Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Do We Really Have A Free Press?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

U.S. President Donald Trump, Hungary’s prime minister Victor Orban, the right-wing Polish Law and Justice (PiS) ruling party, and Britain’s anti-EU Brexiteers, have unnerved establishment organs such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Globe and Mail, and Britain’s Guardian, among others.

They have become very shrill in “defending” a “free press” -- as opposed to the what they consider the “fake news” of  anti-establishment “samizdats.” 

But what they really mean is that they adhere to what French philosopher Michel Foucault called a country’s “truth regime,” that is, the ideologically acceptable views of its ruling elites in a given zeitgeist. 

In that sense, the Soviet flagship newspaper Pravda also was “free” – it could run debates within its pages about various policy differences within the nomenklatura, arguments about Marxist-Leninist theory, and so forth.

But it could not challenge the overarching hegemonic power of the ruling Communist circles. That remained off-limits. 

The same holds true for “respectable” discourse in today’s western mass media, which must adhere to a liberal-to-socialist-left political line and its pop slogans. In other words, there are certain parameters which define what is appropriate in public discourse. 

Just as Pravda was not able to publish what Communists would have considered “anti-socialist propaganda,” so today views not deemed “politically correct” are looked at with disfavour.

At best, they are deemed “provocative,” “controversial,”  “problematic,” or “divisive,” alerting readers to be on the lookout to discount them should they appear in print.

Opinions not seen as worthy of serious consideration are often tagged with words such as “skeptics”, “deniers”, or “populists” (an elastic word that is applied to anyone the liberal media disparages). Such views are, to use religious language, heretical.

So today, many people increasingly distrust and resent the mainstream media. A major reason is that many journalists have crossed the line from reporting to advocacy. In effect, they have adopted a new liberal creed: “all the news that’s ‘politically correct’ to print.”

They have created a social space in which they lord their ideology over everybody else and become the arbiter of what we should believe. As a result, newsrooms are often out of touch with the communities they serve.

Many Canadians feel alienated due to the kind of news coverage that gives more airtime to progressive voices favouring political correctness while stigmatizing religious or conservative views.

This is bad news for journalists, and bad news for journalism. Because as people continue down the path of growing mistrust of the mainstream media, they will start looking for alternatives.

It also allows people like Trump, himself accused of spreading falsehoods, to portray the media who constantly attack him as themselves purveyors of “fake news.” 

Trump in 2016, remember, ran against the entire political class, including the national political media.

In his 1945 article “The Freedom of the Press,” George Orwell noted that “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question.”

It is time the journalistic mainstream addressed this problem. Motivated by good intentions, it has allowed a narrow orthodoxy to restrict debate about the burning questions that confront us today.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Ethiopia's Blow Against Democracy

By Henry Srebrnik, [Fredericton, NB] Daily Gleaner

It’s not supposed to happen like this. But in Ethiopia, as in many other African countries, it’s often two steps forward, and not one, but two steps back.

On June 22, Seare Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s army chief, was killed amid a coup attempt when General Asamnew Tsige, the autonomous Amhara state’s head of security, tried to topple the central government in Addis Ababa.

Amhara’s regional president and another top adviser also died, as did some high-ranking military officials. Asamnew was later killed. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy has been leading the country in the direction of multi-ethnic democracy, but this may be bumping into resistance.

With more than 90 ethnicities, the country’s 105 million people have always been dominated by religious and tribal allegiances.

Many observers have concluded that the main culprit behind the surge in violence is Ethiopia's ethno-national federal arrangement, which grants bigger ethnic groups self-governance rights within their respective states.

The 1994 constitution recast the country from a centrally unified republic to a federation of nine regional ethnic states and two federally administered city-states.

It bases key rights — to land, government jobs, security forces, representation in local and federal bodies — not on Ethiopian citizenship but on being considered ethnically indigenous in constituent ethnic states.

Since political identities take ethnic form, large ethnic groups are demanding more territory and resources, while smaller groups are pushing back.

Lland disputes have displaced at least 2.9 million people, as militias formed by ethnic groups proliferate.

The failed coup in Amhara is the culmination of many months of ethnic and political strife there.

Violence between the Amhara, the country’s second largest ethnic group, and the Gumuz, left some 200 people dead in May in Amhara and its neighbouring region, Benishangul Gumuz.

Asaminew had openly advised the Amhara people this month to arm themselves. Hundreds have been arrested, including Christian Tadele of the National Movement of Amhara.

Among other aggrieved groups are the Oromo, the largest in the country, who have clashed with neigbouring Gedeos. The Tigreans are resented because of their association with previous, and repressive, ruling parties.

The recent postponement of a national census, which will determine the relative demographic strength of the contending groups vying for economic and political control, has called into question the government’s ability to hold elections in May 2020. 

Abiy, who was born to a Muslim Oromo father and an Orthodox Amhara mother and is a Pentecostal Christian, became the country’s leader in April 2018, following three years of protests that forced former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign.

He has since implemented large-scale economic and political reforms and prosecuted officials accused of human rights abuses.

