Issue of the Week: War, Human Rights, Economic Opportunity, Hunger, Disease, Population
“We are the future” (c) 1997-2018 Planet Earth Foundation
The End Of Civilization As We Knew It, Part Six.
At the start of our reflections, and before, and at the end of last week’s post, we’ve referred to the enormous impact globally and politically of the single worst combination of death and refugee creation and displacement since World War Two, in Syria going on eight years now.
Yesterday, the UN reported on the dimensions of this catastrophe, and the risk of horrors to come.
You read all about it, right?
Well, probably not. It wasn’t a headline. No space for it anymore.
Who wants to be reminded of what, as nations and as citizens, we never demanded action or took meaningful action on, while the better half of a million people, mostly civilians, were killed, and millions of people, half of a nation—half, was sent running around the world (mostly the already chaotic world of the neighboring nations, but unless you lived there, you probably wouldn’t know it), or displaced inside their own nation, trying to escape death and destruction?
We need to remind, before proceeding, why we have been posting one Message of the Day per week—the same as the Issue of the Week—for some time now. It’s to reinforce the necessity for in-depth cognitive focus on subjects and issues in an age that requires it for survival, from life on earth to the individual human brain. We may change this as we determine, adding an additional Message of the Day. But for now, we continue as we have for some time, for the reasons described above and before.
And were underlined three days ago, in The Guardian, by Maryanne Wolf, who wrote the following in Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound:
“When the reading brain skims texts, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings or to perceive beauty. We need a new literacy for the digital age
Look around on your next plane trip. The iPad is the new pacifier for babies and toddlers. Younger school-aged children read stories on smartphones; older boys don’t read at all, but hunch over video games. Parents and other passengers read on Kindles or skim a flotilla of email and news feeds. Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.
As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.
This is not a simple, binary issue of print vs digital reading and technological innovation. As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating. In this hinge moment between print and digital cultures, society needs to confront what is diminishing in the expert reading circuit, what our children and older students are not developing, and what we can do about it.
We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.
Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ “cognitive impatience,” however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts and the deliberately confusing public referendum questions citizens encounter in the voting booth.
Multiple studies show that digital screen use may be causing a variety of troubling downstream effects on reading comprehension in older high school and college students. In Stavanger, Norway, psychologist Anne Mangen and her colleagues studied how high school students comprehend the same material in different mediums. Mangen’s group asked subjects questions about a short story whose plot had universal student appeal (a lust-filled, love story); half of the students read Jenny, Mon Amour on a Kindle, the other half in paperback. Results indicated that students who read on print were superior in their comprehension to screen-reading peers, particularly in their ability to sequence detail and reconstruct the plot in chronological order.
Ziming Liu from San Jose State University has conducted a series of studies which indicate that the “new norm” in reading is skimming, with word-spotting and browsing through the text. Many readers now use an F or Z pattern when reading in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.
Karin Littau and Andrew Piper have noted another dimension: physicality. Piper, Littau and Anne Mangen’s group emphasize that the sense of touch in print reading adds an important redundancy to information – a kind of “geometry” to words, and a spatial “thereness” for text. As Piper notes, human beings need a knowledge of where they are in time and space that allows them to return to things and learn from re-examination – what he calls the “technology of recurrence”. The importance of recurrence for both young and older readers involves the ability to go back, to check and evaluate one’s understanding of a text. The question, then, is what happens to comprehension when our youth skim on a screen whose lack of spatial thereness discourages “looking back.”
US media researchers Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine, American University’s linguist Naomi Baron, and cognitive scientist Tami Katzir from Haifa University have examined the effects of different information mediums, particularly on the young. Katzir’s research has found that the negative effects of screen reading can appear as early as fourth and fifth grade – with implications not only for comprehension, but also on the growth of empathy.
The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.
There’s an old rule in neuroscience that does not alter with age: use it or lose it. It is a very hopeful principle when applied to critical thought in the reading brain because it implies choice. The story of the changing reading brain is hardly finished. We possess both the science and the technology to identify and redress the changes in how we read before they become entrenched. If we work to understand exactly what we will lose, alongside the extraordinary new capacities that the digital world has brought us, there is as much reason for excitement as caution.
We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.”
Okay, did you get that? Even if you think you did, please read again.
At the start of our series of reflections, on the day of the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere and the winter in the south, we made the following observations:
“Over the years, in the previous system of the site (still in transition) for the Issue of the Week and Message of the Day, links in the text were not an option. One or two key links were provided at the end of the posts. This became purposeful, as troglodyte as it may have appeared. Activism on the internet, which we were part of pioneering, evolved, or devolved, with the internet itself. That is going to be a subject focused on more itself in the future. But for now, keep in mind that it was purposeful for us to require the reader to read, not jump around with links. It’s understandable that in view of getting an audience, most have used every new gimmick the internet has to offer. But studies have proven the downside of this, and many internet pioneers now decry their own creation.
Twitter, for instance, has now been made infamous. We understand why many use it and see it as needed. Just as we see it as the fact of what it is—the shrinking capacity, reinforced by the very use of it, to focus on more than a few characters—making, as we’ve previously noted, the 30 second TV spot seem like reading volumes. The 30 second TV ad that was the metaphor yesterday for the shrinking capacity and willingness of the species to think longer than that.
