Current Affairs

Ruth Ben-Ghiat Interviews Vicente L. Rafael

On May 9, the Philippines will elect a new President. For those interested in autocracy, it is a dramatic situation. The current illiberal president, Rodrigo Duterte, is not standing for re-election, but his daughter, Sara Duterte, is on the ticket with Bongbong Marcos, the son of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Once a country has an experience with strongman rule, the leader can haunt a nation for decades.

To better understand Duterte—a violent man who engaged in extrajudicial killings—and the stakes of this election, I talked with Vicente L. Rafael, who is Professor of History and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author, most recently, of The Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte (2022), and Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language Amid Wars of Translation (2016). Our conversation took place on March 5, 2022, and has been edited for clarity and flow.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): Why do people support these violent fraudsters? In your book you talk about how the culture of fear that Duterte disseminated was actually part of his charm. Many don’t understand why these extreme figures have such devoted followings.

Vicente Rafael (VR): In the case of the Philippines, there’s a long tradition of authoritarian leaders. And people tend to think that strong male leaders are the best way to deal with the uncertainties of life. Someone like Duterte who comes in and promises to not just solve the crime problem, but basically wipe out criminals, drug dealers and drug users, can be popular.  

Although of course this violence doesn’t solve the problem, but it creates a sense of false security. People feel, well, someone’s in charge, so I don’t have to worry. It’s very common to hear people say, oh, my neighborhood is really safer these days. And when you ask them, what do you think about all these people who got killed? I mean, many of them are your neighbors. And they would say, well, they were warned. They didn’t want to stop dealing or using, so they got what they deserved.

RBG: This is one way that autocrats are different than democratic leaders. Duterte came on my radar when he started talking, as a candidate, about the violence that he would perpetrate if he won the election. And in the US we had Trump warning as a candidate that he could shoot someone and not lose any followers.

VR: Duterte’s political style was really developed and honed while he was Mayor of Davao. He used threats, he hired thugs, like former rebels, and turned his police force into vigilantes. He himself liked to play vigilante. He would get on his motorcycle or borrow a taxi cab and roam around at night. As he said, he was looking for trouble he could fix.

So there was this sense that he was a hands-on mayor who didn’t hesitate to do what was needed without having to go through the bureaucracy or the judicial system. And that was the basis of his popularity. People were afraid, but also impressed that he actually went and did these things. When he became president, he basically nationalized these local practices.

Cover of Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte. Cover features a photograph of an alleged drug dealer—and Duterte supporter—arrested after a buy-bust operation in a slum area in Manila on September 28, 2017. The photo is a close-up of the person's handcuffed hands, one of which bears a Duterte writstband.

RBG: Your book discusses Duterte’s brand of machismo. I’m happy to see that because I feel that we don’t take masculinity seriously enough as a tool of authoritarian rule. You capture the complex masculinity of Duterte, and his blend of fragility and brutality.

VR: Duterte talks unabashedly about sexuality, he makes these obscene vulgar jokes about rape, about women. But when you look more closely at his use of misogyny and machismo, you see they are part of complex storytelling devices. He’s a great storyteller, his way of using the vernacular is really quite amazing. It’s one of the ways he connects to people.  

As an example, he might say, oh, gee, they raped the women. And it was so beautiful and I should have been first. I was the mayor. And instead I was sort of left out of the whole thing. People crack up because it’s really about how his authority was obviated. And they can even sympathize with him.

RBG: It’s beyond awful, but it’s effective in terms of him building community and legitimating misogyny and sexual assault.

VR: Another example is a story he used to tell on the campaign trail about being sexually abused by an American Jesuit while he was going to confession. I think he connects with people who might have experienced the same thing. And yet he relates this painful trauma in a humorous fashion, saying, well, I still came out on top. I was abused, but I survived to tell this story.

Duterte also expresses vulnerability when he talks about dying, about how fragile his body is. So he says, I’m going to kill all of you. But he also says, I’m probably going to die tomorrow.

RBG: This sounds nihilistic. Many strongmen have a nihilistic streak.

VR: Yes, there’s a really close relationship between authoritarianism and nihilism. It’s this idea that well, I don’t mind risking the lives of my soldiers and my citizens, because we’re all going to die anyway. Someone’s going to assassinate me sooner or later. Someone’s going to launch a coup against me sooner later. So I’m just going to go all in now.

RBG: That’s great context for Duterte stepping aside from the presidency. How does someone like that fade into the sunset?

VR: Well, physically he’s very tired. I think that’s part of the reason he wants to step down and retire. Yet he’s got this legacy. His mode of governing and the practices he engaged in will continue. His daughter Sara will be there (even though they don’t get along), and if Marcos junior becomes president, he will be surrounded by a lot of Duterte allies and cronies.

Duterte’s also empowered the police to an enormous degree. It’s really the police that run the show. In the Philippines, unlike in the United States, police are nationalized. So it’s really the office of the president that controls the appointment of the chief of police and so forth.

In addition, in the Philippines Congress designates intelligence funds, a massive amount of money, and no one knows what it’s used for, it’s never accounted for. So the economic power, the political power, and of course the military power of the police will continue.

RBG: Isn’t there also some nostalgia for the Marcos era?

