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Tag: russia

There’s no such country as Russia

madeupnotreal

On the internet, there’s a small but dedicated group of people who believe that Donald Trump is secretly trans. To be honest, it explains a lot. That’s why he’s so histrionic, so obsessed with slights and appearances, so consumed with petty gossip and petty grievances. It’s why he’s so utterly soft, like a person sculpted out of margarine. It’s why he loves expensive things and little cakes: he’s a woman, and we all know what those are like. And it’s not just the first female President, but his entire family. Don Jr and Eric had big red ‘F’s on their birth certificates, to match the next twenty gormless years of transcripts and report cards. Melania wears all those disastrously unwoke outfits so nobody notices her dick. Barron is a girl being coercively raised with short hair and videogames; Ivanka was a boy forced to wear dresses. The believers scour through every second of video footage of the First Family, looking for any tiny trace of gender misperformance, filing it away in long YouTube videos: here is The Evidence. Of course, it all goes much deeper than the Trumps. They’re only part of a secret elite Satanic trans cabal. Everyone in the higher reaches of power is trans, from the British royal family to pop stars to TV anchors. Why isn’t entirely clear. Because they hate nature, because they hate God, because they’re mimicking the androgyny of the Baphomet, because they’re just perverts. (The theory is also somehow linked to the idea that all animals not mentioned in the Bible are actually fake – zebras are just painted donkeys, gorillas are men in suits, sloths are animatronics, and so on.) But the truth is plain to see, and the investigation continues. Soon, all will be revealed.

This is a fairly stupid, bigoted, and dangerous theory. It’s also far more believable than the idea that Donald Trump is a secret deep-cover Kremlin agent. So why is the Transvestigation confined to a few YouTube channels, while Russiagate spent nearly three years dominating the news?

Three years of drivel. Three years of Putin’s puppet, of game theory, of Slovakia being part of ‘Soviet Yugoslavia,’ of the shocking revelation that Russia sends delegates to the World Economic Forum, of a Hollywood actor declaring war on behalf of a government that never got to exist, of ‘the Communists are now dictating the terms of the debate,’ of ‘the death penalty, for espionage, being considered for Steve Bannon,’ of ‘what would your family do if Russia killed the US power grid,’ of ‘the only option is a coup,’ of ‘Russia was able to influence our election because they figured out that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are America’s Achilles heel,’ of protesters waving hammer-and-sickle flags at demonstrations, of ‘Comrade Trump,’ of ‘welcome to the resistance,’ of hysteria, of anthem-farting nativist boosterism, of fantasies in which all your political enemies are legislated out of existence, of the idea that the mere existence of the world’s largest country is somehow illegitimate, of endless screams for war and military aggression, of sub-John Birch Society reactionary psychosis, eyes rotating independently, brains glittering with crank, delusions piling on delusions, TV comedians and failed politicos turning themselves into volunteer CIA analysts, an entire intellectual class bursting out of reality and into the lunatic swirls beyond, a bourgeois elite that needs to invent global conspiracies to account for the fact that nobody loves them as much as they love themselves, messianic terrors, indictments swooping in the night, the titanomachy for the soul of America, the war against saboteurs and spies, braindead dads playing toy soldiers on Twitter, silent retractions, bashful corrections, denial, bargaining, anger, total psychological rot. Three years of this crap, and none of it was true.

From the Mueller report, the thing that all these mad hopes hinged on and swung from: ‘The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’

Of course, the investigations have led to several indictments, and exposed some of Trump’s sleaze, lies, and criminality – but that’s just because the man is a sleazy lying criminal. That wasn’t the focus, it wasn’t what the investigations and their boosters promised. For years, I was gloatingly told that any day now, it would be proved that the President of the United States had covertly worked with the Russian state to steal the 2016 election, not that he’d illegally paid off a porn star out of campaign funds to cover up an affair. It’s not hard to catch the world’s absolute pigshit dumbest head of state out – but somehow, the Russiagaters have shown themselves to be even stupider than he is. They challenged a bloated foetus with a combover to a game of wits, and they can’t stop losing. For three years, they’ve been trying to get some dirt on a scummy Mafia associate – and they thought they could do it by collectively pretending to live in a spy novel.

