othing tastes better than freedom—except possibly burrata.
One May night, I sat beneath the blue whale at the American Museum of Natural History, nibbling through a four-course dinner at the gala for an Eminent Literary Organization.
This Organization defends persecuted writers from Qatar to Honduras. Founded in 1921, their history glitters. With them, Susan Sontag slugged whiskey. With them, Arthur Miller refused to denounce his Communist friends. They stood in solidarity with Salman Rushdie when the Ayatollah Khomeini called for his death.
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The Organization is committed to free expression without borders, a value reflected in its international literary festival. They have conducted a powerful study on the effect of N.S.A. surveillance on U.S. writers.
In countries that lock their critics into jail cells, the Organization’s advocacy saves lives.
Earlier that day, police locked former Occupy Wall Street protester Cecily McMillan into a cell at Rikers.
She’d been found guilty of assaulting a cop.
On St. Patrick’s Day, 2012, as McMillan testified in court, a plainclothes officer grabbed McMillan’s breast from behind during an Occupy Wall Street protest. Instinctively, she elbowed him. Any woman would have done the same. In response, the N.Y.P.D. beat her. Along with hundreds of other protesters, I watched in horror as McMillan convulsed in seizure on the pavement.
During McMillan’s trial, the judge banned her defense from addressing the officer’s violent record. The prosecutor said it was more likely that “aliens” assaulted McMillan than a New York City cop. (The officer in question denied grabbing her breast.)
“I cannot confess to a crime that I did not commit. I cannot throw away my dignity in return for my freedom,” McMillan told a jury that declared her guilty. At the time, her projected sentence was two to seven years.
At the gala, I could not stop thinking about Cecily McMillan.
Writer after writer took the stage. Silver with passion, they spoke of the Organization’s work in Turkey and China. They showed a film about imprisoned Uighur journalist Ilham Tohti. I cried as his teen daughter spoke.
World-renowned authors talked of freedom. So did Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria (Masha) Alekhina, formerly of Pussy Riot.
No one said a word about Cecily McMillan.
The Organization’s bedrock is its support of writers, but this has always stretched to other political prisoners abroad. It has extended help to foreign composers, translators, editors, and lawyers who have been persecuted for their beliefs. Why not Cecily McMillan, hours after her verdict, miles from where she was held?
Speakers had no words for writer Barrett Brown.
Brown’s been jailed since September 2012 for his coverage of hacker group Anonymous, which prosecutors claimed amounted to participation in illegal activities and which resulted in 17 total charges. On its Web site, the Organization posted a mild note of support in March 2014, when some of his charges were dropped. No one mentioned him that night.
That night, no one had one word for any American political prisoner, hacker and whistle-blower and activist, cracking from solitary in their 6-foot-by-11-foot cells.
The Organization is a savior for imprisoned dissidents the world over. That night, it seemed to forget those closer to home.
The Organization whose gala I drank at does deeply admirable work, but its hush on domestic political prisoners mirrors that of those with more troubling motives. By ignoring humans locked in their own cells, states can pretend that dissent is only punished elsewhere. They can both toast hell-raisers abroad, and clamp down on hell-raisers at home.
Empires love their dissidents foreign.
Any regime, no matter how repressive, will gladly fête its enemy’s critics—while homegrown versions of those critics occupy concrete cells. Cooing over foreign dissidents allows establishment hacks to pose like sexy rebels—while simultaneously affirming that their own system is the best.
The dissident fetishist takes a brave, principled person, and uses them like a codpiece of competitive virtue.
The Kremlin loves (American) whistle-blowers. The State Department loves (Russian) anarchist punks.
Mainstream media cherishes these dissidents because they allow journalists the by-proxy thrill of challenging power. They, too, can stand square-shouldered against Putin or Obama, capes billowing behind them in the wind.
These same media figures aren’t always so lippy on their home turf.
Not everyone gets to be called a dissident, of course. In pop imagery, a dissident should be pure and unworldly, unconcerned with either the danger or fame his or her actions may bring. Dissidents should be educated, telegenic. They should renounce violence. They should talk in the Western-friendly language of human rights.
In court, they should stand with their backs straight, their words like honey and fire.
Today’s dissident is often yesterday’s criminal or terrorist. And vice versa. Advocates of ideologies like political Islam are seldom granted the dissident label—a fact that regimes from Egypt to the U.A.E. have used to damn critics across the political spectrum.
In The Atlantic, writer Sarah Kendzior called Pussy Riot “manic pixie dream dissidents.” For Western commentators, Kendzior wrote, Pussy Riot’s beauty and victimhood took away their complicated political critique. Nadya Tolokonnikova, Masha Alekhina, and Yekaterina (Katya) Samutsevich are artists. They were artists as members of performance-art group Voina, when they forcibly made out with Moscow cops as part of “Operation Kiss Garbage,” or spray-painted a giant dick on a bridge across from the headquarters of the secret police. They were artists in the courtroom cage.
