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 ‘Dear Martin’ by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wasn’t expecting to plough through a book this morning before sitting down to work, but that’s precisely what I did.

What an incredibly important, thought-provoking, emotional, heart-breaking and yet hope-filled gem of a novel.

I cannot imagine what it is like to be a young, black man in today’s world. But, this book certainly does much to help me to understand the unreal expectations and choices, the absurd stereotypes they must respond to and attempt to dispel, and the unending pain and confusion and frustration and anger as well as joys tempered by bullshit that they face every minute of every single day.

Damn…. What a profoundly important and beautiful book. I need to sit with this for a while.

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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 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.

On ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book was stunning. Absolutely stunning.

Bernardine Evaristo offers an a masterful example of storytelling at its absolute finest. Each character was painted and shaped so carefully that you feel as though you’re drifting in and out of individual lives rather than chapters, akin to making the rounds rather than sitting and reading about them.

Some characters I loved and wanted to linger with a little longer; others I’d like to have thrown a cream pie in their face to simply snap them out of their own myopia and selfishness; some made me consider realities I never completely imagined or gave much time to, and challenged me to shift my own perceptions a bit or wildly. The challenges posed were welcome and natural rather frightening and threatening.

And, all of this written in a form that alarmed me a bit at first, but made sense along the way.

I loved this book. So, so much.

#blm #blacklivesmatter #blmreadinglist

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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.

I am not your enemy

Several weeks ago, a friend / colleague reminded me of a band I’d not listened to in ages, a band which several decades ago was often in my daily musical rotation.

It amazes me how relevant they still are today.

Rage Against the Machine, ‘Know Your Enemy’, 24 July 1999, Live @ Woodstock ’99

I spent the rest of that day revisiting that mighty, fat sound of revolution and sense of empowerment against the system that is Rage Against the Machine and marvelling at just how much things are the same, and yet not at all.

In the mid- to late 1990s as RATM emerged and as I was awakening to the power of my own voice and exercising it in elections and through protest and civil disobedience on occasion, it was still possible to have conversations with those who represented the polar opposite of my own views. Some of the conversations I’ve had, at least virtually, recently have scarcely resembled those previous debates, either in content or tone. Yet, echoes of the past, particularly on issues of racial injustice and unfair policing a la the clip above, have become even more relevant and more polarised it seems.

I find myself increasing thinking ‘I am not your enemy’ to strangers and those within my own social network, particularly to those with whom I share very little in terms of ideological leanings. Yes, some conversations have been productive and continue (even if I am woefully behind in my own correspondence). And, labels such as socialist and Marxist, don’t really bother me, just as liberal, progressive or left-winger seem rather silly even if lobbed in a way that suggests denigration or condemnation. But, the increasing frequency with which I see, read and hear individuals suggesting that anyone who seeks criminal justice reform, restraint in the face of ongoing BLM protests or is in any way critical of the current occupant of the White House as American-hating or intent on destroying the US leave me bereft and rather heartbroken.

I may not support the current administration and certainly lob my own harsh criticisms at him and many a Republican. But, it isn’t from any hatred or malice for my country.

I am proud to be from the United States, although admittedly perhaps less so at this particular moment given our current alienation from allies and how much we appear to be failing our own nation. As a living document and despite its inherent flaws, the US Constitution offers much to be proud of, as does the Declaration of Independence, two documents I revisit in my own act of patriotism each 4th of July. More than anything, I’d like to see the promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness equitably and equally available to every man, woman and child in my own country, a simple reality we have yet to achieve except largely for those born white, rich or male. I want to a better life for all in the US (and elsewhere), and I’d like to create a just space for all, without fear of financial ruin if one becomes ill or infirm or without fear of prosecution or persecution simply because of one’s outward appearance or being born into a particular position and station.

We have work to do, y’all. And that won’t be possible if you view me as your enemy simply because I am a progressive, liberal, far-left-leaning woman who thinks black lives matter and that wearing a mask or vaccines are sound public health policies. I can simultaneously love my country whilst also wanting to improve it. I can advocate for a Green New Deal and climate action, as well as Medicare for All / universal health care whilst simultaneously liking to shop (you have seen my Marimekko obsession, right?) and travel. I can be your ally whilst not agreeing with you on every single issue. I can be a decent human being whilst not believing in your god. I can be a crazy cat lady and still love dogs and playing with puppies.

But, I am not your enemy. And, don’t let the powers that be make me out to be. I’m fairly certain, that there is more that unite us than that which we allow to currently and persistently divide us.

On ‘The Color of Fear’

Yesterday evening as a few fellow American friends and I gathered to simply enjoy in-person company after months of social distancing, we found ourselves reflecting upon current events in the US. It’s hard not to. We shared our frustrations and concerns, and also shared a bit about what we were reading and what has had a profound impact upon each of us. One friend mentioned the documentary film ‘The Color of Fear’, and how ten years later it resonated with her and made a profound impact upon her.

Indeed.

Please spend some time really taking in this powerful, emotional and brutally honest discussion from 1994 on race in the United States among men.

The conversations we need to have will not be easy. They will make us uncomfortable and force us each to confront realities about ourselves and one another which we honestly don’t want to. But once we do, we might also achieve a better understanding of one another, and an understanding of what we need to do in order to achieve equity and justice for all.

Along with acknowledging our own flaws and culpability in how we have consciously or unconsciously sustained a system of racial inequity and inequality along with systemic and institutional racism, we might understand what we can do to dismantle it. And along with that we might just begin to heal long-festering wounds left raw and untended. It is likely we will feel rage and anger, and there will be fear and there will be pain. But, unless we have those conversations, we will never clean out the rot and truly heal. We will not change ourselves or society. And, neither will those institutions.

So,…. Listen. Learn. Do better.