It doesn’t matter. It isn’t over: it’ll never be over, not as long as people continue to believe. At the time of writing, the theory goes that the Attorney General’s summary of the Mueller investigation’s findings is actually a cover-up, a Trump nominee lying about the devastating report in a last desperate effort to hide the awful truth. When the full report is released, it’ll be something else. If the Rapture didn’t come on the predicted date, it’s because you were too sinful; if the comet failed to pick you up and carry you out into kaleidoscopic polysexual interstellar space, it’s because something polluted your positive vibes.

Conspiracy theories, the idea goes, swill around in the dregs of society, among the toothless, tobacco-stained, and deranged. The people who believe Trump is secretly trans are isolated cranks, while the people who believe Trump is secretly a Russian agent – or pretend to think that – are Hillary Clinton, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, CNN, MSNBC, a substantial chunk of elected Democrats and not a few Republicans, along with doctors, lawyers, scientists, and celebrities. Early in 2017, the Washington Post published an op-ed castigating sections of the public for believing the insane reactionary nativist fantasy that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, while not believing the insane reactionary nativist fantasy that Donald Trump is a Russian asset. Obviously, this writer didn’t think these ideas were comparable. It’s hard to imagine that the class character of the people who hold them didn’t have an effect. But ruling-class conspiracies aren’t really so unusual. For centuries, the European ruling classes were happily spreading and inventing paranoia against the continent’s Jews. Today, the Hungarian ruling classes do much the same thing. And the Prime Minister of Israel, not to be outdone, has tried to somehow exonerate Hitler for the Holocaust, and pin it all on the Palestinians.

All this is difficult for me, because I love conspiracy theories and the people that hold them. But there’s an inconsistency. Climate change denialists are not as dear to me as creationists. I can’t sympathise with people who think a tragic drink-driving accident was actually an Islamic terror attack because the driver was Indian, not in the same way that I sympathise with people who think the Sun’s been replaced by an artificial double because the daylight seemed warmer when they were young. And while I love flat earth, hollow moon, and the new chronology, I can’t love Russiagate. Maybe it’s because I don’t have family members furiously insisting that all of history up to the sixteenth century was fabricated by the Jesuits. Maybe it’s because my class and my education mean that I can love these other things without anyone taking it too seriously. But mostly I think it’s because what I admire in untruth is its expansiveness, and Russiagate is so small. Nasty, measly bullshit; Cold War imperialism and a horror of foreign contamination; the petty presumption of the educated upper class. I don’t hate it because it’s untrue. I hate it because it’s another grim wift of what’s killing us.

‘We do not object to a judgement just because it is false,’ writes Nietzsche, ‘and this is probably what is strangest about our new language.’ We’re all Nietzscheans now. It’s worth noting that the people who gave themselves brain damage over an utterly imaginary Russiagate are the same ones who’ve also been having a three-year-long freakout about fake news and post-truth politics. The responsible, the sensible, the evidence-based, the moderate. In 2017, the British publishing industry saw fit to put out three separate books titled Post-Truth. Two had the word ‘bullshit’ in the subtitle. This frantic repetition, as any good Freudian knows, is the foundation of civilisation and sanity, while itself being utterly deranged. (Psychoanalysis is always quite Nietzschean in this regard. Whether your father actually wants to castrate you is immaterial. Just because they’re after you, doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.) I’ve spent a long time writing against this kind of miserable desaturated administration-as-politics, but if it ever existed in fact rather than as a regulative ideal, that mask has fallen now. All the Mueller report has done is made it a little bit harder to pretend that politics is, or should be, within the domain of facts. Russiagaters, welcome to the unreal. Let’s build you a better lie.

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Vladimir Putin: master satirist

Oo-err, missus.

Sensible types rejoice. Over at the Independent, Owen Jones has written against the old line that the first casualty of war is the truth: in the Ukrainian crisis, the first casualty has been irony. Russian intervention is illegitimate, but at the same time Western condemnation is hypocritical given our track record in Palestine, Bahrain, and Egypt. Owen Jones is a useful chap, because he marks very precisely the limit of generally acceptable left-wing thought. He keeps a solitary vigil at the frontier of reason, hands in his pockets, maybe whistling a comforting little tune to himself as he scans the horizon for incoming threats, eyes tracking back and forth in his big soft party balloon of a head. Stand with Owen Jones and you can have it all: Labour party membership, a weekly column in a national newspaper, regular appearances on the BBC and Channel 4; your book will adorn middle-class shelves all along the belt of radicalism that stretches across north London from Ealing to Islington. Take one step out beyond his lonely border-post and you’re in the wilderness. Famines, purges, gulags. Monsters winding their heavy bodies between the weather-beaten columns of ruined cities. Rust seeping into the nuclear cores of a shoal of beached submarines. Mute staggering mobs doomed to track vast circles in the desert for eternity. Madness.

