broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the month “June, 2016”

Commie on a Cruise

Commie on a Cruise


I learned long ago that people judge the way one travels. I had a history professor who asked the class if anyone had been out of the United States. I said I had and he asked me where I had been. I told him, but he scoffed and dismissed me when I said it was a two week bus tour of Europe. At the time, I worked as a housekeeper at a hotel. The trip was something extremely expensive. I nearly ran out of money on the trip itself. But to him, it wasn’t an authentic experience because it was a lowly bus tour and only two weeks. He said, “Oh, you went on one of those whirlwind tours.”   I went from feeling proud and happy to feeling embarrassed. The man called himself a socialist but was oblivious to his own privilege and elitism. (In another instance he chastised me for playing video games, saying that it was better to spend time reading.)


This spring, I went on a cruise. I am embarrassed to talk about it for a variety of reasons. On one hand, from an environmentalist perspective, I may as well tell people that I traveled around on an oil spewing toxic waste barge. From a socialist perspective, the workers on the ship work long shifts with miniscule pay. The workers are hyper exploited. Beyond this, it is seen as something old people do. So there is a little bit of ageism. It is also viewed as tacky and inauthentic. When it comes to cultural capital, cruises (at least on the mainstream cruise lines) are viewed as a tasteless way to travel. Middle class liberal sorts prefer long term travel, study abroad, conferences, retreats, socially conscious travel, or self-catered travel.

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Well, I went on a cruise. I’ve gone on one before. There are many reasons why I have gone. The previous time it was with my boyfriend who hates travelling. So, it is a way to travel that appeals to the people that I know. I always travel alone. Even if I join up with a group tour, I end up alone. As for my previous cruise, I was actually meant to travel with a companion, but it fell through. Thus, for me, a perk is the potential to bring someone with me. None of my friends or family are really into travel.


But, even going alone, another incentive is that the price is pretty low. It is a great way to see some countries for a fairly low cost. When I went on a cruise this spring, I bought the cheapest room. I didn’t gamble. I don’t like shopping. I don’t drink alcohol. So really, once I was on the ship, I spent almost nothing. Spending nothing was a fun little game (well, I did buy excursions). This is a super deal for someone like me who isn’t lured in by the overpriced…everything…on the ship.


Finally, cruising is pretty easy. It is fairly hassle free and generally relaxing. Even having the cheapest room was better than having and FINDING my hostel in Minsk. There is no stress of finding accommodations or food, since it is all right there on the boat. And since the ship is enormous, visible anywhere on most islands, it seems fairly impossible to get lost.

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With that said, here is a communist’s experience with a Carnival cruise:

I chose to go on a 10 Day Carnival Cruise to the Southern Caribbean. The cruise included Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Tobago, St. Thomas, and Puerto Rico. This seemed like a pretty good deal because a.) I really wanted to go to Grenada because of its brief history of socialism. b.) When I was 19, I told myself that I would one day go to St. Lucia after I read Omeros by Derek Walcott. c.) It was a new island each day! d.) I was curious about learning more about the other Caribbean countries on the itinerary.


I chose Carnival because it was fairly inexpensive and because I like that it attracts more diverse vacationers.

With that said, I began by cruise by walking from my hotel in San Juan to the cruise pier. I didn’t want to pay for a $40 transfer, so I walked. I felt proud of this as navigating the cobblestone streets with my bags made me feel strong and capable. When I arrived on the ship, I found that almost everyone on the cruise was from the U.S., with a smattering of Europeans who appeared to be either from Germany or Scandinavia. Most of the passengers were retired, but there were people of all ages and even some college aged individuals. From the conversations, it seemed that these people had more working class backgrounds. There were teachers, nurses, police people, truck drivers, fire fighters, etc. but most were retirees. The majority of the cruise passenger population was from the Southern United States, overweight, and white. However, I believe that about 10% of the cruise passenger population may have been people of color, including a few large African American families that were travelling together. In this sense, the cruise was not at all an elitist adventure. My impression was that it was everyday people who had been saving up to go and treating themselves to some pseudo-luxury. The people looked like the people you might meet at Walmart or Old Country Buffet. Of course, there were better dressed, fit, middle class people, but for the most part, the people on the ship reminded me of my mother or people who might be friends with my mother. Just average Americans. I don’t mind that since I live in a communist bubble (speaking mostly to socialists and feminists). It is interesting to be around people who have no qualms with going Black Friday shopping, going to church, and eating at buffets. (By the way, I do like buffets. I like salad bars and as a vegetarian, I have a much easier time finding food at a buffet. I often pick healthier meals when I eat at buffets. My main gripe is that the food quality is never awesome).


