Professional wrestling, with its monstrous egos, blowhard rhetoric, and bad solutions (use the chair!), is kind of like politics except that it's got better acting. And, you can actually use wrestling as a sort of barometer for the average person's views, instead of the government's, on hot-button issues. This past Sunday World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) showed us how Americans perceive Russian President Vladimir Putin and whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
At a pay-per-view event in New Jersey, C.J. "Lana The Ravishing Russian" Perry riled up fans for a fight featuring Miroslav "Alexander Rusev" Barnyashev, by dedicating his performance to Putin. Perry announced in her best fake accent:
I am proud to be Russian. I am proud to come from a country with the most dominant and powerful president in the world, Vladimir Putin. He makes fools out of every one of you. You are merely pawns in his game of global dominance.
The jumbotron displayed Putin's mug. The crowd started booing and chanting U-S-A so loudly, you could feel the Cold War rekindling. The negative response to Putin was expected, since the WWE knows its marketing. It is, after all, a billion dollar business with 15 million weekly viewers. Unlike other sports that occasionally stumble into American's ongoing debates on race or drugs or sexuality, pro wrestling's scripted game explicitly relies on popular culture outside the sport and the ability to reflect them in a way the audience wants.
Still, the fact that the WWE is reviving nationalistic gimmicks not seen since Hulk Hogan spat on the Soviet flag, Rocky clocked Drago, and the Wolverines valiantly battled the Red Army, shows just how bad the perception of America's foreign relations have gotten lately. And it's not because there's a threat to American lives any more real than pro wrestling itself. Rather, it boils down to the fact that the Obama and Putin administrations have dropped the ball on two decades worth of relationship repairing the U.S. and Russia did after the Cold War ended.
But, that's not even where The Ravishing Russian's speech ended. Her final blow was supposed to be that Putin "welcomes with open arms the patriot Edward Snowden" in his quest for power.
The Washington Free Beacon, whose editors have collectively stated their dislike for Snowden and Russia, saw the match and reported "audible ire from the audience" for Snowden. You can judge for yourself, but that's not what I heard. The response from the crowd sounded conspicuously muted to me. The fans were worked up into a lather by the Putin bit but the Snowden insult, which was supposed to be the final straw, just fell flat.
It fell flat in the same way big government advocates and apologists like President Obama, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) do every time they try to unambiguously paint Snowden as a traitor who deserves time in prison for drawing attention to the massive surveillance state that continues to violate virtually every American's privacy.
Wrestling and politics both rely on framing issues as dualities: red versus blue, face versus heel, with us or against us. But neither of these groups can elicit outrage about Snowden, because his personal legacy is too mixed. In a recent YouGov poll that asked if Snowden did "the right thing" by exposing government surveillance, an almost equal number of people said yes as said no, and slightly more said they weren't sure.
And, far less ambiguous are the feelings for government snoops that Snowden awakened in the public. Exposing the National Security Administration (NSA) immediately and dramatically shifted Americans' concerns from terrorism to civil liberty violations as one poll shows. Another survey demonstrates that a record number of Americans see big government as the greatest threat to the future of America. Reason-Rupe poll data indicates that only 18 percent of Americans trust the NSA with their personal information and that many people think the agency is violating their privacy.
The WWE is savvy. It pays attention to how fans feel and responds quickly and accordingly. The Russophobia will continue as long as the international political showboating does, but I bet they'll stop lumping Snowden in the bad guy camp after this goof. Public servants who value their own popularity should take note.