Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Chili Peppers Paradox

There is something incredibly frustrating about the fact that the Red Hot Chili Peppers played a concert in Israel, ignoring international pleas for them to cancel and observe the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Admittedly, I wasn’t even quite aware of just how much their decision stung until the day after their appearance at the Pic.Nic festival in Tel Aviv.

It was then that I took a bit of a trip down memory lane. If I’m honest with myself, the Chili Peppers haven’t really been my thing for quite some time. Nowadays they seem to fit all too comfortably in with the slick, mega-marketing scheme of turning rebellion into money that the music industry has honed so well.

It’s only after giving it some real thought that one remembers an entirely different era that Anthony Kiedis, Flea and company were a part of. That was the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which no less a figure than Rock & Rap Confidential’s Lee Ballinger called the most exciting period for record making in 25 years.

Just to be clear, Ballinger wasn’t talking about hair metal or empty, sugary synth-pop, both of which had more or less run their course by this time. He was talking about the rise of grunge and alternative around ‘91, the emergence of hip-hop as a cultural force, and scenes like those in Los Angeles starting around ‘86.

It was here that punks, surfers, headbangers and hip-hop heads started to collide, creating some truly unique music: Fishbone, Suicidal Tendencies, Rage Against the Machine, and yes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. All mixed a potent blend of metal, punk rock, rap and funk -- crossing racial and cultural barriers in doing so. We should be clear, in the age of a rising war on drugs (which would devastate poor communities of color, particularly in LA) and South African apartheid’s final days, creating music like this was a radical act.

The Chili Peppers might not have been the most political of this scene in their early days, but neither were they a total exception. It wasn’t for nothing that one of their first break-out hits was their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Blood Sugar Sex Magik, rightly regarded as the album that cemented their status among rock’s best, included such tracks as “Power of Equality.”

They were also involved in a great amount of progressive advocacy and activism during these years, playing benefits for Rock 4 Choice and speaking out against the fundamentalist Christian censorship brigades that emerged in the form of the Parental Music Resource Foundation. And, of course, they never played in apartheid South Africa. Once again, in the midst of Reagan and Bush the First’s America, these stances went against the grain in a big way.

What happened?

What the hell happened, then? How is it that this band, springing from the dynamic, multiracial, instinctively anti-racist scene that they did, ended up playing for an apartheid state? Moreover, how could they do so even as Israel’s actions become more brazenly racist by the day -- as police turn a blind eye to anti-Arab lynch mobs, as anti-African pogroms are carried out?

I have heard some, in more informal settings, chalk it up to the fact that the band’s late guitarist Hillel Slovak (to whom “Under the Bridge” is dedicated) was himself an Israeli-American Jew. This doesn’t pass muster. As any supporter of BDS will know, there are plenty of anti-Zionist Jews out there. This includes a small but significant number of those born in historic Palestine or present-day Israel who are horrified by Israel’s actions. Slovak died over 20 years ago, and we have no way of knowing how his political ideas may have been shaped.

Far more likely is the way in which the political, economic, and cultural landscape has drastically shifted since the Chili Peppers first emerged onto the scene. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, federal regulations prevented television and radio from being so frightfully consolidated as they now are. DJ’s and artists alike were still able to speak their mind on a host of political issues; though record and communications execs may not have liked it, they weren’t really able to do much about it.

This was coupled with the fact that there were such things as a strong anti-apartheid movement back then -- a movement that, in some ways, represented a last hurrah for powerful social movements that were forced into decline by the ascent of neoliberalism. In short, the grip of “the industry” was notably looser, while the space created by the left was greater. Back then, it was possible for songs like “Sun City” -- which urged musicians to shun South Africa -- to make it onto MTV and radio. Today, the possibilities are much, much narrower.

Social movements rising again

Over the summer, Punks Against Apartheid was among the many groups and collectives that openly called for the Chili Peppers to cancel. In doing so, we specifically appealed to the group’s artistic and social legacy:

“[W]hile some in the mainstream may have forgotten this history -- scratching their heads at why a bunch of no-good punks would  bother with a band as commercial as RHCP -- we have not, and we intend to remind you and your fans of these roots. Because your proximity to punk as a band should have put you in touch with the best tendencies of rebel music, of music as a form of resistant community -- and that is something to be cherished, not to be rejected by playing in Israel. By doing so, you would be, in the words of the Israeli group Boycott from Within, serving “the government’s agenda of whitewashing its war crimes and creating an image of Israel as a ‘modern state.’”

