On ‘Surviving Autocracy’, by Masha Gessen

I did not intend on sitting down and ploughing through the remaining two-thirds of Masha Gessen‘s latest book, Surviving Autocracy, yesterday evening. But, that’s precisely what I did.

I regret nothing. (Although I did completely lose track of time and miss my weekly Ashtanga Zoom class, damnit. Let’s talk about white privilege and first-world problems a bit later, eh?)

It’s incredible to me how much of the past four-plus years have faded into our distant, collective memory. So, so much happened during the Trump administration, so many things which are frankly unimaginable, and so, so many things frankly made infinitely worse during the pandemic.

And, yet, so many of those atrocities were normalised rather efficiently and easily, as we moved from one insanity to another at a breakneck, mind-numbing and soul-crushing speed during his presidency (and seem to be continuing in his post-presidency period). It seems only fitting that now, just a week after his reign of terror (and I chose the word specifically) has ended officially he will also be tried in the Senate for a Second Impeachment. [It is not entirely lost on me or many that 45 Senators whose lives were also put in harm’s way during the Capitol siege voted to not proceed with that Impeachment trial because of course they did. I’m looking at you, Senator McConnell. Directly at you.]

Congratulations, asshole. You truly are the best at impeachments. No one single president has more, and you have 50% of them all to yourself. Well done.

Masha Gessen lays out with surgical precision just how utterly dangerous and quickly all of this has happened. And, I’m guessing, somewhat unintentionally provides sufficient evidence for why we are not quite out of danger of succumbing to Trumpism or quelling full-fledged and inescapable autocracy just yet. Chapter after eye- and wound-opening chapter, and in each of the three primary sections, Gessen provides more than ample evidence that we are in the midst of surviving autocracy.

Years of gaslighting, some of which predates Trump’s ascension, and more than 30,000 lies — not tiny embellishments or repeated falsehoods, but full on lies — and we are still dealing with those untruths, thanking no longer from his Twitter account. But, they are there. And, they continue, perhaps articulated a bit more eloquently and in a better package from a more polished messenger. But, those lies and the gaslighting continue. And, so many lap them up all for individuals so reckless, so vile and so callous and with a blatant disregard for lives of others in their charge.

But, this book is not a pity party or focused entirely on the rage-inducing history we are living. There is hope in between the despair. For instance, Masha applauds the civil society institutions and those with the moral authority who continually and unabashedly stood up to the injustices and atrocities and crimes these last four-plus years. Those institutions, sadly and surgically decimated in Putin’s Russia before they really had an opportunity to flourish and gain a foothold in Russian society and so precious to our own American experiment both at home and abroad, largely saved us. Yet, even they are exhausted and battered and bruised after four-plus years of battle. This final year, specifically, the final moments of mayhem notwithstanding, it’s a wonder any of those civil society agencies or agents still exist. But, resistance is a long war, not a single battle. And, that continued, tireless and sustained pushback has helped us perhaps prevented us from sliding in to complete autocracy. We still have far to go, however, and we can’t forget that more than 400,000 individuals have now lost their lives to Covid-19 in the USb alone from the inactions and lies spun by a White House and administration who cared not about us, but a great deal about themselves and holding on to power by any means necessary.

Since Masha finished this book in April of 2020, they did not have the opportunity to add their reflections on the protests that sprung up nationally and globally following the 8-minute live-lynching of George Floyd or the slaughter of Breonna Taylor of the hunting down and slaughtering of Ahmaud Arbery. Nor did they have an opportunity to fold into their book the genuine attempted to coup in the wake of the November elections and the siege of the Capitol as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ wins were verified, albeit somewhat delayed by those who sought to undermine free and fair(ish) elections in the US. Both of those broader events and the administration’s role in them are incredibly relevant to Surviving Autocracy. I’ll be looking for those reflections.

