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Politics, Protests, and Pandemics – The New Yorker

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In fourteenth-century Florence, the Black Death led to a marked decrease in civil disorder, even as it destroyed the governmental system of Siena, fifty miles away.Illustration from Bettmann / Getty

It’s odd to know, as a citizen of your own time, what future historians will argue about it, but not to know what they will say about it—and, even odder, what they ought to say about it. We should, after all, be experts on our own experience; yet we aren’t. In a way, this isn’t surprising. Someone who fought in blue at Antietam would, presumably, be able to tell Civil War historians a thing or two about the face of battle. But, overwhelmed by smoke and noise, a soldier would more likely emerge from the battle simultaneously cursing his time and blessing his luck for surviving the fight, but having no more insight into the course—or the meaning—of it than anyone else. Veterans read military histories of the battles that they fought in more voraciously than do people who weren’t there. They, too, need the God’s-eye view in order to see their own experience.

Most of us living through the coronavirus pandemic are a little like those veterans—what we see is limited by the noise and the smoke of our immediate surroundings. We know that there’s a relation between our pandemic fears and our political anxieties, but articulating it is hard. Not long ago, the historian Niall Ferguson offered a succinct summary of the ways in which pandemics have historically infected politics, stretching back to the Plague of Athens—which induced, or oversaw, the Peloponnesian War—and to ways that the 1918 flu may have triggered the rise of both Bolshevism and Fascism.

We could hold the 1918 flu ultimately responsible for crises that occurred twenty years later, but it would have first had to tumble its way, domino by domino, through the excesses of the Jazz Age. Too many other causes came along the way to single out any. Similar efforts to moralize on this pandemic have so far proved slippery in certainty. Last summer, the admirable Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis tried writing a summary of the political lessons of the pandemic. Beginning with the idea that vaccines were unlikely to arrive any time soon—an idea now consigned to the hospital dustbin of history—he went on to the notion that Canada had done much better in handling the pandemic than the United States. As much as Canadians (myself included), proud of our long history of national health care, might want this to be true, the reality is more complicated. Montreal and Toronto recently have been under tighter restrictions than New York City, and the vaccine rollout is seen as inefficient. The larger, scary truth is that the mortality rate in the pandemic is remarkably labile from country to country; nations with strong national medical systems, such as France and Spain, haven’t always done much better than those with anarchic systems, such as the United States. Open democracy doesn’t seem to help as much as we might have hoped, either. Australia and South Korea have done extraordinarily well, but so, if the numbers are to be believed, has China. According to the Lowy Institute’s Covid Performance Index, “despite initial differences, the performance of all regime types in managing the coronavirus converged over time.”

Turn to the past, and what you find are not neat historical vectors but the same indeterminacy. The historian Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., an expert on the relationship between plagues and people, has, story by story, exploded the neat, cartoon versions of history in which diseases point to unidirectional political vectors. In his extensive scholarship, including the book “Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS,” a staggeringly exhaustive study of the correlations between pandemics and political violence— taking in everything from the Black Death in fourteenth-century Florence to cholera in nineteenth-century London, syphilis in Impressionist Paris, and tuberculosis in early-twentieth-century New York—Cohn has shown, that, although pandemics and infectious diseases do sometimes lead us to blame some “other” group, they just as often create new kinds of social solidarity. “Pandemics did not inevitably give rise to violence and hatred,” Cohn writes. “In striking cases they in fact did the opposite, as witnessed with epidemics of unknown causes in antiquity, the Great Influenza of 1918–19 and yellow fever across numerous cities and regions in America and Europe. These epidemic crises unified communities, healing wounds cut deep by previous social, political, religious, racial and ethnic tensions and anxieties.”

Pretty much every generalization we might attempt in pandemic politics turns out to be unpersuasive. The Black Death destroyed Siena’s governmental system and increased violence there, but, just fifty miles away, in Florence, the same plague led to a marked decrease in civil disorder—the “tenor of life” there became less, not more, violent. In some places and moments, Cohn writes, in “The Black Death: End of a Paradigm,” fear of the plague “may have initiated a new intensity in the history of Jewish persecutions,” but in other, not-too-distant places and times, reactions to the plague inspired a new proto-scientific skepticism of authority, so that “the new plague doctors relied on their own ‘experience’ ” in battling illness. Looking in detail at the history of cholera, syphilis, and other diseases, it seems that, in each case, so to speak, for every anti-Semitic riot you get (and you get them), you also get social solidarity around threatened groups. No unidirectional pattern, just contingent acts.

The same truth holds today, as the research group ACLED’s COVID-19 Disorder Tracker shows: social disorder in the pandemic year has been planetwide, and it has been polarized in purpose. In some places—Hong Kong is an obvious example—the pandemic has provided cover for political repression. In others—the U.S. among them—it has been a catalyst for both legitimate social demonstrations and scaremongering protests. The only pattern that emerges is the absence of one.

Yet, within all that fluid movement, something solid surely can be seen; the uncertainty of outcomes—the wild oscillations between reform and reaction, between productive protest and riot—rests on the inherent ambivalence of pandemic psychology. Pandemics make people feel precarious, and feeling precarious can either focus our minds or fry our circuits.