One of Boycott from Within’s own members, Tali Shapiro, also wrote a piece explaining how out of joint the Chili Peppers’ decision is, even with their present political stances:

“In the past four months, I’ve taken a visible role in the campaign to get the Red Hot Chili Peppers to cancel their concert in Israel. A campaign which grew to almost 8,000 signatures, more than a dozen letters from organizations around the globe, and managed to get support from other celebrities. Following the band closely, on their current world tour, we’ve seen that it goes beyond the music to support causes it believes in. Be it Trayvon Martin, Pussy Riot, or Captain Paul Watson, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, recognizing their public status, have made a conscious choice to raise awareness about something other than themselves.”

This, in some ways, is where the window of hope gets opened a bit. The social movements that were on the decline in the ‘80s appear to be on the ascendancy again. The political winds are shifting.

Case in point: the very day that the Chili Peppers played their Tel Aviv show, there was a strike of transport workers that paralyzed the West Bank in protest against the Palestinian Authority’s complicity with Israel. This was significant enough in itself, but it’s important to point out that 10 September  was also the first day of the Chicago teachers’ strike. In New York City, one demonstrator in solidarity with the teachers carried a sign that made connections between the two strikes. It’s a sentiment no doubt shared by a growing number of people.

Lessons of a “partial success”

It is also telling that many in the BDS movement are declaring the campaign around the Chili Peppers to be at least a partial success. Much like Madonna’s May performance in Tel Aviv, the Red Hot Chili Peppers couldn’t seem to shake the BDS campaign wherever they went. Not only were there open letters, but frequently the true nature of culture in the state of Israel as propaganda was exposed for what it is.

And then, of course, there was the cancellation of the Chili Peppers’ opening act, Mashrou’ Leila of Lebanon, two days shy of their gig in Beirut. Mashrou’ Leila’s cancellation -- especially as it was only about a week before the Pic.Nic performance -- had the effect of cementing the awareness that the Chili Peppers were, ultimately, crossing a picket line.

Perhaps the most prescient lesson from the campaign around RHCP is one rather similar to the experience around Madonna. During the call for the queen of pop to cancel her Tel Aviv performance, BDS activists worked tirelessly to make sure the truth followed her around wherever she went.

The Chili Peppers, despite their own refusal to even acknowledge the BDS campaign, couldn’t escape the truth either. This was in no short order due to the efforts of activists again, but the past several weeks have also seen an increased upsurge of attention to the Middle East. From the general strike in the West Bank to the rebellions against an Islamophobic film to the controversy over Pamela Geller’s insufferably racist transit ads, the world really did seem to be showing us the full extent of western empire’s racism.

And here were the Red Hot Chili Peppers, holding up a central pillar of this empire. After speaking out for Trayvon Martin and Pussy Riot, completely ignoring the fact that it’s all the same system. You didn’t need a doctorate in foreign policy to see this for what it was. None of this is to say that activists merely have to let the truth do the work for us, but it is worth remembering, in the fevered frenzy of constant campaigning, that ultimately it’s just this that we have on our side -- the truth. It’s precisely this that puts building a large, global anti-apartheid movement back on the agenda. Any artist who forgets this -- as the Chili Peppers unfortunately have to some degree -- is bound to be left behind by the rest of the world.

When the times change, you’d better change with them. I think Dylan had something to say about those who don’t.

First appeared at the Electronic Intifada

Monday, September 10, 2012

Who's Afraid of Pussy Riot?

This article was written in collaboration with the editorial board of Red Wedge magazine.

Pussy Riot have gone to jail. Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich -- three of the five members of the Russian punk collective who rushed the altar at Christ the Savior Cathedral to perform their “punk prayer” -- are now in prison. And unless their legal team’s appeal to international legal bodies is successful, they will likely be in prison for the next two years.