As soon as I got on the ship, the buffet was open and passengers immediately took to stuffing themselves. I have read that cruise passengers gain 1-2 lbs a day, which seems impossible. However, buffet for every snack and meal, plus drinks could easily result in this. I also read that cruise passengers drink eight times the amount of alcohol they normally drink. Well, just as I was going to buck the trend by resisting the spend, spend, spend mantra of the ship, I decided that I was going to avoid gaining weight by eating sensibly. In the end, I actually lost two pounds on the cruise! Yes, I have work to do in becoming a fat positive feminist. Still, there is something a bit unnerving about watching people eat so much and thinking about the enormous amount of food waste. It is an environment wherein consumption of all sorts is encouraged.


The consumption was one of the more bizarre aspects of the ship. The ship is a cashless economy. The room card doubles as a charge card. Thus, each time you do a fitness class, buy a soda, or purchase a souvenir, you just hand over your room card. You receive a bill at the end. A person can check their balance at a kiosk, but the ease of spending and the high prices surely results in some unpleasant surprises.   Beyond the bizarre shopping mall feel of the ship is the shopping while at port. Upon disembarking from the ship, passengers are handed a map. However, the map is devoid of landmarks or tourist attractions. It is a shopping map. The shopping map is entirely useless as a navigational tool as it is minimally marked. The map tells passengers where to shop for the best deals on watches, jewelry, and souvenirs. Passengers are also warned not to leave the shops near the pier. Thus, passengers really don’t see the country. They see the weird, strip mall-esque duty free zone by the ship. I went on ship sponsored excursions, but I also ventured beyond the piers into the cities to explore on my own. I found very few tourists who ventured far from the ship. For instance, I explored Bridgetown, Barbados for a few hours on my own and only saw three cruise passengers in the city. It was very similar on the stops in Grenada and St. Kitts. Passengers really didn’t explore beyond the thin belt of shops near the ship. But, everyone travels for different reasons and everyone has different comfort zones. If passengers don’t explore, it is probably due to mobility issues and the fact that the ship itself seems to discourage it.   Of course, if passengers were empowered to explore on their own, the ship would not make money off of the excursions or deals that it has with various shops.

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(A busy shopping street in Bridgetown, Barbados. No cruise passengers to be seen)

On the ship, most of the food service and housekeeping staff appeared to be Asian men, with the Philippines representing most frequent country of origin.   Bar staff, child care staff, and program staff tended to be young and white. Desk service staff appeared to be female and Eastern European. So, it was interesting how there was a racial, gender, and ethnic divide in the work. The most visible staff were always white, young, and English speaking. Because of the cashless economy, tips are charged at the end of the stay. However, I wondered how the tips were divided among the staff or if the staff even received the gratuities. Because of this, I left a little extra in my room for the housekeeping staff. Actually, I felt bad that everyone on the ship had to work so hard. To mitigate this, I kept my Do Not Disturb sign up for two days. I figured that I really didn’t need daily housekeeping as I had plenty of towels and could tidy my own room. Despite my efforts to create less work for the staff, the head of the security came to my room to check on me. He demanded to know if I was alright, as I had left my sign up for two days. Oops! I explained that I had left it up because I didn’t need room service, but after that, I just let the housekeepers do their thing.

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                (The handiwork of an overworked housekeeper)

