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.

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On #Web30

A day late, but who cares? Here’s to the #Web30.

I use an image in my grant writing courses of a user experiencing a 404 error when they attempt to connect to the internet. Finland, given its near-compulsive internet use, quite naturally grants each of its citizens access to the internet as a basic right. Finland was the first country to grant this right, and did so in 2009.

I fondly reminisce lament the utter misery and frustration of attempting to connect to servers via dial-up connections oh so typical up until the early 2000s, and the glacially slow uploading speed at times losing a race againgst a turtle on quaaludes. My students, however, will never understand slow connection speeds or the inability to connect instantaneously and whenever or wherever they like. [Seriously, there are so few places in Finland where you cannot access the internet via at least 3G services. It’s at once fantastic and impressive, and annoying until opting for air plane mode.]

I well remember accessing my email via main frame access when in graduate school. It was so simple and so utterly thrilling to see ‘new messages’ then. Not so much now, as the inbox glutter and spam take on lives of their own.

Funny how our vocabulary has shifted as well in the last 30 years to accommodate this not-so-new technology.

As much as online life can annoy and rile me, particularly when viewing the news these days, it still thrills me.

Chatting with a friend or family on the other side of the globe in real-time. Organising events and rallying interest for one cause or another amongst strangers. Catching up with folks I’ve not seen in years. Planning meet ups in countries none of us live in. Bonding with individuals I’ve never met in person over shared interests and passions. Supporting causes and garnering support for issues that are important to me. And, work. Being able to work from literally anywhere at any time, as long as there is a stable internet connection.

It’s mind-blowing and brilliant. And necessitates new ways of both minimising procrastination and protecting myself from those workaholic and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

I love digital life, and all that affords us. I also fear it at times, mostly because of misuse by nefarious individuals and interests.

Whilst we all continue to learn how to safeguard the web and address the challenges online life presents us, we must also continue to ensure that everyone everywhere has equal, open and safe access to the internet. Just as individuals in the ‘real world’ face threats to their privacy, security and fundamental rights, those threats also affect the virtual world we now increasingly inhabit. 

Let’s also ensure that everyone enjoys the benefits of the web. Even if they’ll never know the annoying sound of the busy dial-up connection tone.

To safe guard the online community as a whole and demonstrate your commitment to an open web, get involved via A Contract for the Web

30th-anniversary-of-the-world-wide-web-4871946884874240-2xa

On ‘The View from Flyover Country’

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten AmericaThe View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If we ever hope to move beyond that which divides us, we must collectively rip off those band-aids, acknowledge various problems that plague us as a nation and society, and begin the truly difficult discussions in order to find long-term and permanent solutions to address those problems.

This book helps with that first step: ripping off the band-aids, and highlighting how we did not simply arrive at this particular moment. We should have expected it. And, anyone living in or from a flyover region most likely intuitively knows this. Class. Race. Gender. All of these issues have divided us for much longer than the current political rhetoric of divisiveness. Really, rather than collectively rising up against a system rigged from day one to benefit those already in power at the expense of the rest of us, we fight one another based on characteristic X [insert identity here]. Yet, we all continue to struggle. We all continue to lose our footing or positions. And, we all continue to work harder to move towards attaining that American dream as we navigate the worst sort of nightmare.

Thank you, Sarah Kendzior, for this collection of rather timeless essays and commentaries on the condition of life in flyover America. It’s brutal. It’s real. And, it’s completely necessary.

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On a free press

It’s astounding to me that the current President of the United States continues to wage his one-man (or one-party?) war on the press after any and all criticism or negative press is lobbed his way.

Given that a free press is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, I wonder if our Commander in Chief’s attention waned given that it extends beyond 140 characters:

Amendment I

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 a redress of grievances.

I’ve emphasised the text he might be most interested in. He’s a busy guy, you know. I’ll also give him the benefit of the doubt. It takes a huge amount of time to tweet his own discontent with Senator Corker, various football players and members of the NFL as well as Kim Jong-Un. But, perhaps he’d like to know the thoughts of a few others regarding a free and independent press uninfluenced or uncontrolled by the state.

Perhaps the words of Thomas Jefferson might resonate with him, since they’ve shared the same job title albeit at very different times in our short history:

‘If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe. ― from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, Volume 9: 1 September 1815 to 30 April 1816

If Mr Jefferson doesn’t help, perhaps he assumes that this is something that can be simply reversed by whomever at a later date:

A freedom given up is not so easily regained.’ ― Rivera Sun, Steam Drills, Treadmills and Shooting Stars – a story of our times

Perhaps he doesn’t understand the potential power of fact-checking or allowing individuals to decide which writers to trust:

‘Let every writer tell his own lies. That’s freedom of the press.’ ― Norman Mailer, Deaths For The Ladies

Or, perhaps he simply can’t tolerate criticism or opposition:

‘Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose’ ― George Orwell

We’re hurtling down an incredibly slippery slope it would seem. And, whilst comparisons to Hitler are insanely cliche, the reality of that slope becomes increasingly chilling:

‘It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.’ ― Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

More than anything, someone needs a reality check. If only the current reality wasn’t quite so terrifying for the rest of us.

On ‘Nobody Speak’

It’s rather fitting that my husband chose yesterday to suggest we watch the Netflix documentary, ‘Nobody Speak‘.

It’s frightening to me that large swaths of the United States simply don’t think about the news that they consume. Or demonise all news and media outlets as biased and therefore not worthy of their attention. To my mind, this results in an electorate largely ignorant of what is happening in their own country let alone the world, let alone the complexity of various policy issues affecting their own communities and beyond.

Forget Gawker. What about other media outlets? And, what does the Gawker case tell us about the position of the freedom of the press in the era of Trump?

And, it’s unconscionable that our current president has such a flagrant disdain for the media, and is not only hostile towards specific journalists but actively harasses them. We have a sitting president who actively and as recently as this weekend publicly vilifies journalists who dare question him, never mind any sort of criticism. Parallels to Nixon aside, I find it chilling to witness and more than a little frightening having lived in a country where freedom of the press wasn’t exactly acceptable.

Journalists’ jobs require them to ask questions, even if the individual being questioned doesn’t like it. We, who cherish our first amendment, now have billionaires either bankrolling lawsuits to bankrupt media outlets that write stories they don’t like (e.g., the role of Peter Thiel in Gawker’s demise) or purchasing newspapers and pressuring journalists and reports to not write stories that may put the owners in a less favourable light (Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal).

Gawker was annoying at times, and could be completely disgusting, if you ask me. But, in a free society, I had the option to not click on their links. And, most of the time, I didn’t. (I honestly didn’t know there was a Hulk Hogan sex tape—it’s not really something I’d care about at all.) Regardless of my personal opinion as a consumer of news of Gawker , I defend their right to publish stories. I find their intended and orchestrated demise not only tragic but dangerous. Furthermore, I find the pigeon-holing of ‘all who disagree with me as fake news’ trend gut-wrenching, and potentially destructive of that sacred First Amendment I personally feel trumps all others. I have the option to not tune in to sources like Fox News and InfoWars. I’d like that option to remain.

Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the champion of the freedom of the press, clearly understood the importance of a well-informed electorate. As infuriating as it can be to read or consume the news on any one day in this current climate, freedom of the press and its independence from the government as well as its ability to continue asking questions that matter and reporting on stories that we need to know remain paramount. Because, as Jefferson stated,

‘Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.’

NB: For a list of media outlets which focus on news rather than peddling ‘alternative facts’, Forbes put out this list, which I find rather balanced and reliable.