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Across a cultural boundary

A month or two ago, I discovered a particularly interesting online person, Anatoly Karlin. I wrote about him earlier in the context of feminism; in the months since (which has involved minimal interaction; I mainly find he's interesting reading (not that I often agree with him on facts or values, but "interesting" is a good enough bar to meet). One of his projects is to explain Russia to the west, although to me it feels more like he's justifying Russia's problems, or at least bringing up sometimes-reasonable sometimes-not examples of problems in the West for comparison.

By comparison, I consider Russia a semi-backward, highly corrupt society and culture with numerous serious shortcomings in pluralism, in development of law, in civil culture, and the like. I call it a second-world country. The first-world countries almost without exception have serious problems of their own, but they have much more solid foundations in almost every metric.

One of his justifications that's struck me as most curious is that of Russia's long imprisonment of the Pussy Riot band members for their stunt in the church; he's noted that Russia is a deeply conservative society and their act has meaning in such a society that it wouldn't in ours. I'm trying to read this more deeply than kneejerk defense of his homeland, and I have at least one plausible theory; it's a cultural-legal perspective that has echoes in the United States, and for it I'm going to bring up another data point, that of the arrest of Jill Stein, Green candidate for US President, in a protest immediately before the second presidential debate earlier this week; many people there saw her arrest as symbolic of the lack of health of US democracy, generally without any further explanation (so I am assuming it to be a surface symbolic statement).

I believe that analysis of Jill Stein (that she should not have been arrested) and that analysis of Pussy Riot (that their sentence of two years is acceptable) share the same fault; they're written from a world that ranks symbols over laws. I believe part of the western perspective is to ran rule-of-law very highly; we recognise formal relations in law, allow them to have moderate distance from cultural/symbolic meaning, and primarily analyse situations in terms of law for what-should-happen (even if we might decide how to emotionally react based on a mix); to the extent that we believe law captures the most important aspects of most structures, and to the extent we're willing to let go of punishment or formal penalty for misdeeds that are not captured by a rule-of-law philosophy, we don't include things like dignity of an institution or perspective as foundational for the ordering of conflicts in society.

AK's analysis makes sense if we're operating from a perspective that lacks this moderate alienation of law and symbolic meaning. As does anger of the arrest of Jill Stein. And like symbolic-centric perspectives usually do, these judgements generally either embody strong privilege to specific actors or fail to hold up under careful examination; had Pussy Riot done their protest in some other semi-public space would they have received the same sentence? What kinds of laws should Jill Stein be immune to while she is a candidate running for the US Presidency?

None of this is to suggest that the laws or institutional behaviours being questions are correct; indeed a legal system might be based with less of a rule-of-law focus (any legal system that has a concept of lese majeste, for example, is performing a task that more rule-of-law legal systems would not), and perhaps having some debates that include the unelectable would be prudent (at some threshold; I imagine there are actually moderately large numbers of people running for US President). But when we are judging Pussy Riot, we shouldn't expect much more than brief jailtime and a fine for trespass, and when we are judging Jill Stein, we should not expect much less; their acts are substantially the same. We should not expect the behaviour of our legal system to have a personal character (where insulting the state or powerful interests in society has real legal effects), and should accept that because laws are not perfectly sharp tools their judgement will be a little distant from our inconsistent intuitions on particular situations. Our judgement of how the law acted in particular situations should be sympathetic to the difficult task of law and we should look at the legal/impersonal judgement (perhaps a cousin to ant's Categorical Imperative) before we look for juicy symbolism.


Thanks for the attention, but a few clarifications:

(1) I made one Re-Tweet (from Glenn Greenwald, IIRC) about the Jill Stein incident. I made no comment whatsoever on the rightness or wrongness of it, much less any attempt to link it to Pussy Riot.

