THE PERILS OF SKILL-FREE LIVING: Masha Gessen lectures on Trump!


Part 3—But first, the AP's transcript:
Who the heck is Masha Gessen?

You're asking a very good question! Last weekend, C-Span aired the videotape of Gessen's May 7 appearance at the 2017 PEN World Voices Festival.

The annual festival is produced by PEN America, a venerable organization which "works to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship."

The festival was founded in 2005 under the leadership of Salman Rushdie, a leading figure in world literature, who was then PEN's president.

We seem to be dealing from the very top of the deck. As it posts its tape of the May 7 session, C-Span describes Gessen's appearance as follows:
C-SPAN: 2017 Arthur Miller Lecture Author Masha Gessen delivered the Arthur Miller Lecture followed by an interview with Samantha Bee as part of the 2017 PEN World Voices Festival. Ms. Gessen books include The Future is History and The Man Without a Face.
That's right. After Gessen delivered her lecture, she was interviewed by comedian Samantha Bee.

The lecture and the interview were both aired by C-Span. The entire session can be viewed at the C-Span site linked above, or at this PEN America site

Concerning the interview, we'll only say this:

Bee is a very capable comedian. But she had as much business interviewing Gessen as we would have dancing a lead in the Bolshoi Ballet's next mounting of Swan Lake.

It's fairly clear, during that interview, that Bee understood this fact about herself and about her own performance. Here again, you see the preference within modern liberal culture for the joys of skill-free living:

In scheduling that interview session, PEN went with publicity value and imagined entertainment and fun at the expense of basic competence. Again and again and again and again, this is the way our liberal and progressive elites contribute to the dumbnification of the American discourse.

This dumbnification hasn't served liberal interests especially well.

That said, who is Masha Gessen? We'll offer a brief subjective capsule: she's smarter than the average journalistic bear, and she's much more sincere. Her sincerity would seem to flow from her personal history, which the leading authority has summarized in this way:
Maria Alexandrovna "Masha" Gessen (born 13 January 1967), is a Russian and American journalist, author, translator and activist who has been an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Gessen helped found the Pink Triangle Campaign and has written extensively on LGBT rights. Described as "Russia's leading LGBT rights activist," she has said that for many years she was "probably the only publicly out gay person in the whole country."

Gessen writes primarily in English but also in her native Russian, and in addition to being the author of several non-fiction books, she has been a prolific contributor to such publications as The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, New Statesman, Granta, Slate, Vanity Fair, Harper's Magazine, and U.S. News & World Report.


Gessen was born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Moscow to Alexander and Yelena Gessen. In 1981, when Gessen was a teenager, she and her family moved to the United States. As an adult in 1991, she moved to Moscow, where she worked as a journalist. Gessen holds both Russian and US citizenship.
Gessen hasn't simply talked the talk; she has also walked the walk. She's sharper than the average bear. We'd be inclined to assume complete sincerity in every word she utters.

For those reasons, we were struck by the lecture she gave, to an appreciate liberal audience, at the May 7 PEN event.

Gessen's lecture was repeatedly interrupted by laughter and applause. Repeatedly, these interruptions occurred at points where Gessen was offering absurd analyses or working from an AP transcript whose basic structure she rather plainly didn't seem to understand.

We were struck by Gessen's overstatements—and by her lack of preparation.

Bee's attempt at conducting an interview was horrible, but predictably so. Simply put, she was playing out of position as she interviewed Gessen.

That said, Gessen's actual lecture was striking and disappointing. The reactions by that liberal audience only made matters worse.

Then too, we must confront that AP transcript, from which Gessen attempted to work at one point to the delight of her audience.

The Associated Press is one of this country's oldest and most influential news organizations. The interview to which we refer was conducted by Julie Pace, the AP's newly-named Washington bureau chief.

In the past year or two, Pace has become a familiar face on "cable news" programs. In our view, she is routinely competent, sane and well-informed, and professional in her demeanor.

She doesn't get way out over her skies. These traits tend to make a person stand out in the realm of "cable news."

On Friday, April 21, Pace conducted a lengthy interview with President Donald J. Trump. The interview was intended to mark the end of Trump's first hundred days in office.

The AP released no videotape or audiotape of the interview. The AP's official transcript of the session is here.

Some of Trump's statements in that interview provoked a lot of discussion. In our view, Pace's performance was completely appropriate throughout.

Pace performed as a journalist should. In a puzzling array of ways, the AP's transcript is a bit of a mess.

