The Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin had a rather inauspicious start. Most Dubliners were a tad bewildered by it, and by Pearse’s “Proclamation of Independence” that Easter. Many people just thought they were eejits who needed to get over themselves. Some, most notably the “Separation Women” (called so because they received separation money from the British government) were openly hostile to the rebels, to the extent that those captured had to be protected from the general public by the British Army that they were fighting. It wasn’t until 14 men were executed by the British government that the Irish public were galvanised, and the seeds of overturning British rule after 800 years were planted permanently.
For some reason, this story came to mind while following the Pussy Riot trial this past week. I’ve watched the video of the “punk prayer” that started the furore. In purely musicological terms, the song leaves a lot to be desired. Although the lyrics are clearly anti-Putin, and anti-Patriarch Kirill, the outpouring seems to be somewhat unfocussed and frenetic. Even though Carol Rumens in the Guardian made a good point about how it had been translated (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/20/pussy-riot-punk-prayer-lyrics), it still comes across in the form of a rant rather than a protest song/prayer. Maybe that is the point. The music itself isn’t of the quality of punk artists like the Sex Pistols, or Nina Hagen, or even more recently The Story So Far. It comes across as four girls in multicoloured balaclavas not quite knowing what they are doing, apart from winding up patriarchal authorities (and possibly causing what seems to be the cleaning lady a mild heart attack).
Had Putin and his cronies any sense, they would have let these girls off with a caution, and dismissed them as “fecking eejits”. But here is the really interesting thing about men in power (probably women in power too, but for socio-historical reasons, there is less evidence to draw on for this theory): politicians never learn from the lessons of history. Nowhere is that more visible than in the political history of Russia, which has a long and proud record of artistic political dissent.
Something else happened this week also that, in a way, is connected to Pussy Riot, and brings me back to Ireland. A two-year old recording of Michael D. Higgins, now President of Ireland taking on Michael Graham, a Tea Party member, went viral. If you haven’t heard this recording, I urge you to – it is a rant, but it is a rant of the highest calibre and quality. He talks about the destructive effect of ignorance, and half-truths, and the rants that the Tea Party themselves are guilty of. One of the great quotes from it about the Tea Party, which Michael D. delivers when in full flow is this: “The tactic is to get a large crowd, whip them up, try and discover what is the greatest fear, work on that, and feed it right back in a frenzy”. The more I thought about this speech, the more clever Michael D. Higgins’ tactics were – He spars with this Tea Party member in his own language, which when faced with it, Graham was not able to counteract or counter-attack.
Stéphane Hesse, the double-concentration camp survivor, Resistance fighter, and one of the original drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, exhorts us in a short book to “Indignez-vous!” (“Time for outrage!”). At 93 years old he is still campaigning for human rights, most notably in Palestine; at 93 years old, he is still a threat to politicians. In December 2010, he was due to give a talk in Paris, which was stopped by Sarkozy for international political reasons.
Here’s the thing: As much as it would be lovely to be able to reason with everyone in sane, logical terms, there are people out there who are so unreasonable and so full of invective and their own self-righteousness, and who sometimes, unfortunately, hold positions of power, that the only option for decent ordinary human beings is to rail against them. Sometimes the only option is to make a proclamation, strike a blow of dissent against the symbols of oppression and patriarchy, be the voice of indignation. Even Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism recognised that: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle”. It is an interesting idea, that for a society to flourish, good people must save bad people from their own excesses, or else all are doomed. In the fight between the future Russia that Pussy Riot symbolises and that over which Putin currently wields power, the choice is very clear and very stark. Speak out; or remain oppressed.