Another curious aspect of the cruise atmosphere is the social construction of fun. The word fun is thrown around all of the time. Everyone having fun? We have another fun show coming up this evening! Even the daily newsletter/schedule is called “The Fun Times.” There are various activities to keep passengers entertained. These include various musical performances, magic shows, mini golf, the pool, the water slide, contests, comedy shows, etc. I decided I really wasn’t interested in any of them. Instead, I spend my time reading, writing, or walking on the fitness track. Each night I made a ritual out of watching the sun set and doing some star gazing. Because I was only 8 degrees above the equator, I desperately wanted to see the Southern Cross.  I actually spend some time doing writing and research while on the ship, as I was finishing my Master’s Degree in Teaching. Time on the ship provided ample time to finish the 80 page paper I was working on. But, I also spent time in one of the six Jacuzzis on the upper decks. I enjoyed doing this at night while star gazing. The only problem was that the ship creates an enormous amount of light pollution. As such, it is hard to star gaze. The night sky should be dark and clear in all directions, but the deck lights block out the stars. As a whole, I felt alienated from the fun. I was alone almost the entire time, but enjoyed eaves dropping on my fellow passengers to get a peek into their lives and world views. Unfortunately, Carnival’s idea of fun is not nerd friendly. So, I made my own fun. However, I did participate in trivia! This was a highlight of my time on the ship. I even won a trophy for winning at trivia. I had a proud moment wherein a won a trivia game as a solo player against various teams. From then on, when people saw me, they said, “there’s that smart girl.” It was very flattering and lots of fun, of course.

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(Fun for everyone.  Except me.  Though, I do regret never trying out the waterslide)

The only other thing I will note is the pseudo-luxury. Now, I got the impression that no one on the cruise was really rich. Rich people probably wouldn’t go on a Carvival Cruise. They would go on a more exclusive yachting trip. Even the upper middle class have would probably pick a different cruise line. The passengers had money to spend, so they weren’t the poor. To me, they really did seem like my idea of average Americans. The original goal of Carnival and other mainstream cruise lines was to make cruising affordable. So, while it is affordable, it is still presented as a luxury. This is why passengers are encouraged to buy expensive jewelry and watches. It is why they are told to get spa treatments. It is why there are formal dining nights wherein passengers must dress up if they want to eat in the dining room. There was even an art sale. All of this is a packaged way to sell the idea of luxury to everyday people.  I think it is a way for working people to ape the lifestyle of rich people. In a way, it is also an escapism from social class. Thus, I think that for many passengers, the cruise is more about a vacation FROM class than it is an escape TO a destination. For a moment in time, and in that space, the passengers get to experience spending without consequence (until they get their credit card bill). Of course, people are still divided by the expense and location of their rooms, but I am sure there are many others like me who retire each night to their tiny interior cabins.


I enjoyed my time on the islands, but I will discuss them in a future post, as I would like to write about what I learned about each of them. While the visit to each island was brief, I stuffed my days and tried to make the most of my short time. I do believe that I learned quite a bit about each of them and that it further piqued my curiosity about the Caribbean.


So that was my experience. It was a lot of consumerism. It was a lot of complaining older adults. It was a lot of exploited workers. It was boot camp for the ideology of fun and spending. It was lonely. I felt isolated and alienated. But, at the same time I enjoyed it. I made the experience my own by reading, walking, star gazing, playing trivia, doing school work, and making the most of my time on the islands. If I did it again, I would prefer to have a companion. Can I justify the ecological damage? The banal hedonism? The Donald Trump supporters and offensive t-shirts? I find it all kind of fascinating. People may judge me for it, but I would go again.

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What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

I recently read Martin Meredith’s book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. My boyfriend saw the book and asked me what a “Mug-a-bee” was. As my previous post indicates, I am not an African history buff. I wish I was a history of everything buff. But, I am just me. This version of me is interested in history, but has so much to learn. That is why I read Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. I wanted to know what a Mugabe was.


To give a brief history, as presented in the book and from some previous knowledge, the country now known as Zimbabwe was once called Rhodesia, named after the British diamond mine owner/promoter of imperialism, Cecil Rhodes. Basically, Rhode’s mining company BSAC was granted the mineral rights to an enormous track of land spanning from Limpopo River to Lake Tanganyika. To secure the land (i.e. colonize or take control of), Rhodes promised 3,000 acres of land to anyone who volunteered to be in his pioneer army. Thus, an army of volunteers basically conquered what would become modern day Zimbabwe, taking over the land, killing native people, crushing resistance, and forcing the remaining native people to pay taxes (thus forcing them into a cash/labor/wage based economy).


Fast forward to 1965. A minority of wealthy white land owners have controlled the country since 1890. This is because in order to vote, the electorate must meet certain wealth, educational, and property thresholds. Only the white population, 5% of the total population, met these qualifications. And, having enjoyed over seventy years of uncontested political and economic power, this white minority was not eager to give it up. Thus, in 1965, Rhodesia, which is still a British territory, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain. They did this because the white elite did not want to negotiate with the British for their independence, as this would entail at least some commitment to transferring power to the black majority. In short, the UDI was not really a declaration of independence, but a declaration of the government to independently continue the status quo of white power.


