The Hypocrisy of the Internet's Sochi Rainbow Protest
Rainbow logos are everywhere on social media these days, as media brands and individuals protest against Russia's anti-gay policies. But how effective can such a toothless show of support be?
In 1939, in the German city of Kassel, members of the local Nazi Party marched into town and destroyed the Aschrott Fountain that stood in the square just outside City Hall. The fountain was a gift to Kassel from a successful local businessman, Sigmund Aschrott, a Jew, and so the Nazis obviously loathed it. They destroyed this monument not only to terrorize the Jewish population, but also to make it clear that all social or business relationships with Jewish people would be dangerous.
Soon after the fountain fell, the Jews of Kassel were rounded up and sent elsewhere to die. As time passed, the city began leaving flowers at the spot where the fountain once stood; it became known as "Aschrott's Grave."
Time moved on, the flowers died, and by the 1960s the fountain had been rebuilt and renamed. Aschrott's Grave was forgotten, and so, of course, was Aschrott's Fountain. A new history began to grow as memories faded, and those who bothered to wonder why there was a new fountain in this old town simply assumed that the previous one had been destroyed by British air raids. The people of Kassel had moved on. It turns out the guilt of watching your neighbors being herded onto trains can be expunged with little more than a bouquet of fucking flowers. Amazingly, that stupid gesture was enough.
There has been no state-sanctioned genocide of LGBT people in Russia, but there have been many assaults and murders that seem implicitly sanctioned by Putin’s homophobic legislation. (If you want to know more about this you should watch our documentary about it, Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia.)
Right now, Russia’s gay community need all of our support, so I find it confusing when I get a weird feeling in my stomach looking at the media brands that have plastered supportive rainbows over their logos. No one with a basic level of humanity would deny the validity of a support campaign for gay people in Russia, but this type of bland showmanship seems several steps behind even clicktivism in terms of practical action. It’s a very real humanitarian problem reduced to a symbol.
When Google changed its logo to a rainbow on the search engine's homepage, it seemed fresh and inventive, but now social media sites are starting to drown in rainbows, much like we drown in American flags every September 11. It began with media brands and trickled down to people who wish they were media brands. I'm sure that, if you use the internet, you've come across companies or social media users who have joined in. But much like the flowers on Aschrott's Grave, I worry that these rainbow logos have become little more than self-serving monuments.
Ugh, picking a fight with this trend doesn't make me seem like a good person, does it? This whole thing reminds me of Kony 2012. When that film dropped, long before the guy who made it had a breakdown and began jerking off in the street, it seemed like a well-intentioned piece of work from people disgusted with the plight of child soldiers in Uganda. And what could be unreasonable about that? Nothing, except the video was such a saccharine piece of propaganda that I was certain something had to be wrong with it. At least on some level, my suspicions were correct. There were questions about the campaign's financial transparency, the company's motives, and what would really happen if Uganda were flooded with weapons. I feel the same way today. This is another good cause, but on some fundamental level it feels suspect to me, because logo redesign is a gutless, tokenistic form of protest.
In 2003, I got on a bus from Leeds, England, with 100 anti-war protesters. We stopped at a gas station near Nottingham, and as I was buying cigarettes and sandwiches my comrades forgot about me and drove off down the M1. Eventually, I found a car filled with demonstrators who agreed to give me a lift. We smoked weed on the way down, and I ended up happily walking through London with my million mates, holding a poster that read "Not in My Name."
What a dickhead. Replace "Not in My Name" with "Absolve Me," and you have the real meaning of my placard. Sure, I was protesting against a war I thought was illegal and immoral, but I knew the protest wasn't going to work, I knew we were going to war—I just wanted to make sure I wasn't going to get the blame. I kept my hands clean and went back to my life. If the million people present that day were protesting against something as vile and evil as the mass murder of Iraqis (as we often said we were), our attempts to stop that were unnervingly gentle. I mean, compare our march with, say, the White Rose Movement, the youth group who were executed for standing up to Hitler. Tony Blair's not Hitler, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you'd been listening to the rhetoric of the protesters at the time. And yet all we did was march, go home, and give up. To me it seems clear that "Not in My Name" was a placebo, or worse, an anesthetic.
And now I worry that the rainbow represents something similar, so that anyone sane enough to abhor Russia's anti-gay laws can sit back and enjoy the snowboarding, safe in the knowledge that he's "done his part."
When the people of Kassel realized that the crimes committed within their city were being forgotten, they hired a local artist named Horst Hoheisel to create a memorial. He rebuilt the Aschrott Fountain and buried it on the spot it once sat. This wasn't a memorial designed to show that the people of Kassel remembered the dead; it was designed to stop them from forgetting. My worry is that the rainbow twibbon protest does the opposite.