Freedoms Human Rights Politics Society

Empires Love Their Dissidents Foreign

Any regime, no matter how repressive, will gladly fête its enemy’s critics—while homegrown versions of those critics occupy concrete cells. Cooing over foreign dissidents allows establishment hacks to pose like sexy rebels—while simultaneously affirming that their own system is the best.

The dissident fetishist takes a brave, principled person, and uses them like a codpiece of competitive virtue.

The Kremlin loves (American) whistle-blowers. The State Department loves (Russian) anarchist punks.

Mainstream media cherishes these dissidents because they allow journalists the by-proxy thrill of challenging power. They, too, can stand square-shouldered against Putin or Obama, capes billowing behind them in the wind.

These same media figures aren’t always so lippy on their home turf.

Not everyone gets to be called a dissident, of course. In pop imagery, a dissident should be pure and unworldly, unconcerned with either the danger or fame his or her actions may bring. Dissidents should be educated, telegenic. They should renounce violence. They should talk in the Western-friendly language of human rights.

In court, they should stand with their backs straight, their words like honey and fire.

Today’s dissident is often yesterday’s criminal or terrorist. And vice versa. Advocates of ideologies like political Islam are seldom granted the dissident label—a fact that regimes from Egypt to the U.A.E. have used to damn critics across the political spectrum.

In The Atlantic, writer Sarah Kendzior called Pussy Riot “manic pixie dream dissidents.” For Western commentators, Kendzior wrote, Pussy Riot’s beauty and victimhood took away their complicated political critique. Nadya Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Yekaterina (Katya) Samutsevich are artists. They were artists as members of performance-art group Voina, when they forcibly made out with Moscow cops as part of “Operation Kiss Garbage,” or spray-painted a giant dick on a bridge across from the headquarters of the secret police. They were artists in the courtroom cage.

When Tolokonnikova raised her fist in that No Pasaran T-shirt, or Alyokhina refused to leave her prison camp in solidarity with less famous inmates, they were performing gestures as iconic as any painting. They deserve every glossy party New York throws in their honor.

I only wish there were parties as glam for another young woman who challenged power.

Last summer, I sat in the courtroom when a judge declared Chelsea Manning guilty of violating the Espionage Act.

Neither Madonna nor Marina Abramovic came out to support one of the 20th century’s most important whistle-blowers. At Fort Meade, a small crowd of activists sweltered in their “Truth” T-shirts. Many were older. Many were veterans. Most were defiantly un-hip. Passing cars screamed that they were traitors. On sentencing day, TV news was more concerned with Anthony Weiner’s dick.

CNN’s Larry Shaughnessy repeatedly fell asleep in the media center.

Without independent journalists like Alexa O’Brien and Kevin Gosztola, the trial itself would be largely unknown. Only one TV network consistently covered Chelsea Manning’s trial: the Kremlin-funded Russia Today.

Sure, a Russian Chelsea Manning would have been chucked in a prison camp—just like American Voina-style art vandals would be languishing in Rikers. But that isn’t the point. America’s treatment of Chelsea Manning showed a poisonous artery at the heart of our country. Russia delighted in exposing it, just as American media delighted in exposing Russia’s treatment of its dissidents.

Fascinating article in Vanity Fair by Molly Crabapple. Go read.