One of the things we did in our national and international public service campaigns was to reintroduce what even the corporate advertising world had ditched—the 60 second spot. They are like mini-movies compared to the 30s. And we received the top awards in the world for it. But more importantly, people watched. Feed crap and crap becomes demanded. Feed something better and the heart, mind and soul embrace it, if not immediately, then in time.
We do now provide some links in our commentary. But sometimes we will not, by choice.”
Now, we continue our commentary. With a segue from the reference above to our “mini-movie” public service spots, to a specific experience in producing one which leads back to the larger issues we’ve been reflecting on.
Last year, we posted that twenty years ago tomorrow, “we arrived with our production crew from Seattle in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was Saturday night. We were starting one of the biggest shoots in our history for a public service campaign over the Labor Day weekend, in the U.S.”
A major focus of the post last year was learning of the death of Princess Diana upon arriving, the impact it had globally and why. It was being revisited in a major manner in the media at the time on the twentieth anniversary. We will revisit that post, observations then and related observations since, at another time.
The point of this revisiting of our production in Charlotte that year, is the production itself, and what happened during it.
The purpose of the production of the public service ads was, in the most general sense, to promote community service. One of the series of ads (different lengths and venues, TV, radio, print), was focused on regular basketball games for and between youth in the community.
It was an astonishing and inspiring sight. The kids, across gender and racial identities, playing as equals together—all out. All with absolute respect and comradery. And pride, in themselves and each other.
Girls and boys racing full-court, back and forth. With incredible skill, grace and passion. With physical endurance born of doing this over and over. No gender or racial stereotypes. A human family.
It was an activist’s dream and a filmmaker’s dream.
We had a large production team and a lot of equipment. And we made the best of it—to make the best of what the kids showed us. Spinning, jumping, shooting. Fast motion passing—the ball sped up for a second laser-like. To slow motion of all the kids spread across the court, just standing together, at different depths, all eyes on the cameras.
Faces serious, eyes soulful, penetrating. Look at us, the eyes demanded. Respect us as we respect ourselves and each other. We are the future.
Then back to the game, our best shots from above the net as they took theirs.
We were looking at what we’d been fighting for all our lives.
Equality. Strength of character. Empathy. Common purpose.
The kids were from different backgrounds. Some, perhaps most, if not being where they were and doing what they were doing, would be at-risk, or more at-risk.
Then, an improbable sight.
A white man in his mid-seventies starts to play with them.
For as long as they do.
He’s one of them. And an important character in our mini-movies in this production.
We talked with him, and the kids, at-length, in between takes, and after we finished the shoot.
We learned from others that the man in his mid-seventies, 53 years earlier as we spoke, had been on the beaches of Normandy and fighting the Nazis in the hedgerows.
In film terms, the closest one could perhaps come to understanding these experiences would be in the movie Saving Private Ryan and the HBO series Band of Brothers (based on the book by Stephen Ambrose). We recommend reading everything one can about such events. But in an age when film and related media are the cultural communication currency in many ways, and are their own meaningful experience as an art form that at best can put you in the experience in a virtual manner, the above are indispensable.
When we first saw Band of Brothers in 2001, Richard Davis “Dick” Winters, the commander of “Easy Company” (who died in 2011), portrayed by Damien Lewis, reminded us—exactly—of the man on the court with the kids in Charlotte.
This is, in a way, a well-known stereotype of the young men in that generation who fought to save the world. But it is clear, from our experience of many others who served in this war, and the widely-discussed and written-about experience of nearly everyone about this generation, a stereotype that is true.
It’s utterly humbling to be in the presence of such a person. They are incredibly humble themselves. Their focus is on others. On service. The man on the court in Charlotte came every day, to be with and grow with and be a mentor, as an example, for the kids, who treated them as equals and more.
The one thing he wouldn’t do—again a stereotype that’s true—was talk about his wartime experience. Perhaps in part a stoicism that both served and hurt his generation (everyone since could use more of the stoicism—the full-range of the roots of the term need to be studied if one is not aware). But the larger reason appeared to be humility. You did your duty. It was your honor. You are, by a miracle you cannot understand, or by chance you cannot stand, still alive, instead of your brothers you watched die. You would never allow yourself to be seen as heroic or as trying to be seen that way.
Which of course just increases the level of heroism the rest of us witness.
There was a point when talking about this became naturally unavoidable.
The man started to call us by positive adjectives we can’t stand to repeat, speaking of not being able to stand something. What we do has always been our honor. But to hear this man speak of us so kindly with our saying nothing about him was unbearable. We tried not to. But we teared-up. And when he asked why, the tears rolled down one of our cheeks.
So, we talked. And we thanked him. And we kept thanking him until he stopped trying to stop us. And the moment was so genuine that it became clear in his eyes, then his words, how genuinely he appreciated it.
We are reminded of another who deserves thanks, who passed away last week, John McCain.