While I don’t expect much from the United States, UN, or Britain, in this case, the whole world was against white Rhodesia (or at least gave lip service to being against white Rhodesia). The UN condemned the declaration as illegal and racist and the Security Council imposed sanctions on the country. The sanctions weren’t necessary strictly followed and South Africa continued to provide military support, Iran provided oil, Japan purchased imports, and the United Sates continued to purchase chromium and nickel. Meanwhile, various rebel groups launched a bloody war of liberation that continued until 1979, when all parties agreed to terms of independence (elections, delayed land reform, a constitution, ceasefire, etc.) in the Lancaster Agreement.


That brings me back to the original question, “What is a Mugabe?” In the book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future, Robert Mugabe began as a relatable character. He was an isolated, serious, bookish person. I can relate to that. He didn’t drink or smoke. I can relate to that. He became a teacher and worked in Ghana, where he was introduced to socialism. I can relate to that. Then, he becomes a paranoid, ethnic cleansing, corrupt dictator…wait, what happened?! I’ll back up. Alright, so Mugabe was a part of a Maoist leaning rebel group called ZANU. This was one of two major Marxist Leninist rebel groups in Rhodesia, the other being ZAPU, a Warsaw Pact, Soviet aligned rebel group. To make things more complex, these parties have armed wings, ZANLA and ZIPRA. Mugabe eventually became the head of ZANLA, the armed wing of ZANU. Now, the author of the book portrays Mugabe’s descent into dictatorship as somewhat of a personal matter. For one, he spent eleven years in prison for his role in ZANLA. During his time in prison, his three year old son died. Ian Smith, the Prime Minister, personally denied his request to leave prison to comfort his wife, even when prison guards believed he could be trusted to return. Besides prison, he fought in a civil war that killed over 10,000 guerillas. The book suggests that going through the experiences of war, prison, and loss contributed to the direction he took after he was elected and became Prime Minister in 1980. It is also suggested that his austere and driven personality traits contributed to his dictatorship. While this may be a welcome explanation compared to the typical “absolute power corrupts” or “socialism always leads to dictatorship” I was not satisfied with this storyline.   Why does a man starve his country to root out opposition? What did he oversee the killing of up to 30,000 political opponents in the early 1980s, killed along ethnic lines? Why the corruption? Why the excess and pilfering of state money? Rather than the question of “what is a Mugabe?,” which I think the book answers by conveying his history, terrible deeds, and persona…I wonder, why Mugabe?


At first I thought that perhaps it was a matter of some ideological flaw. ZANU was aligned with China and sought assistance from North Korea. North Koreans helped Mugabe train his notorious 5th Brigade, which was used to crush political and ethnic opposition. To clarify this, ZANU was mainly supported by Shona people in the north of Zimbabwe, whereas ZAPU was supported by the Ndebele. When someone in Mugabe’s government is quoted as stating that they will bring Zimbabwe back to zero if they must, I couldn’t help but think of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The official believed that it was alright to starve the population if this meant starving out opposition to the government. Thus, food distribution occurred along party lines. Both ZAPU and ZANU were products of their time. Both carried the baggage of the logic, or illogic, of degenerated workers states. That is, their templates or role models were repressive, so why would either be different once in power?


Both of the perspectives are flawed because they keep things within the realm of the personal and the ideological. While wrestling with this, I discussed this with my friend Adam, who added the material. I had some inkling of the material as well, but had not been thinking about the topic long enough to fully flesh out my thoughts on that matter. Adam rightly observed that a socialist revolution would have been fairly impossible in Zimbabwe. Mugabe, as well as anyone else in ZAPU or ZANU were raised in racist Rhodesia. Their consciousness, tactics, world view, way of living, was shaped by racist, classist oppression. The existence of Zimbabwe itself is artificial. South Rhodesia, North Rhodesia, really all countries of Africa, are imperialist constructs. Their borders were decided by Europeans. As a result of colonization, ethnic groups were mashed together or pulled apart haphazardly. Mugabe inherited a colonial construct with an economy geared towards a peripheral role in global capitalism.   Making any sort of socialist reform that challenged global capitalism, without worldwide revolution, would cause the country to become an isolated, embargoed, pariah state. Which is exactly what it is, though for humanitarian and democratic reasons. The cards are stacked against socialism. Even with the best intentions. Machel, the Marxist leader of Mozambique even warned Mugabe against pursuing socialism too aggressively. Can it be expected that there would have been anything different or the country would have had a different fate? Anything is possible. I am a socialist, of course. But, there were many material factors, along with some ideological and personal ones, which directed the course of events.