Our view? In a slightly different world, it would be hard to imagine a major news org publishing such a transcript. Beyond that, a second problem lurks:

It's completely clear, from Gessen's lecture, that she hadn't fully perused the transcript from which she chose to work. In her lecture, she used certain parts of the transcript to generate laughter and applause. But it seems depressingly clear that she hadn't performed basic due diligence before composing her text.

In our first few reports in this series, we've posed an implicit question. We've discussed the way our philosophy professors—in theory, an important set of guardians—have basically walked off their posts.

We then discussed the puzzling fact that a major journalist at the New York Times seems to display the intellectual skill of someone who's nine years old.

The implicit question we're raising is this:

As a general matter, how should we regard ourselves and our fellow humans? As a general matter, which heuristic best holds?

Are we humans "the rational animal," as Aristotle is said to have said? Or are we humans more reliably viewed as a set of misfiring machines?

Our logicians refuse to offer us help. Our nation's brainiest newspaper is written on third-grade level.

Tomorrow, we'll look at a puzzling transcript composed by our leading wire service. Next week, we'll review the lecture given by Gessen—and we'll consider the reactions of that liberal crowd.

Gessen's smarter than the average bear. Transparently, we'd say she's completely sincere.

For those reasons, we were struck by the lecture she gave. And also, good God—

By that audience!

Tomorrow: Our nation's most important wire service attempts to compose a transcript


  1. Lots of name-calling here and absolutely no examples of what Somerby is criticizing about either Gessen or Bee. I can assume he disagrees with whatever was said, but he never clearly states what was wrong about anyone's work. I suppose he will get to that later, but usually you present the evidence first and then draw the conclusions.

    I am left with the impression that Somerby doesn't like women much. He doesn't like this woman writer who is also an activist against Putin in Russia (and he pretends her job is journalist or reporter instead of critic of a repressive regime) and he doesn't like Samantha Bee much, portraying her as a comedienne instead of as the social critic that she has become, using humor to make her points about our culture and political events. In Bee's case, any serious intent she might have is diminished by pretending her only goal is to amuse. Bee is not a journalist or reporter either.

    Aside from that, today's post is entirely devoid of content. Maybe that is a metaphor for Somerby's life these days. Increasingly, it is unclear what he stands for, what he hopes to accomplish and what he is trying to tell his readers here. Time to hang it up, in my opinion.

    1. Your right, no way to tell what TDH's issue is, unless maybe you go to the cspan link (which I haven't done). But just because TDH criticizes Gessen's speech and Bee's interview doesn't equate with him not liking women. It could be (probably is) true that the criticism's are warranted.

    2. It is the nature of his criticism that suggests he doesn't like women.

      Somerby doesn't understand gender issues at all. He particularly doesn't understand that women self-present with deprecating remarks, that they speak indirectly and are more circumspect, that they can appear pleasant when entirely serious and couch their statements in tentative or even questioning language. This is part of gender difference in language, as fully explored by psycholinguists. This is probably what is putting him off about both Gessen and Bee. Women hear the underlying seriousness, not the camouflage surrounding it, which seems to annoy Somerby based on his remarks about the audience laughter and Gessen/Bee's jokes.

      He also dismisses Bee as just a comedian. She is more than that, in both intent and execution, just as John Oliver and John Stewart are. Her questions are deeper than simply humor and she has every right to have been selected by PEN to interview Gessen because she is not the lightweight Somerby implies she is.

      All of that attitude from Somerby is highly offensive to women. It represents bias and inability to hear past the superficial. Somerby prides himself on doing exactly that but he seems lost in trivial complaints and superficialities these days. I would feel sorry for him if he weren't being so irritating.

  2. Here's one of Masha Gessen's contributions to the NY Review:

  3. I have no idea what Bob finds wrong with Gessen, who is indeed smarter than the average bear. For someone who dislikes Maddow so much, his 4-part blog posts read like her shows.

  4. I listened to Gessen's lecture and she mocks Trump's failure to use language comprehensibly and relates it to the distortions of language by dictators in unfree societies, such as Russia.

    Somerby no doubt objects to the part where Gessen says we must accurately call lies "lies" and not misstatements. She argues that misstatement is singular and elides the body of inaccurate statements routinely made by Trump. These collective statements make Trump a liar, not a human who occasionally makes a mistaken statement.

    Samantha Bee points out that many of the traditions ignored or broken by Trump were not codified in language. They also point out some positives about Trump's family life (a divorced president married to an immigrant) were Trump not a terrible president. Bee objects to the fact-checking approach where each misstatement is itemized while the larger problem is ignored. Gessen says that fact checking is not enough. Journalists need to point out that he is always lying, that people need to know the truth.

