Image credit: Rachel Berman
Eric G. Berman has worked for the United Nations and the Small Arms Survey on arms control as well as peace and security issues, with a focus on Africa. He is currently working on a study on Boko Haram and peacekeeping efforts in the Lake Chad Basin region.
My move from Switzerland to the United States to support Democratic candidates and progressive causes did not go as planned: most of ‘my’ candidates lost … and baseball was played without fans in the stands. Yet I gained a new appreciation for both the challenges to American democracy and the prospects for a brighter future.
I chose North Carolina as the state, the tenth most populous, was considered ‘purple’—i.e. in ‘play’ on the Electoral College map. This was so even though the Republican Party (frequently depicted in ‘red’) had won the presidential contest all but twice over the past 50 years against the (‘blue’) Democratic Party. The state’s junior senator, a Republican, was also up for re-election and seen as vulnerable.
My five-month sojourn consisted of three distinct activities. First, I engaged infrequent Democratic and unaffiliated voters in an effort to encourage them to vote. Second, I registered new voters without regard to any party affiliation (but focused on neighbourhoods that leaned to the left on the US political spectrum). And third, I worked for a Democratic candidate running for the General Assembly in Raleigh, the state capital. I knocked on some 7,500 doors, spoke with perhaps 1,000 voters, and registered about 200 people.
I experienced greater voter antipathy toward Trump than enthusiasm for Biden. The electorate in North Carolina certainly includes white nationalists (many households in the state proudly and prominently display the Confederate flag), Q-Anon adherents, anti-abortion proponents, and Second Amendment enthusiasts who won’t be voting for a Democratic presidential candidate anytime soon. But I met a considerable number of people who voted for Trump in 2016 who expressed buyer’s remorse.
That said, many voters, while unhappy with Trump’s tweets, rhetoric, and character told me that they would still vote for him. They felt their financial and economic prospects had improved during the first three years of his tenure and were hoping for a return to good times after a vaccine for the coronavirus was available.
Trump still carried the state, but by fewer than 75,000 votes, down from almost 175,000 in 2016. George W. Bush won North Carolina by an average of more than 400,000 votes in 2000 and 2004. Reagan won by more than 500,000, and Nixon by more than 600,000, in 1984 and 1972, respectively. Whereas Nixon captured nearly 70 per cent of the vote, and Reagan topped 60 in those two campaigns, in 2020 Trump fell short of 50 per cent in both of his runs.
Democratic candidates in North Carolina should do better in 2022 and beyond. In 2020, many college campuses were closed with students studying remotely—many from outside the state who did not have a chance to register in North Carolina. This group tends to support Democratic candidates. The Democratic Party authorized its candidates to knock on doors less than two weeks before election day. The Republican Party, I was informed, imposed no such restrictions. Post-pandemic, the Democrats will not be hobbled in this way. Canvassing, as this activity is called, is considerably more effective in turning out the vote than is phone-banking or letter-writing. Moreover, I met lots of voters who had recently moved to North Carolina from deeply blue states (e.g. California, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Washington). This migration, which likely will result in North Carolina gaining an Electoral College vote in the wake of this year’s census, shows no signs of slowing.
Republicans still control both houses of the state legislature and will draw districts in a manner that is advantageous to their cause (as Democrats are wont do in states they control). This practice, known as gerrymandering, is arguably a greater threat to the health of U.S. democracy than is the role of money in campaigns.
On a happier note, the state’s judiciary and the governor (a Democrat—who, incidentally, received some 50,000 more votes in 2020 than Trump did) will serve as an effective deterrent to the legislature’s worst instincts. And another city in North Carolina will field a professional baseball team in 2021—the state’s eleventh!
More importantly, I now better understand the complexities of the U.S. electorate. Trump’s supporters are far from a monolithic bloc. To demonize them and label them all as ‘racist’ or ‘misogynistic’ is both wrong and unhelpful. A way must be found to lower the rhetoric and work to bridge the divide. While I personally believe that the blame is not shared equally between opposing sides, I do think everyone must strive to walk back from the abyss and not stoke tensions.
I also found the chance to work alongside people who shared my values and aspirations to be restorative and inspiring. It’s easy (and understandable in light of the past four years) to become jaded and discouraged. Volunteering and working on partisan as well as non-partisan issues to promote civic duties and participation in democratic processes was worthwhile and rewarding. If anyone reading this is motivated to act similarly, there’s no time like the present as there are two critically important Senate runoff elections in Georgia on 5 January (especially if you’re supporting the Democratic candidates).