In the same eventful year 50 years ago so much of the chaos around, among other things, the Vietnam War was occurring, McCain was shot down and began years of suffering as a POW. It doesn’t matter what one’s views of that war were or are. Those who served and who suffered as he did deserve our gratitude and empathy. There is much more to be said about him in our ongoing reflection as well. But for now suffice it to say, as many have, that agree or disagree with what he thought or did—and we did both at various times—he will be missed at this moment in history immeasurably.
Seventy-nine years ago in two days, September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and World War Two started officially. It was underway already in Hitler’s continued aggression beforehand enabled by the rest of Europe and the world, in 1937 when Japan invaded China, in 1936 in the Spanish Civil War.
In this month, August, in 1941, the British had barely held off, so far, being defeated by the Nazis, who had over-run Europe. The majority of the British forces had miraculously escaped Dunkirk on the coast of France the previous year. But without the US and all its aid, which started soon thereafter, was needed increasingly, and ultimately would require the US to enter the war, the Nazis would win. And in that context, what turned into the blunder of invading the Soviet Union, ending in Stalingrad (Hitler ordering the German army to turn to Ukraine, also this month in 1941, at the moment it could have walked into Moscow, seems proof of God) would have quite likely been a very different story. Hitler had also hesitated in a full assault to finish off Britain.
US preparation for war had started publicly in some ways in 1940 but was always explained as defensive. The draft was passed in Congress in June 1940 at the point it appeared the Nazis would more likely than not defeat Britain and win the war. Aid to Britain was amped-up then (followed by aid on all fronts to Britain, China and the Soviets), and delivery of arms by US vessels constantly pushed up against and past what Congress had authorized–and into defacto joint military action with the British against German submarines.
And in this pivotal month of August 1941, the event on which all else hinged occurred, effectively confirming what had been happening and would happen.
US President Franklin Roosevelt secretly met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from August 9 to August 12, aboard naval ships in Placentia Bay, off the southeast coast of Newfoundland. They planned for the war and the post-war world.
It’s absolutely essential to fully comprehend what happened here.
FDR ran for an unprecedented third term as president in 1940 as the peace candidate who would under no circumstances allow the US into the war.
He lied. Blatantly. Let that sink in.
He knew the US would have to fight the Nazis. The US public was fighting the last war as they say and wanted nothing to do with this one. And didn’t care about what happened to millions of people, the Jews, or anyone. From right-wing to left, Nazi-sympathizers to socialists, the American people wanted nothing to do with the war. If they thought Roosevelt did, he would have been defeated, and if after re-elected they found out, he may well have been impeached. He carefully laid the groundwork for where he was actually headed while talking out of the other side of his mouth. He started to bring Congress and the public slowly toward his position, but not to entering the war. His political genius and events had achieved majority support for aid to Britain, China and the Soviet Union, but a Gallup poll taken weeks before Pearl Harbor showed only 17 percent of the American public would support a war against Germany.
However, FDR essentially “officially” entered the war against the Nazis in August 1941 (as noted above, it had already effectively happened in reality). The Atlantic Charter was agreed to then. The alliance with the British, the Soviets and others was already cemented then. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor bringing the US public fully on board for entering the war, the connected United Nations agreement was signed by all allies.
Even when the meeting with FDR and Churchill was made public, the political delivery was not that the US was entering the war–even though it was plain as day that was exactly what was committed to. FDR had hoped the US public would rally behind this more quickly than it did in response, but his commitment was clear, as it had been in his actions for some time, known and unknown. And quite apart from the usual nationalist rivalries and clashes that often led to war over who would dominate economically and otherwise, FDR understood the unique menace of the fascism in Germany alone, much less combined with the fascism in Japan (Italy and others were significant politically but not militarily). He knew that not only would the US have to enter the war to defeat this, but that defeating, dismantling and fully delegitimizing fascism meant insisting on unconditional surrender, which only the US could be counted on to deliver on.
Is it a good thing FDR lied? Yes. The equivalent of lying to Nazis about Jews hiding in your house, and so much more. Because without the lying, the aid to the British and Soviets and other maneuvers happening always a bit ahead of constitutional backing—much less making clear the US would be coming into the war—the Nazis would almost certainly have won. There are some things no constitution can fully foresee. A frightening fact if misused, but a fact nonetheless. A president has to make his or her (please soon) best call and be willing to take the consequences. And the rest of a democratic structure needs to hold to account.
Another example was Lincoln, who tore the constitution up during the Civil War, and lied, cheated and bribed to get good and necessary things done—and who did monstrous things until he figured out where history was going (definitely more on that to come in another post).
In both cases, being on the knife’s edge.
For all the unforgiveable actions regarding the genocide against the Jews and others, and a catalogue of unforgiveable actions before and during the War by Roosevelt, his commitment to fight the Nazis alone would have made him one of the greats of history. But he also launched the ship of economic social justice in the US. And committed to it, and to more, in basic needs and basic rights, in the US and the world, as the official agreed goal of World War Two. And with all the backtracking and horrible actions that occurred after, The Atlantic Charter was an historic move forward.
We’ve talked about it enough. Presumably you’ve read it. If not, here it is on the NATO website.
