Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"Cake" News or Let Them Eat Styrofoam

Have you heard the story about the inaugural cake? The cake for Trump, which was a replica of a cake for Obama, was three inches of cake, the rest of the multi-tiered structure was styrofoam. Author, journalist and activist Masha Gessen shared this story at a recent CAJM conference to illustrate the sham so often present in a totalitarian regime. 

Gessen knows of what she speaks. She grew up in Moscow, leaving in 1981, only to return in 1991. She once again departed in 2013 when faced with the threat of children being taken away from gay parents.  As an openly gay journalist with an adopted son, she was under particular threat.

I had read, loved, and written about her book Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace so was looking forward to hearing her speak. Today she is often discussing Trump through the lens of one who grew up in Russia and lived there during the Putin years.  

She began by quoting Soviet dissident Andrei Sinyavsky, who once said that his “differences with the Soviet regime were primarily aesthetic.” She then elaborated on his meaning by exploring the culture of mediocrity that sets off the cringe reflex in anyone who places a value on excellence. That quality is very much reflected in the culture that surrounds Trump from his misspelled tweets to his incoherent sentence structure to his disdain for facts to the sheer meanness reflected in both his language and his budget. It is an embarrassment to be represented in this fashion.

All is sham and styrofoam layers where appearance matters more than reality. She spoke of how similarly Putin surrounds himself with staff who all have PhDs, but each one of them is plagiarized. Putin himself has been accused of plagiarism, which is quite common in Russia.

On the one hand she noted that Trump is all about raw emotion and public profile while Putin doesn't express emotion and had no public profile. Despite these differences they are similar in the way that they use language and lies. They exert power over reality by bully lying. She noted that Trump doesn't care if you believe his lies, but will continue to assert them to render you powerless like the bully who takes your lunch box.  Similarly Putin claimed there were no Russian troops in Ukraine, then said, oh of course there are. Reality is what they say it is.

Both disdain the public sphere and are contemptuous of public politics, the media, and how the public conversation occurs within a democracy. Gessen referenced Tillerson's first trip as Secretary of State without the press corp.  He noted that he didn't feel he had a use for them and would use them if he did.  She contrasted this CEO view of the press with the public servant view. A CEO is accountable to a board, a public servant to the public. The press corps is one of the vehicles by which the public servant view is implemented.

Gessen spoke about Perm36, the only gulag museum in Russia that was based on what was once a gulag camp during Stalin. In its later incarnation it served as a political prisoner camp until 1988.  In 2013 the museum was taken over by the state and those who created it were forced out.  It was turned into a museum glorifying the gulag.  Gessen spoke of a visit where the guide spoke of Sergei Kovalev, a well-known geneticist held there, as if the camp had attracted distinguished guests rather than the fact that he was imprisoned in solitary confinement for much of his time.  The museum was designed to create what she called "squishy reality" where nothing in the museum was clear, pointed or original.  It is much how cacophony works to muddle and confuse the public into silence.  

Gessen referenced the cacophony of the Trump administration as echoing this approach.  Nothing means anything because everything is quickly overtaken by something else.  There is always the shiny new object to distract us from public politics which needs to be our focus.  She stressed that it is our job to save the public sphere and it must be reality based.  The question she closed with is what will we be left with post-Trump and the risk he presents to both our language and the role of our media.  Critical thinking must be upheld lest we discover that all that is frosted is not cake. 

If you'd like to read more of Masha Gessen's analysis you can find her work at the New York Times or pick up one of her books, one of which takes a closer look at Putin is The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

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