Ever participate in a die-in?
You know – that thing where a bunch of protesters lay down on the ground and pretend to be dead in order to dramatize the death toll of an easily ignored foreign war? (I’m American, so obviously we get plenty of chances to do that sort of thing here.)
Well, how about a nail-in?
Yes, Russian dissident Petr Pavlensky made international headlines Sunday when he did just that. The 29-year-old performance artist stripped naked, sat down on a street in Moscow’s Red Square and proceeded to pound a large spike through his ball sack, pinning it to the pavement below.
Pavlensky might have left us all scratching our heads as to why he did this (as we protectively clutched our genitals, no doubt) had the young artist not provided a written explanation on his website. Even dramatic actions don’t always speak louder than words, it seems.
“A naked artist, looking at his balls nailed to the Kremlin pavement, is a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of contemporary Russian society,” Pavlensky expounded. “As the government turns the country into one big prison, stealing from the people and using the money to grow and enrich the police apparatus and other repressive structures, society is allowing this, and forgetting its numerical advantage, is bringing the triumph of the police state closer by its inaction.”
A metaphor for apathy? I don’t know about that. But driving home your point with a nail through the nut sack –
More importantly, millions of people around the world probably would not be reading Pavlensky’s socio-political assessment right now if he hadn’t punctuated his words by perforating his scrotum. In terms of attracting attention to a dissident perspective, Pavlensky’s success is as clear as his dedication. And for that, we should all give him a hand – not to mention a pain killer, some stitches and a tube of antibiotic ointment.
But is attracting attention to a dissident perspective always a good thing? And to just what exactly does such an action prove someone is dedicated?
I ask these questions as a radical leftist who’s engaged in a decent amount of grassroots organizing and street-level direct action. So I assume that Pavlenksy’s assessment deserves attention because it is largely correct, and not just about Russia. Nevertheless, I believe his recent performance and other broadly similar actions – from setting oneself on fire to protest a war, to duct taping one’s mouth shut to protest censorship – often are counter-productive.
Broadly speaking, these actions are all about speaking – expressing a point of view, even if through something other than words. There’s nothing wrong with that. Public expression is as necessary for meaningful democracy as it is for mobilizing opposition to the meaningless democracies we have now and their more classically authoritarian counterparts.
But leftists are often downright obsessed with “speaking out” as if it was a sufficient condition for achieving social change. And once it becomes apparent that the Left is “all talk,” the ways in which we speak end up repelling people from movements for social change rather than attracting them.
For example, consider the movement against the Iraq War. Speaking out made a lot of sense in the lead-up to the invasion. Anybody could speak out, so an enormous and diverse swath of people did. Who was the face of the anti-war movement in the early 2003? Better to ask who wasn’t. The wide accessibility of speaking out at fairly sedate, legally permitted, festive mass marches and rallies proved the perfect tactic for quickly building a mass movement. But when the Bush administration launched the war in defiance of majority U.S. and world opinion, it became clear that speaking out wasn’t going to stop the war by itself.
In the U.S. a lot of former war opponents buried their heads in the sand, professed to be war supporters, and hoped for the best. But as the insurgency dragged on anti-war sentiment rebounded, and from the summer of 2004 on a steadily growing majority – eventually about three quarters of Americans – came to oppose the war. Even most right-wing pundits had to abandon or dramatically qualify their previous support.
However, in the U.S., as anti-war sentiment grew, participation in anti-war activism declined. Speaking out had proved to be an insufficient strategy for change, but the major anti-war organizations were determined to stay the course. They simply kept trying to bring people together to speak out at the same non-disruptive mass marches and rallies. More and more Americans saw this as a waste of time, and they were right.
A majority of Americans opposed the Iraq War on the basis of the Left’s geopolitical analysis. For them, the war wasn’t about defending Americans or liberating Iraqis. It was about the U.S. controlling access to vital energy reserves. Yet when America went Left, the American Left went nowhere. Even with a solid majority on our side, we were still all talk.
When the military started failing to reach its enlistment quotas, the clearest minds in the anti-war movement advocated a concerted effort to end the war by further driving down military recruitment. The government certainly took notice, designating counter recruitment groups across the country as domestic threats and subjecting them to surveillance and infiltration. Unfortunately, the major national anti-war groups were slow to progress from symbolic statements to the concrete strategy of counter-recruitment. Finally, when the Great Recession hit, enlistment figures shot back up and counter-recruitment’s window of opportunity closed.
The carnage of an overwhelmingly unpopular war continued unabated into the following decade. Meanwhile, millions of progressive Americans became more discouraged than ever about the prospects of affecting positive change. They gave up on themselves and put their hopes in Obama. The Democratic president then brought more murderous foreign policy, combined with expanded assaults on civil liberties and international law, record-setting deportations and attacks on whistle-blowers. There were no massive demonstrations against any of this. And as disillusioned progressives wandered around in a daze, the Tea Party gained momentum, Republicans won control of the House, and right-wing governors and state legislatures carried out largely effective assaults on collective bargaining, voting and reproductive rights. A historic opportunity for progressive change was squandered, and America’s long march to the Right continued.