VR: Yes, and it comes out of a decade of propaganda, a lot of it on YouTube, about how wonderful martial law was, and how the son will continue what the father did—the attraction of continuity. People who support Duterte will support Marcos Jr. because Sara’s there. In fact, Marcos Jr. himself doesn’t have much of a platform. He always says I’m going to unify the country. Whatever that means.

RBG: Ah, the strongman slogan for one hundred years, still going strong!

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present (W.W. Norton & Company). This interview is republished with permission from her Substack newsletter Lucid. Vicente Rafael’s books are available for 50% off with coupon SPRING22 through May 27.

Erica Rand on Racialized Gender in Figure Skating at the Winter Olympics

Today at the Beijing Olympics the U.S. figure skating Pairs team of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc made sports history. The most widely publicized, broadly accessible aspect of that history is that LeDuc competes as the first openly nonbinary athlete in the Winter Olympics. For figure-skating fans and practitioners, other aspects of the team’s gender identities and presentation may stand out.  Cain-Gribble, competing as female at 5’6”, does not fit typical gender norms for the sport either. Together, the two explain, they reject common narrative themes of rescue and romance. Tomorrow they skate a long program called “Two Pillars of Strength,” an intentional message toward gender equality.

Some things are changing for the better. Others, not so much. The Olympics remains a shitshow of violence, repression, and harm  from preparation through aftermath, broadly but differentially inflicted on living creatures and their environments—which is not new even if the venue is Beijing rather than Toronto, or just because NBC has decided to cover a fraction of it. Racialized gendering continues to abound. I raged on this blog in 2014 about US Figure Skating (USFS) leaving Mirai Nagasu off the Olympic team. Today I’m raging about Higuchi Wakaba of Japan being grossly undermarked on her short program a few days ago, and about the commentating on yesterday’s long program by Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski. Weir praised white U.S. skater Mariah Bell’s “class” and “elegance,” and called her the skater “everyone can imagine being,” even though it was Bell’s Asian American teammate Alysa Liu who Lipinski described as the one revolutionizing the sport for future generations. As I write in The Small Book of Hip Checks—regarding the censure of Black U.S. figure skater Debi Thomas, 1988 Olympic Bronze medalist, and tennis star Serena Williams—those racialized gender ideals have long history and enduring effects. How racially inequitable standards have been applied across Olympics this year to Sha’Carri Richardson and Kamila Valieva needs another post or twelve.

Then there is skating for those of us who don’t have Olympic aims, which, of course, is just about everyone who puts skates on. Since 2019, as I detail in Global Sports Matters, I have been part of a non-traditionally gendered pairs partnership myself. My partner Anna Kellar and I are two white queer skaters: I am a cis woman and Anna is trans nonbinary. Having learned a throw jump, connected spirals, a pairs spin, and a lot about moving together on the ice, we are one trick away—the pairs lift!—from trying to test and compete. Yet while US Figure Skating USFS doesn’t specify by gender who can be a pair, and while people can now join the organization in a gender category called “undeclared,” (USFS) requires testing in male/female units and competing against pairs with the same gender make-up.

It’s great to see USFS “stand with our LGBTQ+ members,” when LeDuc encountered hostility. That doesn’t help us participate. The organization can learn a lot from Skate Canada which has been discarding many gender restrictions, not only for pairing, that USFS holds intact. For example, the 2022 USFS rule book still requires people competing in the “men’s’ category or as the delegated “man” of a pairs or dance team to wear “full-length trousers.” Yes, really.

That’s changing a bit, too. Cain-Gribble and LeDuc create their “two pillars of strength” partly through costume: both wear one-piece form-fitting pants-based garments reminiscent of the unitard that garnered so much hostility against Debi Thomas, leading to a ban on women wearing pants, specifically including unitards, that lasted until the 2000s. The fact that LeDuc isn’t being docked for wearing a skin-tight leg covering is new. For Cain-Gribble, a non-skirt remains an unusual choice sometimes considered too risky, although less so for white women, who have more access to the ideals of aristocratic whiteness that make Bell, as Lipinski put it approvingly, the “quintessential skater in the snow globe.”

Still, I’m heartened by the growing movement to bust open our sport, and I’m hoping to write a different blog post in 2026.

Erica Rand is Professor of Art and Visual Culture and of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Bates College. She is the author of Red Nails, Black Skates, in which she describes becoming a competitive figure skater in her forties, and The Small Book of Hip Checks: On Queer Gender, Race, and Writing.

A Fugitive Ship and a Crisis in the Cruise Industry: A Guest Post by Eric Paul Roorda

A warrant has been issued for the arrest of the luxury cruise ship Crystal Symphony, 781 feet long, 99 feet wide, 12 decks tall.  It was last seen in Bimini, The Bahamas, hiding in plain sight.

            The COVID-19 pandemic mothballed the $90 billion global cruise ship industry for fifteen months.  It limped back to action last July. The first ship to return to sea was billed as “safer” for passengers than remaining on land. Since then, the über-contagious Omicron Variant has spurred an alpine surge in cases. The complicated system of keeping cruise ships free of disease became vastly more complicated, then proved to be ineffective.