It’s the duty of every sensible radical to see exactly where the boundaries of acceptable thought lie and then power straight through them, even if only to sketch out a critique of the hinterlands beyond. (It’s a sad fact that since the Romantic period the practice of architectural criticism has almost completely eclipsed geological or topological criticism – we shouldn’t just live in landscapes; we should interpret and change them.) More to the point, though, Owen Jones is wrong. The current standoff in Crimea doesn’t mark the death of irony, but its resurgence. War always involves the exercise of a certain sarcastic brutality. In 1945, the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto was only saved from atomic destruction because US Secretary of War had spent an enjoyable honeymoon there – seventy thousand people had to die horribly in Nagasaki as punishment for their Sōfuku-ji lacking the refined charms of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The armistice that ended the First World War famously came into force on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but this meant that thousands of soldiers on both sides died in the hours between midnight and 10:59 am, bravely sacrificing their lives so that schoolchildren in future generations would have an easy fact for their history essays. War itself is fundamentally ironic; its central truth is that you should want to kill someone before even deciding if you personally dislike them or not, and everything else is a mode of appearance that tries to cloud this fact in contradictions.

What makes the events in Crimea interesting is that they’re being satirised as they occur, and not by outside observers but by the primary participants. In the war of ironies being waged between Russia and the Western bloc, there’s only one clear winner. Vladimir Putin is a consummate ironist, a master of satire in the deep cold Russian tradition of Gogol and Bulgakov. Obama and Cameron and Merkel don’t stand a chance.

The really remarkable thing about Putin is how eagerly everyone in the West appears to swallow his tough-guy persona. It fits our image of Russia, and it fits the image Russia wants to project. The closest we’ll come to a hermeneutic approach to the Putin-spectacle is to chortlingly point out that for all his draconian homophobic policies, Vladimir Putin is totally gay. Tigers: flaming. Riding a horse, shirtless, in the mountains: a Village People tribute act. Aside from being a dubious essentialisation of sexual difference, it misses the point entirely. Putin isn’t a muscular he-man; he’s an apparatchik, a KGB dork. He famously had a long career in intelligence, but working for the Soviet secret services wasn’t all murdering dissidents with poison-tipped umbrellas or applying the spirit of détente to James Bond’s dick. Putin’s sole foreign assignment was in Dresden, where by all accounts his job mostly consisted of writing endless reports for his superiors in Moscow while the local Stasi did all the legwork. Putin is a nerd, and his excesses are all classic loser fantasies: learning judo, shooting large animals, flying fighter jets, bedding gymnasts, invading sovereign states, being the tough guy – all have their place in the sociopathic pantheon of nerdy wish-fulfilment. When it comes to nerds I’ll defer to the wisdom of the American right-wing radio host and lunatic Alex Jones: Nerds are the one of the most dangerous groups in this country, because they end up running things, but they still hate everybody, because they weren’t the jocks in high school, so they play little dirty games on everybody. They use their brains to hurt people. And I’m aware of them. OK? I see you, you little rats! As ever, Alex Jones is completely correct; there’s definite malice in the intrusive new reign of the Silicon Valley dorkocrats. But at the same time, nerds are attuned to the cruel ironies of the world in a way that high-school jocks like Alex Jones and self-righteous stoner fratboys like Barack Obama will never understand. They might be vicious, but at least they have a sense of humour.

