Archive for January, 2013

Disinaugural Blues

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

“Holy fucking shit,” said Adam Kokesh from the stage at the Clarendon Grill, in Arlington, Virginia. “For those of you who weren’t there, it’s hard to understand the courage, the literal courage it took to hand out those flyers today.” Kokesh was the doyen of the Disinauguration Ball, a gathering of “liberty activists” – or, if you want to get technical, “anarco-capitalists” ­– who had gathered to anti-celebrate Barack Obama’s re-inauguration. They were all former Ron Paul supporters, and since their candidate was forced out of the race by what they saw as dirty maneuvering in the interests-beholden GOP, they have dropped back outside the political system. Almost nobody here voted, and they say they would’ve protested any inauguration, regardless of who won.

Alas, it wasn’t much of a protest. Kokesh and his supporters had spent the morning handing out flyers advertising the Disinauguration Ball to people streaming onto the National Mall to see the inauguration. “Not my President!” the flyer read. “Out of 315 million Americans, 65 million (21%) voted for Obama, 61 million voted for Romney (19%), and 60% of all Americans did not try to impose their choice on the rest of you!” Apparently, these flyers had enraged the “Obama zombies.” “Someone shoved them down the back of my jacket!” Kokesh said, bemused by the rage of the lobotomized. “No, it’s not hope-drunk. It’s an unfortunate, deep denial that a critical mass of people in the society we live in today live in this self-deception.”

“Play some music!” a woman screamed from the darkness.

So much for sticking it to the establishment. During the two George W. Bush inaugurations, activists and pranksters of the far left managed to get fairly consistent attention. At the inaugural that followed the disputed 2000 election, protesters were penned into a small stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, but represented enough of a presence that the new president’s limo sped up, lest the radicals pelt it with eggs. Four years later, after an actual Bush election victory, the lefty presence on inauguration day was still strong enough to get dissident groups like Billionaires for Bush some nice media mentions.

But at Obama’s second inaugural, after a first term during which right-wing grass-roots actually shaped the mainstream political conversation—and won adherents among actual elected officials—Kokesh’s band of libertarians could barely assemble twenty people at a bar across the river. And the amplifiers weren’t even on.

“We’re waiting for a battery!” Kokesh shot back to the heckler. “I’ll shut up as soon as the guitar is working.”

Kokesh went on. “Does everybody know what smoking DMT is like?” he asked. (He was referring to dimethyltryptamine, a psychedelic.) He turned to his buddy who was up on stage with him, setting up his set. “You’re saying this inauguration was the reverse of that?”

His buddy leaned into the mike, and said, “Well, if the real version of that is like God sat on your face and queafed a quasar? It’s, like, the opposite of that.”

Kokesh is a former marine who served in Fallujah in 2004. When he got back from Iraq, he says he woke up to the deception around him and to the true, tyrannical nature of government. “I don’t think the President is a puppet, I think he’s more of a power broker,” Kokesh explained to me as the first band, Corrected Axiom, took the stage. “I think they believe they decide which strings they’re going to attach themselves to get to the very top, but the most powerful strings generally stay the same. What people expected from Obama, they didn’t get it.” Americans who supported Obama, Kokesh asserted, were experiencing a “cognitive dissonance” and “political Stockholm syndrome.” “Race,” he argued, “is a really big part of it.” Kokesh says that he is “really chickenshit when it comes to race,” but he conquered his fear long enough to talk to people about it on Monday. “I actually talked to some younger black people who were basically racist in their evaluation of Obama, and were favoring and giving him a pass” because he was black. He said he had shown them the truth. It was unclear if this is when the flyer went down the back of his jacket.

The theme of the evening was waking up from a government-induced stupor, a task Kokesh has made into a life’s calling: he runs a daily, three-hour, late night talk radio-style show broadcast through his YouTube channel. (“I like to think it’s the new model” of talk radio, he says.) The show features Kokesh lecturing his listeners in a muscle tee and longish goatee, as well as man-on-the-street interviews with people who, we are made to see, are blindly holding onto the illogical mind-pellets they’ve been fed by the government and the mainstream media. (Kokesh’s show was once hosted by RT, a channel funded entirely by the Kremlin, which, he says, does not faze him in the slightest. “I’m glad they’re out there providing an alternative narrative,” he says.)

The Disinaugural Ball drew a strange, mostly male, crew. Once the guitar started working, the aggressive music on the stage was, to borrow Kokesh’s phrase, cognitively dissonant to the non-violent ideology he and his friends were preaching. “It’s morally wrong to initiate force against any human being,” said Matt McKibbin, one of the evening’s organizers. McKibbin, who works as an industrial hygienist at George Washington University, was, like many that evening, wearing a shirt that said “Peace, Love, and Liberty.” Anarchists have given liberty activists a bad name, mostly by going out and raging. “We want to see more voluntary interactions and less interactions that involve force, fraud, and coercion, which all interactions with government involve,” he explained. “Voluntarists” and “anarco-capitalists,” he said, “adhere to the non-aggression principle,” McKibbin explained. “We’re pro economic freedom. We’re completely against the drug war. We’re completely pro gay marriage, we’re pro keeping money in my checkbook. We’re against drones, we’re against killing people, we’re against Social Security.” He stopped to think. “Okay, I think Social Security should be phased out. I don’t want people to end up starving on the streets.”

McKibbin and his friends were also completely pro guns. I asked him if he owned any. He paused, and said, “Yes. I have three or four guns.”

“What kind?” I asked.

“Why?” he looked at me suspiciously. “Is this all going in the article?”