            Crystal Symphony first fell prey to the immediate crisis of a COVID-19 outbreak earlier this month. I was a guest lecturer onboard, wearing a contact tracer device that looked like a wristwatch (but which did not tell the time). Day after day, an untold number of passengers and crew members disappeared from view into quarantine. The Cruise Director himself numbered among the missing, unseen for the last third of a ten-day voyage. I submitted to being tested on demand three times in five days, as the captain and his medical staff scrambled without success to contain the contagion. Jamaican authorities disallowed people from the ship from coming ashore. Shipboard amenities closed, one by one, until on the morning of disembarkation in Miami, a general eagerness prevailed among the ship’s passengers to get off the boat.

            Then Crystal Cruises itself succumbed to the long-term crisis that the pandemic has brought to the industry, when its parent company, conglomerate Genting Hong Kong Limited, lost its financial footing, and suddenly suspended operations of Crystal Symphony, and its sister ships Crystal Serenity, also running Caribbean routes, and Crystal Endeavor, a brand-new vessel customized for Antarctic Ocean cruising. Fuel providers in Miami, owed more than $1 million, sued the company, leading to the arrest warrant for the ship, which now is on the lam.

            If COVID-19-induced bankruptcy forces Crystal Cruises out of business, it could be a coalmine-canary moment. Other smaller players in the highly concentrated industry, which is dominated by three corporations—Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean—may meet the same end.  If Crystal cashes out, it will be the last chapter of a story that began in 1885, when the formation of the new Japan Steamship Company—known by its Japanese acronym, NYK, for Nippon Yusen Kaisha—announced to the world that the modernized Empire of Japan would be a major player in geopolitics henceforth. NYK became the preferred way to cross the Pacific before WWII, like Cunard Line was on the Atlantic, with newspapers covering the passages of Hollywood movie stars from Los Angeles to Tokyo and Shanghai. But the war sent every NYK ship to the bottom, and the line was slow to rebuild, finally re-establishing passenger service with the creation of Crystal Cruises in 1995.

            The NYK connection ended in 2016, when Genting acquired the property to add to its cruise holdings in twenty countries around the world. Its European subsidiary, in arrears to German creditors, is the weak link in Genting’s maritime chain. Its dissolution, caused by COVID-19, could cause Genting to fold, taking Crystal Cruises with it. Will a tsunami of failures then ensue, as the pandemic rages on, and the business model of cruise ships, touted as being safer than real life, proves to be illusory?

Eric Paul Roorda is the editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics (2020). His next book is The Dictator Stands Alone, which explores the symbiosis between tyranny and tourist development in the Dominican Republic, and is a sequel to The Dictator Next Door (1998). Save 30% off The Dictator Next Door with the coupon code E98RORDA. Read the Introduction to The Ocean Reader free on our website and save 30% on the paperback using the coupon code E20RORDA.

Tucker Carlson in Orbanland Echoes the Media in Trujillolandia, the Dominican Republic, after World War II, Complete with the Mar-a-Lago Factor: A Guest Post by Eric Paul Roorda

Tucker Carlson broadcasted his nightly Fox News program from an autocracy last week, Viktor Orban’s regime in Hungary. Carlson praised the dictator for cleaning up the place; muzzling or replacing his irresponsible critics in government and the media; keeping out the riff-raff at the border; and promoting an ugly Orbanized nationalism and nativism. Carlson seemed to frame Hungary as an example of what Trump was trying to do—will do?!—here.

My ongoing research for an upcoming Duke University Press title, The Dictator Stands Alone: United States Cold War Policy and the Trujillo Regime in the Dominican Republic, 1946-1961, a sequel to my 1998 book The Dictator Next Door, gives Carlson’s Big Adventure a sense of déjà vu.

If you substitute a few names and places, you have a similar scenario to a subplot of the book. Take out “Viktor Orban of Turkey” and plug in “Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.” Substitute “Tucker Carlson of Fox News” for “the right-wing press and its political allies.” And most weirdly, make the owner of Mar-a-Lago not the Celebrity Guy, but über-lobbyist Joseph E. Davies, close confident of presidents: FDR, Truman, and Ike, alike.

My prying into recently declassified materials shows that Mar a Lago Joe Davies orchestrated a successful public relations campaign in the United States for the benefit his employer, the dictatorial Trujillo. “The Goat” had gunned his way to power in 1930, then earned international infamy in 1937 by ordering the Haitian Massacre, arguably the first genocidal event of WWII.

Davies’ efforts, run out of a new Dominican Tourism Office on 5th Avenue, NYC, cleansed the reputation of the mass murderer and ushered in a tourist rush to “Ciudad Trujillo,” the ancient city formerly known as Santo Domingo. Within a decade of Hiroshima, the Dominican Republic had become the major tourist destination in the Caribbean, with regular passenger service on three steamship lines; jet airliner connections on both Pan American Airways and KLM; a chain of fourteen modern hotels, beginning with the flagship Jaragua in 1946; new highways connecting them; and inordinate cleanliness, imposed by the Marine Corps discipline the dictator learned during his tutelage with the US Occupation, 1916-1924.

