ON: being as such—and listening to Masha Gessen by Meredith Grace Thompson
In this latest instalment of her ON____ series (you can also read parts 1, 2 and 3), Meredith Grace Thompson reflects on the deeply fascist and dangerous performance of 'unrestrained rottenness' through a close reading of Russian- American journalist Masha Gessen's words on President Trump. What unravels through this concept is a nuanced exploration of the complexities of human behaviour, power dynamics in relationships, colonialism, and politics as performance.
> I, like so many, have spent the past few months harbouring myself away and waiting out Covid-19. Life seems to have been paused or at least slowed down substantially. This has been detrimental and devastating in some ways; relieving and enlightening in others. The world has become strange. Masks in the grocery store, glasses fog up, clean glasses, sunglasses and mask together: my whole face is covered. I feel anonymous. I like my mask. It goes with my outfit. Accessories of a pandemic. I feel vapid, and yet, this is survival.
> Good to keep busy. Good to keep thinking. Always thinking. Podcasts. Podcasts are the answer.
> What is the power of an idea? Sounds like the set up to every Christopher Nolan film [eyeroll]. The power of an idea is vast. What is your idea of the world? What is my own? What do I believe people are? What do I believe makes us human? What is it to be, as such? Are we just naked apes who have developed language but lost our instincts for wilderness? What about camping? Should I stop asking questions now? Maybe. Never.
> Masha Gessen was recently on The Ezra Klein Show, speaking about their new book Surviving Autocracy. I love listening to Gessen speak. They speak in this deliberate and intentional way that I hugely admire. I always feel as though I fumble when I speak. Drop half of my arguments on the ground as I run towards some part of my final point. I suppose this is why I write. Writing can be taken back, changed, moulded, looked at from all angles, and reworked until it is ready to be presented. Speech is hurried and falls over itself. It is busy where writing is calm. It is messy where writing is clean. But Gessen seems to possess the skills of the orator and of the writer. Their writing, like their speech, is calm and collected. They have a deep respect for their subject matter and they are never patronizing.
> For those unfamiliar, Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist, currently living in exile in America after being forced out of Russia by the Putin regime. Ostensibly this was because Gessen, while working as a science magazine editor, refused to run a story about Putin hang-gliding with Siberian cranes. In truth, as can always be assumed with Putin, the reasons were considerably more nefarious and pointedly homophobic, transphobic... just all sorts of phobic. Gessen has written extensively about Russia, totalitarianism and autocracy. This has naturally led them, in recent years, to write about U.S. President Donald Trump.
> I want to talk very specifically about a single quote of Gessen’s from the podcast:
There’s something that Trump communicates about his belief, I think, about all humans—and this is a deeply fascist idea—the idea that the world is rotten and that humans are rotten to the core. And so he performs that unrestrained rottenness because he believes that he is powerful enough to let it all hang out. And the thing that he lets hang out, without shame, is that awfulness, you know, the worst possible human and that he can perform, because I suspect, he deeply believes that that’s what humans are. (Masha Gessen, 2020)
[U]nrestrained rottenness; a strangely beautiful phrase in its gruesome weirdness, and then the notion of this being a deeply fascist idea causes me to reflect on every fascist regime I am familiar with, and nod in recognition at their implementation of this idea. They do all seem to believe that humans are rotten and that they are being more honest by just admitting it. Those who would argue are scorned as naïve or juvenile—as if belief in the goodness of people is an idea reserved for children alone. Fascists build coalitions through fear and hatred; through the belief that human beings are indeed rotten throughout their very essence and that the individual needs to be protected from other individuals. This creates wide spreading agreement in the necessity of a more authoritarian form of government; build a wall; no more immigration; police militarization; eugenics; the list goes on. The frightening reality of progressive politics is that freedom for all means some are free to act as others would not. But if you treat a child like a criminal, they will eventually become a criminal because what else can there be? The child’s fate has already been decided by the larger population who treat them as though they have already committed a crime, so what difference does it make if they do or if they don’t? May as well just do it.
> Gessen is making an argument here for a perception of human nature which hugely affects the political sphere. I am uninterested in having the debate about the existence of human nature. I keep devolving into this debate with myself every time I try to sit down and write. Arguments for human nature slip into arguments from biology (dangerous!!) which slip into a hard-deterministic view of reality, which states that everything is predetermined by our genetics, culture, and socio-economic status and we therefore have no free will. I do not accept this. You of course can’t deny the presence of all of these factors in our daily lives; these things hugely impact the range of choices that each individual has, but I fundamentally believe in free will. I believe that it is essential to take responsibility for our actions.
> It’s happening again. It doesn’t matter if there is an objective human nature. It doesn’t matter. I’ll keep telling myself that, and I will hopefully be able to overcome this strange wall in the road of my larger argument. This is not an argument about the existence of human nature. But how can I argue that people are not rotten (which is what in fact I am arguing) if I can’t have the debate about human nature? Does it, in fact, matter if human nature is an objective reality?
