I often ask myself how seriously we Americans take our freedoms. It’s a good question, because for each person who risks standing for the full freedoms promised in the Constitution, there are many who allow them to atrophy from disuse. If that tendency takes over, it would be quite easy for extreme-right Supreme Court judges to deliver the death of a thousand cuts that could render freedom a nostalgic memory.
There’s a tremendous ferment of discussion and activity among progressives right now, some still hoping to head off a Trump administration, others to ameliorate its likely excesses, others to support anti-Trump demonstrators and protect them from persecution, others to explore the possibilities that remain for negotiation with an administration without clear or congruent positions on many policy issues.
I blogged right after the election about the meaning of the shock I felt. Many people responded that they were feeling something similar. But just as many posted their own criticisms of the naivete of the left, saying that outcome was predictable: the racism of white voters had virtually guaranteed Trump’s election. Sometimes these points are generalized: voters of color, I’ve been told this week, knew Trump would be elected. This would definitely be news to friends of mine who are deeply involved in the electoral system and were certain right up to the election that Clinton would win. In short, I’m never interested in engaging an argument that turns on who predicted the future more accurately: especially when the argument takes place after the election.
No, the conversation banging on a door in my head right now, begging to be let out, is in the title of this blog: what will we do for freedom?
Here in Santa Fe last night, I moderated a panel with members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk band/performance art/human rights group. (There’s a ton of information online about them, but two documentary films will give a picture of some of their origins and actions: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer; and Pussy Riot: The Movement. Just google them for videos, press conferences, and statements galore.)
What impresses me most about the group is the over-the-top courage its members have displayed in defying Russian authorities, at enormous personal cost, to stand for the right to dress in multicolored balaklavas, shift dresses, and tights, thrashing guitars and punching the air as they burn an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or crash Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to call on the Virgin Mary to embrace feminism. Masha Alyokhina was on last night’s panel. She and Nadia Tolokonnikova spent over a year incarcerated under conditions worse even than U.S. prisons following her conviction for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” in the Cathedral protest. Amnesty International, Madonna, and countless other artists and human rights groups came to their support, training the eyes of the world on Pussy Riot and thus helping to ensure members’ survival.
Her incarceration inspired Masha to protest prison human rights violations, winning an unheard-of three lawsuits against the system. Although Pussy Riot the activist art group cultivates a punk aesthetic of chaotic outrage, members’ response to the repressions that smother Russian civil society have also been highly organized, including the creation of MediaZona, an astoundingly popular independent news agency that focuses particularly on the court and prison system, represented last night by a passionate young journalist and editor, Sasha Bogino.
To moderate the panel, I read as much as I could about the situation in Russia, and found myself engaged in the pre-election question of similarities and connections between Trump and Putin. The Russian-American writer Masha Gessen (who is interviewed in Pussy Riot: The Movement) wrote back in July about the two personalities and what they may mean post-election, well worth reading for its indictment of the failure of imagination:
“I just can’t imagine Trump becoming the nominee,” many said at the time. But a lack of imagination is not an argument: it’s a limitation. It is essential to recognize this limitation and try to overcome it. That is a difficult and often painful thing to do.
But it is Gessen’s post-election rules for surviving autocracy that stick in my mind now, holding the line against the inane good sportsmanship that offers the autocrat an invitation to prove he is not one, allowing precious time to pass while his true colors flood the nation. Especially this rule:
Rule #3: Institutions will not save you. It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed. The capture of institutions in Turkey has been carried out even faster, by a man once celebrated as the democrat to lead Turkey into the EU. Poland has in less than a year undone half of a quarter century’s accomplishments in building a constitutional democracy.
I am not in the futile business of making predictions. To me, it seems just as likely that Masha Gessen’s cautions must be urgently heeded as that Alex Young’s “The Pendulum Swings Both Ways,” reminding us that this too shall pass—and more quickly than we imagine—if only we open our eyes and use the power we have, describes what is to come.
There are countless demonstrations being planned, including a massive Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration. There are many petitions circulating to abolish the Electoral College, head off Trump’s announced determination to circumvent the blind-trust anti-self-dealing rules that seek to prevent Presidents from making policies that directly benefit their personal fortunes. There will be powerful new organizing campaigns of every type.
And then there’s this question for each of us, individually and together: what will we do for freedom?
Here in the U.S., we still have access to the means of democratic dialogue, protest, and action that enable a truly mass movement, as we have been reminded most recently with Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie campaign, and more. In the case of Pussy Riot, protest in Russia is necessarily sustained by brave individuals, many of them artists, standing up in the secure knowledge they will be punished for their courage in the service of liberty. The risks have outweighed the possibilities of mass mobilization thus far. But here we still have a degree of freedom that—if we fight to preserve it—can turn the tide.
I can’t begin to aspire to the fearlessness and determination of Masha Alyokhina. But I can be inspired by her example to avoid tumbling into the ocean of fear and despair that awaits those who abandon hope in the face of a Trump presidency. This is a spiritual challenge as much as a political one, a cultural challenge even more than a political one. And so I am adding a fourth question to my litany:
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?
What will we do for freedom?
“Nothing Without You,” Fantastic Negrito.
Now, some of us may need a reason
and some of us, we can fake the truth
and you and I, you and I are so pissed off
at the way this world has treated us
so tell me what you’re gonna do