The Tale of Two Romneys

We don't know which is running: the moderate from Massachusetts, or the conservative philosophically

The question going into the general election is: who is the real Mitt Romney? We don't really know which of them is running, the moderate from Massachusetts, as Newt Gingrich never tired of saying, or the conservative mantle bearer who is philosophically to the right of Ayn Rand.

Now that Rick Santorum, the social conservative, has suspended his presidential bid, Romney can rejigger his campaign for the general election. That usually means a candidate turns his attention to the wide middle ground where the coveted independents are awaiting his charms.

Romney isn't doing that. In fact, as a recent appearance at a conference of the National Rifle Association suggests, he is banking to the right even more on issues like immigration, abortion and gun rights. He even endorsed US Rep. Paul Ryan's draconian federal budget, which calls, in effect, for gutting Medicare.

Bob Moser of the American Prospect calls this the Santorum Effect:

 ... [Santorum] helped push Romney to the right of the average general-election voter ... Romney cannot "course-correct" back to the centre — except in completely symbolic ways — with hardcore conservatives warily watching for any hints of apostasy.

This of course depends on the sound memory of the media. As it did with President Obama's hope to implement a new tax on millionaires, the media is beginning to forget all those arch-conservative things Romney had to say to get arch-conservatives to believe he was just as arch a conservative as Santorum. You know, like bombing Iran, repealing health care reform laws and eliminating the Education Department.

Now that the GOP nomination process is essentially over (though former House Speaker Gingrich and US Rep. Ron Paul are still in the running), pundits are now reverting to calling Romney a moderate, mostly because that's what he was during the time of his governorship of Massachusetts and because that's what his genuinely conservative rivals kept calling him.

But is it true? Yeah, probably. Romney works too hard to sound conservative but appears at ease when talking about things like the safety net and the embattled middle class (conservatives never say "safety net" or "class"). Romney also seems to think of himself as a competent manager more than a fire-breathing ideologue. He was, after all, the head of a private-equity firm that made money by cleaning up other people's messes.

Such an attitude toward government has roots in American liberalism and neoconservatism (which is like liberalism sans hope). Such theories generally call for the solving of social problems by identifying and applying the right fix. Politics is more puzzle than worldview. Take away the idea that society is perfectible, and you might have the moderate that Mitt might be.

That, of course, assumes he's not going to enact all those conservative things he says he's going to enact as president. But saying isn't being -- and conservatives know this better than most. Noam Scheiber of the New Republic argues that Mitt is too moderate to beat Obama, only because the GOP's base is going to be second-guessing him from now till November, just as it did with Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008. Romney isn't like George W Bush, whose conservative bona fide were unquestioned that he could talk about the poor and without sounding like a candy-ass liberal.

I buy it. You sell conservatives on gays, guns and God, not on rational public policy. If you do, you can't rely on their vote. Romney doesn't have to worry about appealing to independents. He has to worry about his base.
 

Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney talk to members of the media aboard his campaign plane on March 6, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot