Rohrabacher Reads Me the Pussy Riot Act

by Daniel Foster

I appreciate Representative Rohrabacher’s defense of his colleague and friend against my “hysterical, over-the-top piece,” and share some of his esteem for King. I told representatives from King’s office as much when they called me this week expressing pique over the original post. Representative King was the first and loudest voice on the Pigford scandal in Congress, and a great help to me when I wrote about the issue for NR (three years before the New York Times got around to it).

King’s office asked me to “retract” my post. They were particularly upset about my use of the phrase “un-American.” I told them I would be happy to clarify that I had used that phrase to characterize King’s comments, not King’s character, and that my estimation of the congressman — for what it is worth — is that he is a patriot in good standing. As for the rest of it, I told King’s staff that I would be happy to give King the chance to clarify or defend his comments over the phone or by e-mail, but could not “retract” anything I had written in the absence of learning something from such a conversation that would compel me to do so. Unfortunately, the congressman declined to take up the offer. So I can only respond to Rohrabacher’s gloss of King’s comments.

He begins:

It’s intellectually dishonest for Mr. Foster to paraphrase King’s statement and then argue his words were “ill-informed.” If he’s going to argue the point, he needs to do so with the words King actually said. King did not say Pussy Riot vandalized or defiled the altar of the Church, he said they desecrated it, which is an undeniable fact. Merriam-Webster defines “desecrate” as “to violate the sanctity of, or to treat disrespectfully, irreverently, or outrageously.” The group snuck its way onto the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior without permission and performed a punk rock song with vulgar lyrics. Their stunt was disrespectful and completely irreverent. The facts speak for themselves, and Steve King is right.

At least we seem to be in agreement on the facts here. I wrote that the band did not “physically defile” the church — by, say, vandalizing it — but I allowed that their performance was in poor taste and may well have spiritually desecrated the church (the somewhat overwrought phrase I actually used was “metaphysically defiled.”) I also wrote that this is irrelevant, since the band were not arrested for desecration, and I don’t take Rohrabacher to be arguing here that displaying an “irreverent,” “disrespectful,” or even “outrageous” attitude in a holy place, absent some further infraction, is grounds for lengthy imprisonment. (This, by the way, would put him at odds with some officials in the Russian Orthodox church, who lobbied the Putin regime to outlaw blasphemy in the aftermath of the performance).

Next, Representative Rohrabacher writes there is a “distinction between a group engaged in outrageous acts for the sake of notoriety and those engaged in political speech.” Rohrabacher says that many of Pussy Riot’s activities and (crucially) those of an “overlapping, related” performance art group called Voina fall into the former category. Further, many of these activities — including setting fire to a police car, drawing obscene images on a bridge in St. Petersburg, and “perform[ing] sex acts with a frozen chicken” — would be illegal in (parts of) the United States. Rohrabacher notes, for instance, that “bestiality is an aggravated misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison.” (In California, I presume).

There are a few things to be said about this. For one, I am not sure that getting explicit with a butterball constitutes “bestiality,” but again, none of the stunts Rohrabacher mentions were the proximate cause of Pussy Riot’s imprisonment. Indeed, the incidents mentioned above all occurred after Pussy Riot members split off from Voina over the sort of disagreements that we all know plague even the sturdiest of feminist-situationist art collectives.

But the more important point is that while Pussy Riot’s methods may be disreputable, there can be no serious doubt that, had they occurred within an America civil-liberties paradigm, they would be constitutive of core political speech. Most of Pussy Riot’s content is explicitly, even ham-fistedly anti-Putin, but even the stuff Rohrabacher finds “outrageous” and lascivious, like the public nudity, would probably pass the Supreme Court’s “Miller test” for obscenity due to its political value. Near as I can tell, Pussy Riot’s ideology is a mélange of overcooked punk-anarchism and campus pomo feminism — in other words, it is completely irredeemable. But it’s still a politics, and a belief in free speech is a belief that neither I, nor the congressmen, get to decide which politics are worth protecting.

Of course, Russia doesn’t have America’s civil-liberties paradigm, which is to Russia’s woe, and the woe of Pussy Riot, of whom Vladimir Putin said they “got what they were asking for” for “undermining the moral fundamentals” of the country. Putin’s own moral fundamentals meant seeing to it that the band were held without bail for six months as they awaited their show trial on charges of “hooliganism” — an amorphous crime that originated as an attempt to control peasant uprisings against the aristocracy in the years before the Bolshevik revolution. Never mind that the Soviet regime, and especially the KGB where a young Putin made his bones, spent a short century “undermining the moral fundamentals” of Russia by brutally suppressing the functioning of the very church in whose name the regime now banishes its enemies.

The hypocrisy of the Putin regime, its illiberality and its lawlessness, were on full display in the events leading up to and following Pussy Riot’s “desecration.” In answering a question about the incident, on Russian soil, Representatives King and Rohrabacher had a perfect opportunity to make the case for a liberal, lawful alternative. Instead they dwelled on the incidental fact that a pair of political prisoners also happen to be jerks. And I still think that’s a shame.