Riot Girls

Pussy Riot band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (left), Maria Alyokhina (right) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (center), during their trial July 23. Photo Credit: Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images via Foreign Policy magazine.

Almost everything that needs to be said about the case of Pussy Riot, the Russian all-female punk rock band now awaiting a verdict in a “hooliganism” trial in Moscow, has been said.  Nobody seriously doubts this is a political show trial in the old Soviet sense and that the Putin regime isn’t punishing this punk band as a warning to other would-be opponents of the state.

But some points can still be made.  First, the prosecutors insist this is not a “political” prosecution.  This is progress, sort of.  I think they protest too much. (I’ll sidestep my usual baliwick of trying to parse what they mean by political or the political aesthetic because I don’t know the Russian etymology.) It assumes the legitimacy of political expression in Russia despite the state propaganda barrage against the band. With tens of thousands of Russians still on the streets protesting the regime, it assumes there is still a political space to occupy that hasn’t been completely co-opted by the regime.  That space can still be enlarged and separated from the thugocratic “government” running the country from the Kremlin.

For a taste of what the band members (three of the five are on trial:  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. The band name is in English, not Russian.) — have faced (in English) enjoy the bluntly sophisticated attacks of  Their story is buried on the site, even though when you search the site you’ll find highly misleading text stories (“‘Let Pussy Riot Go!’ Veteran Russian HR group speaks out”) pegged to the actual broadcast segments that have nothing to do with the headlines (in this case, a story about how the trial would be broadcast live over the Internet — which is probably not true).  The lead article on the Pussy Riot when I visited RT — an “op-ed,” incidentally — essentially questioned the hype after all the broadcast segments had touted the worldwide focus on the trial.

Second, the band has been favorably compared to protest acts of the past, including Fela Kuti of Nigeria and the Plastic People of the Universe, both personal favorites.  (Not incidentally, the Plastics have given a benefit concert for Pussy Riot.) I am particularly inclined to find parallels with the Plastics but it is not because the Plastics were a political act because they were avowedly apolitical, which is what made them such a transformative act. Their stories also share the show trial aspect, with Pussy Riot facing the absurd charges of “hooliganism” and “religious hatred” and the Plastics charged under “organized disturbance of the peace”.

But perhaps most importantly, they share in common something very special and important at this moment, which is a certain vulnerability. Unlike the megalithic oligarchs whom Putin targeted during the last decade — the Khodorkovskys, Berezovskys and Gusinskys, who were so rich and powerful as to evoke very little sympathy when they were prosecuted — the Pussy Riot unmasked of their provocative balaclavas turn out to be very young women.  Indeed, two of them are recent mothers and not one of them is over 30. To see them is to see not your mother but your daughter, wife or sister.

This is what their trial shared with the Plastics: the unmistakable recognition that in prosecuting these women the state had at last overreached, that in its paranoia and pursuit of control it finally achieved an essential injustice.  What was historically important about the Plastics’ arrest, of course, was that the trial united the disparate strands of the disunited opposition. Perhaps the same will happen — is happening — in Russia today.

Of course it’s impossible to know if this is the Russian public’s understanding of the trial, in a state that dominates virtually all media. Only the Internet is partially free in Russia, and I am inclined to be pessimistic about the triumphant and righteous tone the Western media has taken regarding the rights of Pussy Riot.

Because the issue is not about the freedoms we take for granted here.  It is about three women who are about to go to prison for the freedoms they don’t have. It is very easy to talk about these freedoms from behind the protection of an American passport to those who don’t have them.  Of course all those who support these women do it to give them heart, to let them know we know what is at stake and that what they are doing is important beyond their own personal ordeal.

But let us understand how much, much harder it is to demand those freedoms — to perform for them, to go to jail for them, to risk your life for them — before an armed state hostile to you and willing to imprison or kill you for your beliefs.

Thank the Mother of God that punk is not dead.  May she watch and protect her daughters on earth.


How Dictators Kiss Babies

My recent photo essay in Foreign Policy discussed the use of images of children from conflict zones in political communications and was based in large measure on my experience working at NATO.  But it was also informed by a close reading of totalitarian propaganda, mostly from the 20th century, and for anyone familiar with that horrifying legacy should explain much of my unease about using the images of children in political communications.

Understanding how dictators ruthlessly exploit children to sand their iron image should make us think twice before publishing pictures of cute kids, because history’s butchers did the same thing. Those who survived that history carry those images in their head.  Democracies are different, but that is all the more reason for us to be cautious and deliberate.  We must learn from history and avoid the tropes that despots past and present have left littered in their path.

That said, what strikes me most after surveying decades of propaganda is how rarely dictators were photographed with children.  This should give us heart.  As I note in my Foreign Policy article, this is very likely the modern-day equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes — children are not over-awed by trappings and power, and probably cannot even recognize such (for a contrasting opinion, see the photo of Kim Jong-Un below).  They are unimpressed and speak the truth. This would mortify those squat, Napoleonic rulers such as Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong-Il, standing no taller than five feet five inches in platform shoes. Real children are risky.

Vladimir PutinYou can see how easily this can work to a leader’s detriment.  Here is a picture of Vladimir Putin with some Russian kids in traditional dress (left), taken in 2006. His unease around children is manifest both in this photograph and elsewhere, which probably keeps this  from being a simply creepy photo opportunity. Strangely he appears more relaxed when engaged in judo competition with children a fifth his age, which says more about his character than he likely intends to communicate. (Or, according to Masha Gessen, perhaps he does.)

Putin has been remarkably visible but under extraordinarily controlled circumstances. So it’s probably no mistake that he doesn’t spend much public time with children.

Knowing that makes this photograph — by most accounts a genuine, unguarded moment — both unique and particularly chilling.  It was a rare moment when Stalin, at the height of his control over the Soviet Union, met this little girl from the Buryat-Mongol region at the Kremlin in 1936. The photo was widely circulated as “Friend of the Little Children,” turned into a lithograph as well as a sculpture and other propaganda means.

But the iconic photograph (right) is perhaps better known than the original, uncropped version (above), which included M.I. Erbanov, first secretary of the Buryat-Mongol ASSR. His cropping and airbrush from the original was not just aesthetic: it was political, as he was purged from the Party under Stalin’s orders.