Abiy lifted the state of emergency, released thousands of political prisoners, allowed dissidents to return home and unblocked hundreds of websites and television channels.

But the loosening of state controls by Abiy’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has reignited long-simmering ethnic conflicts. The most vulnerable moment for any authoritarian state is when it starts to reform.

Abiy has urged Ethiopians to unite in the face of “evil” forces set on dividing the country. Easier said than done.

Monday, July 08, 2019

American Presidential Contender Kamala Harris is a Political Chameleon

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
For more than a year now, I have been predicting that Kamala Harris will become the Democratic Party nominee for president of the United States in 2020, with a very good chance of beating Donald Trump.

In 2012, Harris, then California’s attorney general, first came to public notice when she spoke at the Democratic National Convention. In 2016, she won an election to become the junior United States senator from California.

But who is Kamala Devi Harris? She’s somewhat of a chameleon, and, like former president Barack Obama, one with an unusual life history for a presidential candidate.

Harris is even more multicultural than Obama. Born in 1964, in Oakland, California, she is the daughter of highly educated West Indian and South Asian immigrants: Shyamala Gopolan, from Chenai, Tamil Nadu, India, and Donald J. Harris, born in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. 

They were each born in 1938 and both came to the United States in 1960 and 1961, respectively; they met doing graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley.

Gopolan, a Hindu Brahmin whose first language was Tamil, gave her daughters names taken from Hindu mythology, in part to connect her children to their heritage. Kamala is a word derived from Sanskrit meaning lotus; Devi, also from Sanskrit, is a term for a goddess. 

“A culture that worships goddesses produces strong women,” Gopolan remarked in a Los Angeles Times interview in 2004.

Almost every year, Harris and her sister Maya Lakshmi would visit their grandparents, uncles and aunts in Tamil Nadu.

Donald Harris, Kamala’s father, a professor of economics at California’s elite Stanford University, had less of an impact on her life. 

A left-wing academic, Harris helped develop a program of “alternative approaches to economic analysis,” where students explored theories, including Marxism, that went against the dominant views of the time. 

He, too, remained attached to his country of birth and served, at various times, as an economic consultant to the government of Jamaica and as economic adviser to successive Jamaican prime ministers.

Harris’ parents divorced when she was just seven years old and she and her sister would eventually grow up with their single mother in Montreal. Kamala went to Canadian schools from ages 12 to 18, graduating from Westmount High School in Montreal in 1981. 

Her mother at the time was a renowned medical researcher affiliated with the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital and the Department of Medicine at McGill University.

When it came time to go to college, though, Harris chose Howard University in Washington, DC, an iconic Black school. She clearly decided that her choice of identity would primarily be African-American. 

This was no doubt how she viewed herself emotionally. Her parents had been prominent in the civil rights movement in California. 

But perhaps even back then, knowing full well that, in the Democratic Party, gender and race are what matter most, she saw this as also the politically smarter choice. (Her sister, on the other hand, was an undergraduate at Berkeley. Both women obtained law degrees at the university’s Hastings College of Law.)

When Harris announced that she planned to run for the presidency, on Martin Luther King Day this past January 21, most of the headlines identified her as “African-American.” 

The Indian ethnicity didn’t make it into many reports. Neither did her Jamaican roots, though newspapers in that country certainly took notice.

As her candidacy takes shape, polling and interviews suggest that the Indian-American community is still making up its mind about whether, or when, to get behind Harris, who grew up going to both a Black Baptist church and a Hindu temple. 

Though her father does come from a similar background of oppression, nevertheless, Harris is not, as neither was Obama, by birth part of the historic community of Black Americans.

African-Americans are descended from people brought, forcibly and without their consent, to the United States from the 17th to 19th centuries and who have lived, mostly under dire conditions, in the country for centuries.

Neither of Harris’ parents were yet American citizens when she was born. And Harris’ formative years were in Montreal, during the turbulent rule of the Parti Québécois. She might be considered as much a Canadian as anything else!

Friday, July 05, 2019

Kalingrad is Russia's Window on Europe

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Kaliningrad is either 764 years old, or only 73. It all depends on your definition – and therein lies an interesting tale.

The old German city of Konigsberg, founded in 1255, was captured by the Soviets in the final stages of the Second World War, along with the rest of East Prussia. 

The southern part of the region was incorporated into Poland, the northern half, renamed Kaliningrad Oblast (province) for a former Soviet leader, became part of the Soviet Union.

The German population in both parts was expelled, and the region completely resettled by, respectively, ethnic Russians in the north and Poles in the south. 

In 1946 the Soviet section became part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), separated from the rest of that huge union republic by the Soviet Baltic republics of Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the Byelorussian Soviet republic.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and those non-Russian republics became independent entities, Kaliningrad Oblast was suddenly an exclave -- a portion of a country geographically separated from its main part by surrounding territory. 

It had become a region that was isolated from, the rest of what had become the Russian Federation.

Situated on the Baltic coast, the province today has almost one million inhabitants, about half living in the city of Kaliningrad. Its port is ice-free all year round and is an important naval base for the Russian fleet. 

