17 August 2012

Pussy Riot: or, the accountability of dissent

The conviction of members of the Russian punk band "Pussy Riot" for "hooliganism" in the form of an impromptu performance in an orthodox cathedral will most likely serve as further proof to self-styled liberals around the world that President Putin is a mean guy and a tyrant at heart. The song the band performed was not only political but sacrilegious, and the impression I get from people sympathetic to the prosecution was that the sacrilege counted more than the politics. That won't change the opinion of civil-libertarians, for whom dissent is always given the benefit of the doubt, while "authoritarian" governments are not. Any time that dissidents are accused of violating any ordinary criminal law, as opposed to explicit laws restricting speech or assembly, the criminal law is presumed to be only a pretext for the true purpose of silencing dissent. This was so even in a non-"authoritarian" regime like the U.S. under the Obama administration during the 2011 Occupations. As long as dissidents don't become violent, liberals and civil-libertarians assume that their civil rights (however derived) trump other considerations of government. They may be able to make a compelling case for their position, but my point today isn't to defend either Pussy Riot or the Russian government. Today's point is that this benefit of the doubt extended to dissidents is a bias, justifiable or not, typical of liberal cultures. Liberalism, defined as broadly as possible to include much of the American "conservative" position, takes a certain view of the relation of power to government that encourages such a bias. As opposed to radicals or authoritarians, liberals see politics as the never-ending effort to check the powers that be in society prior to politics, rather than the means to create power and apply it in society as thoroughly and effectively as possible. For the liberal, the quintessential political act is "speaking truth to power." The power in question can be political or pre-political; it can be the government or it can be the wealthy, the employers, the churches, etc. Accountability in the liberal mind often seems to flow one way. The powerful are accountable to the powerless, the rich to the poor, majorities to minorities, and so on. For America's self-styled "conservatives" the public sector is accountable to the private sector, though liberals may disagree on where the power really lies and how accountability should flow between the two. In a democracy, however, accountability should flow in all directions. Everyone should be accountable to everyone else. But class bias, among other things, compromises mutual accountability. If you have no problem calling Republicans "greedy" but consider them calling anyone "lazy" tantamount to hate speech, you have a bias. It may be a bias you can back up by appealing to facts or moral principles, but it's still a bias. Republicans are just as guilty of bias if they consider it wrong to call anyone "greedy" or a "hater" while disparaging any criticism of their own judgmental rhetoric as "political [hence illegitimate?] correctness." Democracy is doomed if everyone takes an "I can judge you but you can't judge me" attitude. Just such an attitude keeps left and right, not to mention many others, from listening to each other. Ironically, it's such an attitude that seems to say that Orthodox worshippers have to listen to Pussy Riot, when the mood strikes the band, without consulting the law. In my ideal world that band wouldn't be prosecuted, but Russia, needless to say, isn't my ideal world, and in any event prosecution doesn't necessarily equal persecution, as many of the band's defenders seem to assume. Accountability isn't always a mask for oppression -- and doesn't it become oppressive, in a different way, if you grant immunity to accountability to anyone who can claim "free expression" in the name of "dissent?" Do you really want to say that, unless they grab a weapon or damage property, that "dissidents" can get away with anything? Most people don't actually believe that, anyway, based on attitudes toward dissidents from the "far right," but a lot of people are acting as if they do in their reactions to the Pussy Riot case. But just to be fair, I'll let the band have the last word.

2 comments:

Aaron Christiansen said...

If they did not have the permission of the church to hold their concert, then the government is within the "rights" of any government to try it citizens for breaking the law. If they had the permission of the church, then this is all just to silence opposition.

Since the contention is that Putin is in power by "cheating" and he will remain in power by the same method, then it lowers him to bully dissenters. Since they can't topple him with words anyway, then it would be in his best interest to allow dissent just to shut up liberals.

Either way, since there is no god, there can be nothing sacred, therefore "sacrilege" is a meaningless word and should be consigned to the trash heap of history - along with religion.

Samuel Wilson said...

American rhetoric aside, there is such a thing as an authoritarian, unfortunately -- the sort of person, left, right or otherwise, who in power simply can't stand criticism and will go to petty lengths to intimidate dissidents. Putin seems to be such a person, but his government also seems to be currying favor with a Russian "religious right" lately seen suing Madonna for spreading illegal "homosexual propaganda."