FDR must have known the age that was coming in terms of attention span, since the document is so brief and simple and to the point.
Let’s revisit our post from last year at the start of this month:
Seventy-seven years ago at Dunkirk on the coast of France, World War Two was likely nearly lost. The British, French, colonial and other forces and support were literally being pushed into the sea by Hitler’s forces. They would have been destroyed or captured without a well-known if often simplified story of incredible heroism and luck. The majority escaped to Britain.
On June 4, 1940, as the above was completed, Winston Churchill gave his most famous speech in the House of Commons. It ended with “we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
The new world, the U.S., was in the process of replacing Britain as the new empire, if not in the same sense, certainly in terms of “power and might”, as Churchill referenced. The U.S. became the “arsenal of democracy” in FDR’s words soon thereafter, supplying Britain with arms and aid, and preparing the U.S. for war in the doing. FDR knew the U.S. would have to enter the war against the Nazis, although isolationism from both right and left was not ultimately overcome until Pearl Harbor. But FDR already planned for war and the post-war world in his secret meeting with Churchill in August 1941. Even before direct entry which Churchill had hoped for earlier, the two issued The Atlantic Charter shortly after meeting, outlining the principles for a post- war world, essentially dictated by the U.S., for a war it had not yet entered. This was a bit past writing on the wall.
The principles were critical, and the United Nations and the end of colonialism grew out of them. Churchill of course didn’t’ want the latter, but had no choice.
Churchill was a colonialist racist who had little to recommend him–until Hitler. That was his “finest hour” and it’s not possible to imagine the defeat of Hitler without him. FDR was far more progressive in many ways, but had horrible baggage himself– colluding with a south in the U.S. that lynched blacks in order to keep the Democratic Party coalition together, putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, allowing Jews trying to escape Hitler to be kept out of the U.S., and enabling oligarchies that starved campesinos in Latin America. But FDR was the necessary leader to beat Hitler, as was Churchill. Stalin, after first making a pact with Hitler, then being invaded by him, became a necessary ally. He was just as evil and killed millions, but his pathologies had rationally self-interested boundaries that Hitler didn’t, and was not threatening to upend the world in the same way. Hitler had to be stopped, period, first order of business.
One of the things that set FDR apart was his vision for the future, moving past his own limitations too. If it was going to be world war, it was going to be for equality. He made possible much of the actual equality that ensued around the world, or began the process toward, after the war (and the inequality remaining in the U.S. as well), by the principles he set forth before the U.S. entered it.
The irony at the end of a great speech by Churchill above was that he was depending on the conquests of empire, on the people under colonial rule, the people of Africa and Asia who make up the great majority of the population of the planet, then and now, to be the last resort for continuing the fight until the Americans showed up.
Which takes us to a crucial opinion piece read in The Guardian in London today.
The new movie, “Dunkirk”, directed by Christopher Nolan, has been at the top of the box office for a couple of weeks in the U.S. and doing well worldwide. It has generally been well- received by critics, although increasingly not so much. The film has much to recommend it, and much not to.
“Why the lack of Indian and African faces in Dunkirk matters”, by Sunny Singh, speaks for itself.
The subtitle is “The blockbuster purports to be a historical portrayal, but in fact it’s a whitewash. And these decisions help corrode societal attitudes”:
“What a surprise that Nigel Farage has endorsed the new fantasy-disguised-as-historical war film, Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s movie is an inadvertently timely, thinly veiled Brexiteer fantasy in which plucky Britons heroically retreat from the dangerous shores of Europe. Most importantly, it pushes the narrative that it was Britain as it exists today – and not the one with a global empire – that stood alone against the ‘European peril’.
To do so, it erases the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, which were not only on the beach, but tasked with transporting supplies over terrain that was inaccessible for the British Expeditionary Force’s motorised transport companies. It also ignores the fact that by 1938, lascars – mostly from South
Asia and East Africa – counted for one of four crewmen on British merchant vessels, and thus participated in large numbers in the evacuation.
But Nolan’s erasures are not limited to the British. The French army deployed at Dunkirk included soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies, and in substantial numbers. Some non-white faces are visible in one crowd scene, but that’s it. The film forgets the racialised pecking order that determined life and death for both British and French colonial troops at Dunkirk and after it.
This is important, firstly, because it is a matter of factual accuracy in what purports to be an historical portrayal – and also because it was the colonial troops who were crucial in averting absolute catastrophe for the allies. It is also important because, more than history books and school lessons, popular culture shapes and informs our imagination not only of the past, but of our present and future.
The stories that we share among ourselves give us the vision of our individual and collective identities. When those stories consistently – and in a big budget, well-researched production like Dunkirk, one must assume, purposely – erase the presence of those who are still considered ‘other’ and less-than-equal, these narratives also decide who is seen as ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’. Does this removal of those deemed ‘foreign’ and ‘other’ from narratives of the past express a discomfort with the same people in the present? More chillingly, does it also contain a wish to excise the same people from a utopian, national future?
