On Tuesday night, the journalist Masha Gessen delivered the Robert B. Silvers Lecture at the New York Public Library. (The lecture is named for the late longtime editor of the New York Review of Books, for which Gessen often writes.) In their introductory remarks, Gessen and the NYPL’s president invoked the specter of “fake news” and emphasized the importance of “distinguishing truth from falsehood.” This made it unfortunate that Gessen chose to organize her talk around the Centers for Disease Control’s nonexistent list of seven banned words. That aside, however, there was much of interest.
Gessen’s speech was mostly autobiographical, and she has led a peripatetic life. Born in the Soviet Union to Jewish parents who managed after long struggles to emigrate, she spent her teens and early 20s drifting around, went back to Russia after the fall of Communism, and worked there as a journalist for a couple of decades, only to return to the U.S. in 2013 after suffering severe harassment for her gay-rights activism.
Her grandparents spent almost all of their lives under Communism and, like most people in that situation, they made their accommodations with it. One of her grandmothers went to college and studied history, but when she graduated, she chose to be a government censor rather than a history teacher. Why? Because as a history teacher, she “would have had to lie every day,” whereas being a censor is essentially a clerical job: You just revise text according to a fixed set of rules. Gessen said her fellow dissidents agreed that heroism in an authoritarian state doesn’t mean dying, or going to prison for a cause; it means surviving.
The address was loosely based on the idea of choice. “Insisting on choice is a revolutionary act,” she said, and it’s true that people will often make seemingly irrational choices just to show that they won’t be manipulated or coerced. You could say that Trump’s election was an example of this. Gessen didn’t make that connection herself, but she did say it was ironic that a candidate who purported to offer voters a choice was so eager to deny choice to others. I thought: Right, except when it comes to things like your health, your religion, and your kids’ school. She lamented that in many areas, people often choose not to choose, and instead surrender decisions to others. She cited Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, which ties this tendency to the rise of Nazism; I recently posted on a somewhat related topic.
Immigration was another theme that ran through the talk. Refugees, Gessen said, can enter the U.S. if they face persecution at home, and that’s good; but why is someone facing death by execution more worthy of help than someone facing death by starvation? You can say that persecution is an additional danger for a refugee, on top of poverty, but that’s not always true, since many dissidents are not poor.
Gessen is no conservative, but she is strongly anti-Putin and anti-Trump, and she has been praised in these pages for her honest and detailed dissection of the implausible Russian “collusion” narrative. People who are the hardest to pigeonhole can sometimes have the most interesting takes.