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.

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.

Continuing the fight for Civil Rights

In the past few years, I’ve been rereading much of the writings from the  civil rights era in the US. Familiar names like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis along with the works of  James Baldwin, Angela Davis and Malcom X and histories detailing the lives of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers have featured amongst my reading lists.

It’s crazy how relevant those works are today despite being 50 or more years old. Many of these writings could have just as easily been written today. We still need to make further progress vis-à-vis racial equality, basic rights and justice, particularly in making right generations and centuries of oppression and injustice along with a fair amount of racial violence.

Granting further for others does not intimidate me nor leave me fearful that my own rights will be somehow diminished or limited. More rights for you means I will not enjoy a benefit or privilege based simply on my race or class or standing granted by birth within a particular category. Understanding my own privileges helps me understand what systemic changes are necessary in order to achieve equity and in order to right historical wrongs, whether perpetrated by myself or my ancestors. Generational pain is real and persistent. Understanding that helps me do better and helps my communities become more inclusive and more just.

I’m thankful for a new generation of writers like Ta-nehisi Coates
and Ibram X Kendi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m enormously grateful to the many writers and activists who share their histories and their guidance on how we can be better allies and antiracists.

But, I’d be even happier if such works highlighting our need to continually work towards a more just society were unnecessary.

Protest postcard #10 of 50

In this house…

I’m a bit behind — work and rest both kept me from posting a daily protest postcard here. [In my defence, I’ve done so elsewhere!]

In our house, we live by each of these phrases, particularly the phrase in the middle.

We are not threatened by equality; we embrace and work towards it. And, those individuals who strive towards equality are truly quality folks we’d like in our circle.

We seek to ensure that all human rights are honoured, particularly amongst and for women and girls.

Black lives matter. Full fucking stop.

Love is love, and it is a thing to behold and celebrate. The day marriage equality became a reality for all in the US was an incredibly happy day for us.

And humans can never be illegal. Their reasons for being undocumented are varied and complex, and largely depend on bureaucracies just as difficult to navigate as their journeys and attempts to escape unnamed or unknown horrors.

Standing up for any one of these principles doesn’t negate us or any of our own struggles nor does it diminish our own worth. In fact, standing up for the rights of others strengthens rights for all and helps to enshrine these principles into our society and community. And, that renders each of us more valuable and our communities more just and inclusive.

Protest Postcard #8 of 50

Intersectionality

Does the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality really need further explanation?

Spend five minutes on social media and it’s clear that it does.

Perhaps it’s the anthropologist in me, or just a matter of my personality. I’ve long been interested in the interconnection between things, particularly the social constructs we humans use to inform our realities and world views. Specifically, how we decide who represents us versus who we view as them fascinates — and, at times, horrifies — me. But, those intersections and interconnections between categories, which place each us in various positions of privilege or groups to which discrimination and stigma are directed, are also used to divide us by the powers that be.

If we’re fighting one another, we cannot fight them. Hell, we might just miss what exactly they are doing to begin with.

My feminism is one which examines those intersections and attempts to empower those with the least power. It gives voice to the voiceless. Makes visible the invisible. Accepts the unacceptable.

I cannot divorce my ethnicity from my class from my gender from my sexuality. In my world, no one should need to. But, I can and try as much as possible to recognise where I fall along the intersectionality continuum. And, I attempt to work towards minimising the distance between categories along that scale for those less advantaged whilst aiming for the creation of an equitable, just and empowering society for all.

It’s up to us now

I was already struggling with election anxiety and news cycles of unending madness and chaos.

From the upheaval at USPS at at time when mail-in voting is potentially life-preserving, to AG Barr’s desire to charge protesters and dissenters with sedition, to forced sterilisation of immigrant women in detention centres, to the non-stop lies and fabrications, to raging fires in both North America and Brazil, on top of a global pandemic as we head into winter, it’s too much, y’all. It’s simply too much.

And, then, Saturday dawns and the news of RBG‘s death greeted me as I scrolled through Twitter (fuck you, Mitch McConnell) whilst waiting for my coffee to brew.

This morning feels incredibly dangerous, not just for women’s rights and reproductive freedom, but for democracy in general. The fragility of the rule of law, immigrant rights, voting rights, environmental and labour justice and the simple idea that laws should not hinge upon the mad ramblings of an individual who would like to be king and a party that allows him to do so all feel just that much closer to disintegration. And the nightmare that is 2020 continues.

Yet, this isn’t some distant land; it’s happening in the United States. It’s just unreal and yet far, far too real.

At some point over the past year or so, I received a packet of 50 protest postcards to benefit the ACLU in a book hookup subscription from Strand Bookstore in NYC. Since my copy of Notorious RBG is currently with a friend, I flipped through those protest postcards looking for hope I suppose or something to give me solace as the tears flowed. I kept returning to this image:

For the next 50 days, I’ll be posting one of these images, primarily to remind myself what I’m fighting for. But, also, to remind us all that we must continue to fight for as long as we can, in whatever way we can and for as long as it takes to create a more perfect union for us all.