More chilling indeed, the girl’s parents both met an untimely end. Her father was shot for “spying for Japan”  and her mother was also murdered under mysterious circumstances. Only their deaths took this icon out of wide circulation. The girl’s fate is not known.

Thank you, Comrade Stalin

“Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood.”

Otherwise Stalin, who paranoically feared assassination, stuck to doctoring old photographs, faking his own history, or simply propagandizing children’s love for him.

Mao Zedong, who was even more reclusive and paranoid than Stalin, perhaps perfected the art of cartoon propaganda.  There is simply no photographic evidence that I know showing Mao consorting with the Chinese public after he took control of the country. This ironically gave him entirely free license to mould his own image. The resulting repository of this unique art form is a rich vein of effluent, so I’ll only provide a single sample to emphasize its utter detachment from reality. Remember that this is simply a drawing. It has no basis in real life.  Its value is simply as a propaganda image, to communicate with and maintain support from the Chinese people.  It’s similarity to the Stalin image above, of course, is hard to ignore: it is entirely hero worship, the people (the children) idolizing their leader.

All these images, whether photograph or cartoon, extol the leader. They exalt a cult of personality, and one cult only surmounts the other. Stalin and Mao often seem to have reached the apogee of self-worship, but for sheer insanity North Korea under the Kims and Romania under Ceausescu can more than hold contention.

Nicolai Ceausescu controlled Romania for more than a quarter century and drove his country to ruin, madness and utter moral depravity. He cultivated an elaborate personality cult based on his admiration of Mao’s China and Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea. The propaganda involving children is particularly grotesque given the combination of policies he forced on the country. He extracted a ridiculously high family birthrate (five to ten children per woman under 40) by virtually abolishing abortion and birth control, and drove the economy backwards into the 19th century in order to pay off foreign debts. As a result, many Romanian families could not afford to support their families; illegal abortions soared, of which thousands of women died as a result; and tens of thousands of unwanted children were abandoned to horrific state orphanages that were discovered only after his overthrow in 1989.  An elaborate propaganda apparatus recorded his every move and recently served as the raw material for The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu. This “found film” documentary serves my contention that autocrats prefer to avoid real children whenever possible, as the only time he’s seen meeting some is at about the ten minute mark of this marathon three-hour film (which you can watch, of uncertain copyright provenance, here.)

The Kim Dynasty of North Korea has similarly raised propaganda to its own peculiar art form.  Again, rarely did Kim Il-Sung or his son Kim Jong-Il, take photographs with actual children, although they do exist.  A vast and strangely amusing collection of photographs of Kim Jong-Il looking at things can be found here, with not a child to be seen. (It’s probably important to note that in most of the propaganda cartoons I’ve found of the two Kims, Kim Il-Sung is seated at center holding children while Kim Jong-Il is standing looking on. I’m sure Kim the younger wasn’t sensitive at all about his height.)

EPA via The Daily Mail

Much speculation has surrounded the Great Successor, Kim Jong Un, particularly about his youth.  Nobody knows his age, but he is expected to be in his twenties. He appears more willing to be photographed with children (although these appearing with him on the left are probably young teenagers).  Keep in mind that life except for the chosen in North Korea is unbelievably grim, and children particularly suffer.  The average height difference, depending on gender, between North and South Korean children is between 1.2 and 1.6 inches. Obviously, they have nothing to envy in the world.

What’s interesting about Kim Jong-Un’s appearance is how much he appears to mimic his grandfather’s look when comparing some of his recent photographs to old propaganda pictures (again, entirely made up in cartoon form) of Kim Il-Sung published decades ago (see below – updated from a previous post). Gone is his father’s drab overcoat and unisex quasi-military uniform. It is replaced with a period costume seen in propaganda pictures of his grandfather depicting the pre-war era, evoking an earlier time (and a younger, handsomer Kim Il-Sung). This is likely an explicit means of connecting the youngest Kim to the state’s founder by allusion to a kind of collective cultural and propaganda memory.

These pictures are only a representative sampling of how the world’s most repressive regimes exploit children for propaganda purposes. (I deliberately avoided any use of Adolph Hitler, for example, whose image is simply too provocative to come to any productive application.  People may feel the same way about Stalin, Ceausescu and the Kims, and for that I apologize, but we need to display some horribles in order to understand them.)  I still remember, for example, how Fidel Castro took full advantage of the Elian Gonzalez affair and how Cuba continues to exploit that ugly episode to support its appalling regime.  You may recall the “baby milk factory” at Abu Ghraib which was targeted during the 1991 Gulf War, a facility that was part of Saddam Hussein’s then-active unconventional weapons production program, or Saddam’s creepy pawing of Stuart Lockwood, a five-year-old human pawn in that conflict. Anything considered to harm children, or the welfare of children, can be used to good propaganda effect.  Under repressive regimes, which control all means of communication, any information that benefits the state is good (even if it isn’t true) — and any information that harms the state (especially if it is true) is bad and must be suppressed.

The people who live under these regimes know and understand this. Which is why we must be all the more conscientious and diligent about how we communicate what we do, especially when what we are doing is helping children and their family.  The temptation to exploit them is simply too great.


“Politic Need Cries”


Anser Dine forces destroy one of the shrines of a Sufi saint in Timbuktu, northern Mali, July 2, 2012 (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via Al Jazeera)

The destruction and desecration of the ancient mausolea of Sufi saints in Timbuktu by Ansar Dine forces occupying northern Mali was a peculiar evocation of a song, but an apt one. Many observers have rightly compared the irreversible dismantling of these UNESCO World Heritage sites to the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which now seem to foreshadow al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States. The intolerant vein attacking  this diverse community of believers has claimed another part of its rich heritage and we are all poorer for it.

But for those living in Mali this represents something far more real and ominous. The country is gripped by a political crisis and Anser Dine, like its al Qaeda and Taliban kith, have taken advantage of the authority vacuum. A military coup in March overthrew the weak if democratically elected government in Bamako, which effectively limited the state’s writ across this vast country.  Touareg rebels, having agitated for independence for decades, seized the opportunity to seize autonomy in the north.  So did Anser Dine, which quickly overran the Touareg. Refugees have been flowing south from Timbuktu since.