    Bee herself points out that it is too easy to regard Trump as a source of amusement. They both claim that we as a nation have failed the test of critical thinking. Gessen says that conspiracy theories take hold when something unimaginable happens, to make the world make sense again. But it feeds into fraudulent news on both sides. Bee is serious and respectful and tries to discuss how to counteract myths and false news (with some self-deprecation). Gessen says that conspiracy thinking is a symptom of looming autocracy and we need to question our tendency to buy simple theories.

    Then they discussed how to combat fake news, using Finland as an example. Maybe Somerby objects to using Finland as an example of something good again. Gessen suggests there is a sphere from center right to center left where ideas are exchanged without a bubble. Bee raised the issue of false balance in the media.

    In short, I found the discussion interesting, Bee's interview questions relevant and comprehensive. That there were occasional jokes did not detract from the ongoing discussion. Perhaps Somerby was disappointed that the discussion was not philosophical. I have trouble understanding what his complaints are, aside from the unmistakable tone of criticism.

    There is an assumption throughout that Trump is an autocrat doing damage to both language and our government. That is true, in my opinion, and pretending otherwise is a lie.

  5. Samantha Bee is a feminist engaged in resistance to Trump's attempts to reshape our country. That makes her an excellent person to interview Gessen. They are both engaged in the same activity, political resistance through media. She does a good job, in my opinion.

    Somerby is on the wrong team, the wrong side here. He doesn't want to combat Trump -- he wants to attack liberals, especially those who are trying to achieve social change. He's doing that because he is an old-style Bernie socialist who doesn't consider any issue important unless it is economic, class-based. He has no sympathy for women's issues or for identity issues (Gessen is gay), so he has no qualms about tearing down those trying to defend our country from Trump's efforts to roll back all progress in the past several decades. Somerby is not only wrong about Gessen and Bee, he is wrong about liberals and he needs to stop his efforts here -- they are helping the right and doing nothing to further liberal values. Sad, but it is time to stop this garbage.

    1. Pretending that his complaints are somehow about skills instead of ideology is another example of a lie (although perhaps Somerby is unaware that he is camouflaging his actual intent). Skill has nothing to do with Somerby's negative reaction to the push back embodied by two women who may seem to disdain men. Somerby needs to get some psychological help and spend less time comparing notes with the other bros.

  6. >Transparently, we'd say she's completely sincere.

    She's a Russian jew, so there's approximately a 0% chance of that assessment being true. As cursed as this nation is with jews generally, the Russian jew is a particularly caustic specimen. Your nation would do better to have plague-infested rats delivered to its shores than the likes of Masha Gessen, Julia Ioffe, and Max Boot. Because of kikes like these, very powerful people are pressing for a nuclear conflict with Russia.

    Few are brave enough to oppose them.

    1. And you're a fucking scumbag Daily Stormer/4chan troll.

      Go back to your plague-infested rathole.

    2. No really, pull up Tucker Carlson's interview with Max Boot from last night. These Russian jews are absolutely obsessed with killing Russians. They can't stand that they don't utterly control Russia anymore, and they can't stand that Russians reject their efforts to poz out their civilization.

      Gessen is a great example of this. Bad enough that she's a Russian jew, she's a dyke kike on top of it. It's her mission to have Russia's equivalent of Bill Nye presenting Russia's equivalent of Rachel Bloom singing a Russian version of "My Sex Junk." They'll stop at nothing to get it.

    3. No really, fuck off!

  7. Very Serious Feminist CritiqueJuly 13, 2017 at 3:44 PM

    I can effectively call Somerby a woman-hater by a combination of A) ignoring the actual failures of the women he criticises, B) ignoring the fact that he criticises men in the same terms, and C) ignoring the praise he gives to other women -- sometimes in the same piece I'm cherry-picking to "prove" his loathing of women!

    Nothing gets past me!

  8. Gessen after three failed gay marriages is "sincere" when she says her goal is the destruction of marriage and family.

    "I agree that we should have the right to marry, but I also think equally that it is a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist. . . . Fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we’re going to do with marriage when we get there, because we lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change, and that is a lie. The institution of marriage is going to change, and it should change, and again, I don’t think it should exist.

    Read more at:"

  9. @3:11 & A 4:11 - Elliot Rodger is your hero, right?

  10. Gessen was one of the very first Russian emigres signed up by the New York Times to denigrate Putin and her home country. She was followed by nearly a dozen other Russian haters on the newspaper. She has mellowed recently and now writes of other important issues. One of her early columns dealt with monkeys in the streets of Moscow.


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