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Masha Gessen on the language of autocrats


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At the NY Review Daily, Masha Gessen examines how autocrats (and those who aspire to be, like Donald Trump) systematically empty language of meaning, especially political words like “democracy,” “freedom,” and “law.” She shares her experience of being a young journalist in Russia in the early 1990s—writing in her native Russian—as she and her fellow journalists sought to use very descriptive and concrete language, because “the language of politics had been pillaged, as had the language of values and even the language of feelings.” Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Writing in Russian was a challenging exercise akin to navigating a mine field: one misstep could discredit the entire enterprise. Compared to this, writing in English was freedom. But then things in Russia got worse. A new government came in, and did new damage to the language. Vladimir Putin declared a “dictatorship of the law.” His main ideologue advanced the idea of “managed democracy.” Temporary president Dmitry Medvedev said, “Freedom is better than unfreedom.” Now words did not mean their opposite anymore. They just meant nothing. The phrase “dictatorship of the law” is so incoherent as to render both “dictatorship” and “law” meaningless.

Donald Trump has an instinct for doing both of these kinds of violence to language. He is particularly adept at taking words and phrases that deal with power relationships and turning them into their opposite. This was, for example, how he used the phrase “safe space” when talking about vice-president-elect Mike Pence’s visit to the musical Hamilton. Pence, if you recall, was booed and then passionately—and respectfully—addressed by the cast of the show. Trump was tweeting that this should not have happened. Now, the phrase “safe space” was coined to describe a place where people who usually feel unsafe and powerless would feel exceptionally safe. Claiming that the second most powerful man in the world should be granted a “safe space” in public turns the concept precisely on its head.

Trump performed the exact same trick on the phrase “witch hunt,” which he claimed was being carried out by Democrats to avenge their electoral loss. Witch hunts cannot actually be carried out by losers, big or small: the agent of a witch hunt must have power. And, of course, he has seized and flipped the term “fake news” in much the same way.

Image: Illustration by Abner Dean of George Orwell’s 1984 for Life magazine, July 4, 1949. Via NYR Daily.