Amadou and Mariam

Malian duo Amadou and Mariam

The country’s plight brought to mind a song written by the Malian group Amadou and Mariam , who sing mostly  in Bambara and French, with occasional English and Spanish.  Today based in France, the blind duo have a global following, singing subtle and occasionally socially conservative songs about life in Mali. But “Politic Amagni,” (“Politics is not good”) released on Dimanche a Bamako (Sunday in Bamako) in 2005, has particular resonance for Mali today.  The song lyrics could just as easily express the apprehensions of everyday people to the realities, machinations, and chaos of political change now wracking the country:

Politics requires blood, tears
Ignorance, lies
Lives and votes
This is why, my friend, it is evidence
Politics is violence
Politics is not good
Politics is not good
Politicians, listen to us
Politicians, when doing politics
Remove from it theft and corruption
Remove from it lies and hollow words
Remove from it conflicts and crimes
Politicians, listen to us
We do not want demagogy
We do not want corruption
We do not want exactions
We want honest men
We want upright men
We want happiness for everybody
We want peace for everybody
Politicians, listen to us …

(Original lyrics are in Bambara, French and English. English translation provided by Nonesuch Records.  Hear the original song and read the complete original lyrics here.)

When I originally heard this song (I was turned on to Amadou and Mariam by a friend who served with the Peace Corps in Mali), my initial feeling was dismay.  I don’t want anyone to believe that “politic needs blood” or that “politic is violence”. But for those caught between forces beyond their control, that’s very often their daily reality.  To watch refugees fleeing the advance of M23 rebels in eastern Congo, seeking the protection of UN peacekeepers and government troops in Goma, is to know what that means. Politics means political violence in places like Sudan,, Syria, and Afghanistan.  Politic need cries, indeed.

This is another understanding of politics, a political heuristic for much of the planet where institutional, democratic political changes are unknown and people fear a politics that  upends the known world and leaves chaos in its wake.

It doesn’t appear that Amadou and Mariam, as individuals, have taken a dramatic political position on the dismantlement of their country, encouraging instead support of the World Food Program for refugees fleeing fighting in the north.  (Neither, apparently, has Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who did much to publicize the extraordinary Islamic literary and religious heritage resident in Timbuktu.) I’m sympathetic to the complexity of their situation.  But part of politics is taking a stand, particularly if you are influential, to change the situation.

An example of this is the courageous stand recently taken by women in Afghanistan, who publicly protested the execution by the Taliban of a 22-year-old woman accused (erroneously, as if that should make any difference) of adultery.  Instead of the usual Western denunciations we are used to, this was a public, political demonstration of local women against a horrible and unaccountable crime.  And it is part of the coalescing of political power against their former rulers and bodes well for the future of their country.

“Politicians, listen to us…”


The Physicality of Politics

President Barack Obama, on the stump in Maumee, Ohio, July 5. (AP via KATU)

Watching President Obama sweating out on campaign stops across Ohio last week, where temperatures hit the 90s, is a welcome reminder that politics is above all a physical endurance contest. It’s a hot early summer, we haven’t had the party nominating conventions and we haven’t hit Labor Day yet, the traditional beginning of the general campaign season.  But off they go to the hustings.

Politics is often called a “contact sport,” usually as a strained, overused metaphor for the battering politicians’ reputations take. Most commentators who use that old cliche have no idea ofthe sheer physicality of the campaign trail. It is not for nothing that John F. Kennedy holds the world record for handshakes.  “The handshake is the threshold act, the beginning of politics,” writes Anonymous (Joe Klein) in Primary Colors, the roman a clef of the 1992 presidential campaign. And no matter the concern about the “air war” and campaign organization, television advertisements and the Internet’s impact on fundraising, SuperPACS and voter turnout, candidates still need to get out into the country and meet the voters. The primary contests — this was most dramatically demonstrated during the 2008 race — particularly demand it.  In the early primary states especially, such as New Hampshire and Iowa, voters expect to meet all the candidates before casting their ballot.  This is democracy writ small and in the largest sense of the word.

Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, enjoy an ice cream to cool off during a break from the campaign trail. (AP via ABC News)

But it places incredible physical, intellectual and psychic demands on the candidates.  Bill Clinton famously gained weight during his 1992 race and completely lost his voice in his dash to the finish.  I remember meeting him with a friend on the campaign trail during the summer of 1992.  At one o’clock in the morning at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, he still stopped to meet every single person in the lobby. Obama, it is perhaps less well-known, lost weight on his spare physique in 2008.  Clinton’s propensity to eat on the campaign trail, and Obama’s commensurate ability to burn calories reminded me of a Senate colleague who, while running for the State Senate in Maryland, lost 40 pounds: politics plays havoc with the human frame.  Obama’s voice in Ohio already sounds raspy.  Even on vacation, you could see Romney’s magnificent coiffeur begin to wilt.  Just wait until he hits North Carolina in August.

The primary and general election campaign you see on television (whether you follow it intently or whether it forces itself on your consciousness occasionally) is mirrored all across the country in towns and cities and villages and counties, in congressional and state legislative districts, in cantons and parishes and townships, as thousands of people stand for office for mayor, city council, school board, county supervisor, state assembly, and dogcatcher. This is the real stuff of republicanism, far from the attention of national media and big money, and it is as physical and grueling and demanding as any national race for the candidates and families involved. For months, they will be running, their own names in contention against others, out in public, meeting people, asking for votes.

This can be great fun.  Local political campaigns are rooted in community, and running for office means working and knowing where you live better than probably any other time in your life.  My mother ran three times for local school board in my hometown in California (she won by expanding margins each time); the year before her first race she ran the campaign for a local referendum. Each race was different, of course, but at the local level they were always the same.  We gathered the same group of friends for the same activities: silk-screening campaign posters, folding and staple-gunning them to stakes which we then drove around the city to  pound with great mallets into willing families’ front yards to advertise the candidate.  We stuffed and licked envelopes for direct mail appeals (no computers necessary, my mother hand-addressed each one).  Sometimes I accompanied my mother to the print shop where she would submit, approve, and pick up her mailers.