Putin brought this out in his press conference on the 4th of March. Over sixty-six minutes, he made a series of outstanding claims. The armed men who had surrounded Ukrainian bases in Crimea and were demanding the surrender of those inside were clearly spontaneous local militia. Their uniforms, which looked suspiciously like those of the Russian military but lacked any insignia, were probably bought from army surplus shops. At the same time he vigorously defended Russia’s right to intervene in defence of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, even though that was definitely not what was happening. He had authorisation to intervene from the regional government in Crimea and from Victor Yanukovych, who was still the legitimate president of Ukraine despite being a powerless, corrupt, murderous, pathetic little worm. (This was a particular flourish; it’s not hard to imagine the lickspittle Yanukovych weeping into his pillow in Rostov-on-Don between stern-faced press appearances. He’s stuck now; Putin can do what he wants with him.) He even laughingly fessed up to the endemic corruption in Russian politics – it’s hard to see American leaders doing the same, despite the billions flowing into election funds from corporate lobbyists. If there’s one weakness in Putin’s performance, it’s that he was slightly too eager to explain the joke, comparing his incursion into Crimea with NATO intervention in Kosovo and Libya. Putin knows that most of what he’s saying isn’t true, and he knows that you know that too. Unlike Colin Powell showing made-up images of imaginary Iraqi bioweapons labs to the UN, Putin isn’t trying to make you believe him. The point is that he can say it; his talk of Crimean self-determination and human rights and the threat of ethnic cleansing is a self-conscious satire of the language of humanitarian intervention. Western states have reacted with such opprobrium not because of any geopolitical threat but because the sanctity of the Just War is being mocked. Lead is the parody of gold, coitus is the parody of crime, Crimea is the parody of imperial war. Parody is always a disruption of existing categories. The Russians have no insignia, no accountability – and, worst of all, they haven’t even had the decency to kill anyone yet.

Western condemnation has admittedly taken a lacklustre form. This might be because its chief instigator is US Secretary of State John Kerry, a great honking dullard with a face as dull and as oblong as a pencil eraser, a flouncy New England boarding-school cretin who somehow lost an election to George W Bush but still managed to wedge himself into a position of power through an unholy combination of dim-witted persistence and the $750m in his family coffers. In response to Putin’s press conference, the State Department published a listicle of ’10 false claims about Ukraine.’ If there’s one thing that could make Putin’s call for a return to traditional values sound appealing it’s this: for all the many sins of past societies, the dominant literary paradigms tended to be poetry or prose fiction, rather than BuzzFeed. Numbered lists might convey information in an exciting viral-ready format, and it might even be factually correct in the most banal of senses, but only rarely can they expose the cold truth of the world. The discourse they impose is one of bland attachment to existing conditions: here are some experiences, in gif form, that you will relate to if you have curly hair, or a Jewish boyfriend, or were born in the 1990s. The point of great art is to induce a sense of vertiginous estrangement. Vladimir Putin takes his place in a long line of expert ironists – along with the God of the Old Testament, Hamilcar Barca, Maximilien Robespierre, General Butt Naked, and the Google ‘I’m feeling lucky’ function – that do precisely that.

How to overthrow your own body

Pictured: Gold medallist, men’s 750,000 metre coup

Human language had a good run, but it’s about time to admit that the whole experiment has ended in failure. For two hundred thousand years we’ve been flapping mouths and breathing spittle at each other in a supposedly meaningful manner. We’ve invented needlessly complex processes for immortalising these self-important eructations, first on rock, then paper, then computers. It’s hard to calculate exactly how much this habit of language has cost us over the centuries, but it could only run into the tens of trillions of dollars. All those cuneiform temple inscriptions, all those public speaking engagements, all those shitty radio panel shows – and for what? The whole system has proven itself so useless that we feel the need to periodically massacre each other for attaching the wrong meanings to the wrong set of belches. This still goes on today, despite the fact that it’s now well known that words can never really refer to things but only to other words. Language is the hideous bastard hatchling of a hydra and and an ouruborus, and it needs to be slain immediately. If any further evidence of this is needed, you only have to look at the official readout of Obama’s phone call with Putin concerning the Russian intervention in Crimea.

The degeneration of language is happening at a frightening pace. Nothing in Obama’s ninety-minute conversation makes any sense. The phrase ‘going forward’ (a ghastly coinage bordering on the eldritch, one that’s apparently supposed to convey an energetic dynamism but only summons the image of some unfortunate person drowning in an office cubicle as it slowly fills with printouts of pie charts) appears twice in the space of four sentences. Obama talks about the Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe; he sounds like a dorkily enthusiastic teenager getting a bit too wrapped up in his performance at a Model UN conference. He hints at sanctions, as if half of Europe weren’t dependent on Russian gas. It’s a twisted parody. Language is, before anything else, a vector of deception. The United States government has broken all the agreements he mentioned, reneging on its promise not to extend NATO up to Russia’s borders, helping prompt and direct the nationalist revolution that overthrew Yanukovych, engaging in wars of aggression across the globe. More fundamentally, he’s pretending that he and Putin are something other than what they are: a pair of bureaucrats instead of two bloodstained warlords, each of whom could, if the fancy took them, kill every single human being on the planet several times over. There’s no record of Putin’s response to Obama’s extended series of laryngal honks, but you get the impression that he’s gently humouring this earnest American who doesn’t seem to understand the way the world actually works, playing along in his game of talking about other words rather than things. It’s a shame, because for a while Putin looked like the only person who could save language from itself. In 2008, as Russian tanks were comprehensively fucking the Georgian army, he declared his intent to ‘hang [Georgian President] Saakashvili by his balls.’ This is what linguists call a speech act, doing by saying; precisely through abandoning the principle of representation it’s the closest words can come to being about things.