A vast, all-white production such as Nolan’s Dunkirk is not an accident. Such a big budget film is a product of many hundreds of small and large decisions in casting, production, directing and editing. Perhaps Nolan chose to follow the example of the original allies in the second world war who staged a white-only liberation of Paris even though 65% of the Free French Army troops were from West Africa. Perhaps such a circumscribed, fact-free imagination is a product of rewriting British history over the past decades, not in the least by deliberate policies including Operation Legacy? Knowingly or not, Nolan walks in the footsteps of both film directors and politicians who have chosen to whitewash the past.
But why is it so important for Nolan, and for many others, that the film expunge all non-white presence on the beach and the ships? Why is it psychologically necessary that the heroic British troops be rescued only by white sailors? What would change if brave men fighting at Dunkirk wore turbans instead of helmets? What would alter if some of the soldiers offered namaaz on the sands before rising to face the advancing enemy for that one last time?
Why is it so important that the covering fire be provided by white French troops rather than North African and Middle Eastern ones? Those non-white faces I mentioned earlier – they were French troops scrabbling to board British boats to escape. The echoes of modern politics are easy to see in the British-first policy of the initial retreat that left French troops at the mercy of the Nazis. In reality, non-white troops were at the back of the queue for evacuation, and far more likely to be caught and murdered by Nazi soldiers than their white colleagues who were able to blend into the crowd.
Could we still see our neighbours as less than human if we also saw them fight shoulder-to-shoulder with ‘our boys’ in the ‘good’ war? Would we call those fleeing war ‘cockroaches’ and demand gunboats to stop them from reaching our white cliffs if we knew they had died for the freedoms we hold so dear? More importantly, would anti-immigration sentiment be so easy to weaponise, even by the left – in the past and the present – if the decent, hardworking Britons knew and recognised how much of their lives, safety and prosperity are results of non-British sacrifices? In a deeply divided, fearful Britain, Nolan’s directorial choices succeed as a Brexiteer costume fantasy, but they fail to tell the story of Operation Dynamo, the war, and Britain. More importantly, they fail us all, as people and a nation.
All storytellers – and novelists, poets, journalists, and filmmakers are, ultimately, just that – know the power we hold. Stories can dehumanise, demonise and erase. Such stories are essential to pave the way for physical and material violence against those we learn to hate. But stories are also the only means of humanising those deemed inhuman; to create pity, compassion, sympathy, even love for those who are strange and strangers. Stories decide the difference between life and death. And that is why Dunkirk – and indeed any story – is never just a story.”
What Sunny Singh wrote about was what the war was supposed to be for.
It got better after the war over the years, in the UK and the US and elsewhere in many ways, exemplified by the scene on the basketball court we described above in Charlotte, 21 years ago.
But then it got worse, or rather, as it continued to get better in some ways, it got worse in others as it had been doing for some time—and then the“river in flood cuts an oxbow.”
That’s why the inequality of class can’t be separated from the anti-immigrant nativism that has invaded civilization as we knew it. There’s not enough. So the “other” got scarier. And could be used beyond the fringes to divide and conquer.
Which takes us back to Syria. There’s no Brexit without it. Or Trump. Or related global events. Nor could these events have happened without increasing economic inequality. The increasing class divide and nativism converge everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees had an enormous political impact on Europe.
It starts with “Welcome.”
It ends with “Leave!”
This at the same time the issue, because of drug wars and trafficking and inequality in Mexico and Central America, was doing something similar in the US.
But Syria was the larger part of the global spear. The karma of too much blood from every imaginable war crime and crime against humanity against the entire population of a nation. There’s a backdrop to this as well, of course. The story behind the story is always ongoing, as history is a process. The Middle East has been a mess for a long time and the Syrian catastrophe in part is multi-nation, multi-dimensional—but inequality here too is at the bottom of the rot. Most of the refugees have gone to the bordering nations, as noted before. We’ll be going through all this more.
In our last post, we ended with Nick Kristoff’s incredibly timed 2016 piece just before the US election on would you hide a Jew from the Nazis with the parallel reference to Syrian refugees. He and many other voices from left, right and center, including virtually everyone advising President Obama, had been screaming for action in Syria for years—relatively risk-free actions at the least which could have changed events enormously, and avoided the whirlwind that’s been reaped. There were other actions and inactions that reaped the whirlwind of the Syrian catastrophe to begin with of course. Just as with everything leading to everything in history. This time, it led to 2016 and since. We’ll be back to further address the various actions chosen and not chosen. Meanwhile, every second is a new choice, and the choices that led to it, good or bad, don’t change the fact that we have to make the next choice in the context of the reality that now exists.