RBG provided us with a to-do list. That list is rather simple:

– Work for what you believe in
– But pick your battles
– Don’t burn your bridges
– Don’t be afraid to take charge
– Think about what you want, then do the work
– But, then, enjoy what makes you happy
– Bring along your crew
– Have a sense of humour

from Notorious RBG

So, today, I’ll honour the gigantically iconic yet tiny in stature, courageous righteous, brilliant woman who dedicated her life to making ours better. Then, tomorrow, I’ll dry my eyes, suit up and fight like I’ve never fought before, for myself and everyone else who suffers injustice in whatever form it takes. And, for the country that I love even in these incredibly dark times.

I’m doing this for RBG. She fought for all of us her entire life. Now, it’s up to us to fight for the legacy she forged for us and our children.

It costs me nothing

I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually.’

― James Baldwin

On 28 August 1955, a 14-year-old black boy wrongfully accused of ‘offending’ a white woman was abducted and brutally murdered in Mississippi. ‘Offending’ in that instance merely meant ‘flirting’ or ‘whistling’ at a white woman, an offence later recanted by the would-be accuser. Unfortunately, that recantation came too late for Emmett Till.

Emmett Till was beaten and mutilated, shot in the head and then thrown in the river by those who brutalised him. An all-white jury found the white men who killed Emmett not guilty. Those men later admitted, rather proudly, that they had indeed killed Emmett Till.

Emmett Till was 14. He was lynched, for the ‘crime’ of daring to speak to a white woman.

In 2020, we can now add to the list of names of far, far too many black bodies killed or brutalised first with questions only following later. Their crimes may not involve simply speaking to a white woman in rural Jim Crow Mississippi, but they are largely no less shocking: walking with Skittles in a pocket through a gated (read: white) community. Playing with a toy gun. Driving while black. Running while black. Sleeping in your own bed. Paying for groceries with a counterfeit $20 bill. Selling single ciggies on a street corner. Breaking up a brawl between two women.

A black man who *may* have a knife is shot in the back seven times a fate deemed justifiable because he seemed *threatening*, whilst a white boy carrying an AR-15 through the streets can shoot three people, killing two, is given the benefit of the doubt and granted the justification of ‘self-defence’.

For black bodies, there is no due process. There is no justice. And, there is certainly no peace. But, what sort of self-defence exists for them? They can scream with what little breathe remains, ‘I can’t breathe!’, and still they are choked and prevented the most basic of needs: air to breathe.

What’s worse, those who perpetrate those murders and far too many contemporary brutalities are emboldened by badges and guns or the simple cloak of their whiteness despite being sworn into duty to serve and protect.

Who are they serving? Who are they protecting?

At times, it feels to me like we have progressed so very little from 1955, or that any progress we have made is cosmetic rather than lasting, enduring or systemic. Systemic racism and racial injustice and inequity appear to be more institutionalised rather than less, primarily because we refuse to open our eyes and see the realities lived by those who are not born white.

If we ever hope to be truly free or peaceful or just, these atrocities must be acknowledged and we must accept our collective responsibility for the continued and persistent systemic racism that is woven into the very fabric from which our flags are sewn.

Black lives matter. Emmett Till mattered. Medgar Evers matters. Martin Luther King Jr mattered. Rodney King mattered. Travyon Martin mattered. Sandra Bland mattered. Eric Garner mattered. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor mattered. All of these black lives ended too soon and for no justifiable reason. And, they matter still.

Jacob Blake matters.

That these lives matter does not negate my own. It simply means that I recognise that I am infinitely safer because I am white. That, in and of itself, is the problem.

Yesterday hit a nerve for me. From Emmett Till to Jacob Blake and all those lives in between. We have work to do, y’all. And, it costs me nothing to say so.

Photo taken by Emmett Till’s mother on Christmas Day 1954.

(Un)healthy opposition

Heather Cox Richardson is a hero to me. Her near-daily summations of the daily mayhem in the United States have been not just helpful and insightful, but at times necessary.

Today’s was particularly poignant.

Having lived in Russia and seen the remnants and return of a one-party (or one-leader) system, and being married to a man who grew up in a one-party system and only knew that reality for most of his life, I understand and shiver at the idea of this becoming a reality in my own country.

I think this, more than anything, is what has troubled for me quite some time. Perhaps traces of the demonisation of the opposition reflect the very initial conversations I had with my conservative family, particularly my uncle ca ’92 or ’93, regarding politics, and his insistence that all Democrats are bad. (Never mind that I’ve pretty much self-identified as an independent for most of my adult life.)

Yes, I am a progressive and fall far-left on the US political spectrum; but, I welcome consensus-building and compromise. I understand that ‘my ideals’ are my own and may not work for a behemoth like the very large and diverse United States, thanks to discussions with friends of mine willing to have some tough discussions (I’m looking at you Cissy Walker & Todd Hoven). But, fundamentally, I’ve always believed that we as a country should be ‘united’ — not divided and at each other’s throats, out to destroy and tear one another down. And, beginning with Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, it’s felt increasingly as if anyone who isn’t a Republican is painted as a traitor whilst anyone who openly questions or attempts to compromise on any issues supported by the GOP is some sort of pinko communist who hates America. (I have been labelled as someone who hates her country by people I love, an accusation that cut me to the core.)