McKibbin had never had to use his three shotguns and one handgun. “I’ve been lucky,” he explains. This, naturally, was not because the state-funded police kept things quiet. The roads, the public transport, all could be done better by the private sector, agreed his friend Joel. There was pretty much nothing the government could do well, he added – other than “point a gun to my head and force me to pay taxes.”

Kokesh seemed happy with the Disinauguration, despite the objectively pitiful turnout: a couple dozen angry young men in big pants and strange facial hair. There were, by my count, four women there: McKibbin’s girlfriend, the heckler, and two women named Sierra and Jam. (Jam works for Corrected Axiom.) They too talked about “becoming awake politically,” but had a harder time explaining why there weren’t more women at this event.

“I guess politics, men tend to be more interested in political change or, I guess, anything like that, so I think within political organizations or people who follow it, it tends to not be that big,” Sierra explained. I argued that the other, more mainstream events surrounding the inauguration were more gender-neutral.

“That’s more mainstream,” Sierra said. “When it come to liberty, it, like, takes more digging out?”

“Right,” Jam scoffed, “because liberty is still underground.”

It could also have had something to do with the angry a capella rapping about society putting people in cages.

Disinaugural Blues [TNR]

Gerard Depardieu’s Russian Citizenship Is a Passport to a Westerner’s Playground

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

After hugging it out with his new—and, by comparison, petite and fragile-looking—president, Vladimir Putin, in Sochi on Saturday night, French actor Gérard Depardieu flew, inexplicably, to the Russian republic of Mordovia. He was greeted by local officials and feted by residents with bliny, a traditional song-and-dance show, where Depardieu, clad in an embroidered peasant’s tunic, grinned and held up his new, Bordeaux-colored Russian passport. Later, at a midnight Christmas service—Russian Orthodox Christmas is on January 7—he was handed a religious icon, keys to a new condo, and two kittens.

Days earlier, Putin, by presidential fiat, had extended Russian citizenship to Depardieu, who recently declared that he would abandon his native France, allegedly because of high taxes: Russia’s flat 13 percent tax rate looked a lot better than Francois Hollande’s now defunct proposal to raise taxes to 75 percent for those making over 1 million euros. (Depardieu has since denied this, saying that if he “had wanted to escape the tax man… I would’ve done it a long time ago.”)

The inaugural trip to Mordovia, observers noted, was a strange choice given what the republic is generally known for: penal colonies. The Mordovian economy subsists almost entirely on these alone; roads are merely strings connecting the colonies, some of which date back to Stalin. Most visitors to Mordovia are likely to see not yodeling singers in colorful frocks, but a depressed region where the free population seems split into two camps: the prison guards, and the day drinkers.

I have no doubt that Depardieu didn’t see and will not see this side of Mordovia, nor will he have met with the region’s most famous inmate, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, of the band Pussy Riot. (“It’s very beautiful here,” Depardieu said during his visit. “The people who live here are beautiful and spiritual.”) Nor will Depardieu see Russia as it exists for 99.9 percent of his now fellow countrymen. As Putin’s pet, he will be shielded from the collapsing infrastructure and a ramshackle poverty inexplicable for a country that pumps more oil than Saudi Arabia. He will never have to go to a poorly trained, overworked, and underpaid Russian doctor who would likely misdiagnose him anyway. He will never get caught in the teeth of the corrupt justice system; he won’t be extorted for bribes, whether or not he runs afoul of the law. Depardieu, who announced that he wants to move to a Russian village and learn Russian, will live a charmed life that will have very little to do with Russia itself.

Of course, this can be said of any wealthy Russian, or any celebrity anywhere in the world. The difference here is the orientalism of such Western men—and they are always, always men—who decamp to Russia and praise the place for its freedom and simplicity. The women, they say, are more beautiful and better (read: more sparsely) dressed, more deferential to men (especially men with money), and always aim to please, sexually. Without examining why Russian women might be like this, Western expats use these qualities as evidence for a quietly long-held view that feminism is the crude weapon of the ugly Western woman. The whirl-a-gig unpredictability of the place rarely stops being fun because it’s never entirely real. In these men’s eyes, it is not lawlessness; it is freedom from annoying rules.

In my years living in Moscow, I have come across many such Western men. In Moscow, their wealth gives them the kind of reality-bending leverage that it couldn’t in New York, London, or Paris. In Moscow, their wealth—and, in Depardieu’s case, fame—made them brilliant and sexually attractive, especially to the leggy, barely legal girls from the provinces; in those Western cities, their money merely made them rich. In Moscow, these men live above reality and above the law, above even the informal gang codes of the Russian elite: A Russian businessman who crosses the authorities risks his freedom or his life, but a Western businessman? He could get his visa revoked, and lose a bit of money. A flesh wound, really.

And yet, Russians encourage this. Despite a rise of anti-American, anti-Western sentiment in the last year, Russians still revere the Westerner. They solicit his expertise and even grovel in front of him, while periodically stopping to beat their chests with a thin and tinny pride; they want, in some dark, self-annihilating way, to be the Westerner, to dismiss the part of themselves that is not European as somehow shameful and backwards, while still insisting on Russia’s spiritual superiority. Goods and foods are labeled “European”—that is, elite. But Russia also claims some responsibility for elite European culture. At one investment forum I attended, Putin went on a long tirade about how Russia was an inherently and quintessentially European country, that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were European writers—without whom, paradoxically, Europe would lack all culture.

It is a strange psychological dance—with roots in the holy foolery of Byzantine culture—and it is at play here: Russia welcomes and pampers the Westerner, it shields him from its cruder realities and lavishes on him its choicest sweetmeats and maidens. And, all the while, it mocks him as inferior in spirit, and holds up his rare defection as an example of all that is wrong with the craven, godless West.

Gerard Depardieu’s Russian Citizenship Is a Passport to a Westerner’s Playground [TNR]