“I was thinking how rare it is to actually allow brilliant women to have a conversation, develop ideas — in fact, to finish a sentence,” Tina Brown said after emerging on stage at the finish of the second day of the 2018 Women in the World Summit Friday afternoon. “It is so rare to hear this, in fact, I was thinking, this is bliss. This is brain sex,” she quipped, eliciting an eruption of laughter from the audience. The keynote panel, which closed out the day, had just been moderated by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Brown saw a budding TV host at work. “This is your new TV show: Brain Sex with Hillary Clinton!” she told the former secretary of state, sending her into a fit of laughter.
Clinton had just delivered a final salvo in a panel that addressed the rise of strongmen around the world. “When you are confronting the potential loss of the values you care about, your freedom, your equality, where you know that it’s going to be challenging perhaps,” Clinton said, “Do not be quiet. Do not stop talking. Do not stop voting. Do not give in to those whose views are opposite of what you believe.” She added, “I look forward to talking again with these women and others about what we’re going to do to make sure that strongmen don’t send us back. We’re not going!”
Clinton was joined onstage by four international journalists who have experienced intense, often personal criticism for their attempts to hold the powerful accountable in authoritarian regimes. Yevgenia Albats, editor in chief of The New Times, a political alt-weekly in Russia, is a staunch critic of Vladimir Putin — “under Putin it is difficult to breathe and utterly impossible to carry out any kind of investigative journalism,” she has said — as is Tamara Chergoleishvili, a Georgian journalist and the founder of Tabula Media. Working with the BBC for 25 years, often as a foreign correspondent, Carrie Gracie had become an expert on Chinese politics and reported extensively on President Xi Jinping. And Ece Temelkuran, rounding out the panel, has written so critically on the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan that it once got her fired; she left the country in exile soon after.
5 KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THE EPIC INTELLECTUAL JAM SESSION
1. Yevgenia Albats, Russia: “Your strength is our future freedom.”
“I was extremely impressed when I saw the women’s march” the day after the inauguration of President Trump, Albats said. “And of course this women’s rights march was followed by the kids’ march, who marched against the possession of weapons”—The March for Our Lives this past March.
The idea that people can get out and demonstrate for what they believe in is “a very powerful message that goes across the globe,” Albats said. Russians cannot see the protests on propagandist TV, but they can see them via the internet. “Democracy is about learning. Democracy is about the sense of togetherness. Our terror regimes are based on dividing people, on putting people against each other—so it’s very important for us to see this example of resistance that exists in the United States.”
She added, “Your strength is our future freedom.”
2. Ece Temelkuran, Turkey: Women are “coal-mine canaries in these regimes.”
“I wanted to say to you, to American women, be careful about this emotion thing,” Temelkuran warned. “It’s overrated, especially when dealing with madmen.”
These regimes are so destructive to women, she explained, “because misogyny is an integral part of right-wing populism. It’s not that they necessarily hate women, but they start with the less strong. They start with children. They start with animals.” When they get to the women, Temelkuran said, “it is disgusting to say this, but men secretly think, ‘Well, she’s a woman. We don’t have to defend her. We can find a way to deal with this new status quo.’ And then when they find out they can’t … it’s too late.”
The point, Temelkuran said, is that women act as “coal-mine canaries” in these regimes. “They feel what’s coming towards them—they are the first ones who feel the regime and the nails of it.”
3. Tamara Chergoleishvili, Georgia: “America is not Russia”
“I understand why authoritarian leaders want to make themselves, in the eyes of the people, indispensable, so if they are replaced the country is gone,” Chergoleishvili said. But in her view things are different in America. “I understand the United States has elections coming up in three years, and if [President Trump] is not elected, he will have to go. That is the will of the people.”
This is a huge difference, Chergoleishvili stressed: “Whatever you think, and whatever Americans think of their president, America is not Russia. America is ‘checks and balances,’ America is ‘American Constitution.’” The question is if America can maintain this difference, if it can stop itself from breaking up. “We shouldn’t be losing focus here. That is Putin’s goal—just to make sure everybody thinks there is no right and wrong, that everything is great and everybody is the same.”
“And you know, we do have an election in November of this year,” Clinton added, to cheers from the audience.
4. Carrie Gracie on how the Chinese leadership demonizes democracy: “Create a cage in the heads of … young people”
Explaining the strategy of the Chinese Communist Party to retain power indefinitely, Gracie said: “They were looking at the sustainability of the one-party state, and they basically said the key to this is to create a cage in the heads of our young people. So the first thing to do is to get them from kindergarten age and fill them with a sense that, for 200 years, we are a nation that has been horribly humiliated by the Brits and all the other colonial powers. And we’re not going to have it anymore—we’re standing tall.” Having successfully done this, anyone who says they want to create democracy in China becomes an enemy: somebody “who is trying to undermine our stability, our coherence, our sense of identity.”
5. If Hillary were in power …
Clinton kept a low-profile throughout much of the panel, letting others speak at length and offering little when the comments turned, invariably, to President Trump.
So when she did say something pointed, the audience responded with delight. “You know, on a strategic level, it’s always been interesting to me—If I were in a position to be concerned about Russia’s future …” The hypothetical alternate reality drew so much sudden laughter that Clinton, smiling broadly, had to repeat herself three times: “I would be looking, I would be looking, I would be looking—to the East.”
There has been a steady stream of Chinese moving across the Russian border, she explained, calling it “a very interesting dynamic.” She continued, musing, “It’s almost as though Putin is ignoring what is the biggest strategic threat over time to Russia in order to try to destabilize and overturn democratically elected governments in the West.”
Watch highlights and the full video of the conversation at the top of this story.
Additional reporting by Anna Hall.