Saturday, April 26, 2014

Images of revolt

Following the mass protests and political conflicts in Venezuela and Ukraine, I've become fascinated once again with two favorite images the media use to illustrate protest news, the Angry Burning Man and the Protest Babe. Here are two recent examples from new about Ukraine.

In the first category, this is from AOL News on April 17:

This is an example of the second, from Santa Clara Magazine Spring 2014:

I'm not particularly skilled at interpreting such images.

But one thing that strikes me about these images is the stereotypical sex roles they seem to represent . The man here is the angry warrior, braving the fire and chaos and danger in behalf of the cause. And the corresponding story is indeed about conflict and violence: Attack on National Guard base in Mariupol leaves 3 dead AOL News/AP 04/17/2014.

The second depicts a young woman, conventionally pretty and thus recognizable as attractive by most any standard, looking hopeful and staring into the sky, an image associated with looking to a bright future. It's about as benign an image of protest or revolution as one could find. It could be photoshopped into an image of a college pep rally and appear similarly benign in an alumni magazine. Of course, for that the image of Lenin's statue identifiable in the online version would need to be excluded: Steven Boyd Saum, Inside Ukraine's revolution.

Santa Clara University is a Jesuit school which Jerry Brown attended as an undergraduate. So it's not surprising that their alumni magazine has substantive articles. Saum writes in this one, recounting his own experience as a Peace Corps volunteer during the transition from the Soviet Union to an independent Ukraine:

One of the stories with a more hopeful recent turn had to do with the Jesuits, who had arrived in Luts'k centuries before. They built a collegium that became renowned as a center of education in the region. In 1639 they completed the Peter and Paul Cathedral, inspired by the Gesù in Rome, with arched windows encircling a great central dome, and a grand baroque edifice with square columns. After the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known there, the region was absorbed into the Soviet Union. The church became a warehouse; then it was a museum of atheism, complete with model dinosaurs and a diorama of the solar system. In the early 1990s it was treated as a holy place once more. Restoration money came from Germany. Priests came from Poland. I went to Mass with colleagues and friends who would talk of kinship and division across borders, the tragic yesterdays and uncertain tomorrows.

The name "Ukraine" itself means "borderland," a useful awareness to bring in understanding the place of the country of 45 million people in history and geography: east of Poland and Slovakia and Hungary and Moldova and Romania, south of Belarus, west of Russia, bordering the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, one-time breadbasket of the Soviet Union. In 1991, in a nationwide referendum, the people of Ukraine voted overwhelmingly (even 56 percent in Crimea) for independence from the Soviet Union.

A lot has changed in the past 20 years. At the same time, not nearly enough has changed in terms of aspirations being realized. And despair takes a toll. During the Orange Revolution a decade ago, millions rallied around an idea and cause that nobody—including themselves — thought possible. I returned as an election monitor. Roman, since become a computer engineer, offered some cautionary Ukrainian wisdom: "We wanted better, but it turns out the way it always does." [my emphasis]
Most of the article consists of an interview with Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov, and I found it very informative. It doesn't leave the reader with a simplistic image, either that of Angry Burning Man or that of Protest Babe.

The interview with Kurkov took place, as coincidence would have it, the day before the elected President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, stepped down made the February 21 agreement that was the prelude to his stepping down/being ousted. Kurkov has the following to say about the then-still-President Yanukovych and the protests:

But I think the protests were started from despair. What makes Yanukovych illegitimate in the eyes of many Ukrainians is that, in three years, he practically privatized Ukraine. He brought his own oligarchs from Donetsk and helped them become powerful; government orders to build or buy were given only to people from this circle. One of his sons became one of the top 10 richest people.

He controls the legal system completely, so people don't believe in justice. They don't believe that you can run normal business. Corruption was probably never as high. So, for Ukrainians, Yanukovych is not legitimate; he is considered a criminal. [my emphasis]
Part of the contradiction in students protesting against Yanukovych's declining to approve an agreement with the European Union is that the EU association would have brought with it more neoliberal austerity policies, thus compounded the distress that Kurkov references, though his statement just quoted emphasizes the corruption aspect of such policies.

Kurkov also gives this important piece of recent historical background:

The relationship between Yanukovych and Putin is quite old and complex. In 2004, during presidential elections, Putin supported Yanukovych—not only financially, but in Moscow there were posters with "Vote for Yanukovych," like he was being elected there. Before the decision about Yanukovych’s victory was overturned, Putin phoned him twice to congratulate him.

Yanukovych created his Party of Regions on the model of Putin’s party, United Russia: as a one-party system where an opposition doesn’t exist. To do this, in Russian-speaking areas, Yanukovych suppressed other parties funded by Putin. These kinds of pro-Russian parties now exist only in Crimea; they still take money from the Kremlin.

Then Putin was very bitter about Yanukovych — who probably kept thinking that Putin was supporting him. In 2010, when Yanukovych became president, he promised closer ties with Russia—almost economic reunification. He signed the prolongation treaty for the Russian Black Sea fleet bases for 25 years. Putin promised to lower gas prices and to speed up economic cooperation. But gas prices didn't go down. Then Putin started showing his disrespect for Yanukovych quite publicly.
So does the Protest Babe image fit with this story? I don't feel particularly competent to say. To the extent it does, I would say it's because the moment in which the interview with Kurkov took place was a moment of great uncertainty, danger and hope. And if you're oriented toward a Jesuit viewpoint, you would prefer to use the hope as an image.

It would take some real systematic research to determine what kind of prominence Angry Burning Man and Protest Babe have in US or European reporting on protests. Maybe they just particularly stand out of me. Still, I don't recall seeing a lot of such images Tough Broads Burning Stuff or Attractive Hunks Staring At The Sky to illustrate protest movements.

But it strikes me that they are quite prominent. And they represent something like polar stereotypes of revolutionary movement: one of anger and chaoes, the other of hope and gentleness. And in those forms, they are embedded in very traditional sex-role stereotypes.

I've heard combat experience described as long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of utter terror.

Something similar could be said about protest movements and revolutions. They are a variation on conventional politics. And, like conventional politics, they are made up of meetings, planning sessions, arguments, struggles with deadlines, soothing and exploiting egos, encouraging supporters, and on and on. Moments dramatic enough to get represented with images like Angry Burning Man and Protest Babe are a long time coming, and in real life are moments in a much longer chain of moments. That's not to say the images aren't useful or even appropriate representations of such moments.

But they represent a very limited part of the reality of such moments.


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