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.

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.

‘I am a refugee’

Far too many Americans have forgotten what it means to seek refuge in a land far from home, with nothing but hope and whatever they were fortunate enough to travel with and carry. Far too many have demonised those who simply want a better life for themselves and their children.

Why?

Whilst thankfully I’ve not (yet) had to flee violence nor war nor a government persecuting me or my people, as a migrant I did find myself in the position of needing refuge in a land not my own. And, for nearly a year, my husband and I were what you could consider undocumented — we were neither illegally staying in Finland nor did we hold valid residents permits or travel documents. We could neither travel, nor really feel as if we were safe from deportation. It was the most unsettling and precarious time of my life. And, one I’d not wish on anyone.

After much paperwork, worry and many meetings, things eventually worked out fine for us — and we’ve been granted permanent residence and a place to call home in Finland. At one point during that year, we were asked and offered the possibility of seeking asylum given the circumstances of our specific case. Neither one of us considered ourselves refugees or asylum seekers. Our life was relatively stable and we understood our position of privilege compared to the millions of refugees seeking shelter across the globe.

As an American from the land of plenty, that moment and possibility was a very odd and surreal moment and a rather gut-wrenching realisation for me. It also allowed me to understand that a refugee can be literally anyone and they can be anywhere — there is no one type of individual who seeks refuge. Lives can and do change in the oddest and most tragic of ways and for a variety of reasons.

Refugees embark on journeys that are heartbreaking and unique, varied and often dangerous; and their entry into any country is not without a mountain of paperwork and enduring patience. They need not be demonised nor feared; they should be welcomed and heard and seen.

In the land of plenty, there is room for those who are tired, poor and yearning to breathe free. Most of us who were fortunate enough to born there more than likely have refugees of one sort or another amongst our ancestors.

At the very least, we can extend a hand of friendship and offer kindness. We can offer a seat at our table, the chance to break bread and share a plate with others less fortunate than us, and a warm blanket and safe haven from which to escape the horrors other have faced on their journeys to safety.

When we faced our own immigration woes, the kindness of friends and strangers alike helped us as we navigated incredibly uncertain waters. On some days, those kindnesses were the only things which made us feel human and worthy.

Protest Postcard #11 of 50

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

We should all be feminists

We should all be feminists.

There’s a brilliant little book by the same name by one of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She’s far more eloquent than I, and I agree with her every word. We should all be feminists.

Indeed. There’s nothing more that I really need to say about this, is there?

If I do, here’s what I have to say: More rights for you does not mean fewer for me. It means we all benefit and enjoy equal rights and protections for and of those rights. And, it might just mean that women will not receive less pay for equal amounts of work, not needing to pull double duty by caring for all things related to the home and childcare whilst also excelling in our careers. And, it might just mean that we are finally be seen as belonging in positions of leadership. That we are capable.

Because, we are more than capable. And, we do it wearing heals and whilst also taking on the primary household management responsibilities.

I’m not sure why ‘feminism’ as a word conjures up man-hating women with no tolerance for men. But, it does. And, that fundamentally speaks to the primary reason why we need feminism.

And, why we should all be feminists.

Protest postcard #9 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

Diversity is beautiful

I love diversity.

It is not something that instills fear or anxiety in me. In fact, monotony does that.

When everyone looks the same, acts the same, believes in the same things, I am filled with a sense of uneasiness. Group think has never really been my thing.

I live now in a place where most people look very much alike. And I miss and long for the diversity that I found comfort in from my communities in the US. In many ways, I feel like I took that diversity for granted when I lived in the US. Whenever we leave Finland now, it’s always shocking to realise just how homogeneous becomes normal. But, in the US, those communities and all those in them were beautiful to me. From the people, to the accents, to the landscapes, to the foods, I’ve found beauty in those differences.

As a nation comprised of immigrants and their descendants, the country’s canvas is a vast tapestry of stories and histories rich and varied. Those histories are not always happy nor pleasant, particularly when we add in the horrific histories of indigenous people and slaves those of us who claim European ancestry abused, exploited or decimated. I’d like to think we can learn from our past mistakes and try to atone for and correct them. But, that’s a longer post, and beyond the scope of today’s protest postcard.

To me, the people of the US in all of our diversity are what make us who we are and provide us with a uniquely rich collection of beliefs, traditions and ideas.

That’s worth celebrating and protecting. It’d be bloody boring if we all looked and acted the same, no?

Protest postcard #7 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.

Pro-choice is pro-life

Today’s postcard is perhaps one of the issues that I feel most strongly about since for me it’s connected to just about every other aspect of my life and belief system.

One of the first national-level protests I took part in was the Women’s Rights March in Washington, DC in ’91 or ’92. The reason I took part was because I felt then and still believe today that no one has a right to decide what happens in my uterus or to my body besides me. My physician is naturally involved when medically necessary. And, my husband, of course, is apart of those conversations and discussions. But, the ultimate decisions and consequences are mine and mine alone to make and to bare.

Simply put: this is my body and this is my choice.

And, yet, here we are in 2020 continuing to wage war over women’s rights to do with their bodies what they want.

Women seeking refuge in the US from violence and war in their homelands have had their uteruses literally ripped out of them, forcibly and unknowingly and without their consent. Why? Because they are poor, vulnerable and other. Because they are considered unworthy.

That’s not pro-life — that’s limiting their reproductive freedom, and its tantamount to genocide. Persecuting Muslims because of the actions of some, murdering black and LGBTQI individuals because of racist and sexist and cisgender stereotypes are also not pro-life attitudes.

I am not pro-abortion; I’m pro-choice, because it allows girls and women the ability to make choices which have lasting impacts on their lives. I support allowing women to decide when and how they reproduce as well as how they prevent unwanted and unplanned pregnancies from occurring in the first place. And to me that’s always been a pro-life perspective,since it keeps abortion safe and ultimately protects women and their children from unnecessary harm. But it also allows for the means to prevent unwanted and unplanned pregnancies, thereby diminishing the need for abortion. Isn’t that the point? Minimising the need?

Against abortion? No one is forcing you to have one. Similarly, no one should force me or any woman to have a child she does not want nor feel she can care for. No one should be forced to continue a pregnancy and carry it to term if they do not want to. Women are not (yet) handmaids. I’ll fight like hell to make sure they never become them.

If you consider yourself pro-life, then do you also support and work to protect Muslim women and babies? Immigrants whether documented or not? Refugees? Black lives? And LGBTQI lives?

If the answer to any of those questions was anything other than an unqualified ‘yes’, then you are not pro-life. You are pro-foetus. But, what of that foetus once it is out of the womb? Do you still fight to protect it? Is that life still sacred?

It makes me incredibly angry that we still need to fight for this specific freedom. But I’ll continue fighting, not just for women in the US. But, for women everywhere.

Abortion should be legal. It must remain safe. And, it should be rare. But, that requires freedom for women to make decisions regarding their own reproductive lives.

The real #MarchforLife — Protest Postcard #5 of 50