Using a huge blueprint map of the city tacked up on our dining room wall, we “walked precincts,” literally and physically meeting people at their homes in neighborhoods all across the city, highlighting each block that we finished.  I watched my mother practice speeches in her bedroom mirror before going out to meet civic groups to win their endorsement and member support.  She attended public events (Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day), meeting people day after day.  My grandfather, a famously successful cookie salesman, donned a campaign hat and went door to door meeting people to ask them to vote for my mother.

All of this is to say, to reach voters, candidates have to be out and meeting people constantly.  My mother did advertise in the local newspaper, but just to raise the money to buy an advertisement she needed to meet and win over people and that meant getting out to where people are. That activity is tremendously physical and requires a hearty, friendly, outgoing, and generous constitution.

There is very little mention or literature about this aspect of politics.  The physical nature of it, the rootedness in family and community, the sheer fun.  Practically our entire family helped my mother, and an entire legion of my mother’s friends helped her too.  Often journalists on the campaign bus or plane will complain about the unrelenting pace of the trail, but they are only capturing a small aspect of the experience (they have deadlines; in politics the only deadline is election day and for the winner usually even that day restarts the clock).  I admired Primary Colors for its intimate look at the often-ignored aspects of small-time political organizations in the back-of-the-beyond before people are really paying attention, and the latter “West Wing” episodes captured some of this is-anybody-paying-attention feel to the race for the White House in chilly Iowa and New Hampshire.

Because politics is a contact sport. Americans have the right to meet their representatives, to look them in the eye, size them up, ask them questions, hear what they answer.  That’s a fundamental aspect of our representative democracy, and quite unlike many parliamentary systems, where there is very often no direct connection between that meeting and their vote. In America, you get to meet the man and woman in the arena. In fact, we insist on it.


The Supreme Court of Public Opinion?

The U.S. Supreme Court (strangely, without protesters)

Last week, The New York Times and CBS News jointly released a new public opinion survey on Americans’ view of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Among other headliners, which includes an historically dim view of the Court, the accompanying story appeared alarmed by the 76 percent of Americans who believe that the justices “let their own personal or political views influence their decisions”.

At least there is an implicit recognition in the pollsters’ questions that the personal and political are separate from questions of law and constitutional jurisprudence.  But what is interesting and disconcerting to me is the suspicion that those conducting the poll probably couldn’t define political if the respondents asked them to.  If we can agree that the political is simply defined in this context as something other than legal or constitutional analysis, then all would be well. But I’m pretty sure we know that wasn’t the intent of the survey’s drafters.

So what did those conducting the polls mean by political when they wrote out and asked these questions?  It’s conceivable they meant by the decisions they take they favor the agenda of certain factions in government and therefore favor certain parties, whether Republican or Democrat.  That is certainly one popular conception of the political and could work here.  After all, the Supreme Court suffered extreme damage after Bush v. Gore which determined the outcome of the 2000 election (and it would have suffered damage in any case, since the Court’s opinion had to pick the winner one way or another).    It’s certainly unfair to tar the existing Court with the decade-old Gore decision, especially after so many retirements and appointments. But that decision permanently colored the public’s view of the court as being above electoral politics and the Court hasn’t been helped by its prompt consideration of federal health care reform legislation, a particularly polarizing issue.

But political can mean something else, as I have argued elsewhere. Politics and the political are about how we choose normative standards for others, and the Court is the ultimate arbiter of those standards against the Constitution.  As with every significant and controversial opinion in its history — from Marbury v. Madison through Brown v. Board of Eduction and well beyond — the Court is making decisions that affect how we live our lives.  The Court has political consequence.  But it is not a political branch of government — specifically if not deliberately designed that way by the Constitution — which is why a justice writing opinions under political influence may offend the American public.

But it’s not entirely clear that the public understands this. Read a dictionary definition of the political and you won’t find any discussion of what I’ve talked about here.  It’s strange and curious that the English lexicon (and as I have argued elsewhere, those of several other European languages) has not adapted a load-bearing word such as political, which we use with such carelessness in our everyday.

I would encourage, from this obscure post, those conducting these surveys to be more clear both in their expectations and definitions when asking respondents what they mean when they ask about political intent  (The New York Times and CBS cite similar polls that assume spectrum political differences on the Court, but according to those cited here nobody has asked about political influence on opinion-writing before 2010). This is a reasonable suggestion — pollsters often clarify their questions (particularly in inter-cultural or cross-linguistic surveys) — and this could easily be adapted by asking whether the justices (or others) have political agendas to support particular parties or causes or wish to advance particular political or social agendas individually.  That may still be vague (it doesn’t quite satisfy me), but the language is demotic enough to elicit the kind of responses I think these surveys are designed to produce.

Fortunately I think this discussion amply demonstrates the importance of properly and precisely defining the political.  The word has evolved into a complex concept — a relationship, in many respects — that we all probably implicitly understand but if pressed to define would find difficult to nail down in analogous terms.  This New York Times/CBS poll shows why that is perilous and important. What has occurred when the Supreme Court has become a political entity? Well, what do we mean by political? Answering one question will answer the other.


A More Political NATO

President Barack Obama speaking at a press conference concluding the NATO Summit in Chicago, May 22. (NATO)

I very recently finished a major public diplomacy project supporting the NATO Summit  which took place May 20-21 in Chicago. I interviewed 12 NATO member state ambassadors to the United States and U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, Chairman of the American delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for a series of video capsules to explore the meaning and importance of this enduring international organization where I worked for  six years.

Working at NATO for as long as I did I became used to a familiar series of critical tropes attacking the organization.  Policy critics typically harped on burden-sharing, as if countries as disparate as Greece and Luxembourg could possibly be compared to France and Great Britain, never mind the United States — an absurd comparison.  Nobody claims the Mississippi National Guard isn’t pulling its weight compared to the Texas National Guard (which has deployed the most during the last 10 years), yet the National Guard system is the better analogy to the military organization of Europe than comparing individual European states to one another or to America.