In 1955, Trujillo hosted a grandiose World’s Fair of Peace and Brotherhood. By then, Joe Davies was too old and sick to attend, confined to his king-size bed at Mar-a-Lago. As Davies faded and died in 1958, so did Trujillo’s public relations/tourism foreign policy strategy. By 1960, Trujillo was the pariah of the Western Hemisphere, soon to be assassinated, and thereafter grieved by few.

Eric Paul Roorda is the author of The Dictator Next Door and, more recently, editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics. He is also Professor of History at Bellarmine University. Save 30% off The Dictator Next Door with the coupon code E98RORDA. Read the Introduction to The Ocean Reader free on our website and save 30% on the paperback using the coupon code E20RORDA.

“The Eye of Fire” in the Gulf of Mexico: Yet Another Warning from the Ocean | A Guest Post by Eric Paul Roorda

What’s more impressive than a long, elaborate fireworks show? 

The OCEAN ON FIRE!

When that happens, it looks like the cauldron of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mount Doom.

An unprecedented phenomenon that was quickly dubbed “The Eye of Fire” formed in the Gulf of Mexico over the Fourth of July weekend, when a gas line ruptured and managed to catch fire underwater

How does that happen?!

Watching the video of raging flames spouting from the Ocean was like staring down a Satan/Cyclops.

The undersea gas line, stemming from a nearby drilling rig, operated by the national Mexican petroleum monopoly Pemex, burned for five hours. That is much, much longer than any fireworks spectacle, but not nearly as loud. 

Not loud in a literal sense, that is. It probably hissed like a gas grill heating up for an Independence Day cookout. But in a figurative sense, it was a deafening warning shot from the future of the Ocean.

“The Eye of Fire” is further proof, if such were needed, that the Gulf of Mexico is a mess. And by extension, so is the Ocean.

The Gulf of Mexico is where the first “Dead Zone” formed, a vast area so anaerobic that organisms other than algae cannot survive there. Annual inundations of fertilizer runoff from the sprawling Mississippi River watershed created the original Dead Zone. It has grown steadily, as years of farming and lawn care keep flushing petroleum-based nitrogen products from the brown water of the rivers into the blue water of the sea. 

Now, Dead Zones are forming, or very likely will form soon, in all similar embayments around the world: The Persian Gulf, The Bay of Bengal, The Mediterranean, Black, and Yellow Seas… Also, big estuaries, where freshwater meets salt, are actively deteriorating as marine environments: The Chesapeake, San Francisco Bay, the Guayaquil River in Ecuador, the Pearl River in China…

But the “Eye of Fire” phenomenon is more closely related to a different debacle in the increasingly dystopian Gulf of Mexico: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. The benthic zone in the region around that catastrophe continues to suffer its consequences—weird mutations and population reduction among our crustacean friends, for instance. The same is true of the littoral region, where beach-walkers must beware oil blobs in the sand.

As the nation’s terrestrial infrastructure erodes and collapses (most recently, condos in Miami; not long ago, an Interstate bridge in Minneapolis), the disintegration of the subaqueous bones of the energy economy do the same.

The cause of the “Eye of Fire” is unknown at this moment, but it is likely to follow the pattern of the myopic over-reach of the Deepwater Horizon operation, drilled at a depth too far. Pipelines everywhere face the same prospect of failure. A freshwater example is the decrepit and accident-prone Line 5 through the Straits of Mackinac, which is facing long-overdue scrutiny and causing U.S.-Canada tensions that are ongoing at this very moment.

The fiery eye in the Ocean over the weekend sends the same message as the other disasters that preceded it, and which will follow: We H. sapiens must stop relying on chemical fertilizers and quit burning fossils, or the planet will not be able to sustain our species much longer.

Don’t take it from me; let the Ocean tell you!

Eric Paul Roorda is editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics and Professor of History at Bellarmine University. A recent review in World History Connected called The Ocean Reader “a wonderful supplement for a global or maritime history course or an interdisciplinary course that explores the Ocean on its own terms.” Save 30% on the book with coupon E20RORDA.

“It’s Safer on this Ship”: A Guest Post by Eric Paul Roorda

The start of COVID-time shuttered stores and stilled factories in untold, unprecedented numbers. Most of them have limped back to activity in the last few months or weeks.

But one industry has been shut down completely for the duration of the pandemic: the $90 billion cruise ship industry.

Until now.

The Celebrity Edge left Fort Lauderdale last Saturday to become the first cruise ship to depart a U.S. port in fifteen months.

MSNBC sent veteran reporter Kerry Sanders along for the week-long, roundtrip voyage to Mexico and Nassau. It is kind of a test drive, something like the “shake-down” that a freshly launched vessel takes before its official “maiden voyage,” to work out the kinks before Show Time.

With the ship at just 40% capacity, Mr. Sanders and his shipmates have plenty of room to roam around the decks and dining rooms. The vessel is skirting the coast of Cuba as I write, en route from Yucatán to the Bahamas.

The crew must be all nerves—the Big Boss is aboard!

Richard Fain is the CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises International, known as RCL, which operates three different cruise lines: the core brand of Royal Caribbean International, with ships named Something of the Seas; SilverSea, the high-dollar, low-capacity, all-inclusive fleet of miniature cruise ships; and Celebrity, which predates them all.

