Where have all the dissidents gone?

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By a fluke of scheduling, we have Lila Downs, the Mexican-American singer, on today’s show, and Joan Baez, an earlier generation’s Mexican-American singer, on tomorrow’s program. Both have made their reputations as singers who refuse to shy away from hot-button topics. Forty years ago, Baez’s songs were a highly visible (and by “visible” I guess I mean “audible”) part of both the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests. Today, Lila Downs’ songs take on immigration and the battle over the minimum wage. So you could call both of them “protest singers.” I don’t know, though, if you could call them “dissidents.” The difference between the two terms might be a semantic one, or it might be a matter of life and death.

We’re talking today about dissident artists in places like Russia and China – or to be more specific, about the apparent lack of dissidents in those places. And defining the term dissident seems an important thing to do: traditionally, we use the word to mean artists who are protesting against authoritarian or totalitarian regimes – artists who risk imprisonment or worse for writing or singing or showing what they believe. An example: Chilean songwriter Victor Jara was a “protest singer” in the late 60s, but when the military coup of 1973 occurred, and the right-wing regime of General Pinochet took over, he was suddenly a “dissident,” and was imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. Phil Ochs or Bob Dylan might have become dissidents in other circumstances (thankfully, we’ll never know), but I think we’d be better-off considering them protest singers of the 60s.

Now, we see musicians and artists going in the opposite direction. Conductor Valery Gergiev leads a performance of Shostakovich’s stirring and patriotic Symphony #7 in war-torn South Ossetia, as a gesture of support for the government and military of Russia (he and Vladimir Putin are longtime buddies). Artists like film maker Zhang Yimou and composer Chen Qi Gang, living abroad after making art that the government of China mistrusted, come home like prodigal sons to help the Chinese government put on a show for the Olympics. It’s almost a relief to read about the Cuban band Porno Para Ricardo getting in trouble with their government (especially since they got off with a fine) – at least someone is still out there stirring the pot.

It’s inconceivable that Russia and China suddenly have protest-free, dissident-free countries. Yes, a booming economy will blunt many protests, and it’s funny how comfort can sometimes do what the threat of danger cannot. But still, these countries have strong dissident traditions. They must be out there, somewhere – we’re just not hearing about them. Traditional media are still under government control, and the Chinese control the new media, but the internet is a little slipperier than the Chinese expected and is flourishing in Russia. So to paraphrase an old protest song, where have all the dissidents gone?