19 April 2013

Off the mark – taking aim at two recent New Statesman articles

Normally, the New Statesman sets a very high standard for reporting. I have an incredibly high respect for Mehdi Hasan and John Pilger, for example, and Nelson Jones is usually quite good at discussing religious topics, though he does retain his own angle with which I am not always in agreement. But two recent articles in particular struck me for their intellectual dishonesty and dearth of critical depth – one by Agata Pyzik on FEMEN (which I myself criticised in a recent blog post), and one by Andrew Zak Williams defending the New Atheists (whom I likewise criticised in the selfsame blog post).

With Ms Pyzik’s article, I am more than somewhat sympathetic, though her arguments in it were still shallow enough to disappoint, since she fails to address some of the most serious concerns about FEMEN raised by their critics, and more damnably fails to take seriously the implications of FEMEN’s public image and stance even within the very socio-political context (that of post-Communist Eastern Europe) which she deems so important. First off, what she gets right, she gets very much right: women in Eastern Europe do tend to pull really short straws. Where I live – in Baotou, Inner Mongolia – the Russian minoriy are not accorded a very high respect, to say the very least. The lucky and affluent amongst them who come here to study often want to stay here and find a Chinese husband, whom, as they are often aware, will treat them with greater respect than men back home do. The not-so-lucky ones end up in brothels – prostitution here is a common enough problem that one of my co-workers, having been mistaken for a Russian, was outright propositioned as one on the street. She is also absolutely right on the money in identifying the cause in the transition from communism to post-communism. This is important for points I make below.

Now let’s get to what Ms Pyzik gets wrong. First off, it is far from clear that either FEMEN’s goals or its targets are suitable even to their own context (with which, having lived in Kazakhstan and having taken a long-standing interest in Eastern European affairs, I have some experience). Why do I say this? Well, let’s have a look at Ms Inna Shevchenko’s own words: she is fighting a ‘war’ (as she herself puts it) in which her primary targets are ‘the three principle manifestations of patriarchy: religion, the sex industry and dictatorship’, and which pits ‘traditionalism against modernity, oppression against freedom, dictatorship against the right to free expression’.

Especially within an Eastern European context – and being from an Eastern European country herself Ms Pyzik is certainly aware of this – this sort of platform is nonsensical. FEMEN are importing a tradition of bourgeois feminism which is a foreign element in the Russophone sphere, and this renders their programme marginal at best, and counterproductive at worst. This is demonstrated best by how the sex industry in Russia came about – it was the post-communist transition which rendered women so vulnerable to exploitation. Under the gangster capitalism which followed shock therapy, in which industries were chopped up and sold at bulk rate prices to foreign interests, the jobs many working-class women held simply vapourised. Suddenly paupers in a system controlled by a handful of oligarchic kleptocrats, they were left with precious few alternatives but the sex industry. The sex industry was at its most powerful only after the Soviets had broken the power of the institutional Church, and only after the Soviets themselves had disintegrated, leaving an open field for the self-proclaimed advocates of ‘freedom’ to turn the entire country into an economic and social wasteland. The sex industry was far from the result of a traditionalist patriarchy, as it were, but the result of a wholly modern one.

For one thing, it is worth note that the Russian Orthodox Church (including such clerics as Fr Vsevolod Chaplin) stood in the middle of this as a bulwark for restoring social justice and putting some brakes on the runaway neoliberalism which had led to the explosion of the sex industry. For another thing, the sort of religious organisations which FEMEN deems ‘patriarchal’ and ‘traditional’ (and therefore regards as enemies) – notably the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox Churches of Eastern European countries – are actually at the very forefront of the campaign to end human trafficking and help its victims to resume normal and healthy lives. One of the biggest networks actively fighting against sex trafficking around the globe is COATNET, which is affiliated with Caritas International – a network of Roman Catholic charities, and one of the most prominent members of COATNET is the Romanian Orthodox Church. The single largest and most-respected organisation in Russia working to combat sex trafficking and the sex industry, the Angel Coalition, maintains active ties with the Russian Orthodox Church on a grassroots level.

