.” As far as I’m concerned that argument, regardless of who advances it, is as disgusting as the claim that Africans actually lived better in slavery.

Another reason why the “different culture” argument doesn’t work is that this idea of rule of law exists in numerous other countries, many of which are quite culturally diverse, if not economically and politically diverse as well. They also happen to be those countries with the highest living standards. I’m terribly sorry but one would have to be a complete blithering idiot to believe that the assimilation of rule of law in Russia would somehow be detrimental to Russian society. The only way it would change Russia culturally is that it would lead to the punishment of many criminals, greatly reducing corruption, and it would help people trust each other more. How terrible. But if you still disagree, by all means make your case against rule of law in the comments of this entry.

So what did we learn here today? Well here we have the case of a group I personally despise who committed a minor crime. Rather than wishing to see them be punished severely with nearly two years in a labor colony, however, I stick by the idea that they should have been punished in accordance with the original, correct charge in spite of my personal feelings about them or their ideology. I would even accept the charge as modified(i.e. “motivated by religious hatred”), but not with two years of jail time. Perhaps Pussy Riot should have been made to attend classes where they could learn how deliberately offending people’s cultural values actually alienates them from your cause, and throwing live cats at McDonald’s workers on 1 May makes you a raging asshole. Then again, Russia doesn’t really have any kind of system or institution for teaching people how to get along with each other and to refute and rehabilitate extremists of any kind, does it? Never mind, that’s another article.

 

 

*For some reason I’ve taken to using the term “beardo” to describe Team Russia fanatics, based on the strange coincidence that whether Russian or not, the most fanatical among them have beards. I don’t know why this is, but every time I read what they write I can’t help but imagine a portly man with a beard shaking his sweaty fist, stamping his feet and screaming, “You’ll see! Your decadent West will soon collapse! Russia doesn’t need you! Russia doesn’t want you! Russia is rising while your society is crumbling! Just you wait!”  If you’re reading this and fit this description, please stop. You’re embarrassing yourself and Russia.

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6 thoughts on “Human Rights- A case study (Pussy Riot)

  1. Estragon

    You state: “You will never hear a Russian say, “Yeah I get dicked over by the police, my boss, and bureaucrats all the time but it’s cool because I’m Russian and our culture is different.””

    However…maybe they don’t say it in those exact terms, but I’ve heard any number of Russians use this cultural argument. Usually, it’s something about how Russia can only be governed by “a strong hand” and isn’t really suited for Western-style democracy, with its deliberations and talking shops.

    This has puzzled me, because I’ve also observed people’s livid hatred for the state, bureaucrats and so forth. It’s hard to figure out: are they captives of the “good Tsar” doctrine, or are there different levels here which allow them to reconcile love of the “strong hand” with loathing of the actual governing apparatus?

    Reply
    1. Big Bill Haywood Post author

      Well I attribute that to this phenomenon I’ve been examining lately in some of my writing and conversations lately. Basically it’s this idea that Russia needs that strong leader and some kind of empire, and once you have that, all those problems they complain about will go away. When Putin does his international grandstanding and the West replies, they get the idea that Putin is that strong leader and that Russia is “about to rise.” When it stalls out without any result, he’s blamed for not being a strong enough leader. This is why that whole “Russia risen from her knees” meme is always used in different tenses. It’s in the past tense when Putin does something grandiose like annexing the Crimea. But when one points out all the problems that still exist in Russia, you’re reminded about how terrible the 90’s were(those 90’s that are now almost 15 years in the past), and how Putin is trying to raise Russia from her knees. Sadly, it seems he’s put Russia on her back.

      I’ve also noticed that Eurasianists, when speaking about this issue, have this particularly galling concern troll tactic. Because they know it’s bad for them to be seen as total Kremlin puppets, they occasionally throw out “criticism” of Putin, but the criticism is always about how he’s not authoritarian enough, and that he needs to impose a national ideology of some sort. Kirby does that too with his “criticism.”

      Reply
    2. Big Bill Haywood Post author

      But to answer that initial point, while many Russians say that there needs to be a strong leader and they attribute this to culture, none of them actually like being the victim of corruption or the fact that they can’t trust anyone.

      Reply
      1. Estragon

        Of course the problem with this “strong leader” business is the unspoken assumption that a strong leader is good only as long as he does what *they* want him to do. If he does what they don’t want him to do, he’s either a tyrant or a sellout, depending.

      2. Big Bill Haywood Post author

        Yeah you see that with their ideas about Chechnya. They complain about all the money going into Chechnya forgetting that Kadyrov is basically what gave them peace. But of course they can’t let Chechnya go because IT’S RUSSIA(without Russians) and if they to Britain and America will immediately invade and build a base there.

  2. John L. Driessnack

    I think Russians find the selective rule of law at once both rebarbative but also convenient in many personal cases. This is why it is easy to find people that speak only tepidly about it.

    Reply

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