To me, the power of this book lies not just in Gessen’s arguments and the weaving together of a narrative that fits these last four-plus years flawlessly alongside the brutal realties of autocratic leaders elsewhere in the world. The power lies in Masha’s own history. Maybe it takes an individual who stood up to and faced Putin to rip off the mask of ugliness in a second homeland for us all, showing us those parallels we often think of as ‘other’, when in fact it is ‘us’ in this specific moment. That is, it takes the clarity of hindsight after witnessing an autocratic takeover of your homeland once to lay it all out for those who are too naïve or too hopeful or too optimistic and blindly faithful to an idea to realise that it is already happening to them in your second home.

This is an important book. Along the lines of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny and Sarah Kendzior’s Hiding in Plain Sight. It’s also tragic. And, that’s truly what these last four years have been: tragic, and sickeningly real.

But, we have survived (most of us), and we must endure and ensure that this never happens again. First, however, we really must stop the autocratic designs being laid out so carefully from taking a firmer hold over us and over those institutions we trust to prevail and protect us.

It might take all of us. But, we can survive autocracy.

On ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ by Sarah Kendzior

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America by Sarah Kendzior

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sarah Kendzior is a writer and journalist I admire, for her ability to cut through the noise and get to the point. For her ability to pinpoint larger, more systemic issues which remain largely ignored by far too many. The View From Flyover Country is necessary reading. And, so is this.

Despite buying this book shortly after its release, I put off reading it for some time because I knew it would be too enraging and I was too fragile. I knew, in part, it would break me just a little bit more.

That’s quite something given where we have collectively been these last five years, how we got here and where we are headed.

However, finishing this book the morning after Trump was impeached for the second time, after a mere 10 of 207 House Republicans voted for that impeachment, has left me shattered.

Why?

Because many of those remaining 197 Representatives, all of whom swore an Oath to uphold and protect the US Constitution, despite having survived that horrid event and admitting during the debate that the President was directly responsible for inviting the siege and encouraging the attempt to overthrow the Legislative branch of the government, still voted against impeachment.

Because, yet, another smoking gun from the President himself was ignored. And, whilst individuals in positions to hold him accountable, individuals who feel he is not fit to lead or occupy the Oval Office, watched him hold that smouldering gun and refused to use the very tools in place to preserve the rule of law and those precious checks and balances they claim to hold up as so sacred.

They did nothing. One hundred and ninety seven of them did nothing.

As enraging and tragic and heart-breaking it is to read, Kendzior’s writing is so, so beautiful. Sadly, it is also necessary, primarily to preserve this tale of American tragedy for future historians. Perhaps they can better describe and disentangle how the US ended up here, and ultimately how half of us cheered this madness on.

View all my reviews

Words matter

As an academic editor and instructor for those seeking to communicate the results of their research as well as their ultimate ambitions as researchers and scientists, I obsess about words, primarily the words of others. I understand that words can and do carry incredible meaning and a power we often forget or neglect. Particularly, when they matter most. Particularly, when emotions run high. Particularly, when we most need to use and wield them carefully.

As an American, I absolutely and unequivocally support an individual’s freedom to express themselves. So long as it does not incite violence. So long as they accept when speaking what they say and to whom and how may carry consequences, and before speaking they be ready to accept those consequences.

First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.

I use this space to express my own beliefs. My own ideology. My own random musings on current events and odd occurrences in the world around me and further afield. But, I do so accepting fully that I will offend some and alienate others at times. I write and share here in the hope that it also inspires some, primarily to use their own voices and their own words, to allow others a glimpse into divergent world and views or to simply think about the world in a slightly different way. But, I also understand that what I have said elsewhere and written here about my own beliefs carries consequences for me. And, I accept those consequences. Because I understand the responsibility that speaking out carries.

As debates once again rage about the First Amendment and the Freedom of Expression as the US President is banned from social media platforms perhaps permanently and a social media platform loses its hosting services given the violence that was fomented and organised via it, it seems like we all need to re-examine what the right and freedom to express ourselves means.

