Masha Gessen & the Kakistocracy: Words to the wise

The other day, I wrote about my latest vocabulary word: Kakistocracy. It’s new to me, but over in mother Russia, Masha Gessen and her colleagues have been using the word for a long time.

Which makes her an invaluable guide to life in a kakistocracy for those of us who are used to truthful, competent leaders.

In “The Styrofoam Presidency,” her most recent article on the New York Review of Books website, she sums up the events of our new administration’s first few days. She also shows us how similar events played out in Putin’s Russia:

“Not only did the [Russian] government start lying, but did so in dull, simple, and unimaginative language. Putin’s government is filled with people who plagiarized their dissertations—as did Putin himself. The ministers are subliterate. The minister of culture, who has a doctorate in history, regularly exposes his ignorance of history; indeed, Trump might be tempted to plagiarize the minister’s dissertation, which begins with the assertion that the criterion of truth in history is determined solely by the national interests of Russia—if it’s good for the country, it must be true (much of the rest of the dissertation is itself plagiarized). Other ministers provide the differently minded Russian blogosphere with endless hours of fun because they use words the meaning of which they clearly don’t know, or ones that don’t exist—as when a newly chosen education minister invented a word that seemed to mean that she had been appointed to the cabinet by God. They also make ignorant, repressive, inhumane policy. But their daily subversion of integrity and principle is indeed aesthetic in nature. And it serves a purpose: by degrading language and discrediting the spectacle of politics the Russian government is destroying the public sphere.” (emphasis added)

Degrading the language, discrediting politics, destroying the public sphere. Nice alliteration there, Masha. And I ask—not for the first time and, sadly, not for the last—if we degrade our very language, how can we communicate the truth? How can we connect with our fellow citizens? How can we fix what’s broken?

Dream Team: Masha Gessen & Samantha Bee

I suspect Masha Gessen would agree that these are fine questions. But I also suspect she’d say they’re beside the point.

Masha Gessen was interviewed on Full FrontalSamantha Bee interviewed Gessen on her excellent political comedy show, Full Frontal, last week. A writer I love and a satirist I love–what better to give me the lift I needed the night before the inauguration? So I watched it. Just before bed. (Big mistake.)

Nope, Gessen isn’t really worried about saving our language from degradation. She said—more than once:

“my biggest worry is nuclear holocaust.”

I know what you’re thinking: Comedy gold there, right?

So read the article—read everything she writes—and watch the interview. But clear some time in your schedule to lie down with a hot compress afterward.


Hone your writing skills while words still matter. My 12-week program, Writing Unbound, starts February 2nd. More information here.

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