08 December 2011

Occupy shorts

The election monitoring Web 
site kartanarusheniy.ru
was kept offline by attacks
all of election day and beyond.
The streets of Moscow seem quiet at the moment, judging by Internet coverage. (On broadcast television here, they're almost always quiet.) A few days ago, things were quite different--the largest rally of government opponents brought thousands out on election evening. Monday and Tuesday evenings brought out hundreds more, although on Tuesday they were outnumbered by supporters of the current government.

Police response was very restrained on Sunday, as the approved rally grew and grew from the 300 for which a permit had been approved, to over 3,000. But when some of the participants began a march beyond the original location, police moved in and began making arrests. Hundreds more were arrested at the unsanctioned gatherings over the next two evenings--and there have been many reports of officers using gratuitous violence. This Amnesty International statement gives some of the scope and a few details of these complaints. Apparently pro-government crowds on Tuesday were not molested by the police, although as the Moscow Times reports, "...it remained unclear whether their own rally had been sanctioned."

This Saturday's rally at Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin, has already drawn 30,000 registrants on Facebook, a roughly equal number on Vkontakte, and has been given a permit by City Hall.

At the same time all of this has been happening, including the daily dramas of arrest, detention, and mistreatment of prominent activists here in Russia, news of the Occupy movement in the USA has continued to stream in. I've especially been eager to follow how the evangelical church has related to this fascinating movement. How many have caught on to the potentially amazing conjunction of evangelism and prophetic service that's been unfolding before our very eyes? Anecdotally I'm aware of several Friends (including personal friends) who've made this connection, and Micah Bales has been eloquent on the spiritual dimension of Occupy in some of his recent blog posts.

Steven Davison, on his blog Through the Flaming Sword, points to another powerful expression of the connection--from a journalist I respect very much, Chris Hedges. In a searing sermon delivered in New York, Hedges asks, "Where you there when they crucified my Lord?" His appeal is urgent: "The Occupy movement is the force that will revitalize traditional Christianity in the United States or signal its moral, social and political irrelevance." Though I don't literally agree with this summary statement, I agree with its urgency: such a convergence comes so rarely that I can't understand why more of the visible church leadership hasn't been lifting its fair share of the load--especially the evangelical leadership, those who've bemoaned the loss of young people, those whose central responsibilities include making the door to faith as accessible as possible to everyone.

Although Hedges probably cannot be called evangelical, I'm glad to see him say publicly that "I am here because I have tried, however imperfectly, to live by the radical message of the Gospel." And I think he is not just rhetorically but also doctrinally correct to say that the "...misuse of the Gospel to champion unfettered capitalism, bigotry and imperialism is heretical."

Making comparisons between today's Russia and today's USA is very risky. Too many variables are in play. On each side of the ocean, glib generalizations are overwhelmed by the complexities of events. Just when we think that we've seen the last word in bureaucratic red tape here, we read about how hard it is to apply for food stamps in Texas. (And I can't help remembering the last time we re-registered here after a foreign trip. We were missing a document, were supposed to have had our employer submit our forms instead of doing it ourselves, and were there at the wrong time, but for some reason the registering officer nevertheless registered us anyway. I think it helped that we didn't come in with a chip on our shoulder.)

So ... for every voting station last Sunday with massive irregularities, there were apparently many whose work was done correctly. As soon as you become cynical about every bureaucrat, you completely marginalize those trying to do their jobs well. And what do you get in return? Less hope, less energy, more corruption. That goes for any country.

Having said that, it is a precious ideal to stand up and petition for redress when grievances occur. And there are massive grievances in both countries. It was interesting to hear American officials comment on the imperfections of the Russian elections. (If there was any humility in Hilary Clinton's remarks, they didn't come through here.) And at the same time, it's been fascinating to see how much coverage the Occupy movement has been given in the Russian government-supported network Russia Today. (Also fascinating: how little I've seen about the Occupy movement in Russian media directed to Russians. Read George Krasnow's "OWS, RT, Russia, What's Next?")

Is there some kind of kinship between the discontent among Occupiers in the USA and the relatively small upsurge of street activism here? Is either country even remotely experiencing an "Arab Spring"? I honestly don't know. I do know that when civic courage links up with idealism, however imperfectly expressed, this can be a wonderful resource for a whole nation. Politicians often want either to crush or to co-opt such risings; isn't it time they found a better script?

Many of the Occupiers have faced--or are now facing--evictions of their encampments. I've mentioned my doubts about defending fixed encampments before; creativity and persistence seem to me to be far more important to the message of the Occupy movement than the holding of "territory" and all the automatic frustrations and distracting side-issues connected with that. To adapt one of the "immutable laws of marketing" of Al Ries and Jack Trout, the most powerful concept in marketing is occupying a place in the audience member's mind. (They originally said "The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect's mind.") Ultimately, the movement is vindicated by being visibly linked, day in and day out, with plain justice for the 99%, not with being a temporary nuisance (and perhaps not even that much of a nuisance) for a tiny percentage of the 1% and their hapless employees.

A thoughtful reflection on the Russian elections of last Sunday, with many links and no glib generalizations. Another view from one of my longstanding favorite observers, Sean Guillory. Saturday PS: Here's a third link, titled with the same historic reference used by Sean, from Julia Ioffe: "The Decembrists."

Would you like to support partnerships with civil society workers in Russia through Quaker channels? Consider making a contribution to Friends House Moscow. One specific concern of FHM close to my  heart--support for conscientious objectors. I love Herman Alyotkin's perspective on the work he and his wife Nina Pisanova do on behalf of conscientious objectors and applicants for alternative service, with support (when funds are available) from Friends House Moscow:
Those who choose alternative service today are a small stream that can become a mighty river of people who renounce violence as a central principal of their lives. We should not be put off by today’s small numbers. Alternative service in Germany began with choices made by just a few people, but after fifty years, those who chose alternative service outnumber those who chose military service. We should just keep on working, remembering that God has no hands but ours; work hard and then a miracle will happen.
Please read those words again and make a contribution!

"What Would Jesus Do? The Rise of a Slogan."

"Contemplative Activism as a Model for Mission." (Lausanne World Pulse.)

Subtle praise for U.S. Senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren from Christianity Today's editorial writers. Their principal criticism of her is that she doesn't take into account nongovernmental contributors to the community's support of successful businesspeople--churches, for example. To which I'd reply that she was not commenting on the full picture, but speaking directly into the myth of private success and consequent refusal to pay adequate taxes. The end of the editorial acknowledges that Warren's highly-circulated "pay forward" speech "did not purport to resolve every last question of social roles and responsibilities." It's hard not to conclude that the editorial is actually pretty positive!

Annie Raines and Paul Rishell with John Sebastian, "Can't Use it No More."

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