Speaking out is vital. But as this example starkly demonstrates, being all talk is a recipe for failure. We spend all our time speaking out rather than building ongoing organizations capable of enabling large number of people to act strategically in ways that increase the costs of elites’ preferred actions to prohibitive levels. The result is a Left that most often resembles a labor movement without unions.
A visual representation of last decade’s anti-war movement, for instance, would not be the classic “Organize!” cartoon which depicts a bunch of little fish scaring off a larger predatory fish by coming together in the shape of an even bigger fish. It would instead be a bunch of little fish swimming about willy-nilly, holding signs declaring “Big fish shouldn’t eat little fish,” as the neo-con barracudas helped themselves to an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet.
It’s time we face the fact that the Left – in the U.S. and elsewhere – suffers from a kind of self-defeating oral fixation. Ironically, this disorder afflicts the very people who should know better. After all, it’s the Left that says our society is dominated by elites or even a ruling class. It’s the Left that rails against corporate personhood, corporate control of the media and unrestrained corporate financing of political campaigns. It’s the Left that points out the vast disparities between opinion polls and government policy on numerous vital issues. Yet judging by our obsession with speaking out, one would think that contrary to every single piece of leftist analysis heretofore produced leftist really believe we live in some kind of democratic-capitalist wonderland where public opinion, once expressed, automatically transforms itself into public policy. Where else could “speaking out” be sufficient to win change?
Returning to the young Russian performance artist Pavlenksy, his self-inflicted scrotum abuse may be a more dramatic form of talk, but it’s still just talk. Nailing your nut sack might attract peoples’ attention to your observations of injustice and apathy. But neither the attention-getting stunt nor the observations advance a compelling strategy for change.
Worse yet, Pavlensky’s particular formulation is likely to insult his potential allies – those “apathetic” people who might fully agree with Pavlensky’s assessment but aren’t working for social change because they don’t know how. After all, what is it that they’re supposed to be doing? Nailing their nut sacks, too? Is that what the path to a better world looks like? Like a naked man stabbing at his balls?
At the same time, Pavlesky’s spectacle probably amuses the heck out of his adversaries. A mass movement of dissidents inflicting harm on their own genitals might indeed bring the Russian regime to its knees, but only in laughter. Putin probably got a good enough chuckle out of Pavlensky’s solo act. I imagine how I’d feel if my political opponents decided to stop making history and turned to abusing their own privates instead. Given the long legacy of death and destruction our world’s political and economic elites have left in their wake, they’re welcome to use the contents of my toolbox to mess up their junk any day.
That brings me to a further point of criticism. Nailing your nut sack to protest a repressive regime might be intended to demonstrate your commitment, but it’s just as likely to make people – allies and adversaries alike – think you need . Not only is there no apparent logical relationship between damaging one’s genitals and bringing about positive social change, but the masochism factor makes such a protest appear all the more .
Even people who are all about the idea of inspirational martyrdom are probably creeped out by this display. Take Christians, for instance. Their storied hero might have known Judas would betray him, but at least the famed Nazarene left his crucifixion to the Romans rather than nailing himself up there. Even Christian martyrdom is a far cry from the grotesque masochism of impaling one’s own junk to protest a police state.
Do we really advance our causes by associating them with such lunacy?
Pavlenksy may have provided an extreme example, but many leftists are just as eager to present themselves in ways that cast doubt on both their analyses and claims that a better world is possible. Just as Pavlensky reportedly sewed his mouth shut to protest the imprisonment of radical anti-capitalist feminist rockers Pussy Riot and wrapped himself in barbed wire to dramatize “the existence of a person inside a repressive legal system,” U.S. leftists routinely employ the watered down but equally silly tactics of duct taping their mouths shut to protest censorship and laying on the ground supposedly to simulate the death toll of unjust wars.
Is the point of all this that we can silence, humiliate and even hurt ourselves, too? Is that the only power we believe we have left? Have we become bored with the perversity of our self-defeating oral fixation and begun reshaping the Left into some kind of twisted BDSM dungeon?
According to the Guardian newspaper, “leading Russian theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov” dubbed Pavlensky’s Red Square action a “powerful gesture of absolute despair.” An intelligent, passionate young person like Pavlensky deserves better than to be reduced to the physical embodiment of hopelessness. Likewise, the masses he dismissed as “apathetic” deserve to be addressed with more compassion and respect.
If we can speak in a way that gets the world to listen, we should do more than recount well-known problems and reinforce despair. We should instead revive the suppressed histories of movements that have changed our world for the better so that large numbers of us can employ their best practices and surpass their limitations. Then those of us who, like young Petr Pavlensky, are brave enough to endure physical injuries for our political ideals can risk facing such hardships as we meaningfully confront oppressive institutions. That seems far better than doing those institutions’ dehumanizing work for them through individual acts of masochism.