Having addressed the what and why of Mugabe, there is one critique that I will launch against the book. The book is very sympathetic to white farmers. This raises many questions. Now, the book discusses how his first decade or so in power consisted of consolidating his party with ZAPU, destroying political and ethnic opposition, while enriching the political elite with the profits derived from state owned enterprises/investments. However, as criticisms mount regarding the corruption of the government and misuse of a veteran’s fund, he turned his attention to the white population. In various waves through the 1990s and 2000s, he unleashes bands of veterans to attack white farmers, taking their lands. Eventually almost all of the white farmers are evicted from their lands. The book is very sympathetic to these white farmers, who hide in terror as their land is ransacked and occupied. Throughout this narrative, Mugabe is called a racist. Cowering, courageous white folks flee the country and mourn the losses of their farms. Another part of the narrative is that after the veterans took over the farms, they fell into disrepair and food production plummeted. The author seems to ignore how this narrative is very much like the Rhodesian narrative that black people are not ready to govern themselves, as they will ruin the country. Apparently, black people cannot farm, as they will ruin the farms. This is incredibly racist.


The book portrays white farmers as victims. To backtrack, in 1980, 70% of the land was controlled by less than 5% of the population (whites). To backtrack further, white people were given 3,000 acres of land when they conquered what became Zimbabwe in 1890. For almost 100 years, white people had a monopoly on political and economic power in the country. This raises the question of what rights do colonizers have? Do the white farmers have a right to keep their land? On what basis? If they earned or obtained that land any time during the 100 years of white rule or because an ancestor did, then they have no real right to it. It was not collectively decided that white people should own 70% of the land. The land was taken and maintained through a repressive government atop of a segregated society. And while the white owners must have done a good job overseeing the land and making it productive, this also does not give them a right to keep their land. If someone took your house, but repaired it and kept it cleaner, it does not give them the right to own it. The problem of course is that the land was taken violently and erratically. Much of the land fell into the hands of government cronies. Ideally, a more peaceable, rational, and socially beneficial land distribution should have occurred. But still…what rights do colonizers have? Further, they are called “farmers” but this invokes grandma and grandpa on a 40 acre farm. The farms were mega, corporate, sometimes cash crop farms with hired workers. The whites were wealthy landowners, not farmers in the mom and pop with a few milk cows sense. So, while I don’t want to see any human being suffer, I am uncomfortable for the sympathetic nature in which the whites were portrayed.


In all, I feel that I learned quite a bit about Mugabe. I read the book in about three days, so I found it engaging enough to plow through it. Finally, it raised some questions. As a whole, I enjoyed it and would recommend it, though, it is lacking political analysis and self-awareness of its own narrative.

What Do We Learn about South African Apartheid?

What do we learn about South African Apartheid?


This blog post stems from my plans to embark on a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe in late June. Now, I am not an expert on South Africa or Africa in general. I really am in the stages of learning and thinking, rather than producing knowledge. In this attempt to learn more about Africa in general, I headed to the Duluth Library Book Sale. I came home with dozens of books, but there was next to nothing for sale on the topic of Africa! The only book I found was Brian Lapping’s Apartheid: A History, which was written in 1986! I read the book, but because it is so old, it does not make sense to write a book review. If I reviewed the book, much of the story would remain untold.   In any event, the book was a quick read that didn’t offer much depth or political analysis. I wouldn’t recommend it except as a nice introduction to the topic. Nevertheless, I wanted to write an easy to read blog post about apartheid in South Africa. As I thought of the topic, I considered what I learned about South Africa in school. Really, I learned next to nothing. I think I was given this general idea that once upon a time there was racial inequality in South Africa, then Nelson Mandela came along, and everything was better. With that said, I will explore some of the narratives about South Africa that seem to be popular in our society.