The anti-war movement, when roused to turn its animus towards NATO, can be relied upon to call the organization a terrorist organization, an armed proxy for American foreign policy, or the jack-booted thugs of the industrialized West.  Needless to say having worked there and watched the consensus process at its best (and worst), I can vouch that none of these caricatures is remotely accurate.

Both factions, though, share a fascination with the utility of force (to borrow a phrase) —  which is easy to grasp in its simplistic contours (usually in troop numbers or bombing sorties) and makes for often compelling or grisly graphics and therefore the 24-hour news cycle.  A predictable dichotomy has fallen into place as a result, and neither side sees it much in their interest to deviate from its comforting narrative: policy critics think Allies are doing too little, in effect, and anti-war protestors think NATO is doing too much.  There’s no common ground, of course, but no rhetorical alternative.

Much less immediately obvious or compelling — boring, really, to watch but just as real in its effects — is NATO’s political function, which has transformed Europe and its surrounding neighborhood to a terrain unrecognizable to an earlier generation, never mind historians of an earlier epoch.  NATO now approaches the OSCE and the UN for its expansive and expanding network of peaceful, productive political relationships developed since the end of the Cold War.

This is the alternative ground lacking in the NATO-critical dialectic and I happily found it crossed over and over again during my interviews.  I was taken by the extraordinary language of reconciliation, openness, and inclusion used by several of the ambassadors who talked about their countries’ desire to expand NATO’s membership to their neighbors, with whom (mostly in the Balkans) they had fought in less than a generation.  Two ambassadors talked about how NATO member countries sought agreements among themselves, with the Soviet Union (at the time) and with Warsaw Pact countries to lower and limit nuclear and conventional arms in the waning days of the Cold War, well before the collapse of both NATO’s rivals.  NATO of course helped many former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries rejoin the West and integrate with the European Union.  But even the Latvian ambassador talked specifically how NATO helped his country become more friendly with Russia following the Soviet occupation.

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic (left) and former Serbian President Boris Tadic meet near Vukovar in Croatia, 2010. (Croatia Government via European Forum)

In other words, NATO is not purely a security organization to them.  It is a forum for political reconciliation in a region that has seen centuries of war, conflict, shifting borders, and collapsing demographics.  After the French and Germans and Poles and Balts had reconciled their histories, now the Croats and Slovenes are working hard to expand NATO to include the Macedonians, Bosnians, Montenegrins and (someday!) the Serbs.  The European Union will follow close on NATO, which despite current troubles grows only to the greater good of the larger neighborhood, an extraordinary counter-historical experiment in European political integration and reconciliation.

Vaclav Havel once talked about politics being the art of the impossible. As president of Czechoslovakia he presided over the break-up of his country into Czech and Slovak lands. He lamented (hoped) at the time that one day the two countries might once again be reunited.  It sounded crazy when he said it, but he wasn’t far wrong. Both countries eventually were rejoined, side by side, first in NATO and then the European Union. The same may soon be said for the states of the former warring Yugoslavia, and a more political NATO will be the forum for their pacific reunion.

I reiterate here my concern that the term “political” has evolved almost exclusively into a pejorative, so that in calling NATO political evokes notions of a sclerotic organization mired in and paralyzed by petty infighting. In reality a flexible, truly political organization — as I have argued here — has much more to offer than that.  NATO is far more than what its policy critics can grasp and embodies perhaps the greatest aspirations its anti-war opponents could wish upon the world.

UPDATE July 5: This post was adapted and updated for a op-ed with (with Brett Swaney) for the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University.


The Aesthetic Dictatorship

Franz Marc, Blue Horse I

Reading to my daughter “The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse,” Eric Carle’s homage to the expressionist artist Franz Marc, reminded me again — in the unsettling arena of a children’s book — the peculiar yet consistent need for repressive governments to dominate aesthetics.

Marc, a German who died with pockets-full of sketches during World War I, was later denounced as a degenerate artist under National Socialism. The Nazis’ “Degenerate Art” exhibition is easily the best-known attempt to delineate a political aesthetic, and the popular (and comforting) narrative is that this effort backfired quite spectacularly. After three million visitors crammed into the tiny sideshow spaces found first in Munich to shame the art and artists on display, the infuriated Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels realized his error and shut down the exhibition.

Many people remember the infamous book burnings and still others know Hitler’s obsession with “German” aesthetics, epitomized by Leni Riefenstahl’s kinematics and Albert Speer’s abortive Germania gigantism.  Fewer people, unfortunately, know about the wholesale persecution of artists who did not conform to this bland, heroic, traditional notion of German art.  They are lost in the wholesale horror of the Holocaust and the war, but they should not be forgotten because they were exiled, shot, harassed or driven to suicide simply for their desire of creative expression.

“They Are Writing about Us in Pravda” — Soviet socialist realism painting, set in 1930s Moldova at the same time as a massive famine and political persecution. (Springville, Utah, Museum of Art)

The Soviet Union, and through its Communist satellites, followed the Nazi political aesthetic for dominating all means of expression in order to extend state control over the body politic.  Nothing escaped domination by the Center. Nonconforming artists (and plenty conformed, as Czeslaw Milosz argued in The Captive Mind) were persecuted or forced into exile. Marc Chagall (denounced by Stalin’s archnemesis Hitler) fled a deprived Belarus; Oscar Rabin found his work bulldozed and was tried and exiled.  Others, like Oleg Tselkov, Vladimir Yankilevsky and  Dmitry Krasnopevtsev were harassed and left unable to display or sell their work.

Other repressive states similarly dominate creative expression.  After the revolution, Cuba essentially crushed out of the son musical tradition, associating it with politically inconvenient American jazz.  Before Saddam Hussein’s Harlequin Romance tastes were revealed and mocked following the invasion of Iraq, his vulgar monumentalism was dissected seriously by the dissident architect Kanan Makiya. The Taliban suppressed and destroyed virtually all forms of non-religious human expression to include music, singing, dancing, and kite flying, leaving famous descriptions of broken cassette tape billowing like black streamers in Kabul’s streets.  In Burma, the military junta went on a pagoda-building spree, constructing one larger and more gilded than another.  Similarly, the once-ascetic sacred site of Mecca has been overtaken by a sort of a gargantuan Islamic Disneyland under the solemn guidance of the Guardian of the The Holy Places, the Saudi government.