There aren’t many speech acts in the current crisis. We’re beyond the point where we can meaningfully distinguish between words and deeds. The Russian intervention in Crimea is intended to send a message to the new government in Kiev and its backers in Brussels and Washington; action has become infected with the sordid ephemerality of language.

~

In the end, this whole mess can be blamed on the Sochi Winter Olympics. It’s a well-known and boring fact that in ancient Greece, wars were put on hold for the duration of the Games. The idea of doing the same thing now isn’t just infeasible but nonsensical; war and the Olympics are one and the same thing. Host governments treat the Games in much the same way that they treat foreign wars: they provide a chance to issue some contracts and boost important industries, they let you redraw the maps (turning a beach town into a mountain resort, or a moulding industrial park into a germ for gentrification), they’re a matter of national pride and a propaganda vehicle that helps calm internal contradictions – but at the same time they never seem to deliver the profits they promise; the costs inevitably spiral, and afterwards they tend to leave cities full of half-ruined buildings. It’s not just a matter of resemblance. With their vast crowds and attending dignitaries they’re a deliberate target for terrorists, allowing the hosts to show off their various defence technologies to the world. London 2012 wasn’t much more than an enormous arms fair, with an aircraft carrier on the Thames and missile batteries on the roofs of homes. Russia in particular seems to like conducting its imperial adventures during the Games. While jets battered Stalin’s birthplace in Georgia, representatives from the two countries were playing beach volleyball in Beijing. The Ukrainian paralympic team is still in Sochi. All this isn’t a distraction from the sport; it’s another facet of the same phenomenon.

Of course, sport is fascist bullshit. Liberal critics of organised sport like to hone in on its aggression and competition and the absurd salaries paid out to its practitioners, but none of this is the real problem. It’s true that most Olympic sports are some kind of symbolic warfare (with the potential exception of figure skating, although there’s still a case to be made against it), but a tendency towards aggression and competition is only a secondary characteristic of the fascist cosmology. The fundamental fascist vision is one of a cohesive and organic society, a society structured around the metaphor of the healthy body. Any politics of the body will by necessity be a politics that acts on the body: the healthy body becomes a regulative ideal, and images of healthy smiling men marching off to the front are suddenly everywhere. This spectacularisation of the body is always present (millions of people watch the Olympics), but it’s always also accompanied by the idea that health is good in and of itself, beyond any relation to the aesthetic. Individual health means social health. In Russia, the connection between the healthy body and militarism is still very much alive; Putin himself is constantly taking his shirt off to ride horses, wrestle tigers, catch fish, and otherwise demonstrate his unparalleled dominion over the animal world. In Western countries we generally prefer to wage war through silent and terrifying robots of death, but as the population grows steadily more obese and work is increasingly an activity that takes place in front of a screen (a screen showing sales figures, a screen showing a Pakistani village about to be obliterated, it makes no difference), the issue of health becomes a matter of deep general concern. And, as everyone knows, the best way to become healthy is through sport. Sport isn’t dangerous because it encourages competition or tribalism; it’s dangerous precisely because it’s healthy.

If there’s a central fascist procedure, it’s the subsumption rather than the sublimation of contradictions. Class antagonisms are buried in the organic nation, internal difference is either consumed or ejected, all cracks are papered up. The healthy body is a prime example of this. The ideology of sport and fitness has its roots in Victorian England – muscular Christianity, artificial famines in Ireland and India, the desperate belief that sports will prevent masturbation – but while it reached a kind of apex in the historical Fascism of the twentieth century, it stubbornly refused to die with its host. Left-wing responses to all this nonsense have been sadly anaemic. The most popular is a kind of body-euphoric self-affirmationism: the idea is that we should embrace all bodies as healthy and all bodies as beautiful. This appears to be a response to the dominant cult of fitness, but really it’s a capitulation to it and a failure to challenge its terms. Fitness and beauty are still good, sickness and ugliness are still bad, but the latter two are shoved beyond some metaphysical horizon. Instead of embracing ugliness in ugliness and as ugliness, its very existence is denied.