  1. Everything is Better Myth:

If you learn about apartheid in school, the narrative of apartheid is one of victory over injustice. This is the same way we learn about the Civil Rights movement or women’s suffrage movement. We are provided with a narrative that a historically isolated moment of struggle ends in triumph and change. Everything is better. The end.


Spielvogel’s Glencoe World History textbook, published in 2005 and used at a local high school, ends its two page coverage of apartheid (out of over 1000 pages) with the election of Nelson Mandela and a quote about the rainbow nation. This leaves the distinct impression that good triumphed over evil.


One of the problems with this narrative is that it ignores the ways in which apartheid continues through economic mechanisms. In 1993, South African Trotskyist Neville Alexander, wrote that apartheid laws could be removed because racial inequality already had a firm foundation. Over two decades later, 60-65% of South African wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population. 47% of the country lives in poverty and 25% of the country is unemployed. If unemployment is looked at along racial lines, about 39% of Black South Africans are unemployed compared to 8% of whites. The average white family earns six times more than the average Black family. Although some Black South Africans have joined the middle class since the end of apartheid, the country remains economically divided along racial lines.


There are many reasons why economic inequality persists. Although the original Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC supported the redistribution of wealth and land, economic demands of the charter were not adopted. The ANC is not an anti-capitalist party and apartheid was built upon economic inequality. As such, the end of apartheid allowed only for a democracy founded upon fundamental inequalities and a system that promotes such inequalities. The same state, police, and military continued on, but with a different face. While the racial demographics of government have changed, the state remains the same inasmuch as it has pursued neoliberal policies and used the police to kill workers (i.e. the Lonmin mine massacre that killed 47 people)!


 

2. The Nelson Mandela Myth:

 

Nelson Mandela died back in 2013 when I worked at the Boys and Girls Club. The children told me that they learned about Nelson Mandela in school. Although they learned about him in school, the content was pretty minimal as he was presented as a sort of Santa Claus like character. He was a mythical, jolly, peaceful fellow who ended apartheid and brought the gift social justice to the world. While there is nothing wrong with learning about Nelson Mandela, the way in which he and any other historical figure is presented is as a maker of history. This ignores other individuals, economic conditions, social movements, labor organizing, and other important factors in social change. In short, social change is reduced to the heroic actions of a mythical individual. Beyond this, the depiction of these heroes is white washed. For example, Spielvogel’s (2005) Glencoe World History textbook says the following: “After the arrest of ANC leader Nelson Mandela in 1962, members of the ANC called for armed resistance to the white government (p. 922).” In this statement, Nelson Mandela is a catalyst for armed resistance but not a promoter of it. Nowhere in the paragraph does it mentioned that Nelson Mandela believed in armed resistance and was the head of the Spear of the Nation (the armed wing of the ANC). He co-founded it in 1961 AFTER the Sharpeville massacre wherein 69 unarmed protestors were shot (in the back as they fled) by police. But, the textbook does not mention the Sharpeville massacre and the role it played in changing the tactics of the ANC. Rather, the reader is lead to believe that it was the arrest of Nelson Mandela (the great individual in this narrative) which was the cause of arm struggle. This neutralizes the subversive aspects of Nelson Mandela, making him out to a Barack Obama type character.   He was considered a terrorist and leader of a terrorist organization. He went to prison under laws made to persecute communists. He was, at least for a time, a member of the South African Communist Party. He was also a domestic abuser who threatened his first wife that he would attack her with an axe.


Individuals are thorny and imperfect. The right wing has a heyday with such things. Instead, it should raise issues of how a “terrorist” is socially constructed and what is deemed a terrorist organization is a matter of the power. It should also raise issues about the role of violence in social change or considerations of the role of capitalism in promoting racial inequalities (the SACP should not be idealized, but at least recognized as a part of history). In later textbook passages, Nelson Mandela is described with more apolitical staleness. He was imprisoned for 26 years and became the first Black president of South Africa. That is all. Desmond Tutu is mentioned in one sentence as a person who helped to release him. This is the complete cast of characters in the story of apartheid. There is no mention of Steve Biko, one of many people who mysteriously died in police custody (after torture). More important than the addition of other anti-apartheid figures is the lack of coverage of social history. The textbook does not mention the Soweto massacre, for instance. Students might be able to relate to the struggle of fellow students against curriculum changes. Up to 1000 (700?) people died to learn math and to speak their own language!