Celebrity originated as Chandris, one of the storied Greek shipping lines of the post-WWII period, a boom that Aristotle Onassis booted to life. The only vestige of Celebrity’s Greek heritage is its logo, an X, the Greek letter “Chandris,” which fraternity and sorority alums will recognize as “CHI.”

All told, Mr. Fain is the Boss of 62 ships’ crews.

Mr. Sanders interviewed Mr. Fain poolside, where an attentive crew member was serving champagne to guests in the water.

The most attention-getting sentence the CEO said was, “We are safer on this ship than in your home community.” With a vaccination rate of 99% among the ship’s company, Mr. Fain was doubtlessly correct.

Especially because, as he spoke, the novel Delta Variant of the Novel Coronavirus that arose in 2019, is establishing a beachhead among H. sapiens. More specifically, unvaccinated humans are incubating a COVID-19 mutation that threatens to be more than a match for the trio of vaccines that are available, which have proven to be miraculously effective.

The COVIDiot-American Community is standing in the way of communal immunity, exposing the whole population to the deadly Delta variant. In recent weeks, 99.1% of deaths from the COVID strains we have are among the clueless, vaxless 30+% of the population.

With Delta in mind, Mr. Fain’s words—”We are safer on this ship…”—evoked a dystopian future. A future like the one in Wall-E, the movie, where the plot vehicle is the Axiom, a cruise spaceship, perpetually orbiting an Earth over-run by pollution.

Substitute “pandemic” for “pollution” in that scenario… Is that the course we are charting?

Eric Paul Roorda is editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics and Professor of History at Bellarmine University. A recent review in World History Connected called The Ocean Reader “a wonderful supplement for a global or maritime history course or an interdisciplinary course that explores the Ocean on its own terms.” Save 30% on the book with coupon E20RORDA.

Q&A with Lynden Harris, editor of Right Here, Right Now

Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices, an arts collective that collaborates with underrepresented communities to create performances, exhibits, and media that explore difficult social issues. Her new book Right Here, Right Now , part of the project Serving Life: ReVisioning Justice, collects the powerful, first-person stories of dozens of men on death rows across the country.

Right Here, Right Now is born out of the collective you founded, Hidden Voices, and, more specifically, out of the Hidden Voices project “Serving Life: ReVisioning Justice.” Can you talk about how the “Serving Life” project came to be?

One of the men living on death row read an article about us and gave it to the psychologist who oversaw programs. That psychologist, who was very insightful and therapeutically oriented, emailed me and asked if we would develop a project for the men. At the time we were in the final stages of a statewide project called None of the Above: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. I said if he could wait six months, we would come develop a project with the men. And I invited him to one of the performances. 

Late that fall we met with six men and together worked through the “Hidden Voices Process,” the stakeholder collaboration model we’ve developed over the years. By the end of two sessions, we had a pretty good idea of the outcomes everyone wanted to see, the outputs we might create together, and the outreach—who needs to speak and who needs to listen?

All these years later, we are still working off that initial visioning. The most important outcome the men identified for the larger community was: “We want them to know we aren’t monsters.” And I think that reality becomes very clear once one reads these stories.

Other “Serving Life” initiatives have taken the form of live performances or visual art exhibitions. What do you hope will be the effect of circulating these stories in book form?

As part of every Hidden Voices project, we create a story cycle: a series of extremely short first-person monologues that bring the listener on a journey through the many perspectives surrounding a pressing social issue. These story cycles can be read aloud by any group of people, sitting in a circle in a classroom or a church or in a breakout at a conference. Each individual story offers a particular insight into the issue at hand; for the Right Here, Right Now story cycle, each story points to a lived experience with what we might label racism, family violence, hunger, failed educational policies, police misconduct, housing instability, and more. But the men who shared these stories don’t look at their experiences through this lens of conceptual labeling; for them, the stories are simply life as it is lived, whether funny or violent, sweet or troubling. 

A most insightful colleague, Jayne Ifekwunigwe, participated in a reading and asked if I’d ever thought of publishing the stories. Gisela Fosado, the Editorial Director at Duke Press, asked if I could find enough stories to fill a book. So, I combed through pieces men had written, recordings of meetups, notes from phone calls, stacks of letters. I planned to choose 100 stories, but then I settled on 99. That was a number that felt unfinished, and I wanted to leave the reader with the sense that there was yet another story waiting to be told. For me, that story is the story the families hope and pray for, the story of the day these men walk through the prison doors and return to their communities.  

By sharing the stories in book form, I hope the voices will reach into classrooms and book clubs, into church classes and civic discussions. I hope the stories will lend momentum to the growing movement toward abolishing the death penalty, ending life in prison without parole, and re-visioning so many of the inhumane policies and practices that prevent families and communities from healing from violence

You write, “Absent a specific image of the speaker, we more easily and viscerally allow the deeper truth of the story to penetrate.” These anonymous stories are particularly heartbreaking because they do become universalizable. In your story selection process what, if anything, had to be left out?