Photo Credit: Jakob Rubner
Michèle Ndedi Batchandji is a 2019 graduate from IHEID in Geneva with a Master in Development Studies; her thesis was on ‘Access to Education for orphans in Yemen’. Michèle has worked at NORRAG in the SDC backstopping Team and is now a consultant in project implementation in the Office for Africa at the International Trade Center (ITC). You can continue the converSation with Michèle via firstname.lastname@example.org and via LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/michelendedi/
Today, in all the major armed conflicts, civilians represent the highest number of casualties. According to Action on Armed Violence, the countries with the highest death toll of civilians are Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq. These wars have all intermittently received high media coverage in the United States and in Europe, with the exception of Yemen. The Yemeni conflict only had its moment in the spotlight for a couple of months when images of starving children were widely circulated. Now with the Covid-19 pandemic—and despite the UN Security Council Resolution 2532 calling for cessation of hostilities in all conflict zones—even less attention is being paid to the situation of Yemen, while attacks and retaliations continue and the story goes on…
OK, but what is actually going on in that country? The war in Yemen is considered one of the deadliest wars of the past year, so let’s just look at some facts quickly: In Yemen, out of 30.5 million inhabitants, 24.1 million (80%) are said to be in need of humanitarian assistance, of which 12 million are children. Nearly every child in Yemen needs assistance. Schools and hospitals are often under attack. In 2018, some international organizations were calling it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis; now, with the compound effects of Covid-19, the situation can only deteriorate
So it seems tragic but what can we do, right? I cannot pretend to have an answer, but I think we can start by caring. OK, and how? The first step might be to start by being aware of what is happening there. At the basis, Yemen is a country like any other, whose citizens have rights to food, water, shelter, sleep as well as to health, employment and social stability. Thus, our immediate role can be to research, read, write, and to not remain indifferent.
One thing is certain though, that it will remain difficult to talk about actions with long-term impacts until a ceasefire is reached between the parties. Democratic institutions across the world have tried to end military support to belligerents with no real success for now. That means that citizens have to redouble its efforts and pressure on their governments. WE can help. We can all contribute by signing petitions, which will help in keeping the plight of Yemini people on government priority lists. Multilateral organizations have a major role to play by upholding the pressure on both parties to stop the fighting, and to establish more inclusive peace processes with advisory groups which will include more youth and women, who do not only represent the vast majority of the population but also are the first victims of this conflict.
So, let’s try to act, each at our level. The only fact that almost all children in Yemen need assistance can be a good motivation, don’t you think?
Sonali Wanigabaduge is a lawyer and media professional from Sri Lanka. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Transitional Justice, Human Rights and the Rule of Law, at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, and writes in her spare time. She can be reached at email@example.com
Back when I was 10 years old, vegetarianism wasn’t a widely practised concept in Sri Lanka, at least not to the knowledge of my 10 year old self. Lavanya, my intelligent friend from school had never eaten meat in her life! She said she wasn’t supposed to, because she was born a Tamil Hindu Brahmin.
It puzzled me constantly, how she’d steadfastly refuse a piece of chocolate cake because it was ‘contaminated’ with egg, and so mechanically look away while all of us lesser mortals would fight for a second and third piece whenever it was someone’s birthday at school.
I used to love my tuck-shop lunches. The hot dogs, the mini chicken rolls, and the cakes, everything was heavenly. But Lavanya would obediently sit by her desk during the interval and eat her home-made idly – tender rice cakes, with a spicy green sambol made of ground coriander leaves and spices. I would be mind-boggled, and I’d constantly tell my mother about Lavanya’s food.
But Ammi, even Lavanya’s dog is vegetarian!
I’d exclaim in disbelief, whilst munching loudly on spicy mutton curry, fried fish, dhal and fried rice made with a lavish mix of diced sausages and egg.
Ammi was born to a Sinhalese Buddhist family in the deep South of Sri Lanka, and had come to Colombo only after she turned 18. Hers had been a traditional education – simple, linear, and oblivious to the ethnically diverse tapestry of the country, its nuances and its socio-political ebb and flow.
As I was getting ready for my class party that day, Ammi stood by the kitchen, preparing fish cutlets for 25 people – a mix of flavoured, cooked fish, mixed with potato, onions and carrot, battered and deep fried into little balls. I noticed she had set aside some potato dough which she started frying first.
I made some vegetarian cutlets for Lavanya. I fried them first so there’s no contact with the fish paste.
Those five cutlets were the only thing that Lavanya had to eat that day.
I was 26 years old. Life was a blur. We hadn’t breathed easy in eight months. That’s how long it had been since the cancer diagnosis. Logic defied us, yet we traversed on, fumbling to find the best doctors, the best ayurvedic practitioners, and the best priests.
That night, we had driven back home to frantically pack some of Ammi’s medical records and clothes for us to live in for the next few days. The only Intensive Care Unit we had managed to find at such short notice, was a four-hour drive from home. This was where Ammi was being monitored, with the beeping machines, and the haunting silence.
As we started the car to drive back to the hospital, the doctor called, saying Ammi had opened her eyes.
Don’t worry, we gave your mother liquids, he said.
Dr. Lavanya just visited with some Sustagen* milk.
*Sustagen – a brand of nutritional milk often given as an energy booster.
Photo credit: @mana5280
Anna Blanck is a young professional with an MSc in Development from SOAS, and a BFA in Painting from KCAI. She is interested in exploring the relationship of art and development.
Throughout human history, and even before we began to record our endeavors through writing, art has been an expression of the collective condition. The magnitude of power embodied in the artistic voice has given rise to many attempts to wrest control of creative endeavors away from the people. This takes two notorious forms: censorship and propaganda.