It seems to me when someone uses a platform to plan and/or organise an assault on a body of government, where individuals are running around that chamber actively searching for the Vice President as well as the Speak of the House, the Senate Majority Leader and various other elected officials, so that they can kidnap or kill them, we might want to question what constitutes ‘speech’. When such actions are encouraged by a sitting President, who continues to lie after making nearly 30 000 false or misleading claims through the election in 2020, allowing him to continue to do so whilst he also encourages violence against members of a body of government might carry some consequences.

It seems to me when a sitting President encourages his devotees to march to the Capitol, when his personal attorney argues for ‘trial by combat‘ and another elected official quotes Hitler, we might want to limit their access to megaphones. At the very least, perhaps we can let them know that their words have consequences.

Furthermore, if a private business owner can refuse providing their service to an individual for no other reason than they object to that potential client being gay, another private business can also decide that they do not want to do business with a company or group or individual that fosters and foments violence in any form (Think: No shirt. No shoes. No service.).

Individuals can say what they want. But, they also need to accept that actions have consequences, particularly when dealing with private businesses and companies. (Isn’t that what many said in response to Colin Kaepernick not being signed after he took a knee?)

The Freedom of Expression also demands we use that right and freedom responsibly.

Words matter. And, the words of the President (and others) this particular week as well as for quite some time have been inflammatory, intentionally spread misinformation and outright lies, incited violence and fomented hatred. He can say whatever he wants. But, he must also accept that those words may carry consequences.

At the very least, the rest of us need to reflect upon what we are willing to say and do, and the responsibilities afforded and put upon each of us when we do so, as well as what consequences we are willing to face given our choices.

And, if nothing else, we must remember: words matter.

Do Something

Before he died, John Lewis stated, ‘Democracy is not a state. It is an act.’

This week, the world watched events unfold in the Capitol, encouraged by a madman and fuelled by falsehoods and misinformation pushed by fellow elected officials.

Yes, we must only endure another 11-12 days of an administration that has taken us to the brink. However, given the pace at which events appear to escalate within this administration, I am terrified by what could occur and unfold further. Thus, I’ve written to my own representatives in the Congress, along with the leadership, to demand action. The President must not be allowed to sit in the Oval Office one minute longer. He is not just a threat to other nations, he is a threat to our own. And, no one is above the law.

Furthermore, if a Justice can be seated to SCOTUS in days, surely something that is clearly a threat to our own national security can also be pushed through swiftly.

If you, like me, feel like you need to do something, feel free to use the text in the file below. I sent letters to my own Representative and Senators, and adjusted the text and sent it to Speaker Pelosi, as well as the Minority and Majority Leaders in the Senate. As much as I loathe Mitch McConnell, I was moved by his speech in the Senate this week. (Don’t get me wrong, I think he needs to be voted out. But, credit where credit is due, if only to further my own interests.) Once drafted, it took just a few minutes to fill out the online email forms for each Representatives office and send it. Even if you only contact your specific Representative and Senators, it’s something. And, every little bit helps.

I’ll also be writing to Republican Congressional members who have already voiced their support for the President’s removal. They need to know that they are supported as well, perhaps more so at this particular moment given the threats they are undoubtedly receiving.

If one of your elected Representatives or Senators falls within the category of individuals who objected to the Electoral College, you can also write to them demanding their resignations for a dereliction of duty and violating their sworn Oaths of Office to uphold the Constitution. At the very least, let them know that you’ll be working to support whomever runs against them in their next election. (The list of those seditious conspirators are here.)

I’ve long been an adherent to the principle that ‘decisions are made by those who show up’ (thank you, Aaron Sorkin). Voting is one way we let those running for office know our wishes and hopes and desires. But, we can also exercise our voices by contacting those who are elected from time to time and engaging with them through various public fora. They represent us. To do so effectively, they need to hear from us to know what we want them to do. You don’t need to obsess over it like I do. [I do not advocate or wish that on anyone — I haven’t slept well in years, in all honesty!] But, if those who hold office hear only our silence, we can’t really complain when they do not act in ways we support or like. This is one of those moments in which a few minutes of your time may just make a huge difference longer term.

Thank you for reading this. And, thank you for sending any letters to your elected officials. Please encourage those within your own networks to do the same.