So many poignant, funny, and heart-breaking stories were left on the cutting room floor. I decided the best way to share these stories was to bring the reader on a chronological journey from infancy to execution, so the structure dictated the selection. I wanted to make sure each story was just that: a story, a personal experience, not an intellectual reflection on an issue, however passionately argued. I wanted to retain the original speaker’s “voice,” the feel of their authentic dialogue even if the story was only a few paragraphs excerpted from an hour-long conversation. I wanted the reader to feel this human being, his story, his palpable life.

Each story gives insight into a specific aspect of a much larger system and helps us understand how we create violence in our society, how we can heal the harm already caused by violence, and how we can disrupt the systems that perpetuate harm. Again, you could go back through each story and label it as “about” racism, or addiction, or under-resourced schools, or the lack of mental health facilities, and I did exactly that during the years of working with these stories. But those labels don’t offer the kinds of pathways toward embodied understanding that actual lived experiences do. Lived experience is intimate, authentic, specific. It invites us to enter another world, experience it as our own, and leave with a new, richer understanding. 

You describe both “Serving Life” and the specific narratives in Right Here, Right Now as a kind of call-and-response. The book is the call; the response is up to the reader. Have any responses to the “Serving Life” project stood out to you?

We wanted to create a dialogue between public audiences and these most hidden members of our communities. But at the time, there were no phones on death row; the men were only allowed one 15-minute phone call a year, in December. Family members would drive across the state to be in the room when that call came, just to hear their loved one’s voice. The only means of communication was writing letters. 

So, finding ways to connect was challenging, which is what led to the idea of a call and response. After every performance, every reading of the stories, and at each exhibit installation, we would ask the audience to write a response to the men. We would collect the letters, copy them, and send them back inside.  

Here is one comment that has stayed with me. There are many hundreds of others:

Gentlemen, thank you for your story, your vulnerability, your willingness to remind ignorant and selfish people like me how beautiful each and every life is. You have taught me so much with your words, and your legacy will stay with me for the rest of my life. Your stories transformed my understanding of prison, death row, and life. The power and witness of your stories have resonated in this room. . . . You are not invisible. I feel so honored to know your story, and I will never forget.

Society renders death row inmates invisible. But context provided in the Afterword by Timothy B. Tyson about very visible instances of systemic injustice and anti-racist protest in 2020 connects the lives of the storytellers directly to our moment. Has the shape of the “Serving Life” project changed at all as the contemporary moment casts new light on old problems? 

I don’t think society renders these speakers invisible. I think there’s an intentional misdirection of our attention away from these institutions and those who live there. That’s why outside access is so severely limited and facilities are typically placed far from the public eye. Out of sight and out of mind. It’s better if we don’t question the location and design of these facilities, the use of unpaid labor, the dangerous and overcrowded housing, the systemic injustices, the lack of decent legal representation, the reality of innocent people living inside, the children we’ve sentenced to die.  

It’s a form of misdirection, a pointing away from these unremittingly unhealthy and stressful environments—unhealthy not only for those living there, but for those working there. It’s no surprise that correctional officers have the shortest lifespan of any police. We have managed to create a system that damages the most damaged. As one friend said, “You can’t kill all the wounded people.” And yet, we seem to be trying.

So, this moment—right here, right now. It’s an incredible time for these voices and stories to be published. For the first time, in my life anyway, there is a broad willingness to consider and question our role as the only Western country that kills its own, to wonder whether we need to be #1 in the world in incarceration. The most common response I hear to these stories is, “I’ve never thought about this before.” Even people who drive by a prison every day will say they never wondered who was there and whether there was another, better option. Now, people are starting to wonder. I think the civil rights movements of 2019 and 2020 have been instrumental in forcing us to look directly at some of the realities that shape our justice system. And once we begin to see, we can’t unsee. But we can find our way to a new vision of actual justice and a more humane, compassionate, and healthy society. 

There is a conscious choice in Right Here, Right Now to privilege inmate voices rather than critical or scholarly analysis of the death penalty and the American carceral system. In the Hidden Voices model, building relationships with real people through honoring their stories is the first step. What might the next step entail?

Sharing these stories helps undermine our unhealthy “rush to judgment” as Jason Flom puts it. We seem to have two frameworks at play in our society, one that views these people as inherently broken, flawed and irredeemable—in other words expendable. But there’s also a radically different framework, a more experientially-based view, that understands humans, like all living organisms, can heal and grow. Indeed, must heal and grow to survive. Human beings are complex systems of constant change; change may be what we most fundamentally are. This framework believes we should put that natural flow to work for us.

We are innately creative, curious, and hard-wired to explore. Trying to shut down those innate impulses is an unwinnable strategy. We need to look for ways to increase and strengthen healing and growth by supporting relationships—between families and their loved ones, between those living inside, between those of us on the outside and those currently living behind bars. We need to increase opportunities for emotional healing, for learning and exploration. There are other carceral systems where correctional officers serve as mentors to prisoners; they eat together, recreate together; work on life goals together. There are systems where prisoners (including those who have been convicted of murder) live together in group housing and learn new ways of relating to their environment, their families, their own self-care. Even here in the US, some of the most successful programs for men living inside prison have been programs where the men tend other living creatures, from training service dogs to rehabbing horses to gardening. In other words, we need to ask how our natural tendency toward growth, healing, and change can be allowed to flourish and thereby strengthen all our communities.  