However, now that you mention it, there is a point to be made. Much as marginal Russian oppositioners are briefly arrested when they hold an unsanctioned protest, so are marginal US opposition figures when they violate some law or regulation. (For some reason, however, the former get at least 10x as much attention in the corporate Western press). That is the correct Russian comparison with the Jill Stein case (and most certainly NOT the Pussy Riot case, which had nothing to do with trespass).

(2) If you read the extensive article I wrote on the Pussy Riot case, you'll note that quite a large chunk of it is devoted to the legal specifics. (The cultural stuff was more than anything to explain why most Russians didn't share the manufactured outrage in the Western media). Basically, the sentence was in line with the law, which in turn does not conflict with the European Conventions of Human Rights to which Russia is a signatory (they are free to make an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights if they believe otherwise). So that's your rule-of-law focus satisfied.

If it isn't, please explain in detail why Germany imprisoning a Berlin man who disturbed a church service in 2006 for nine months, does.

(3) I'm Anatoly, not Antony.
Apologies over the name; will edit original post to fix that.

I contend that the Pussy Riot case actually should be viewed, or would legally be were it in a more healthy legal system, as trespass; there is nothing in what they did that I'm aware of that warrants a two year sentence for anyone. The church is a semi-public space, they entered (hence the trespass) and did an impromptu performance, and as far as I know did nothing else that should be illegal.

I will review your writings on the topic; I don't remember seeing something going over the legal specifics. My notion of rule-of-law suggests the law should be appropriately shaped; "dignity" of the church cannot be an issue if we're really talking about rule-of-law in this sense.

If I find I've made factual errors in my post, I'm comfortable vacating my statements. Will look into it.

Best wishes
Thanks for fixing.

The article in question is "Five views on Pussy Riot's war", at Al Jazeera. In particular, "Perspective #3 - Article 213".

Another question in addition to the one in the last post. Do you think the blasphemy laws that about half the EU countries, including Germany, have are indicative of unhealthy legal systems?
They are unhealthy elements in those legal systems, yes, and it is good that they are only rarely enforced and usually get pushback when they are. I hope to see those countries shed those laws as soon as humanly possible, and not enforce them in the meantime.
Found it; you refer to: this post; missed that one, as having your posts spread over two sites plus twitter makes it easy to miss things.

Yeah, I'd call that hooliganism law a really, really lousy law. I am willing to call the Berlin case awful too if I can get enough information from a number of sources to read the specifics of the case and make sure there are not other elements involved (like threats or weapons) that merit the sentence.

Rule-of-law can't be simply having "a letter of the law" that's consistently applied; if the law privileges the dignity of religious organisations, the state, a monarch, or similar, then it's ill-formed.

As for why people talk more or less often about some countries than others, we have higher expectations of some countries than others. Israel's racist and otherwise regressive laws get more grumbles than those of most nations in Africa because we think of Israel as being near the border of being first- and second- world, and hope that our criticism will nudge/shame them into being on the right side of that border and continuing to improve (which is not to say that we're flawless; western countries merit strong criticism when they fail by their higher standards, and that criticism/shaming is healthy and productive). We don't expect as much from second-world countries like Russia, where there is more of a culture of corruption and where political and economic pluralism are more hampered by the powerful than in the first world (which, again, is not perfect on that regard). Some nominally western countries like Italy have concentrations of power that put them fairly near that border; maybe a business owner or politician in Italy could manage to have safety/thrive while strongly criticising the powers that be, but it'd be difficult. In third-world countries, we offer less criticism because if it were proportional to their failings we'd neglect to offer the helpful criticism that helps the second and first world stay civilised and on the road to improvement. That doesn't mean we're giving them a free pass so much as we've mostly given up on that means of helping them improve.

That said, I think it's healthy that you're offering a contrarian pushback on this; I may often think you're wrong or trying to distract from real problems, but I also think you're right (or at least interesting) often enough to be a positive voice on these topics, and your concerns about media coverage and against hypocracy (whether accurate or not) themselves help keep people honest, at least when heard by enough voices. It's great that you have some exposure on AlJ and in other media so your voice is loud enough to have some effect there.