Free Pussy Riot!

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I’ve never much liked the punk-anarchistic aesthetic-ideology, mostly because it defines itself almost entirely negatively, in opposition to traditional norms of art and society, and so inadvertently comes to mirror the rigidity of the most overbearing applications of those norms. Punk music, for instance, is most easily identified by its adamant rejection – in contrast to mere ignorance – of traditional musical norms (related to melody, harmony, virtuosity, etc.), while its positive political agenda – when it has one – is, at best, vague, utopian, and intentionally unorganized. All of these weaknesses are clearly on display in the HBO documentary, airing this month, on the Russian feminist performance-art “collective” known as Pussy Riot. But watching “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” managed to convince me that, at least in some situations (such as Putin’s Russia), the punk aesthetic can be put to very good use. For, using a minimalist style almost devoid of commentary, the documentary effectively shows how Pussy Riot’s quickly aborted performance in a Russian Orthodox cathedral precipitated an incredible over-reaction, throwing into stark relief the repressive, authoritarian tendencies of the Putin administration – tendencies that unfortunately seem to be reflected in the post-Soviet society at large.

Two of Pussy Riot’s members – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina – are still serving 2-year sentences in penal colonies. No one, and no thing, was physically harmed by their performance; at worst, as their defense attorney suggests, they should have been charged with misdemeanors. Unfortunately, their chosen setting allowed them to be charged with a hate crime – even though they explicitly denied being motivated by hatred, apologized for offending anyone, and insisted that they are not even anti-religious, but were rather protesting the political connections between the Church and the Putin administration. Here’s the (very brief) trailer-

The repressive over-reaction continues. The BBC reported yesterday that the Russian Duma voted unanimously to criminalize providing information about “non-traditional sexual relations” to persons under 18, and the lower house also passed a bill criminalizing those who “offend religious believers”-

Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, has passed a law imposing heavy fines for providing information about homosexuality to people under 18. The measure was passed unanimously and will become law when approved by the upper house and President Vladimir Putin, a virtual formality. … The lower house also passed a bill imposing up to three years in jail on those who offend religious believers. The law comes in the wake of the imprisoning of members of the punk band Pussy Riot for performing an anti-Putin protest in an Orthodox cathedral in February 2012. … The new law on “offending religious feelings of the faithful” will also take effect after approval by the upper house and the president.

Thank God – or at least The Founders – that we have free speech in this country. But Americans should bear in mind that the sorts of tendencies on display in Russia today are not that far removed from those displayed by some members of the religious right wing of the “Tea Party” movement right here at home.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier… Iranian Scientist?

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In case you haven’t heard, another Iranian scientist who was perhaps working on nuclear issues has been killed in Tehran. Reuters reports

TEHRAN, Jan 12 (Reuters) – An Iranian nuclear scientist was blown up in his car by a motorbike hitman, prompting Tehran to blame Israeli and U.S. agents but insist the killing would not derail a nuclear programme that has raised fears of war and threatened world oil supplies.

The fifth daylight attack on technical experts in two years, the magnetic bomb delivered a targeted blast to the door of 32-year-old Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan’s car during Wednesday’s morning rush-hour. The chemical engineer’s driver also died, Iranian media said, and a passer-by was slightly hurt.

Israel, whose military chief said on Tuesday that Iran could expect to suffer more mysterious mishaps, declined comment. The White House, struggling for Chinese and Russian help on economic sanctions, denied any U.S. role and condemned the attack.

While Israeli or Western involvement seemed eminently plausible to independent analysts, a role for local Iranian factions or other regional interests engaged in a deadly shadow war of bluff and sabotage could not be ruled out.

That last paragraph, which grudgingly admits that there are at least two competing explanations, is to Reuters’ credit. All of the pundits I’ve heard discussing this homicide have simply assumed that Israel is responsible, given the circumstantial evidence: targeted assassinations fit Israel’s modus operandi, and no doubt there is a continuous covert war ongoing between Israel and at least Iran’s proxies. But, having seen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy recently, I can’t help but wonder…

Normally I deride conspiratorial thinking, but in this case I’ll make an exception, just to make a point. Has it struck anyone as odd that the Israeli defense minister apparently telegraphed this killing the day before it happened? Might it not have given the Iranians (or some Iranian faction) the opportunity to kill Ahmadi-Roshan and conveniently blame it on Israel? But why, you ask, would the Iranians kill their own scientist? Well, who knows? Maybe they suspected him of spying for Israel, the U.S., or some Sunni Arab state (the Sunnis fear the Iranian mullahs almost as much as Israel does). Or maybe he was not particularly valuable to them, and they killed him just for the sake of further driving a wedge between Israel and the West? Almost all the pundits, after suggesting that Israel was the likely culprit, go on to point out that a strategy of killing scientists, besides being morally reprehensible, is hardly likely to slow down Iran’s nuclear program much, and it gives Iran a huge propaganda advantage. But they fail to draw the obvious conclusion: that maybe – just maybe – Israel didn’t do it.

So we have at least two competing, somewhat plausible (and somewhat implausible) possibilities here, but so far no firm evidence for either of them. My point is not that we should believe that the Iranians did it; that would be nearly as irrational as, say, the 9/11 conspiracy theories. Rather, it is that we should feel comfortable putting neither forth as even “probable”, at least without further information.

Could someone please tell the pundits that?