Because, isolating people into prisons doesn’t just affect those who live and work there—it affects their children, parents, grandparents and grandchildren, their neighbors, teachers, faith leaders, the health of community economies, and on and on. Keeping such an unhealthy, stressful, damaging system alive costs us all.

Now through May 7, 2021 you can get 50% off Right Here, Right Now and all our in-stock titles with coupon SPRING21. After May 7, you can save 30% off the paperback with the coupon E21HARRIS.

The Great Suez SNAFU: COVID-19, Container Ship Traffic, and Cruise Ships: A Guest Post by Eric Paul Roorda

Global maritime traffic, stilled for a year due to a pandemic that hobbled the world economy, was taking baby steps back, when it toppled like a toddler, and hit the corner of the world’s coffee table, the Suez Canal. One of the biggest ships ever built is wedged in that narrow waterway. The Great Suez SNAFU is upon us.

Fifty ships a day, many of them among the largest on the planet, transit the 120-mile ditch through the desert daily. The shortcut, dug in 1869, saves tankers full of Mideast oil and Chinese widgets and whatnots from having to pitch and roll 12,500 miles around the often-hopeless Cape of Good Hope.

The good ship Evergreen Ever Given, one of the ten most capacious container ships afloat, is the pride of the Taiwanese merchant fleet, launched less than two years ago. It is capable of carrying 20,124 “containers,” those metal boxes one sees going by on semis on the highway and on trains at RR crossings. The biggest container ship ever, brand new, can handle 24,000.

The Ever Given is about a quarter mile long. A healthy person walking at a brisk pace would take five full minutes to go from stem to stern. It will be interesting to learn exactly how the captain managed to go aground sideways, blocking that crucial maritime chokepoint.

Already, 150 vessels have queued up due to the SNAFU. But no one knows how to pry Ever Given loose. It’s stuck like Pooh Bear; it needs to get unfatter!

Photo of the Evergreen stuck in the Suez canalThat will involve unburdening it of some of those 20,000 containers in a spot with no infrastructure to do so. It will require creative thinking to accomplish that. If it is botched, the ship will capsize. Then what?

At the same time, the cruise industry is trying to baby-step its way back to its pre-COVID-19 vigor. Most of the fleet has been anchored, with skeleton crews, in Manila Bay, for a year.

But COVID-19’s multivalent “variants”—mutations—known by their apparent place of origin—the UK, South Africa, Brazil—bedevil the industry’s effort to innovate its way out of the crisis. Two bastions of cruising, Great Britain and Italy, have had to batten their public health hatches yet again, threatening any hoped-for cruise ship resurgence this summer.

Eric Paul Roorda is editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics and Professor of History at Bellarmine University. A recent review in World History Connected called The Ocean Reader “a wonderful supplement for a global or maritime history course or an interdisciplinary course that explores the Ocean on its own terms.”

Writing through Political Despair: A Case for Ethnographic Fiction, A Guest Post by Kristen Ghodsee

Five years ago, I began writing a series of essays and short stories to reflect on the upcoming centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution. I wanted to better understand the contemporary legacies of 20th century state socialism in Eastern Europe. At the time, I was living in the city of Jena where the long, dark days of the Eastern German winter kept me huddled indoors listening to David Bowie’s Blackstar on autorepeat.

I’d been reading about the post-WWII denazification process and comparing it to the later de-communization programs that allowed government officials of newly reunified Germany to purge thousands of former members of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) from their jobs after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. These state-organized lustration efforts targeted professors in East German universities, and even mathematicians and natural scientists found themselves summarily dismissed and replaced by West German academics considered untainted by the Marxist politics of the previous regime.

At stake was the moral standing of professors who had either actively or passively collaborated with totalitarianism and whether they could be trusted to educate the next generation of East Germans into the habits of mind necessary for liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Many East German scholars had only joined the SED because they had no choice; professors and academic researchers were expected to be party members in good standing. But during the lustration process, West German leaders insisted that no educators tainted by the previous ideology should have an opportunity to corrupt the minds of the young.

At the same time, I watched the American presidential primaries from afar. An ever-sinking premonition had me convinced that Donald Trump would win the Republication nomination. My German colleagues chastised me for being paranoid and opined that Americans would never be so reckless as to elected someone like Trump to the White House. But by March 2016, when only Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich remained in the race, I had recurrent nightmares about my country under a Trump presidency even as my German and American peers continued to roll their eyes at my alarmist predictions.

I began writing “Interview with a Former Member of the United States Democratic Party” as a way of working through my political despondency. I imagined myself as someone being judged for their lack of resistance to (and thereby tacit collaboration with) a political regime which had been subsequently deemed “evil.” I set the story in 2029, make-believing that someone named Daniel Drumph, Jr. had passed a constitutional amendment allowing him to remain president indefinitely. National Guardsman massacred peaceful demonstrators in Washington and a wave of American intellectuals and anti-Drumph dissidents were seeking political asylum in Germany.

I sat in judgment on myself the way I imagined so many East European intellectuals might have been judged after 1989. The story takes the form of a letter written by a representative of the “Federal Ministry of Immigration and Resettlement” who is reviewing my case. Based on two interviews with me, he works up a recommendation about whether I should be allowed to hold an academic post in a German university even though I was a “former member of the United States Democratic Party.”