  1. America the Invisible/Elephant in the Room:

            Nowhere in the textbook I’ve been using as an example is there any mention of the role of the United States in all of this. I learned the other day that U.S. companies Polaroid and IBM profited from the creation of identification cards and card reading systems used for the passes that kept Black South Africans segregated and relegated to Bantustans. As of 1985, U.S. companies controlled 70% of the computer market in South Africa. The tires used by South African police and military vehicles were purchased from Firestone and Goodyear. In 1985, 20% of all foreign investment in South Africa was American. These corporations profited from the cheap labor of black workers, who lived and worked as impoverished guest workers in the slave like conditions of their own country. The United States refused sanctions against South Africa until 1986 and vetoed a UN resolution to expel South Africa’s membership. Even under the Carter administration, the United States abstained from a UN vote to impose an oil embargo on South Africa. Beyond the economic bounty that corporations gained from apartheid, South Africa was an important U.S. ally and staging point for wars against left leaning independence movements in Africa.   Of course, textbooks try to be apolitical and inoffensive, so the omission of this close relationship with South Africa is expected. But, the absence of the U.S. is political. It only adds to the amnesia of our negative role in history and a denial of our own troubled race relations. Digging deeper, it might call into question the U.S.’s relationship with Israel or the parallels between Israel and South Africa. White South Africans (of Boer descent) saw themselves as a chosen people who belonged on the land. People who had always been there. They also saw themselves as victims of British imperialism and genocide with a right to defend themselves. Just as the story of apartheid ends with Nelson Mandela, the story of segregation ends with Martin Luther King Jr. or the story of slavery ends with the Civil War. In these stories, racism exists only in a historical moment. It existed and, like the dinosaurs, vanishes into the deep history of dust and fossil imprints. The dinosaurs aren’t with us now. And we are led to believe that racism is also a thing of the past.


Conclusion:  

I am not an expert on South Africa or racism. I am not an expert about anything. I am a student. I like to learn. I would also like to be a teacher. In this capacity, I hope I taught you a few things about apartheid and how we think about it in American society. There is much more to say on this topic. I have a lot on my mind. I will save it for another post or wait until I do more reading. Until then, the story continues.

Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

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Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

By Svetlana Alexeivich


This past April was the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Last August, I traveled to Chernobyl as part of a larger trip to Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Sweden. While I don’t remember Chernobyl when it happened, I remember learning about it in elementary school and high school. Even at that young age, it captured my imagination. Really, it is hard to imagine it. As a child, I imagined some glittery cloud of poison spreading across Europe. As an adult, having been there, my imagination is even more stilted. It is warped by adventure, bragging rights, and voyeurism. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a necessary dose of lived experience. The book is a collection of interviews from survivors of Chernobyl. It is awesome in the traditional sense of the word. I am in awe of the immensity of the human suffering caused by this event.


The problem with being a tourist is that it experienced as an outsider and consumer. Experiences are packaged and devoured. While I certainly felt the gravity and horror of the Chernobyl disaster as an outsider and drew some lessons from the experience, I could only experience Chernobyl safely (relatively), for a short time, years later, and with the freedom and privilege of a traveler. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster provided me with more material for deeper reflection and understanding. To the people who contributed to the book’s narrative, Chernobyl was hellish. It deformed their babies. It ruined their relationships. It killed loved ones. It poisoned food. It killed painfully, often slowly and gruesomely. It destroyed beloved pets and livestock. It vacated villages and emptied lives. I knew all of this, but I really didn’t FEEL all of this. The book helped me to feel the suffering and desolation of the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the disaster.

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(Years later, it doesn't seem real.  It is a decaying world of lost things.)

There are a few themes that struck me or made me think a little more deeply. One very common theme was the sense that Chernobyl felt like war. This was because of the military’s role in evacuating villages, the use of military material, a sense of duty in cleaning or fighting the disaster, the mass dislocation of people, a lack of personal choice, leaving things behind, the and destruction of forests, animals, and villages. This made me think about how military or authoritative responses to disasters impact the psyche of a people. Even when natural disasters happen in the United States, it is not uncommon that the National Guard would be dispatched. But, this pairing of disasters with the military must have some psychological impact on people. Perhaps we like to think of this as a benign role for the military, but it is still a display of military power, imagery, and authority. What does it mean to be at war with a disaster? At war with nature? Can governments muster a less militant response? To what degree is authority necessary for public safety?


