by Rhian Sasseen on August 22, 2012
I suppose the upside is that we’ve never seen the word “pussy” appear so many times in the pages of our national news sources.
The downside? – How about everything else?
I am referring, of course, to the recent sentencing of Pussy Riot, the Russian political art collective, and the orgy of self-congratulatory support that has erupted from Western liberaldom in the aftermath of their trial. The counter protests, imitation balaclavas, and celebrity endorsements of the last few days have begun to take on a familiar shape and pattern; like Kony 2012, Free Tibet, and a host of other faux-radical pet projects, the Western reaction to Pussy Riot ignores the cultural complexities of their protest and vision in favor of an opportunity to reaffirm the feel-good consumerism and empty sloganeering that mark the political consciousness of the modern liberal bourgeoisie. Pussy Riot was not about punk, not about riot grrl, and not about the supposed freedoms of Western-style democracy; it was about dissent, a sentiment curiously absent from the Western liberal’s state of mind.
In America we are eleven weeks away from an election between a billionaire who openly admits to not caring about the poor and a supposed-progressive who has maintained much of the same economic policies of the administration before him, which helped cause the worst recession felt by America since the 1930s. We live in a period of unimaginable wealth and horrifying poverty: the greatest class divide since a previous era’s Gilded Age. Political movements dedicated to addressing this state of affairs, such as Occupy, are ineffective in their aimlessness; there is no viable left in America, simply the smug and the navel-gazing. What do we do instead? – We buy organic, we buy artisanal, and tell ourselves that in our consumerism we are changing the world.
Reactions to Pussy Riot have been quick to point out the life-affirming force of rock ‘n’ roll, the power of punk and free speech in the face of our old enemy Mother Russia. But these instances of support are missing the point. What is truly dangerous, and truly important, about Pussy Riot is the radicalism of their political and cultural vision: they are anti-Putin, yes, but they have also spoken out against the kind of genteel liberal capitalism that characterizes the American left. In short: buying into the signifiers of American liberaldom – punk music that shouts slogans instead of any real political action, or freedom of choice in the sense that we have the freedom to choose what items to purchase in order to best define ourselves – is buying into a muted progressivism that is also out of tune with Pussy Riot’s goals of destruction and change.
But what would dissent in America look like? In a culture that markets rebellion and manufactures cool, the best option might be to ignore the siren call of the counterculture and instead opt for a vision of the future that rejects both choices, the tamed rebellion of the left and the corporate cruelties of the right. Don’t pat yourself on the back for the protests of a culture half a world away – focus instead on the forces trying to buy your vote, buy your morality, and buy your rebellion. It’s hip to be square – if square means ignoring fashions in favor of working hard for a more equitable and less profit-driven future.