A positive action invalidates the meritocracy
Sasha Marianna Salzmann in conversation with Masha Gessen : America's flawed idea of democracy
Masha Gessen lives in New York, has worked as a journalist in both the USA and Russia and has been writing for “New Yorker” since 2014. Last year Gessen received the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding and the National Book Award for “The future is history. How Russia won and lost its freedom ”. Gessen identifies himself as non-binary, just like Sasha Marianna Salzmann. Salzmann lives in Berlin and is a playwright, essayist and novelist. In 2017, the debut novel "Besides yourself" was released. Salzmann interviewed Gessen in Bremen at the "Globale - Festival for Cross-Border Literature" via video chat. We document an abbreviated version of the conversation.
Masha Gessen, in your article “Autocracy: Rules for survival”, which was later expanded into a book, you formulate the first rule “Believe the autocrat, he means exactly what he says”. The second rule is “Don't let small signs of normalcy take you” and the third “The institutions won't save you.” Let's start there: Why won't the institutions be able to fend off an autocratic attempt?
I believe Americans have religious beliefs in institutions. The constitution is their civil religion. And all institutions that enforce the constitution are the executors of this religion on earth. And I think that the American people really, if not today, then definitely in 2016, firmly believed that the Founding Fathers created a perfect system
And that it is our job to preserve it, to paint the walls here and there, but basically: to live in them. That's a strange idea of democracy and, in my opinion, a fundamentally flawed one. As if democracy was a ready-made environment and not an idea, a dream, a striving for what I consider democracy.
The core of a democracy is the right to vote, and that is not really the case in the US. In the Electoral Integrality Index, the country ranks last among all western democracies. In your book you write in a similar way: If America wants to be a democracy, it has to reinvent itself. What reinvention do you envision?
First of all, do not believe that elections are essential to a democracy. I believe that if we are lucky, in the best of circumstances, democracy is supported by elections. That would be the best possible scenario.
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But the Athenians were very suspicious of elections. Why? Because they feared that elections would bring autocrats to power. And the rich and the educated. That is exactly what we are dealing with right now. We have a system that, almost by definition, favors the rich and educated. Here the American idea of democracy meets the American idea of meritocracy. How we reconcile this with the idea of government by the ruled is not entirely clear to me.
What could help
At the moment, our choices are more like castings and interviews. That would be something that we would have to rethink. We don't need to say goodbye to elections, but we need to change the way we think about elections and how we carry them out. All candidates are currently buying their way into the White House. Not as is the case in some Eastern European countries, where you actually buy something, but by donating money, making promises.
You describe Trump's promise to his electorate as follows: He pretends to send Americans back to an imagined past that never existed. It's warm and safe there, and he takes care of the rest. That is interesting for me personally, because that's how you describe Putin. How can these two very different countries end up at such a similar point in history?
It reminds me of a funny conversation I had with this wonderful Russian-Israeli scientist named Michael Philipov when I was there to cover Russian voting behavior and its impact on Israel. And Russians had a devastating effect on Israel.
Michael Philipov said that he studied Russian emigration for so many years and worked out this whole theory of why Russian-Israeli behavior was what it was; Among other things, it has to do with their Soviet background and the fact that most of them were engineers and believed that there always had to be a perfect solution for everything.
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It is a wonderful assumption that there is always a right solution for everything. In contrast to democracy, in which there are only ever imperfect solutions. So these were the theories. And then, he said, all of Israel suddenly started voting like that. And when he set out to revise and rethink his ideas, America chose Donald Trump.
Are you saying that we - the former Soviet citizens - are to blame for this?
I don't think it was us. And I don't think he meant that Russian forces were to blame. He thought it was because of a larger, universal, human blemish that was to blame. When I wrote “The Future is History”, a book about how totalitarianism recaptured Russia, I use the work of Erich Fromm, who wrote about Nazi Germany.
His theory is simple and ingenious: that there are times in human history when the future becomes too much for people. It creates anxiety and existential fears, so that people lose their ability to imagine a future, or at least a future without fear.
Some people get lost in this space of possibility, but most people find it too much. Their anxiety is too great and they want to delegate their actions to someone just to get rid of that anxiety. And that's the point at which a Martin Luther or an Adolf Hitler shows up and says, I'll take your agency and send you back into the past and give you security. And I believe that is our situation in the United States.
In your books and essays you repeatedly work with Erich Fromm's theory of freedom: a freedom to and a freedom from. The idea of a "positive" and a "negative" freedom. What is American Freedom? Is there such a thing in the “Land of the Free”?
The American political discourse is dominated by ideas of negative freedom. Freedom from government control, freedom from guidelines on what to do. Positive freedom is much more complicated, it is the freedom to create things, the freedom to be, or in Fromm's paradigm, the freedom to invent oneself. Well, that kind of productive freedom, positive freedom, freedom to, is a freedom that depends on a society that guarantees the protection and security of what the welfare state should provide. To know them and each other safe.
The struggle to wear a mask or not to wear a mask is a kind of caricature of the struggle between positive and negative freedom. Positive freedom is the kind of freedom where we take care of each other and therefore wear masks. Negative freedom is the freedom not to be told anything.
See the full interview here:
Going back to the imagined past that is promised, there is one more point that is very important to me and that is LGBT rights. You wrote in the “New York Review of Books” in the article “Why Autocrats Fear LGBT Rights”: “Queer rights are often the one decisive limit in the global cycle against autocracy.” Why?
There are two reasons and they are related. The autocrats come to power through the promise of an imagined past, and in order to put emphasis on their words and to make people feel safe, they have to undo one of the most recent social gains.
And that is, almost everywhere in the world, LGBT rights. The perception of LGBT people and their concerns has changed drastically and extremely quickly in the last ten or 20 years. Another reason is that we as queer people are inventors of our own identity. That is something that sets us apart from a great many other minorities. LGBT people are not raised by other LGBT people, they do not grow old among LGBT people.
What do you think will happen in election week and in the weeks after?
We will very likely not have any election results next week. There's this really upbeat scenario where Joe Biden wins the election with a landslide. Let's say he wins Florida or Texas and that's it. Then Donald Trump tries to challenge this, but it's actually over. This is the best possible scenario, but it probably isn't.
What is much more likely is a planned, dirty fight that - even if Biden wins - still gives Trump room to invalidate the results and use the threat of street violence to create an enforced peace.
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