The greater innovation by these regimes, if it can be called that, is that this was no mere censorship, no simple intervention by a government bureaucracy to monitor for taste on behalf an easily aroused, shocked or shamed society. That was (and remains) the norm for some democratic countries during decades if not centuries and well-known in monarchical states to guard against mob sensibilities and insurrection. Freedom of expression, the press, and conscience, then, still meant something in those environments.

Such values mean very little in comparison to entire states predicated on domination of all creative, moral and political commons.  It is the artistic corollary of the Kantian moral universe: there can be no truly creative expression without innate human freedom to achieve it; insisting on less censorship when the means to create, express and transmit human creation are controlled by the state is like demanding to distribute plastic water bottles during a drought.

Western writers have been diligent in championing individual writers and artists in and out of China.  But they still seem both shocked by the lengths to which Chinese authorities will go to control expression, which is particularly evident when Western reporters are censored. They think only Chinese are worthy of censorship?  Of course China controls and censors all foreign sources of information, which is why the outside Internet is so expertly filtered.  But this control extends to every means of domestic communication as well.

So concerns about censorship and creative freedoms in a country where the government controls all news media, all publishers, and the entire Internet are essentially meaningless.  The idea that the artist and architect Ai Weiwei freely designed the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympic Games is absurd.  He was no more “free” to design the Bird Nest as he was to make political comments for which he is serving house arrest.

But this impressive, daunting, frightening effort at central control of information reveals a few truths about the purposes of propaganda, state usurpation of the political space, and the public’s ability combat the government that dominates everything it touches.

First, Beijing may have control and authority over expression but it does not have power over it.  Indeed, the political imperative to maintain control and authority over expression demonstrates how little real power flows from official Chinese control.   Goebbels harnessed all means of expression, the exclusive ends of which, he clearly told Party members, was “state control”.  We should take this seriously and understand its implications.  It is not for power but in the absence of power that repressive states dominate the aesthetic arena.

Second, this means of control and to control all creative expression is inherently political.  There is nothing aesthetic about it at all. Because control is understood and accepted as given, what the state chooses to communicate is not received by the public as an argument or pure creativity.  Propaganda need not be “plausible,” it need only be easy to understand. Because the purpose of state propaganda is to delineate clearly the lines of what is acceptable to think and do.  In the case of pure aesthetics — for example the “Bird’s Nest” — the explicit message communicated is a political aesthetic, the asserted and accepted official notion of beauty.

Third, this consistent need to dominate and control aesthetics — to wield it as another means of the state apparatus — reveals what has been clear for a very long time.  It reveals the state’s penultimate weakness.  This is not a sign of the state’s strength but of its fear and vulnerability.  It is as such another arena in which people can mobilize to attack the regime. In fact, because aesthetics is not overtly “political” — it is difficult, in other words, for the central authorities to justify a crackdown on mere art — it is the easiest and widest space for people opposed to the regime to attack it.  Despite the clear delineations, despite the obvious threat of reprisals, it is the clearest weakness of the existing regime and the easiest arena in which — to apply a principal from Gene Sharp — people can refuse obedience to the central authorities.

A still from Marjane Satrapi’s film “Persepolis” (via Tumblr)

We can stop asking countries like China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Belarus to end their censorship of artists and writers. Because their regimes’ rule over these countries is predicated — in fact perpetuated — by control over what people see, read, think and feel. Censorship is just one small tool in a giant kit that maintains total control over the means of mass communication, which — as Goebbels in his swine genius articulated — enables the state to control the population.

We need to talk about freeing art, unchaining letters, liberating language — written and visual — from the fetters of state control.  Because only when we begin to do so will we be honest and direct about what is happening in countries like these: cultures enslaved by their own governments.


George Orwell, Down the Rabbit Hole

George Orwell, BBC writer and broadcaster, and world-class word-wrestler. (BBC)

George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is one of those classics of letters that bears repeated reading throughout life. It remains a hectoring challenge to anyone who tries to write, as Orwell did, always wrestling with a deceptively simple language to articulate what we want it to say.

I first read his essay, as nearly everyone who has did, in undergraduate school and promptly forgot it amid a flood of impressions.  I returned to it much later later to find his blunt advice and weird prophesy calling out like one of those burned-out stars that still shines like a beacon across the eons.

And of course, like any thoughtful piece of writing that gives back over the course of a life (The Gettysburg Address and The Great Gatsby come to mind), I came back to this article after working in public diplomacy during wartime and found it to be a nuanced source of interest and inspiration.

Orwell is often quoted from this article that “[p]olitical language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The ellipsis is critical (it’s always quoted with the ellipsis) — he attacks across the spectrum, from Conservatives and Anarchists.  The edit takes quite a bit of the sting out of the quote. And the quote itself hurts much more when removed from the context of the essay, which is his most practical manual for good, clear, political writing.

This is interesting because for a few years Orwell was what might be pejoratively called a propagandist — he wrote (and wrote well by all accounts) for the BBC during World War II, when the broadcasting arm of the British empire had a specifically political purpose in mobilizing and energizing the colonies to protect the crown from fascism. Orwell did not particularly dislike this mission (although he did hate phrases like “not particularly dislike”), but he was utterly dispirited by the waste, bureaucracy, and the “trash” and “bile” broadcast each day.

In other words, he thought the BBC could propagandize better, and this essay was in part an attempt to understand why political language was so imbecilic, dull, flat and dim. “Politics and the English Language” was one of his first comprehensive examinations of and remedies for this problem.

In fact “Politics” was part of a less-known series of articles Orwell wrote following the war, all on a theme: the nexus of language, politics, democracy and freedom.  “Propaganda and Demotic Speech” (1944) is perhaps the best known after “Politics,” but then come “Politics vs. Literature” (1946), “The Prevention of Literature” (1946), and “Writers and Leviathan” (1948). These all lead, in most scholars’ understanding, to Animal Farm and 1984, and particularly Orwell’s extraordinary development of Newspeak. But taken together, they also are an expansive exploration of the relationship between politics and language and, more specifically, how we use language (specifically English), to communicate political ideas.