After all, it now borders two countries that are now European Union and NATO members.

For both Germans and Russians, the region’s past, involving as it does a brutal war, followed by the displacement of one population and the settlement of new residents, is very traumatic. 

When the Soviets conquered the area, there was a radical attempt to replace one narrative, that of German Konigsberg, with a counter-narrative, that of Russian Kaliningrad.

Konigsberg was described as a bulwark of German militarism and fascism. Hence the German city was erased as Soviet troops systematically demolished most of it. Soviet planners opted for the construction of a new Soviet city which would bear no resemblance to the past. 

The city was transformed into a vast memorial site for the Soviet victory over Germany. Monuments to the Red Army were dotted around the cityscape.

Though opposed by Soviet veterans invested in this narrative, by the 1960s some Russians inside Kaliningrad began to rethink their attitudes to the German past of the city.

In the final years of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost made it easier for those individuals and groups who wanted to save what was left of the German heritage.

It gave their city an aura of cosmopolitan distinctiveness, and they were among the first to identify with “Konig” or “Kenig,” as they called Kaliningrad.

With the removal of travel restrictions after 1991, people were able to cross into Poland and even Germany with increasing frequency.

In this post-Soviet era, the 2005 celebrations marking the founding of Konigsberg proved a watershed. Even the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, was invited to participate.

Helped by German state and charitable funding, state and private initiatives worked to restore lost relics of East Prussian architecture. Excavations on the site of the old German castle and the restoration of the German Protestant dome aroused interest in the German past.

The university was renamed the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University. (The philosopher had lived and taught in Konigsberg.) 

Slogans used during the celebrations included “A Russian City in the Heart of Europe” and “Kaliningrad: Meeting Point of Russia and Europe.”

But Russian nationalists began to fear an attempt to “re-Germanize” Kaliningrad. When the brand-new Russian Orthodox Cathedral was opened in 2006, Patriarch Alexey II called it a sign that “this is Russian land, Orthodox land.”

Things have regressed further since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that began in 2014. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin this past May renamed dozens of the country's airports to honour famous Russians. The new names were chosen using an online poll.

Many Kaliningrad locals voted to name it after Kant, prompting accusations of a lack of patriotism.

The Kaliningrad airport will now be named after Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, whose army captured the city in 1758 but abandoned it five years later.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Georgia is on Putin's Mind

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times and Transcript

It looks like Georgia – the country next to Russia in the Caucasus, not the American state – is again in turmoil. And this worries its powerful neighbor.

Last November Salome Zurabishvili won the country’s presidential election with 59.6 percent of the vote.

The first woman to be elected to the role was backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, founded by billionaire banker Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man.

However, opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze of the United National Movement, who took 40.4 percent, claimed “mass electoral fraud” in a statement to the press.

“The oligarch has stamped out Georgian democracy and the institutions of elections,” he stated, referring to Ivanishvili. “I urge Georgians to defend our freedom, democracy and the law. I call on you to start mass peaceful rallies and demand snap parliamentary polls.”

But Vashadze was himself under a cloud. A Soviet diplomat from 1976 to 1993, Vashadze held dual Russian-Georgian citizenship until 2009.

That became a sticking point for his opponents, who criticized him for waiting to long to give up his Russian citizenship only in November 2009, over a year after the brief Russo-Georgian War.

Relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have been tense ever since. Russia stopped Georgia from recapturing two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had declared independence at the same time that Georgia itself became a sovereign nation following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Russia still maintains a military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, recognising both as independent states.

Georgia wants to join the European Union and NATO, a prospect that, not surpisingly, is viewed dimly by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In June, tensions reached a boiling point. Protests were ignited in Georgia by the appearance of a Russian politician in the country’s parliament.

Sergei Gavrilov, a member of Russia’s State Duma, sparked the fury when he addressed an assembly of parliamentarians from Orthodox Christian nations on June 20.

He had been taking part in the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, a body set up in 1993 to foster relations between Christian Orthodox lawmakers. Most Russians and Georgians are members of eastern rite Christian churches.

But opposition deputies in Georgia’s parliament called for protests after he delivered his speech in Russian from Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze’s seat.

They also maintained that Gavrilov had fought against Georgians in Abkhazia in the 1990s and that he was an apologist for Russian geopolitical expansionism.

“That was a slap in the face of recent Georgian history,” insisted Elene Khoshtaria, a member of parliament from the United National Movement.
President Zurabishvili called Russia “an enemy and occupier,” saying Moscow had helped stir the unrest.

Since then, there have been daily protests in the capital. Some carried EU flags and placards reading “Russia is an occupier.”

The Kremlin condemned the protests as “Russophobic provocation.” Putin signed a decree suspending flights to Georgia by Russian airlines, beginning July 8.

This is likely to harm Georgia’s tourism revenues, given that one million Russians visited the country last year. The Georgian economy may lose up to $300 million.

The protests have served as a lesson that Georgian society still holds a veto over any accommodation toward Russia.