The figure of the body is a central concern of poststructuralist theory, and the academic tendency to refer to people as ‘bodies’ (based on the idea that the person is a fictive construct – after all, the word itself derives from the Latin persona, or mask – and that the only thing we can safely say about someone is that they have a body) seems to have filtered into a lot of non-academic discourse. At the same time the body itself is often instrumentalised rather than examined; this is why there’s so little real resistance to fitness fascism. It’s there from Foucault. In Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, he writes: The body is the inscribed surface of events […] and a volume in perpetual disintegration. [Our] task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body. Foucault seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the body; his approach to it is surprisingly un-Foucauldian. Genealogy opposes itself to the search for ‘origins,’ but when Foucault discusses the body as a site of scarring and crumbling, he implies the existence of an originary unscarred and unimprinted body; a body that’s perfect and primordial and pristine. There’s no such thing: a newborn baby is bloodied and screaming. It’s necessary to admit that there is no primordial unitary body, that the thing we call the body is nothing more than the collection of scars that constitutes our experience of it. There’s only a series of metamorphoses without aim or origin, and the healthy body is only another kind of deformation.

The overthrow of the body is a matter of urgency, because things aren’t going well. The new Ukrainian government includes six ministers from the neofascist Svoboda party. Russian soldiers are surrounding military bases in Crimea. The year ends in fourteen, idiots are in charge across Europe, and two global alliance systems are squaring off as Slavic nationalists do their best to rile up a great power. In the end it’s about language, the filthy habit of humanity. If your throat coughs up a hard g sound like a Russian then you’re shunted to one side, if you wheeze an h like a Ukrainian you’re on the other. The shame that periodically surrounds the body tends to be centred on shitting and pissing and fucking, because these acts remind us that the body isn’t a unitary entity closed off from its environment; really it’s speech that’s disgusting, because it lets us pretend that it is. The idea of an organic and discrete Ukraine and an organic and discrete Russia is dependent on the metaphor of an organic and discrete body. Irredentism echoes Foucault: history has effected a crumbling-away of the national body, but rather than just uncovering this body they want to restore it. The mad advocates of health and fitness have nuclear weapons at their disposal. If humanity is to survive the coming century, we all need to start smoking heavily.

Pussy Riot & the hypocrisy of the West

No you’re not.

Those Pussy Riot balaclavas are going to be a fashion item. If it hasn’t started yet (and it probably has), it’s pretty much inevitable. Cadaverous models will levitate along catwalks in brightly coloured versions of the things, made from cashmere or PVC or carbon nanotubes; maybe they’ll strike a fierce revolutionary pose at the end for the furiously blinking cameras before turning back to clear the stage for the next human coathanger. It will stand for empowerment, and liberation, and confidence, and subversion, and all the other catchphrases of that most profoundly feminist of institutions, the beauty industry. Finally, the balaclava has been liberated from those dull, earnest, unsexy terrorists of the IRA: this will be Pussy Riot’s greatest gift to the world, reverberating far longer than their performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour or their courtroom denunciation of Putinism. Even that won’t last. In a few months you’ll be able to get a pink balaclava at Primark. By the time Nadezhda Tolokonnikova & co are released from prison, they’ll be totally passé. Congratulations, welcome back, time to get rid of that old thing, this year it’s all about semitransparent burqas. So daring. Late capitalism has a remarkable ability to drain the politics out of anything genuinely subversive and leave it a desiccated object of the aesthetic. Eighty years ago, the aestheticisation of politics was called fascism. Now, it’s disguised as solidarity.

It’s not hard to see why Pussy Riot have been so popular in the West. They’re young, sexy and politically involved – everything we wish we were. They let newspapers print the word ‘pussy’ on their front pages and congratulate themselves for their iconoclasm. They let tired old pop fogeys like Madonna and Sir Paul McCartney make a last desperate grab at legitimacy. They let us feel good about ourselves. In an era of neutered, commodified antiestablishmentarianism, they provide a vicarious sense of revolt: David Cameron might listen to the Smiths, but somewhere in the world, being punk still means something.  Pop on the balaclava and you too can fight the power.