Orwell thought we used English badly. (“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble,” he wrote.) After some thought and reading, I decided to take issue with his conclusion.  I believe that the language itself is the problem regarding its carrying capacity for political ideas. Due to theoretical constructs built up for too long in the past we lack the vocabulary to express basic political concepts. Those ideas that we can express invariably come out in the cliches that Orwell despised.

The only remedy is what I have been doing on this site: to develop and substitute a new conceptual vocabulary to describe political ideas, experiences and realities.  The following essay, “Democracy and Political Language,” is an homage to Orwell and another effort to expand that vocabulary.

I will attack one cliche at a time, but it feels at time as though I am brandishing a sword (or pen) at a waterfall.  Fortunately we also have a mighty shield — Orwell’s own words. He struggled himself with the cliches he hated, wrestled the words to say what he thought. And that in turn shaped how he thought:  “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”  Surely, I’m on to something.


In Syria, Power vs. Force

Sen. John McCain speaks to France 24  April 12. (France 24)

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been a vociferous advocate for action against the Syrian regime’s brutality against its opposition, as his recent interview with French national television amply demonstrates. To his credit, McCain has been a consistent voice for measured, forceful intervention, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya and Syria. He has become an extraordinary voice for the obligation to protect (O2P), comparing the moral imperative facing the international community in Syria to the examples of Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda. While a cease-fire appears to be holding, opposition demonstrations are ongoing and the regime of Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated extraordinary willingness to wield violence in order to maintain control over the country.

McCain recently returned from Turkey where he visited camps filled with Syrian refugees fleeing the regime’s repression. This is perhaps an important reminder of the necessity for finer judgment in these matters, as similar camps filled up after the invasion of Iraq and refugees poured into Syria and Jordan fleeing the violence and chaos of sectarian anarchy in the wake of invasion. The Syrian regime’s collapse would no doubt benefit American interests in the region, depriving Iran of a proxy and Hezbollah and Hamas of a paymaster. But it’s much harder to anticipate the unforeseen outcomes of centrifugal forces cut loose  in the event of the regime’s demise.

Nonetheless, McCain’s intriguing and clearly genuine and heartfelt appeal not to allow al-Assad his waltz of death over a yearning opposition reveals the tensions inherent to an age-old theoretical question, particularly in the wake of a series of violent and non-violent, successful and unsuccessful revolutions in the Islamic world. I am writing about the relationship between power and force, which for too long have been roughly and lazily equated.

The point of departure is McCain’s insistence that a multinational intervention against the Syrian regime, likely led by NATO, could effectively level the tools of force between the opposition and the government.  This is quite a practical assessment. The regime retains the monopoly of force, McCain notes, with heavy weapons, including tanks and helicopter gunships. The Free Syrian Army is fighting mostly with firearms and video cameras. “Right now it’s artillery and tanks against Kalashnikovs,” McCain told France 24. “This is not a fair fight.”

Libya serves as the model in McCain’s thinking. There, NATO aircraft leveled the fight by eliminating the Libyan air force and “tank plinking” — a practice derided over Kosovo — destroying Libyan armor with precision strike.  I’m not an operator so I hesitate to assert that the NATO campaign was carried out easily and with few civilian casualties. But by eliminating the monopoly of force, the Libyan army was put on the same footing as the armed Libyan opposition forces, making it “a fair fight”.

Perhaps most importantly in Libya — and this more closely serves my point — once heavy armor and attack aircraft were swept away, the full power of the population was liberated.  Whole cities rose up against the regime and the regime found itself outmatched. Guns are little use against the masses, especially when fear is no longer a factor.

McCain didn’t allude to this, but it must have informed his thinking.  Armor and aircraft make repression and killing a distant, impersonal, impervious thing. Civilians and fighters alike flee in terror from the rumble of tanks and the roar of jet engines and rotor wash. It is much harder — although the Iranian regime did its level best — to instill that kind of fear over a mass of human beings from the end of a gun.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians jam Tahrir Square to bring down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, early 2011 (Getty Images via The Guardian)

The armed revolution aside, we saw precisely this triumph of power over force in Egypt and Tunisia. Masses of people cowed and then overthrew their dictatorships. In Tunisia, the revolution moved too quickly for the regime to react, but in Egypt the important factor was the neutrality of the Army. The people could face down the relatively lightly armed police and internal security forces. Confronted with a million people in Tahrir Square in Cairo (and hundreds of thousands gathered in other cities), the security forces — used to dealing with individuals or dozens of people at most — no longer could assert authority in any meaningful way.  It was only a matter of time before the regime would collapse.

This was in large strokes a replay of actions that took place in Central Europe during the Velvet Revolution.  Poland lived for 10 years under martial law — the rule of armor in the streets — but even this was no match for the growing power of the Polish people. Once the rest of the enslaved states of Central Europe were unable or unwilling to roll down their people as they began to march en masse — and the Center in Moscow importantly renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine of intervention as it had in Czechoslovakia and Hungary to put down popular rebellion — the state revealed itself to be made of matchwood. The power of the powerless was let loose on the world.

So power and force are not the same thing. I should emphasize that force can trump power, as we have seen in Iran and elsewhere. And power can dissipate, as we saw in Ukraine. But this does not alter the fundamental difference between them.  Power is a moral concept and that is why it is inherent to politics. As a moral concept, power resides exclusively in the mind of men and women. Power is infinitely scalable, as we saw mobilizing by the millions across middle Europe and the Mahgreb.

Hannah Arendt wrote very clearly in On Violence that violence and power were not one and the same but opposites.  She also wrote that war (that is, applied force) was not the result of some primal human urge toward self-destruction but, finally, the ultimate means to resolve dispute. To illuminate her insight more, I would argue that force and power are not opposites but opposing means to the same end: to change political behavior. Force is mobilized by a state (or quasi-state); power requires mobilization by something other than the state for legitimacy (although in many societies state structures are regularly put to work creating those non-state mobilizations). Force is legitimate when it is wielded by the accepted state (or quasi-state) authority; power is legitimate when it is given freely and without coercion.