> For my purposes here, I am going to say no. But it’s hard to make that big of an assumptive leap. It’s really fucking hard. But humans are not rotten and Gessen is not even arguing for human nature, so I don’t know why I’m so hung up on it. It’s okay. Okay. Here we go.
> Okay. I can do this.
> Trauma is intergenerational. We, as humans, may not have a base nature, predetermined and outside of our control, but we are imbued with all the mistakes and successes of our ancestors. We feel allegiance to the success, but dissociation to the mistakes, and at worst, denial that they were mistakes. I am proud that the Famous Five suffragettes (Emily Murphy, Irene Marryat Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney, and Henrietta Muir Edwards) petitioned the Canadian government to grant personhood to women throughout the country. I am ashamed that they preached eugenics and anti-immigration. They were feminists and they were racists. They are both things, not either one. In the case of Americans, Thomas Jefferson was a freedom fighter, and a slaver. He was both. One does not erase the other. Equality is a radical idea. We always want our own to be dearer to us than a stranger you do not know. I am a white Canadian, descended from European immigrants. I hold as much a part in Canada’s colonial past as every other citizen of the country. We committed atrocities in the founding and the running of this country for which we must make amends. We have done good things as well. Are we rotten? Are we simply human? It is essential to our understanding of ourselves as country to acknowledge and live with the truth that Canada is built on the insistent belief of European settlers that the First Nations peoples who already lived in this country had no right to it, that they were less human than Europeans. Our history is of racism, enslavement and domination. Is Canada doomed because of the rottenness of these actions? Is absolution possible?
> (Suggested reading: The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King and Reconciliation in Practice: A Cross-Cultural Perspective edited by Ranjan Datta).
> There are so many examples of human beings behaving in utterly shit ways, it can be difficult to argue against a fascist. Violence is perpetrated at every level of our society. Violence, both as an abstract concept and as a stark reality, is perpetrated by institutions, by employers, and by families. The structures of our society is, in and of itself, violent.
> In her piece “Avert the Icy Feeling*: Fourteen Notes on Race and Creative Writing (with bonus trauma loop)” Bhanu Kapil talks about reading her work, standing before a predominantly white audience. ‘Do you ever have the feeling that a large group of white people could kill you, if they wanted to?’ (54) she asks. I am white. I do not know how this feels, but I am a self-identified woman and so I understand this feeling from men. Groups of men frighten me. Single men in elevators frighten me. There is a thin veil of civility between violence and non-violence. What would I do? I comfort myself by thinking of how I would fight. I am strong. My bones do not easily break, my skin does not easily bruise, but that’s not the fucking point. The point is not how we are to defend ourselves; the point is to not have to.
> So, again: are these rotten natures? Rotten actions? Rotten systems? Are human beings rotten to the core?
> I want to say No, no, of course not. But the speed with which I say that has little to do with its veracity. My own beliefs are no less objective than the beliefs of those contrary to me and arguing over what is true does little in the political sphere—which is an incredibly frightening sentence.
> Think about any abusive relationship; spouse, parent, school authority, church. Think of all relationships where one partner is disproportionally more powerful than the other, and where the more powerful keeps the weaker in line by telling them repeatedly that they are rotten and deserve nothing. The basis of a certain type of religious fervor: God is great, and we are shit. Fascists tell us that we, the people, are shit and other people will hurt us unless we are protected from them. We are afraid and so we agree. You’re right, we are shit. Please give as little freedom as possible so we don’t hurt ourselves. Fear and hatred become the building blocks of such an argument. It begins with fear of the Other and culminates in fear of the Self.
> Trump seems to believe that he is more honest because he is performing this unrestrained rottenness. We (all humans) are being manipulated. We are being frightened into control by being told we are one thing. But human beings are not so simple. Our collective being is not the being of these systems. It is found in love and community, in art and music. We are so much more than what we sometimes can be.
> Gessen states:
There’s this great phrase by Hannah Arendt “throwing off the mask of hypocrisy” : this is the way she described part of the appeal of fascism. So the people who come into the political establishment like a bull into a china shop and just start smashing things, and it feels incredibly liberating, because yes, it is true that a lot of politics is hypocritical. A lot of politics is performance. (Gessen, 2020)
But don’t be fooled; the hypocrisy is not pretending that people are good when they are really bad; the hypocrisy is not allowing human beings to have any dimensions that you yourself do not have. Lack of empathy does not allow us to see or feel outside of ourselves. Trump believes humans are bad because he is bad. He’s right about half of it. That doesn’t mean that everyone else is like him. He could have not been like him. He has had so many opportunities to make different choices. We are not all one thing. We may not be fresh fruit, picked from the branch in the sun, but we are not rotten. We are not infallible goodness, but we are not rotten. We are silly and selfish and grumpy and thoughtful and kind and lethargic and passionate and joyful and grief stricken and cruel and loving and hopeful. We do terrible things—but we also do beautiful things.
> And we will be okay.
> Klein, Ezra. “Masha Gessen on the frightening fragility of America’s political instituions” Vox,
> Parmar, Sandeep, Nisha Ramayya, and Bhanu Kapil. Threads. Clinic. 2018.
Text and Image: Meredith Grace Thompson