If the entangled mysteries of plague and politics do point to a moral, it may lie in a novel that seems to be all about a pandemic but is actually primarily about politics. This is, of course, Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” Despite the novel’s omnipresence during the past year, its point is often missed. Long rightly understood as an inspired allegory of the German occupation of France, Camus’s novel is about how unprecedented pressures challenge and change ordinary people. Change happens in all kinds of vivid and unpredictable ways. Brave people panic, small people rise to the occasion. Some minister to the ill, others try to flee. Some of the characters who do flee have understandable reasons for doing so, such as to reunite with a loved one; some who stay have dubious motives. The pressures of a pandemic push us all to similar moments of moral choice: to march or not; to turn inward or outward; to become, like those Renaissance Florentines, skeptical of authority or furious at the outsider. None of it is fixed in advance.

Plagues don’t have plans. People do. What the unreasonable pressures of an inexplicable, universal medical crisis do is enlarge human possibility in all its variety, place it on the stage, and make it vivid. The basic existential choices that make meaning become inescapable then. The only moral a plague dictates is that nothing is dictated, and everything can alter, sometimes overnight. That pluralism of human possibilities is what we are still trying to enact as democratic politics.


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U.S., UK, Germany clash with China at U.N. over Xinjiang

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The United States, Germany and Britain clashed with China at the United Nations on Wednesday over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, angering Beijing by hosting a virtual event that China had lobbied U.N. member states to stay away from.

“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organizers said was attended by about 50 countries.

Western states and rights groups accuse Xinjiang authorities of detaining and torturing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps. Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.

“In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities arbitrarily detained.

In a note to U.N. member states last week, China’s U.N. mission rejected the accusations as “lies and false allegations” and accused the organizers of being “obsessed with provoking confrontation with China.”

While China urged countries “NOT to participate in this anti-China event,” a Chinese diplomat addressed the event.

“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang. Xinjiang is always open,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”

The event was organized by Germany, the United States and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced “massive Chinese threats,” but did not elaborate.

British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward described the situation in Xinjiang as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” adding: “The evidence … points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups.”

She called for China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called out Bachelet for not joining the event.

“I’m sure she’s busy. You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today,” Roth told the event.

Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office, said Bachelet – who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and is seeking access – was unable to participate.

“The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit,” she said, adding that Bachelet’s office “continues to gather and analyze relevant information and follow the situation closely.”

(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Elaine Hardcastle)

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Ex-finance minister breached ethics rules in charity dealings

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Former Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau breached conflict-of-interest rules by not recusing himself when the government awarded a contract to a charity he had close ties to, independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said on Thursday.

In a parallel probe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was cleared of having broken any ethics rules when WE Charity was tapped to run a C$900 million ($740.9 million) program to help students find work during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The charity later walked away from the contract.

Trudeau and Morneau both apologized last year for not recusing themselves during Cabinet discussions involving WE.

Trudeau’s wife, brother and mother had been paid to speak at WE Charity events in previous years, but Dion said this appearance of a conflict of interest was not “real”.

Morneau, on the other hand, was a friend of Craig Kielburger, one of the charity’s founders, Dion said. The charity had “unfettered access” to the minister’s office that “amounted to preferential treatment”, a statement said.

No fines or penalties were levied.

Morneau said on Twitter he should have recused himself. Trudeau said in a statement issued by his office that the decision “confirms what I have been saying from the beginning” that there was no conflict of interest.

Ahead of a possible federal election later this year, the opposition could use the ruling to underscore the government’s uneven track record on ethics. Trudeau has been twice been found in breach of ethics rules in the past.

In August 2019, he was found to have broken rules by trying to influence a corporate legal case, and in December 2017, the previous ethics commissioner said Trudeau had acted wrongly by accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.

In a statement, opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said: “To clean up Ottawa, Conservatives will impose higher penalties for individuals who break the Conflict of Interest Act and shine a light on Liberal cover-ups and scandals, ending them once and for all.”

The controversy over Morneau’s ties to the charity was a factor in his resignation in August last year, when he also left his parliamentary seat, saying he would not run again. Chrystia Freeland was named to take over for him a day later.

($1 = 1.2147 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jan Harvey)

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EU prepares new round of Belarus sanctions from June

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The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to last year’s contested presidential election and could target as many as 50 people from June, four diplomats said.

Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election which opponents and the West say was rigged.

Despite a months-long crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Lukashenko, the EU’s response has been narrower than during a previous period of sanctions between 2004 and 2015, when more than 200 people were blacklisted.

The crisis has pushed 66-year-old Lukashenko back towards traditional ally Russia, which along with Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, borders Belarus.

Some Western diplomats say Moscow regards Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO and has propped up Lukashenko with loans and an offer of military support.

Poland and Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to after the election she says she won, have led the push for more sanctions amid frustration that the measures imposed so far have had little effect.

EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus on Monday and diplomats said many more of the bloc’s 27 members now supported further sanctions, but that Brussels needed to gather sufficient evidence to provide legally solid listings.

“We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting.

The EU has sought to promote democracy and develop a market economy in Belarus, but, along with the United States, alleges that Lukashenko has remained in power by holding fraudulent elections, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.

Lukashenko, who along with Russia says the West is meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs, has sought to deflect the condemnation by imposing countersanctions on the EU and banning some EU officials from entering the country.

“The fourth package (of sanctions) is likely to come in groups (of individuals), but it will be a sizeable package,” one EU diplomat told Reuters.

More details were not immediately available.

 

(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, editing by Alexander Smith)

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