Let’s be frank: the time that the Pussy Riot three are going to spend in jail isn’t going to be pretty. The penal colony they’ve been sent to in the federal subject Republic of Mordovia was once part of the Stalinist gulag system. According to Maria Alyokhina, the abuse and intimidation started almost directly after they were sentenced, waiting to be transported:

“A few minutes after that, a special forces cop burst into my cell and started swearing at me, telling me to get my things together. Evidently I wasn't fast enough, and he started twisting my arms. This was very strange, because in the past we were generally treated less roughly... What is the meaning of all this? Even terrorists and heavy criminals aren't given this kind of special convoy treatment. Doing so for three girls is a clear sign of FEAR. The depth of this fear came as a surprise. It would be nice to think that it will all end happily, but these events would seem to indicate otherwise.”

The repression of other activists connected with the collective has also continued. Two more members of the Pussy Riot collective have been forced to flee Russia and go into hiding for fear of further reprisals.

This isn’t a misplaced fear. In the weeks since the verdict, the case has taken a particularly violent and even conspiratorial turn. On August 28th, a band of conservative Russian Orthodox Christians ran rampant in Moscow erotic art museum. The vandals openly admitted they were emboldened by the verdict.

It gets worse. Two days later, a mother and daughter were found brutally slain in their apartment in the city of Kazan. The words “Free! Pussy Riot” had been written on the walls. Police investigators were certain that the graffiti had been written by the killer to put them off the right trail.

This turned out to be correct. When the suspect was apprehended, he confessed both to the killings and that the words were written as a way to distract police. This didn’t stop media from jumping on the case in the interim, claiming that the killer was indeed a Pussy Riot supporter. The Russian Orthodox Church, who have gone after the punkers with all the slanderous vigor they can muster, claimed that the band bore “a moral responsibility” for the killings.

Also on August 30th, a man in St. Petersburg was killed in a similar manner, a Christian Orthodox icon left on his mutilated face. There has been widespread speculation that the killing came as a retaliation against Pussy Riot’s supporters, and at any rate it’s obvious anybody that the killer was motivated by religious zealotry. Despite this, there’s been no indication that St. Petersburg police have even lifted a finger to find the killer.

Between these two cases, one gets a sense of the political climate in which Pussy Riot -- and the growing democracy movement they represent -- are operating. On the one hand, there’s the quickness with which the Russian establishment lit the sensationalistic hue and cry to further criminalize a section of the nation’s dissidents. On the other, we have foot-dragging over a brutal murder obviously committed by a fundamentalist Christian.

The contrast is stark. It also mirrors the outright thuggery that Vladimir Putin’s regime, party, and supporters have long employed to keep their man in power and quash dissent. Though it’s worth acknowledging that there’s as of now no proof connecting the St. Petersburg murder to Putin, Russia is also home to several pro-Putin youth groups whose record of intimidation and violence is well documented.

In some ways, the fallout since the Pussy Riot verdict has merely proven just how harsh the repression can be in Russia. And all this, once again, for singing a song!


Pussy Riot more than just a band; they’re now an international symbol of not only repression, but resistance and solidarity. As has been written before at Red Wedge, there is no real way to separate the Russian democracy movement from the rebellions in Greece, Spain, Egypt, Tunisia, Wisconsin and beyond. They’ve captured a mood and sentiment widespread among young people the world over: that the system isn’t working, and we need a new one.

That’s certainly how the members of Pussy Riot see themselves. According to Tolokonnikova, the group is "part of the global anti-capitalist movement, which consists of anarchists, Trotskyists, feminists and autonomists." Between this and lyrics like “do Tahrir in Red Square,” there’s very little room to mistake their motivations.

Several editorials have been written commending the collective for re-igniting punk’s rebel spirit. In a matter of about six months, since the initial arrests, Pussy Riot have become, in the words of Irish socialist Eamonn McCann, “the most important band in the world.”

Surprisingly (or maybe not so much), there are those on the left who, despite all evidence supporting the contrary, fall on the wrong side of the Putin-Pussy divide. Chief among these would be what’s left of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, whose leader Gennady Zyuganov, stated:

“Personally here’s my view: I would have taken a good belt, whipped them, and send them to their kids and parents. This would be an administrative punishment. And I would tell them that they shouldn’t engage in such blasphemy and disgraceful behavior.”