Thirdly, with regard to Russian politics, to claim to be against the sex industry and dictatorship, and then turn around and oppose Putin and only Putin, is laughably naïve. I tend to think my options for voting ‘realistically’ in the United States are bad, but our country’s got nothing on Russia. Aside from Putin, you’ve got the old-guard Communists under Zyuganov (the next-most powerful electoral bloc after Единая Россия), then you’ve got the scary-racist Nationalist Right represented by Zhirinovsky and Limunov, and then you’ve got Яблоко and the СПС, the intellectual heirs of the people who drove the getaway car for the shock therapists and the gangsters who came after them. Not a pretty picture at all – and FEMEN and their ideological allies are often seen as enablers of all of the above, the Stalinists, the racists and the neoliberals. Certainly symbolically, FEMEN’s actions should be subject to this sort of scrutiny, particularly in light of the way they took a chainsaw to a cross erected as a monument to the victims of Stalin.

Ms Pyzik subjects FEMEN to critique for going out of their depth and failing to understand the regional limits of their action. Understandable, since such an interpretation would be more sympathetic. I think it could be interpreted, however, that they have the exact opposite problem: they’re out of their depth at home, and perhaps they expect to find more sympathy by attacking fashionable targets abroad – like the Pope (whom they ought to see as an ally in the fight against the sex industry), and like European Muslims. What their followers and what their leader, Ms Shevchenko, said about European Muslims was not only crude, it was deliberately cruel and demeaning (if you think they are being oppressed, why do you go around calling them ‘stupid’?), and it had shades of the logic used by rapists to justify themselves.

The second article, that by Mr Williams, I have very little sympathy with whatever, because it hoists itself quite soundly and quite repeatedly on its own rhetorical petard that ‘nuance and allegations of bigotry make strange bedfellows’. Apart from its own self-righteous and petulant whingeing about how hard the New Atheists have it, never able to catch a break from being criticised (wait, isn’t that the point of having a ‘civilised debate’?), it’s rather laughable that this article uses practically every cheap demagogical trick in the book to make Islam into a vast undifferentiated Other in ways which the likes of the late Edward Said might put into his next book as textbook examples of orientalist thinking. Further, no one I noticed who criticised Sam Harris for saying what he did about racial profiling and nuclear first-strikes – myself included, here – is denying that ‘a religion that harbours such extremes has some explaining to do’. It is merely that we are holding the nouveau atheists and Islam to the same standard.

Let’s take a moment to look at the most brutal tyrannies of our day: North Korea, Turkmenistan, Burma, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia. Two of them – North Korea and Turkmenistan – are explicitly atheist, and Zimbabwe has no official religion at all. Burma’s state religion is Buddhism, which still for reasons which downright baffle me still enjoys broad exemption in the West from any discussions of religious extremism – Harris and Dawkins (though not Hitchens, let’s give him points for consistency) are notably silent on that score. Only one of these dictatorships – Saudi Arabia – is Muslim. It is very far from clear that Islam is truly any graver a threat to constitutional order in government, or any more amenable to irrational dogmatism, than is either atheism or Buddhism.

Even – or perhaps we should say especially – Islamic states like Iran are amenable to a robust realist critique. Even if they were pursuing nuclear weapons, a nice little claim which our government likes to trot out every now and again only for an anticlimactic failure to produce anything resembling proof, their reasons for doing so would be entirely prudential, given the gigantic stockpiles of nukes held by two particular not-so-neighbourly neighbours.

And Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens themselves have ‘some explaining to do’, regarding the war in Iraq and its execution. Harris is a torture apologist, there is no getting around it, and he has also made the written claim that the intentions of the Iraq War were purely noble and altruistic. And Hitchens was one of the most influential figures in swaying much of the liberal intelligentsia to support Bush’s murderous folly. They have no room to complain when it comes to irrational support for acts of gratuitous and senseless violence.

EDIT: Looks like I wasn’t the first to the punch on this one. Here is a brilliant takedown of Williams’ article - far better than mine was. Bravo, good sir!

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