Another theme from the book was the reproductive consequences of radiation. One woman was told it was a sin to reproduce. Another had a child who was born with no vaginal, anal, urethral opening and other health issues. This required enormous care, endless surgeries, frustration, and hopelessness. I believe I read that Chernobyl resulted in 200,000 abortions in Belarus. Many women had children with severe disabilities. Some women had miscarriages as their fetus took on radiation. All of this amounts to tremendous suffering. Those who chose to have children often had enormous challenges, disappointments, and death. Many women could not have children. Others chose not to. But these are all choiceless choices wherein no one has the agency to make the “right” choice. There is no right choice. There is endless, demoralizing, sickness and suffering. Men were also impacted by the disaster, as they were mobilized as soldiers, pilots, liquidators, and firefighters. I learned in the book that one of the effects of radiation is erectile dysfunction. Discussing this was highly stigmatized, but impacted the relationship prospects of these men. Finally, children who survived or were born after grew up in an environment of death and sickness.

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Another theme was gender roles themselves. The men who were interviewed were stoic and dutiful, if not somewhat fatalistic and nihilistic. Men played an important role in containing the disaster and evacuating villages. If men were not bound by duty and suppressed emotions, they would not be so easily mobilized into self-sacrificing heroics. The men saw themselves as robots. They were like robots, as they literally replaced the malfunctioning robots who failed to remove graphite rods from the roof of the reactor.   Certainly this was an important task, but it was a sentence to a painful, miserable, grotesque death. We make men into robots so they can fight wars, shoot “criminals,” guard prisons, break strikes, and do all of the other violent dirty work that society requires. Sometimes these robots malfunction and strike the women, children, and animals that society deems that they should not. Yet, society does not care of this violence is unleashed against foreigners and “bad guys” (often Muslims and African Americans).


Animals were often discussed. After the disaster, soldiers killed every animal in the exclusion zone, from cows to cats to foxes. Those who were evacuated and some who remained told stories of beloved cats and dogs that they left behind. The soldiers who killed the animals viewed it as a job, but unpleasant none the less. The animals were feared to be radioactive and thus capable of spreading radiation. So, they were killed. In a way, killing pets and livestock represented killing the remnants of civilization. Some animals escaped and became feral, but even the feral animals represented the human life and activity that once was. It was a connection to the former humanity the land. In the absence of humans, wild animals returned. To those who stayed behind, the wild animals seemed a bit fiercer. This might be imagined, but in this vision, the violence and destruction of nature made the animals mean.


Hopelessness was another theme. There is no justice. There is no one to blame. The Soviet Union is gone. The Soviet Union could be blamed for responding slowly, for secrecy, for lying to people, for building less safe reactors, and for instilling in people faith in nuclear energy. But, what happened cannot be undone. People live with the consequences. The magnitude of the problem would have been daunting to any country. Any country would have had to sacrifice human beings in the heroics of stopping the disaster. Again, the wiggle room for choices is small. The faith in nuclear energy and the naivety of people is the most tragic. In the first day after the disaster, children played and people marveled at a nuclear fire! Fisherman experienced an atomic tan, none the wiser that they were killing themselves. The juggernaut of ignorance resulted in a lot of cancer. Then, I think of the greatest disaster we face today: CLIMATE CHANGE! Like radiation, it is hard to see climate change. At ground zero of melting ice caps, not so much. But for most of us, we don’t see it or don’t want to see it. So, there is this disaster of global proportions. A disaster greater than Chernobyl. Yet, governments are just as slow to respond. Worse, society propagates the naïve belief that it can be stopped by green consumerism and within the framework of capitalism. In the face of grand human suffering, the destruction of nations, the extinction of life…we are fisherman with a nuclear tan. This is not to blame people themselves. But, I think that the same mechanisms that resulted in a slow response to Chernobyl operate quite well in the face of many disasters. Why? Responses are hard. They are scary. They require resources and restructuring. They require vulnerability. They require informed people. They require things that undermine the power of those in power. It is easier to ignore, minimize, hope for the best, or hope no one notices. At least that it what I thought when considering this aspect of the Soviet response.


A good book is a book that makes me think.   It is rare for a nonfiction book to make me both think and feel. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a great read. It adds to my understanding of Chernobyl and has given me a lot to consider.

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