Without saying exactly how it is that an ostensibly Marxist group can defend corporal punishment against left-wing dissidents, Zyuganov went on to sound more like a member of Pat Robertson’s congregation:

“I would listen closely to Valentin Rasputin, whom I consider the conscience of the country. In my view there is a sharp attack against Christianity as a cultural phenomenon. After all European civilization is based on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Concerning the communists -- they have re-written it regularly and have decided to build the Kingdom of God on earth, and in doing so have allowed a number of mistakes and idiocy. It seems to me that the attempt to turn people against our moral foundations and roots (which are based on Orthodoxy) is extremely dangerous for everyone. There are those who understand this and those who don’t.”

Such cynicism is not exclusive to the international left. Missteps made much closer to home come from Mike Whitney and Israel Shamir’s contributions to the popular American left website CounterPunch.

Whitney, in a puffed-up defense of Vladimir Putin against Western criticism, belittles Pussy Riot as the mere playthings of the anti-Putin media propaganda machine. Whitney’s argument is essentially that if American imperialism is bad, then that which is not American imperialism must be good.

In this equation, Putin shines as a world leader not because of who he is, but because of who he is not, which in Whitney’s mind elevates him to a level above reproach. As the cause celebre in the anti-Putin media frenzy, Pussy Riot play the role of useful idiots, who unwittingly advance the case for U.S. imperial hegemony by daring to criticize the Russian president.

To its credit, CounterPunch has also published many, many more articles defending Pussy Riot, in particular Chris Randolph’s response to Whitney’s absurd arguments. Randolph rightly points out that Putin’s economic policies -- deregulation, privatization, layoffs -- have utterly devastated Russia’s working class. In fact, they fall well within the bounds of the neoliberal menace that has terrorized working people the world over.

Meanwhile, Israel Shamir -- a writer with a noble record of defending Palestinian self-determination -- goes further in his argument. Pussy Riot is not only bereft of any artistic merit, but that they are furthermore the paid agents of U.S. imperialism, claiming that the State Department funded their first single.

What makes Whitney’s and Shamir’s respective articles so sloppy is that they refuse to look at the women of Pussy Riot on their own terms -- the terms of artists and the thriving avant-garde arts scene in Russia itself. Shamir simply denies any artistic merit by willfully taking on a conservative, elitist, puritanical view of what constitutes art, saying that Pussy Riot “have nothing but public relations” He states:

“Hell-bent on publicity, but artistically challenged, three young women from Russia... stole a frozen chicken from a supermarket and used it as dildo; they filmed the act, called it ‘art’ and placed it on the web...Their other artistic achievements were an orgy in a museum and a crude presentation of an erect prick.”

Shamir’s article evinces not even a casual knowledge of the Russian avant-garde scenes neither past nor present. Wrapped up in his glib and ham-fisted dismissal of Pussy Riot’s artistic merit is a hostile ignorance toward the rich history of the Russian art world.

As far back as the 1890’s, Russia has been a home to the avant garde and produced some of the leading figures of the neo-primitivist, suprematist, constructivist and futurist movements, none of which fit into Shamir’s starved and anemic view of art, and all of which challenged the societal norms of their day.

All, importantly, used shock -- in one way or another -- to get their point across, and all were condemned as crude, vulgar and talentless by the establishment. These protest movements are now canonized in art history, and Pussy Riot have been quite open about standing in their legacy.

And then there are the moments when Shamir uses his own ignorance as a cudgel. According to him, the women of Pussy Riot are mere stooges of US empire. Says Shamir:

“[T]hat famous lover-of-art, the US State Department, paid for their first ever single being produced by The Guardian out of some images and sounds.”

This is an outright lie. The US State Department did not “pay” for Pussy Riot to record or release this single. Rather, if one reads the actual article that Shamir has linked to, it is clear that the band recorded it, The Guardian picked it up, and in the same article, the writer notes that the State Department has expressed “concern” in a public statement over the treatment of Pussy Riot. Shamir insults not only his own subjects but his own readers by assuming we’re too dumb to click on a link!