Except the power is cheering you on. Cameron has criticised Putin over the case, the Foreign Office has expressed its disappointment, Barack Obama has castigated the Russian judiciary for the disproportionality of its sentencing. Everyone wants to be a rebel, even the government. From the flurry of international reactions to the sentencing, you’d think the Pussy Riot case marked the apogee of Putinist excess and post-Soviet repression. Which it doesn’t. Last year the government embarked on a systematic and under-reported campaign of rounding up Tajik migrant workers. Other immigrants are subjected to murderous violence from the police and neo-Nazi thugs (the two are often the same people). Journalists critical of the government such as Anna Politkovskaya are frequently assassinated or found to have mysteriously disappeared. Several regions of Russia have imposed bans on the dissemination of so-called ‘homosexual propaganda.’ Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, striking oil workers have been shot in the streets, with survivors sentenced to years of imprisonment, all with barely a peep from the Western media. No colourful balaclavas, no publicity stunts, no references to genitalia, not interested. Even the issue of atrocious gender inequality in Russia, which the group was trying to highlight, has been consumed ourobouros-style by Pussy Riot’s sudden international celebrity.

The tidal wave of popular sympathy in the West is mirrored by a seemingly inexplicable mass condemnation in Russia.  In one survey, 53% of respondents said they considered the trial’s verdict to be fair. Are they all vile agents of patriarchal orthodoxy and the Orthodox Patriarchs, eager to crush women’s liberation and free expression? It’d be absurd to deny that sexism is an enormous problem in Russia, but in the country that gave us the October Revolution, it’d be presumptuous to blame simple reactionaryism. Of the 27% who considered the sentence ‘unfair’, only 19% viewed the intervention by foreign pop stars positively. Far from agitating the population, stunts such as Madonna’s have been massively counter-productive. It’s not exactly surprising that Russians would react poorly to a millionaire Westerner telling them what to think. The Western powers tried to crush the Revolution in 1918, threatened to wipe out Russia’s population in a thermonuclear inferno throughout the Cold War, sent hundreds of advisors to implement the shock therapy under Yeltsin that eviscerated the Russian economy and parcelled out its gory remains to leering oligarchs, crowed over the most comprehensive and most precipitous decline in living standards in history as an ideological victory. Now these same people are lecturing Russia on a punk group with an English name written in Latin characters – no wonder they’re resentful.

And it’s not even like we’re in any position to lecture. The liberal West has consistently shown itself to be as hostile to freedom of speech as Putin; really the only difference is where we limit it. Just as the Orthodox church is sacrosanct in Russia, so here we punish for expressions offensive to the doctrines of multiculturalism and racial equality. In the UK being a racist twat is no longer just socially unacceptable – it carries a jail sentence. Of course, it’s true that there’s a marked difference between Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Liam Stacey. But the State is now intervening to protect ever more diminutive sacred calves. During the Olympics, a teenager on Twitter who dared to call sudden national treasure Tom Daley an ‘over hyped prick’ who’d let his (dead) father down by coming fourth in the synchronised 10m diving was arrested by Dorset police. 19-year-old Azar Ahmed has been put on trial for making some correct if inarticulate points about the glorification of Our Dear Brave Occupying Forces in Afghanistan. Two men who posted statements in support of last year’s English riots – much like I did – have been sentenced to four years in jail: twice as long as Pussy Riot. And, of course, an American citizen and his 16-year-old son were executed without trial by President Obama for what amounts to having posted some inflammatory YouTube videos. Nobody is protesting in al-Awlaki beards. No spandex. Don’t care.

The nucleus of the issue is revealed in the call for Pussy Riot to be freed: buried in that slogan is the insistence that the Russian government listen to our very reasonable advice and become like us – a tame, sensible tyranny that is happy to tolerate the imagery and appearance of revolt while crushing anything beyond that, one that only locks up the loud and boorish, the racists, the misogynists, the rioters, the unsexy. Some achievement that would be. A far better demand is this: keep them locked up! If Pussy Riot are iconoclastic radicals fighting a repressive government, of course they should be imprisoned. If their message is violent and destabilising, of course they should expect to be met with the crushing weight of State force. To call for clemency on the part of the government is to do them a disservice: it turns them into hapless victims, it invalidates their entire campaign, draining it of all its political fury, rendering it safe. They’re not weak. They don’t deserve mercy. That’s why they’ve never asked for it. It’s not Putin that’s doing the real violence against these women, it’s the West. He can only lock them away. We’ve managed to utterly disfigure them.

Long live Pussy Riot! Keep them in prison!

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