We no longer hear very much about these two phenomena, as both have taken a more a subtle shape. Yet the dominant narrative is still embodied through mainstream forms of art, while institutions oppress alternative voices. Hollywood reinforces ideology through plots, protagonists, and antagonists; it also presents an unquestioned dichotomy between the elite participants who may shape the conversation, and the rest who simply receive it. This binary is also present in the world of canonized painters, sculptors, authors, and performers; a monopoly on the legitimate use of creativity.
There is a reason that these suppressive tactics ultimately fail. Artistic expression has the means to immediately re-frame the conversation, and it arises as a natural response to human dilemmas. Time and again, creative people surface to express the turmoil and conflict within society even (or perhaps even more) in the most difficult of situations.
In recent weeks, the world has been crying out that it is finally time to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter. Artists have played an essential role in shaping this demand. Beautiful graphics circulating on Instagram have been raising awareness, spreading information, and maintaining the momentum of the movement. Photographers have been documenting haunting, heartbreaking, important moments at the protests.
Still more important work is being done by the protesters themselves, who have been challenging the dominant imagery, and creating their own. The protesters signs are not only fighting systemic racism but also upending existing limits on the legitimate use of creative expression.
#BlackLivesMatter is only the most recent in a wave of protests that have been steadily increasing in frequency and intensity. With each of these comes a democratization of artistic media as protesters find creative means to communicate their aims and challenge the dominant narrative. Slowly, we are learning en masse that anyone can use art, not just those who are “good” at it. As we learn to reclaim our individual voices, we will become a more powerful force for lasting social change.
Illustration credit: Kathryn Gichini
Being changed forever can happen unexpectedly.
Rwanda, 27 June 2009: My task at the Mutobo demobilization centre that day was complex, but (I had expected) achievable. I was to interview former members of a rebel force that had recently committed a series of horrific atrocities in eastern Congo, part of a United Nations investigation that would contribute to determining the chain of command, and thus responsibility, for war crimes. I had been doing this work for years and felt confident with the backing of an arsenal of international human rights treaties and the bastion of Security Council resolutions that mandated my investigations. I was convinced that within a few weeks—months at most—we would have forensically mapped out who had ordered what, when, and where, and thus be on the way towards something like justice.
Probably: I had already been at this kind of work for too long. Likely: I was exhausted. Yet from that collapsing space of conviction emerged a different kind of possibility: on that day, my refined capacities to judge and my honed skills to ascribe blame instead gave way to seeing more deeply and to listening more completely. Consequently, what I saw and what I heard brought me closer to humanity than I had ever been before.
Captain X was escorted to the table where I was conducting interviews: I first saw his face, without a jaw, that I would learn had been blown out years before by a grenade. Then I heard his voice, which carried a trembling story of devastation, loss and fear. His testimony embodied Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘law of conservation of violence’, which explains how violence—like electricity—will continue to travel the path of least resistance. Captain X and all the countless others were entrenched in systems of structural and global violence from which they had no means of emerging.
The systemic violence that Bourdieu describes lays at the foundations of the social, economic and political structures that organize the societies in which we live. It is transmitted between individuals and across generations—and, crucially, through institutions, laws, policies and practices—and is thus conserved. Such conservation can feel inevitable. Yet we are—right now—living in a moment that calls into question such inevitability. A pandemic has shown us that we can stop. One more killing has shown us that it is enough.
The work of transforming systemic violence can feel grueling. It can be exhausting. Yet it must be done. It is actually easier than we think: it simply starts with that next right action.
Photo credit : Adam Wilson
Before reading any further, please watch this 9 minute video documenting the killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020.
George Floyd’s supplication is simple and soul-ravaging in its clarity: “I can’t breathe… please.” His life is taken before our eyes, and, as his last breath leaves him, bystanders plead, futilely appealing to a sense of brotherhood in officers who have, for generations, policed the violent and entrenched structures of inequality and injustice.
Barely emerging from the confines of a respiratory viral pandemic, we are confronted with the dystopia of a nation facing centuries-old rage that has been too-long stifled. Protesters are–in this very moment—reckoning with the myths of equality and justice that have only ever been partial. They are also revealing the power of individuals, coming together, willing a bottom up change that is the start of an awakening—the crude and compelling collective consciousness once willed by Franz Fanon—that lies at the foundation of truly transformative social change.
Tonight, protests across the United States continue. There is rage that must come out, that must burn through so many generations of fear and hardship and hate and denial. The time has come for a collective reckoning of no-longer-sustainable injustices.
Beware: this is not only an American story.
We are living in a global moment that has never been experienced before. This rare and fleeting gift of consciousness is at once terrifying but also full of possibility. So what will we do with this possibility?
This global moment is raw and visceral, pulsing with fear, discontent and uncertainty. It is a moment also beseeching us to love—love of the big and universal kind that transforms embers of darkness into light. In a “night already devoid of stars”, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once offered us his guidance: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
We are on the precipice of a different kind of world. We are so close to something better… but everyday individual actions will be required to realize meaningful positive social transformation, which will require collectively-sustained courage, imagination, audacity, and grace. This is what we can each practice with our next breath.