The UN just began a process in the current refugee crisis in headlines that could lead to the generals in Myanmar, or Burma as many in the pro-reform anti-military dictatorship circles still refer to it as, being charged with genocide against Rohingyas. Clearly deserved. And though Aung San Suu Kyi has no real power, she too will be held accountable for her decisions, as she already has been in reputation. She walks her own knife’s edge. It’s heartbreaking to watch someone who suffered imprisonment for so many years for democracy and human rights take the path she apparently has, in which journalists exposing the terror imposed on the Rohingyas are now imprisoned. Her relationship with the generals is fraught, public posturing aside. She had been over many years, among other things, a powerful feminist symbol of rebellion against patriarchal brutality. The history, multi-ethnic group and political situation in Myanmar is extremely complex and the horrible situation now could easily become many times worse. But Suu Kyi must know that when certain lines are crossed, the option of not standing publicly and clearly against it ceases to exist and whatever one’s private motives or perspective, public denunciation must be accepted if one fails to do this. Her quote on ignorance being the root of evil was on our site from the start of World Campaign nearly twenty years ago, while she was imprisoned. We kept it up over the last couple of years until recently out of hope, prodding and a reminder. And we are in the middle of a long-term change of the site. But her name needed to be removed.
The UN will likely do nothing because of China by the way (or Russia, or both). One of many parts of the equation, including going back through British colonization of the entire region, and centuries before, all playing out. And the need now for accountability in an international system is a system more broken than not, after progress had been made for a while, until the end of civilization as we knew it. Part of the build-up to that has been the beginning of nations moving away from accepting accountability in the international courts system they had previously agreed to. (Speaking of China and human rights crimes, another story not well-known is a million Muslims, mainly Uighurs, being held in Chinese internment camps, “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today” as quoted from Sigal Samuel’s article in The Atlantic.)
And all the issues around Syria for the past several years have played into all the above as well.
Children, of course, have been the primary victims in all this.
Which takes us to a quick but necessary aside on all the increasing headlines about child sex abuse in the Catholic Church for months now. At this point, all we have to say is summed-up by all there is to say in the end, an excerpt from our post on July 4, last year:
“As we said many years ago … bishops who covered-up abuse and made it possible … should have been removed. [And as we’ve said for many years, this means all in the Catholic Church, as for every other institution and person in society, must be held accountable from top to bottom, systemically, criminally and civilly, to the fullest extent possible or that needs to be created.] No end to the crisis until then. No future for the Church without this—which needs to change in other basic human rights, with full equality for women, LGBT and all people excluded from the power of the male patriarchy, to survive as well.”
On the much larger issue of child sexual abuse and all forms of child abuse, of which the above, awful as it is, is only a drop in the ocean of horrors—this summer was an important second anniversary.
Two years ago, in the summer of 2016, before we knew the full weight of what was about to fall on history, an historic moment occurred.
The UN and related agencies created The Global Partnership To End Violence Against Children to fulfill the Sustainable Development Goal to end abuse and neglect of a billion children, sexual, physical, in warzones—half the children on earth. The initial project has been child sexual abuse on the internet—a darkness that very few people have fully focused on to the full extent of the increasing scope and social impact, violating the youngest most. Concentrating on that specific in a digital world is a critical accomplishment. The rest depends on many things, including, as we’ve pointed out, a UN system which itself stops abusing children, along with the entire aid and NGO universe of groups which this summer was shown more than ever before to be in its own universe of horror of sexually abusing children in countless numbers.
We end for now by focusing attention back on the history and current reality of Syria we don’t want to look at anymore. The more we do this, the more we will be haunted, and hunted, by the monsters we’ve all created.
Two articles follow. One from the Los Angeles Times on the risks for “millions” in Syria today as the “final showdown” appears imminent (the final showdowns keep coming and more will come, inside and outside Syria). And another from The Guardian, the first in a series on “the 21st century’s most devastating conflict”, starting today (August 30 in London).
By Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times, Amman, Jordan, Aug 29, 2018
No one planned for this verdant region in Syria’s northwest to become the site of the rebels’ last stand.
But with the Syrian government preparing for a multi-front offensive it hopes will provide a path for finally ending a grinding civil war, the fate of Idlib province and its 3 million residents is now the subject of diplomatic jockeying among the world powers that have had a hand in the war.
As government forces overpowered opposition enclaves one by one, they offered defeated rebels and their families a choice: Lay down their arms and accept government rule, or go to Idlib, which borders Turkey.
Many chose Idlib, doubling the size of the province and turning it into a dumping ground for opposition militants.
But now as the government masses its troops near Idlib for an offensive it says could come any day, its military planners will have no such exit plan to offer Idlib’s rebels.
The United Nations warns that hundreds of thousands could be displaced by a Syrian assault on Idlib, many of them people who’ve been displaced before. Though rebel forces could decide they have no choice but to remain in Idlib and fight back, others could try to flee to Turkey, which tightened border controls once the Syrian government took the upper hand in the civil war.
Turkey’s foreign minister cautioned that bombing the province would be catastrophic “not only for the Idlib region but for the future of Syria,” and the United States said it is poised to strike if Syria uses chemical weapons in an attack.
Russia, meanwhile, has warned the U.S. and its allies “against any new reckless moves,” and it dispatched two additional frigates this week to bolster its fleet off Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
For residents in Idlib, there’s much to fear. Wherever the Russian-backed Syrian army and its associated paramilitary factions have gone, destruction has followed.
“Some people have already lost everything, but for most of us, we’re terrified. The regime, wherever it hits today, it strikes a family. Every time a plane drops a bomb, it kills a family,” said Wael Malshi, 45, a day laborer in Idlib contacted via the WhatsApp messaging service.
