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 370 (photo credit: POOL New / Reuters)
Russian President Putin attends ceremony 370
(photo credit: 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.
Paul 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.”
The “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?
FREEDOM 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 libel.
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 property.
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 public spaces.
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.
In 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.
So 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 Riot.
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 Wall.
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 everywhere.”
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.