Terra Incognita: Freedom and spectacle
Would protesters in balaclavas be allowed to break into the Washington National Cathedral to put on a rock concert?
Russian President Putin attends ceremony Photo: POOL New / Reuters
‘The United States is concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate
sentences handed down by a Moscow court in the case against the members of the
band Pussy Riot and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia.”
That was the reaction of the US State Department on August 18 when three members
of musical group Pussy Riot were sentenced in a Moscow court. Maria Alyokhina,
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were found guilty of
“hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”
The outrage expressed in
Western media and political circles often references “freedom” of expression.
Alistair Burt, a member of the UK foreign ministry, noted: “We have repeatedly
called on the Russian authorities to protect human rights, including the right
to freedom of expression... Today’s verdict calls into question Russia’s
commitment to protect these fundamental rights and freedoms.”
At the EU,
Catherine Ashton claimed Russia should overturn the conviction because of her
“international commitments.” In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Anne Applebaum,
a well known academic, compared Russia to China and Iran, and asked whether
Putin would now attempt to block entertainment websites because entertainers in
the West were leaping to Pussy Riot’s defense.
Singer Madonna, whose
iconoclastic attacks on Christianity may have been an inspiration for the
actions of the three young women, has been a staunch defender.
McCartney chimed in: “I would like you to know that I very much hope the Russian
authorities would support the principle of free speech... I and many others like
me [who] believe in free speech will do everything in our power to support you
and the idea of artistic freedom.”
THIS CASE, and the reactions to it,
should lead to an important discussion about the meaning of freedom,
particularly freedom of expression.
The prosecution of the three women
stemmed from their having entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a mammoth
white Orthodox church in Moscow, on February 21.
Wearing masks, they then
proceeded to sing a song sometimes referred to as “punk prayer.”
“prayer” was a spoof of a prayer to the Virgin Mary and included curses and
political attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin. After several minutes of
jumping around next to the church’s altar, and bowing, the women were forcibly
escorted from the “stage.” They filmed the entire thing.
Let’s say this
is defined as “freedom of expression.”
Would that mean that it is or
should be legal for any group of people to enter any place they want and perform
a poem, including vile language, while wearing masks? Is that truly the western
concept of “freedom of expression” that Russia is being bludgeoned with?
OF speech has never been an absolute freedom in most western democracies. For
instance, scholar Bernard Lewis was sued in a French court for denying the
Armenian genocide. In many countries “hate speech” is illegal. Recently a
student in the UK named Liam Stacey was jailed for 56 days for posting a “racist
tweet” on the website twitter.
The US has often held itself up as a
paragon of freedom of expression, a country where the right is enshrined in the
first amendment to the Constitution. The US has in fact generally done a good
job of protecting the citizen’s right to express herself, whether it be denial
of the Armenian genocide, some racist tweeting, blasphemy or
Regarding the case of the Cathedral in Moscow, let’s take a look
at US Supreme Court rulings on where one can exercise their free speech rights
in the US.
As Dahila Lithwick points out in an article, “constitutional
rights are triggered only when the government (and not a private citizen) tries
to limit our freedoms.”
Thus free speech rights do not extend to private
However, in Marsh v. Alabama in 1946, the court held that while
private property did not confer free speech rights, that didn’t mean a
company-owned town could restrict such rights.
Justice Stanley Reed, in a
dissenting opinion, noted that “it has never been held and is not now by this
opinion of the Court that these rights are absolute and unlimited either in
respect to the manner or the place of their exercise.”
In contrast to
private property, states or governments may not infringe free speech rights in
However the citizen’s “right” to the public space is
circumscribed in many instances, where she must apply for rights to hold a
protest march for instance.
PUSSY RIOT never had a “right” to enter the
Cathedral and protest. They had no “right” to film in the Cathedral.
fact their actions infringed on the rights of the church to its property and
also on the right of parishioners to enjoy a place of quiet sanctity.
why did the US State Department, the UK foreign ministry and many others attempt
to enforce a higher standard of free speech in Russia than exists in their home
countries? After all, would protesters in balaclavas be allowed to break into
the Washington National Cathedral or Temple Emanu-El in New York to put on a
rock concert? Imagine if pro-Palestinian protesters broke into a Jewish
synagogue and decided to perform a protest song while cursing. Would that be
regarded as “freedom of expression”? In Germany, when supporters of the band
invaded a Cathedral in Cologne it was reported that they may face charges for
disturbing a religious service.
THE REALITY is that Pussy Riot’s actions,
as Vadim Nikitin pointed out in an op-ed in The New York Times, are part of the
global anarchist Left.
In support of the band a feminist from the group
Femen took a chainsaw to a giant wooden cross in Kiev.
The cross had been
built to commemorate victim of Stalinism, but to the anarchist-fascist activists
it was a symbol of the church that was supposedly persecuting Pussy
When we support freedom of expression we want to support the right
of people to say and write what they want, not the “right” to impose our speech
on others by invading their places of worship or cutting down their religious
symbols. It isn’t an expression of “freedom” to bring pigs into a mosque, or to
harass people in their place of worship, any more than it is to break into
someone’s house and eat from their fridge.
IN ISRAEL the recent case of
four women, members of Women of the Wall, who were arrested at the Western Wall
for wearing “men’s prayer shawls” is likewise being portrayed as a question of
“freedom of religious expression” against the Orthodox monopoly at the Western
Unlike the Moscow Cathedral, the Western Wall is not the private
property of a religious sect, but a religious resource apparently open to all.
Yet the state may impose regulations, such that one may not drive a car into the
site, for instance.
The state provided the Women of the Wall a separate
section of the wall, in the Davidson Archeological Center.
As one woman
writes on her blog, “I believe that the complex surrounding the site of the two
ancient temples is a spiritual place and a place that should be special to Jews
Yet that is not what the organization wanted; they didn’t
want a prayer niche, they wanted to dominate the women’s section once a month.
One suspects that what the Women of the Wall have in mind primarily is to create
a spectacle. Do they go to the wall to be detained by police for violating the
norms of the site? If they were not detained, would they stop going? If the
Orthodox women moved down to the Davidson Center, wouldn’t the Women of the Wall
follow them, to protest, rather than to pray? Freedom also means not imposing
one’s speech on others.
The right to speak publicly is not the right to
shout down someone else. Freedom of the individual does not extend into the
private property of a second individual; one person’s freedom doesn’t depend on
someone else’s being sacrificed. Likewise, religious sites deserve to be free
from spectacle in the form of protest.