When Tolokonnikova raised her fist in that No Pasaran T-shirt, or Alekhina refused to leave her prison camp in solidarity with less famous inmates, they were performing gestures as iconic as any painting. They deserve every glossy party New York throws in their honor.
I only wish there were parties as glam for another young woman who challenged power.
Last summer, I sat in the courtroom when a judge declared Chelsea Manning guilty of violating the Espionage Act.
Neither Madonna nor Marina Abramovic came out to support one of the 20th century’s most important whistle-blowers. At Fort Meade, a small crowd of activists sweltered in their “Truth” T-shirts. Many were older. Many were veterans. Most were defiantly un-hip. Passing cars screamed that they were traitors. On sentencing day, TV news was more concerned with Anthony Weiner’s dick.
CNN’s Larry Shaughnessy repeatedly fell asleep in the media center.
Without independent journalists like Alexa O’Brien and Kevin Gosztola, the trial itself would be largely unknown. Only one TV network consistently covered Chelsea Manning’s trial: the Kremlin-funded Russia Today.
Sure, a Russian Chelsea Manning would have been chucked in a prison camp—just like American Voina-style art vandals would be languishing in Rikers. But that isn’t the point. America’s treatment of Chelsea Manning showed a poisonous artery at the heart of our country. Russia delighted in exposing it, just as American media delighted in exposing Russia’s treatment of its dissidents.
It wasn’t just Manning. U.S. news sneered at Occupy Wall Street. Mainstream media reporters largely ignored the trials of hackers like Jeremy Hammond. They mocked activism that went beyond the pantomime of party politics. Russia Today gave a platform to all of this. From 2011, countless leftist journalists, myself included, appeared on air. It was the only place where we were welcome to criticize the U.S.
But for all its slick studios and achingly hot anchors, the channel reeked of what it was: state propaganda. When I appeared once, to discuss my arrest at Occupy, I felt dirty and useful. I didn’t go back.
Russia Today refused to substantively cover Pussy Riot, just as mainstream American cable news networks refused to substantively cover the Manning trial.
For all the award banquets in their honor, dissidents occupy a precarious position. Their choice is staying home and risking being locked in a cage, or going into exile, at the mercy of a state that’s perhaps little better than the one they left.
Edward Snowden fled the U.S. because he wanted to avoid the fate of Chelsea Manning: torture and decades in solitary. Every move by the U.S. government since, from canceling his passport to forcibly landing the Bolivian president’s plane, has proved him right.
Many criticized Snowden for asking Putin, “Does Russia intercept, store, or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?” on live TV. The question was flan-soft, though Snowden later explained it as a way of catching Putin in a lie. But, whether or not Snowden asked an easy question is beside the point. Russia is giving him asylum after he angered the world’s most powerful empire. If maintaining his safety means he asks the occasional easy question, that’s not his fault. That’s America’s.
Tolokonnikova and Alekhina, too, disappointed American radicals, by rocking Russian bitch face in a photo with Hillary Clinton. How dare they spread their cred to a woman who rubber-stamped the Iraq war? But the criticisms revealed American self-centeredness. Later, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina traveled to D.C. to support extending the Magnitsky Act (sanctions against Russians responsible for the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky) to other officials. Tolokonnikova and Alekhina’s goal has always been to reform the Russian prison system. Their priorities are there, not here.
Safety or pragmatism might force dissidents to compromise. Less sympathetic are their imitators. Behold the faux bravery of pundits like James Kirchick, a contributor for the Daily Beast, forever posturing defiantly against Russia, a country that has no power over him. When his friend Liz Wahl quit Russia Today, he posted a “freedom selfie” at no risk to either of their freedoms.
Putin obviously deserves condemnation. But what of an American dissident like Chelsea Manning? To Kirchick, her “punishment should be death.”
For someone as obedient as Kirchick, an American dissident is a contradiction in terms. It’s the same for his Russian counterparts. To their respective establishments, Manning and Pussy Riot are traitors or hooligans. To establishment minds, the law is just. Anyone imprisoned has been dealt with justly. They forget that laws often exist to preserve the very system of power to which the dissident is a threat.
Dissidents, like prophets, get little love in their native lands.
Cecily McMillan is still in Rikers. After her verdict, activists rallied around her. The judge sentenced her to three months. She is scheduled to be released in July.
On May 9, McMillan received two celebrity supporters. After their visit, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina sucked cigarettes in front of Rikers barbed wire. “She’s really a hero,” Alekhina told reporters.
“We honestly believe no country should have political prisoners,” she added.
With these words, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina shamed every establishment hack with a dissident fetish. They’d take on power, in countries that jailed them and countries that fêted them.
In Russia or in America, freedom begins at home.