The Syrian regime has learned well from the examples of both its neighbors and from history.  As seen in Homs and Hama, force can trump power. Murder dismembers the political opposition.  Guns and Tanks terrorize the ordinary and the innocent. But I also know that this is only a temporary terror. Whether the horror in Syria continues is a prediction someone better informed can make. Real power ultimately prevails because it is found in the minds and morals of millions of men and women.  The leaders in Damascus, Moscow, and Minsk, and in Pyongyang, Tehran, Beijing, and Havana must know this.


The Political Gospel

The Sermon on the Mount, from a 6th Century mosaic, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. (Source not identified)

Andrew Sullivan’s recent Newsweek cover article about the crisis in modern American Christianity struck me as deeply wrong for many reasons, but certainly worse for a profound misinterpretation of an “apolitical” Christ and for a common misunderstanding of politics and the political.

Much of Sullivan’s error stems from what I have argued is a thorough-going theoretical misunderstanding of politics running like a vein in the Western canon (not Church doctrine), and I see Sullivan’s essay as another opportunity to argue for the importance and relevance of politics and the political.

Sullivan seems also to maintain the usual intellectual/philosopher’s distaste for the arena, as if watching Lions tear apart Christians in the Roman coliseum without acknowledging that he’s taking part by bearing witness to the spectacle.  The best avenue of approach to Sullivan’s confusion is, unfortunately, an area in which I admit I am no expert.  But even a cursory glance at scripture gives lie to Sullivan’s assertion that Christ’s fundamental lesson for us all was “how [Christ] conducted himself through it all — calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God.” This is certainly not the Christ I know, who raged against the money-changers in the temple, chastised his apostles at Gethsemane, begged God to let the cup of fate pass from him or cried out in despair at the hour of his death.

Theological or scriptural disputes notwithstanding, Christ’s humanity helpfully leads us further into the temporal realm. Sullivan specifically calls Christ “apolitical.”  Let us assume for now that Sullivan is talking about common political activities we are familiar with: building an organization, campaigning, reaching the masses, speaking to authority.  Under that definition Christ looks very much like a modern political figure.  He gathered followers (the apostles), he traveled from city to city, sought out and spoke to large audiences. He “spoke truth to power,” as the expression would have it, directly addressing the Pharisees.  There is evidence that he knew he knew he had a political mission after the arrest of John the Baptist and fled Galilee. His entire life was fraught with political intrigue as he was eventually considered a liability by the Roman authority, pursued, betrayed, tried, and crucified as the ersatz King of the Jews.

But that is to borrow Sullivan’s own apparent understanding of politics and the political.  It is not clear that Sullivan has a more expansive view of politics as separate from organizations, the state or government bodies — politics qua politics, as I call it — or the concept of the political as I have discussed it earlier.  The notion of a normative moral vision that we would wish for others does not appear to cross his mind. Yet Christ’s entire ministry is consumed with a vision of a different world here on earth and he engages in political action to achieve it.  He was not strictly a spiritual guide, advising his followers simply on matters relevant only to them. His ministry from its very beginning had clear ambition beyond that. And that makes the Gospels inherently political, contrary to Sullivan’s argument.

Sullivan borrows from the example of Thomas Jefferson, who excised only the direct quotations of Christ from his Bible for a better, more direct, more literal understanding of him; but even without the commentary of the New Testament’s authors it is impossible not to understand Christ as a political man and a tremendous, towering figure for the moral transformation of society.  Sullivan wouldn’t be writing about him in Newsweek if he weren’t.

To take just the Sermon on the Mount — almost entirely direct quotations from Christ — we read a series of commandments, or what we would call political statements. The Beatitudes are not merely a recitation of who are blessed, but whom should be blessed under a new moral order. This is a political statement.  Christ continues with a series of edicts: “Turn the other cheek.”  “Love thine enemies.” Evil thoughts are as bad as the evil act. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  “Pray to your father in secret.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These commandments are so commonplace now that we forget how radical they were (and remain).

Sullivan would have these edicts remain strictly spiritual and personal — almost advisory, mere guidance. But at the beginning of the Sermon, Christ issues the simile of the Salt and the Light. Salt is no good that cannot be tasted, and light is no good that cannot be seen.  That is, the Gospel will do no good if it cannot be spread; the Word cannot be heard if it is not read aloud. This is a decidedly political message.  Christ is saying: go, my followers, and do my work; tell people what I have said, act on my lessons.  His words come very early on in his ministry, long before he deputizes Peter as the rock of his Church.

It is stranger still that Sullivan calls Christ “apolitical” and then attacks American Protestants for losing its purpose in the frivolity of personal achievement and the Catholic Church for abandoning its moral authority during the pedophile scandals of the last decade. He seems to hate politics but then wishes the Church would get its politics right. To right his contradiction, he should have spent more time focusing on some of the good work the Church has done, and is doing right now.

Biblical quotes from the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial (Photo by the author)

It is hard to imagine, for example, the Abolitionist cause without the Church, and impossible even to articulate the Civil Rights movement without the African-American Church.  The intellectual resistance to the Nazis in Germany was mostly populated by dissident Lutherans. The Catholic Church, led by Pope John Paul II, is largely responsible for liberating Poland from communism — and by extension the rest of Central Europe from the clutches of the Cold War. The debate over nuclear weapons and deterrence in the United States changed unalterably after the American Catholic Bishops issued their Pastoral Letter on War and Peace in 1983.

Today the Orthodox Church leads protests against the Soviet-era practice of abortion in Russia, where access to birth control is not pervasive. Korean and underground Chinese Christian activists run an underground railroad for North Koreans escaping their prison state.  Pick a poor, resource-wracked or devastated community and you will find a Christian charity working there to alleviate suffering.  And importantly (to me, especially), Christians are engaging in the important work of interfaith engagement and understanding.

I don’t think these activists would see themselves engaged in “political” activity, but I am certain they are driven by something more than the simple, calm example of Sullivan’s implacable Christ.  Perhaps they heard Christ’s commandment to come out from under a bushel, to come down from the City on a Hill, to walk with and give to and love the least among us.  Let us thank God for it.

But I also know that the Chinese authorities would certainly consider such behavior “political” activity and would do to Christ today what the Romans did 2,000 years ago.