Kathem, a 52-year-old fruit vendor who used his first name only out of fear for his family, said he’d already been displaced twice and now expects he and his family will be killed in Idlib.
“It’s all useless. We’ve been sent here to die,” Kathem said in a WhatsApp conversation. He suggested the government would use the jihadis who have settled in Idlib as a “pretext to bomb us without mercy.”
At the same time, those who have attempted to negotiate reconciliation deals to spare the region’s villages have been arrested by the province’s primary defenders, the Al Qaeda-linked Organization for the Liberation of Syria, which sought to turn Idlib into a Talibanesque Islamic emirate. The jihadis also vowed to attack any group that surrenders.
The group has also been a liability for a civilian population in which most people depend on humanitarian aid: Much of the international community, including the U.S., considers the Organization for the Liberation of Syria to be a terrorist group and has suspended aid programs. Moscow, meanwhile, uses the presence of the group to justify its offensive.
Other groups in the province, including some factions more palatable to the West, saw their support dry up long ago, and nothing has changed in the run-up to an offensive, said Jamal Maarouf, a rebel commander and onetime recipient of U.S. support who was ousted by the jihadis in 2014.
“Al Qaeda destroyed the revolution, but we didn’t invite them in. All the nations who made it easier for jihadis to enter Syria, they should deal with the true revolutionary factors, bring them back to Idlib to destroy the terrorists,” Maarouf said in a phone interview last week from southern Turkey.
But he also insisted there was little point in negotiating with a government “that has engaged in mass killing.”
That has left many civilians looking to Turkey, whose government has become a vital overseer of rebel-held areas in the north.
Turkish aid organizations such as IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation provide basic supplies, including 2 million loaves of bread every day to Syrians. Millions of dollars worth of goods pass every day through Bab Hawa, the opposition-controlled crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Turkey also has established a presence in Syria: Its postal service is used to transfer aid money to local humanitarian organizations. In some parts of the province, it’s the Turkish flag that’s flown. And many of the more moderate rebels depend on the Turkish army for training and support.
But Turkey, which has taken in more than 3.5 million refugees and once supported an alliance that included the Organization for the Liberation of Syria, is eager to repatriate Syrians and has sealed its border.
“It would be a massacre to bomb Idlib, civilians, hospitals, schools just because there are terrorists,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a recent news conference, Turkish media reported.
In recent days, Syrian state and pro-government news outlets reported significant troop movements, with the army’s elite Tiger Forces and 4th Division already massing near Idlib. The government has even brought in reconciled rebels from vanquished enclaves to fight against their former brothers in arms.
But figuring out who is a jihadi, rebel or civilian is difficult in a province where militants’ bases are often integrated inside a town or village.
Washington, meanwhile, has threatened to strike government forces if they attack Idlib’s rebels with chemical weapons.
Damascus has been accused since 2013 of deploying munitions filled with chlorine and sarin on opposition areas; one attack in April prompted a missile strike on government targets by the U.S., France and Britain.
But Russia, whose primary air base in Syria is less than 40 miles from Idlib, warned the U.S. and its allies “against any new reckless moves,” according to a statement by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov given to the state-owned Sputnik news network.
“We can hear ultimatums voiced by Washington, including public statements,” Ryabkov said. “This does not affect our commitment to fully eliminate terror cells in Syria and return this country to normal life.”
Whatever is decided among the outside powers, however, the jihadis vow they will not succumb to agreements that saw other rebel enclaves emptied, said Abu Mohammed Jolani, the group’s commander, in a speech last week.
He warned Idlib residents that Turkey could not to be trusted and that its political position could “change from one moment to the next.”
The only solution, he said, was to mount a unified defense.
“Just thinking about surrendering to the enemy and handing them our arms is betrayal,” Jolani said.
By Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent, The Guardian, London, 30 Aug 2018
In the first in a series on the aftermath of the 21st century’s most devastating conflict, refugees from the seven-year war say they are hugely sceptical about claims that it is safe to return home
Each day for as long as he can remember, Abu Ahmed, a Syrian merchant, has hawked Qur’anic pamphlets in central Beirut, one eye out for a buyer and another for the police.
He has been in the Lebanese capital for the past six years, as war consumed his homeland, casting more than a million refugees like him into near permanent exile. Now, however, as the seven-year conflict approaches what many believe to be an endgame in Syria’s north-west, Abu Ahmed fears his meagre, but so far safe existence is in jeopardy.
The blazing guns of insurgency have largely been silenced in central and southern Syria, and politicians in Damascus, Beirut and Amman are claiming with increasing vehemence that a ruined country from which at least 6 million people have fled is now a safe for them to return.
Few Syrians in Lebanon seem convinced. “I’ll serve my country proudly and shed my blood for it with a smile on my face, but not like this,” said Abu Ahmed, 41, who hails from the former opposition stronghold of Ghouta.
“But not for this chaos. We can’t go back because of [the risk of] neighbours’ petty revenge. They snitch on you and call you a traitor and the next thing you know you’re languishing in prison, for nothing. My town is filled with regime forces and thugs. How do they expect me to return?”