It’s probably been more than a month now that Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Know Your Enemy‘ has been on constant repeat in my head. And, every day that I read posts, comments, etc regarding the issue or news de jour, I can’t help but wonder how we are ever going to collectively escape or emerge from this particular moment.

The United States, when it was united and parties worked together rather than with a winner-take-all attitude (think post WWII and during the Civil Rights era) was strongest, when we understood that we were a work in progress and needed to continually do better. Was it perfect? Hell, no. As a feminist, I’m very much happy to be living now rather than then. However, changes were possible (VRA and the Civil Rights Act come to mind along with women’s rights in general), and we could at least image a better future for our children and grandchildren.

But, more importantly, those we elected had that simple notion in mind — working together and collectively towards a better future.

All I see today is a party that is fighting tooth and nail along with its mouthpieces a la various talking heads to rip us apart and create a view of ‘the other’ as the enemy. (And, yes, I am speaking of the Republican party and the likes of Fox and worse.)

I support free speech, the freedom to assemble and the freedom to choose to worship whatever you deity you believe in.
I support fairness and justice. For all.

I love my country and still think the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence are incredible documents, even if they failed to recognise me as a woman or any person of colour as equally deserving of protections — they were designed to be amendable, and that’s bloody brilliant.

And, I desperately want to be able to discuss rationally and reasonably how to make the great experiment that is the United — emphasis on united — States of America a better place for all of us. All. Of. Us.

I understand that those conversations won’t be easy. But, they are necessary. And, even if you choose to elect officials I would not and with whom I disagree or whom I personally find reprehensible, I will fight like hell for you to be able to cast your vote. Why? Because every vote matters and every single vote should be counted, whether it agrees with mine or not.

On ‘Born a Crime’ by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’ve admired Trevor Noah because he’s funny AF and also speaks about and advocates for policies I myself support.

But, reading about his life in South Africa as a child born into a world where he embodied an actual crime by simply existing is immensely powerful and profound. And, I’m not sure that I could admire him any more now, particularly after reading the last chapter of this book.

Central to this little gem is the story of a mother and her son. But, the richness of that relationship and the context within which it is lived is more than worth anyone’s time. That it’s beautifully crafted is all the more rewarding. Moreover, it’s a story we would all do well to read carefully and consider thoroughly given the times we’re currently navigating and the reckoning these times call for.

It shouldn’t surprise me that I finished this book laughing through choked-back sobs. But, I did.

What a brilliant, brilliant book.



View all my reviews

Good trouble = voting

07/30 Mike Luckovich: John’s bridge, Atlanta Journal Constitution

John Lewis, who literally fought like hell to ensure black Americans (and all Americans) could secure the same rights, not least the right to vote, that you and I have, will be laid to rest today in Atlanta. He fought his entire life for justice and to ensure that those who had no voice were not forgotten and would be heard. And, his work and legacy are far from complete.

I have a confession.

I took voting for granted for a long while. I voted regularly and researched the candidates I’d be voting for to ensure they reflected my own vision for my community. But, I also occasionally missed a local election or voted straight ticket out of laziness or simple complacency. I voted, but… I could have done better.

It wasn’t until I watched my husband—Cuban by birth and to the core, and an exile from his own country because he dared think outside the state-sanctioned box—vote the first time we were eligible to vote in Finland, our home by default. He was in his 50s at that time, as we left our neighbourhood polling station. He looked at me, and told me it was the first time in his life that he knew definitively that his vote mattered and would be counted. And, that he felt heard and seen.

I no longer to take voting for granted. I think of my husband’s words each time I sort through the details of ensuring I can vote overseas now. It matters. And, not everyone enjoys the same rights that we do to exercise our voices freely.

Please, check your voter registration details (and register if you haven’t) to make sure everything from the spelling of your name to your address is correct and up-to-date. If you plan to vote by absentee ballot, request your ballot now and know what you need to research and how you’ll vote (scroll down to ‘Know Your State’) before your ballot arrives. And, given Covid and issues with United States and other Postal Services, make sure you send your ballot with sufficient time to ensure it arrives in time to be counted.

If you have done as much of the above as you can, pour yourself your favourite beverage and spread the word to your friends and family. (Hell, you can just share this post, if you want, although, just sharing the link vote.org is fine, too.)

If you are healthy and feel confident enough to volunteer as a poll worker in your community, do so. So many poll workers are retired and they are at an increased risk for Covid. Do a quick Google search to see what the rules are in your state / community. And, if you have teenage kids and want them to understand the importance of civic duty, even if they cannot vote, they may be able to work the polls.

There are so many ways you can help make this specific election matter. But, it requires doing something. So, let’s do some good and do something.

John Lewis fought for all of us and shed his own blood on that bridge in Selma so that we and others wouldn’t need to. He got into good, necessary trouble his entire life so that our voices would be heard and counted. Now, it’s up to us. The best simplest sort of good, necessary trouble we can get into and perhaps the most patriotic act is the simple act of voting.