But what of the US State Department’s sudden concern for Pussy Riot? The US has never been a safe haven for artists; this much is evident by the long history of repression against everyone from jazz and folk musicians to the manufactured controversy around the Mapplethorpe exhibits in the ‘80s. At the same time, the State Department has been all too glad to tout the cause of artistic freedom abroad in order to present the US as a bastion of cultural freedom.

Does this however somehow mean that anyone who the State Department throws rhetoric at is now a pawn? Certainly not! And we on the left are obligated to show more discernment than what Whitney and Shamir have shown here.


The case of Whitney and Shamir, and indeed that of Zyuganov, is not simply a problem of a handful of myopic lefties waxing candidly, if inaccurately, on the Pussy Riot phenomenon. What is at play here is the legacy of the same force that dismantled the first-wave of avant garde in Russia, the legacy of Stalinism.

Perennially trapped by the politics of the “real existing,” the Stalinist left has so far been unable to escape the redundant logic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In this case, Putin stands in opposition to US hegemony, the left opposes the same, therefore the left must support Putin, and by extension, ostracize Pussy Riot, whose critique of Putin has empowered imperialism.

For sure, this has resulted in some truly confused and outright tragic stances. Groups and individuals who celebrate the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak brought about by massive Arab mobilizations, but also defend the likes of Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad on the grounds of anti-imperialism. That both leaders have frequently colluded and compromised with Western imperialism seems to escape these folks. Never mind that one need not have to choose between the grip of a dictator and the bombs of empire.

In the case of Shamir, it’s meant support for Putin, a denial of his well-documented vote-rigging or neoliberal agenda, and equivocation on the Russian leader’s relationship with Israel based on his support for Assad.

The Russian Communist Party, while certainly a prominent opponent of Putin (Zyuganov came in second to Putin in the recent presidential election), have tended toward the conservative end of the opposition historically. Its call for the corporal punishment of Pussy Riot and appeal to Christian Orthodox morality can be chalked up to its attempts over the past decade to steal votes away from Putin’s conservative hardcore base. In fact, as the heir to the Stalinist ruling party of the USSR, the CP has had little to do with real Marxism for some time. As a party it’s even allowed capitalists to join -- Sergei Sobko, chairman of the Sobko Corporation, represents the CP in the Russian Duma!

Thankfully, among the ever-growing ranks of young, radicalizing people, views like those of Shamir and Zyuganov seem to be somewhat on the margins. What seems striking about many of the supposedly leftist criticisms of Pussy Riot is how similar they've been to the establishment criticisms. Of course, there are the simplistic takes on art, shunning the fact that art is supposed to be controversial, to stir debates about vulgarity and obscenity. But there is also a not-so-veiled fear of ordinary people beyond their control.

Vadim Nikitin, a Russian journalist and supporter of the group coming from a more liberal bent, makes a poignant argument when he points out that:

“Pussy Riot’s fans in the West need to understand that their heroes’ dissent will not stop at Putin; neither will it stop if and when Russia becomes a ‘normal’ liberal democracy. Because what Pussy Riot wants is something that is equally terrifying, provocative and threatening to the established order in both Russia and the West (and has been from time immemorial): freedom from patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system.”

Maybe it goes without saying, but we here at Red Wedge think all of these are precisely why Pussy Riot deserve our support!

Are there opportunists among the ranks of this group’s supporters? Most definitely. Are there those who would use the specter of punk rock for their own political or economic gain? That too, but this is nothing new to defenders of punk. We shouldn’t let it sway our solidarity with Pussy Riot.

Nor, frankly, should we let our opposition to the horror of Western imperialism cloud our support for genuine, liberatory movements from below, be they in Egypt, Iran, Syria or Russia. That’s what Pussy Riot represent: an upheaval of bottom-up, radical democracy. It’s an upheaval whose vision goes well past the narrow strictures of choosing who gets to oppress us. And, if we play our cards right, it’s an upheaval may finally free our daily lives from the shackles of exploitation and boredom.

First published at Red Wedge magazine