International donors, aid workers and diplomats are also wary of the insistence that postwar Syria is safe, and of the motives behind the claims. Senior representatives of all three say the relative quiet in Syria should not be confused with enduring order, and that entreaties from the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, are unlikely to mean a warm homecoming.
Throughout the war, the loyalties of Lebanon’s political class have been split on Syria, with roughly half of its parliament opposed to Assad, and the rest stridently behind him. With his government now backed into a winning position by Russia and Iran, some holdouts are trying to reposition themselves. Those who remained allied are meanwhile readily doing Assad’s bidding. Establishing a view that security, and forgiveness, await returnees is a central message.
“We invite all friendly nations to handle the Syria issue realistically,” said the Lebanese foreign minister, Gebran Bassil. “It is not in anyone’s interest for Lebanon’s economy to collapse under heavy migration. The circumstances in Syria have changed and many areas are safe. There is no reason for refugees to stay.”
In Jordan, whose monarch, King Abdullah, opposed Assad in the early stages of the war, the mood has also shifted. Thewelcome given to refugees as the Syria unravelled in 2012 has been replaced by rising hostility and forced deportations. Abdullah told the UN refugee commissioner, Filippo Grandi, earlier this week: “The international community must face its responsibility towards the hosting countries and at the top of them is Jordan. The Syrian crisis has taken a toll on Jordanian infrastructure, economy, education sector and wellbeing.”
Many who have monitored the crisis, in which at least 600,000 people have been killed and more than half the prewar population displaced, say claims of a groundshift in Syria are false.
“Syrians should be able to decide whether they feel safe enough to return to Syria,” said a former member of the UK government’s Syria team. “We must remember why Syrians fled their homes in the first place: barrel bombs, besiegement, starvation, detention and torture.
“For the millions who risked everything to make it to Lebanon, they did it because they had no other choice. The fact is, many Syrians will not be safe in Syria while Assad remains in power. They face being arrested, disappeared, detained, tortured, executed. To force them to return may be signing their death warrants.”
Central to Lebanon’s claims are that the number of refugees has taken a toll on its moribund economy and taken jobs in a workforce where unemployment levels have also been growing. Human Rights Watch said the claims are not supported by evidence, and that refugees were being scapegoated for shortcomings in Lebanon’s economy that predated the war.
“The war in Syria has certainly hurt Lebanon’s economy because of the slowdown in trade, but that’s not attributable to the refugee crisis,” said HRW’s Lebanon researcher, Bassam Khawaja. Refugees have put a strain on infrastructure in Lebanon, from the school system to waste management, but on the other hand, the international community has poured in $5bn (£3.9bn) in aid since 2011. And refugees spending money on everything from rent to groceries in Lebanon has strengthened the economy.
“Neighbouring governments can claim that Syria is safe all they want, that doesn’t make it a fact. As long as refugees have well-founded fears of death or persecution inside Syria, then it’s illegal for host countries to force or coerce them to return.”
On Beirut’s Hamra Street, Umm Hani, 49, from rural Damascus, fears just that: “I have three sons, all above 18,” she says. “If we stayed they would have been taken to the military and I cannot see that happen nor will I let it happen. What mother wants her sons to die? One of my sons is paralysed, the other two work as hard as they can, but we can barely make ends meet end of the month. Our village became notorious for arbitrary arrests and we couldn’t remain. I am counting down the days for safety; I miss my home.”
Like many refugees, Umm Hani – not her real name – chose her words carefully. Others who spoke to the Guardian say they have heard constant reports from inside Syria that those who had returned faced extreme vetting from security agencies and a high risk of detention, especially if they come from opposition-held areas.
Maj Gen Jamal al-Hassan, the head of Syria’s air force intelligence and one of country’s most senior security chiefs, told senior colleagues from other agencies in July: “A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals.” The comments were first reported by the Syrian Observer, and later confirmed. “After eight years, Syria will not accept the presence of cancerous cells and they will be removed completely.”
Vengeance has been a regular theme of the rhetoric of Syrian officials, who have discussed the postwar phase – and the looming offensive on Idlib province with allies in Beirut. “Anyone who stood against them will be punished along with their family and clan,” said a senior Lebanese military officer in regular contact with Syrian counterparts. “They are ruthless and they have won. They have long memories, and this is their chance to make the country they want.”
Impunity also appears to be creeping into the Lebanese political discourse. “Politicians in Lebanon have attacked [UN refugee agency] UNHCR for speaking the plain truth,” said HRW’s Khawaja. “That truth is there are no security guarantees in Syria and that it cannot encourage or facilitate returns at this point.”
Amid the rising rhetoric, the realities for Syrians in Lebanon is stark. UN figures show 74% of refugees do not have legal residency, 76% live below the poverty line and more than 300,000 children are not in school. Feeling squeezed and hopeless, a steady stream are returning regardless of the danger.
Not Abu Ahmed though. For him, the risks are too high. “Once we see the cops though we all duck and run. We have no residency permits. Will I go back soon? I doubt it. Will I stay here? I also doubt it. We’ve become gypsies.”
To be continued.