I included the story in the manuscript submitted to Duke University Press in May after Trump had clinched the nomination but most observers still believed that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. The reactions to the story by the anonymous reviewers were mixed. One reviewer felt that the story painted a dystopian and apocalyptic scenario. Although this reader shared my “dark, neurotic forebodings” and “the same creepy Weimaresque feeling” about current political events, they also felt that the story would be “very controversial.”

The second reviewer felt the piece did not fit well into the overall collection. Although they agreed that the story provided “a useful tool for revealing how easy it is for a citizenry to be complicit with state actions,” they felt it also ran “the risk of apologism” for state socialism.

After a thoughtful conversation with my editor, Courtney Berger, I decided to cut the story.  We agreed that it was perhaps too controversial and that no one would remember that Donald Trump was the Republican nominee by the time the book came out in October 2017. Scholarly prudence demanded that I keep my “dark, neurotic forebodings” to myself.

Then on November 10, 2016, I emailed Courtney this note: “So as I crawl out from under the mountain of despair, I am thinking about my “Interview” story.  I know the book is already in production, but is there any possible way to reinsert the story, even as an afterword?  Just feeling like this nightmare is going to get a whole hell of a lot worse before it gets better.”

“I know, Kristen, I know,” Courtney replied. Luckily, the manuscript had not yet been sent out for copyediting; she gave me twenty-four hours to deliver the final version of the story which appeared as chapter thirteen of Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism.

978-0-8223-6949-3_prLast week, almost exactly five years after I began writing Red Hangover, I watched live footage of a pro-Trump mob storming the Capitol building in what felt eerily reminiscent of the colored revolutions that once brought regime change to Eastern Europe. When I look back at the “Interview” story today, I think we are even closer to regime change in the United States than we were then. My forebodings remain decidedly dark and neurotic. For those of us who study the histories and societies of state socialism in Eastern Europe, we know that superpowers can collapse without warning and that the human costs of these collapses are severe.  

Lately, I’ve been listening to Pete Seeger’s “My name is Lisa Kalvelage” on autorepeat, still struggling with that “creepy Weimaresque feeling.” If our democracy collapses and these United States of America cease to exist as a unified and functioning country, I will be forever grateful to Courtney for letting me slip the “Interview” story into the book at the last minute.

I think it highlights the importance of ethnographic fiction, a genre that allows us to enrich our critical imaginations by conjuring potential futures through the creative interplay of history, politics, and cultural interpretation as a supplement to theoretically driven empirical analyses. Duke University Press has kindly agreed to make this story freely available on its website. I hope it inspires other ethnographers to write more experimentally (and that we’ll all be granted political asylum somewhere when the time comes).

Kristen Ghodsee is Professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a number of books including Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War (2019), Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism (2017), The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe (2015), Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism (2011), and The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism, and Postsocialism on the Black Sea (2005). She is also a contributor to the volume Writing Anthropology: Essays on Craft and Commitment (2020), which features fifty-two essays on anthropological writing.

What is the Future of Bolivia after the 2020 MAS Victory?

Last November, Bolivia experienced a right-wing military coup d’état ousting Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party based on alleged electoral fraud, with the support of the US-backed Organization of American States (OAS). Overturning the official election results, Jeanine Añez of the right-wing Democrat Social Movement party was declared interim president, and the nation burst into civil uprisings decrying the coup government and calling for the restoration of democracy through the electoral process (though mostly MAS opponents had taken to the streets previously to protest the elections). Pro-MAS protesters, many of them Indigenous, were met with violence, and Morales fled to exile in Mexico and then Argentina. Almost a year later and after much social unrest, general elections were held in Bolivia on October 18, 2020, resulting in a landslide victory for Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca of the MAS party. Shortly thereafter, Morales triumphantly returned to Bolivia in early November.
What does the MAS victory mean for the future of Bolivia? In this roundtable, Duke University Press authors and Bolivia experts Mark Goodale, Thomas Grisaffi, and Bret Gustafson share their thoughts on the future of Bolivia, particularly as it pertains to the industrialization of lithium, the production of coca, and the future of the natural gas industry, respectively.
Contributors

Lithium Industrialization in Bolivia after the Coup – Mark Goodale

978-1-4780-0652-7_prWith the return to power of the MAS in Bolivia, one of the only things I’m confident in saying is that we will need many more months, perhaps even years, and the commitment of research dedicated to the question, to fully understand the contours of the last year. This past year began with a rightwing coup d’état and ended with the resounding electoral triumph of MAS at both the executive and legislative levels (yes, I analyze the mobilizations and eventual Camba takeover of October and November 2019 as a coup, even though it is a strange coup that ends with the golpistas, or coup plotters, allowing a democratic process to play out that leads to their ouster and coup leaders facing likely prison sentences).

But what concerns me here is something more specific: the likelihood that the new MAS government will re-start what was among the most important initiatives right up until the October 2019 election. This is the state project, managed by Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB), to industrialize the country’s lithium resources through an ambitious plan of vertical integration. This process that would oversee the commodity chain in Bolivia from the production of lithium carbonate and hydroxide to its refinement into “battery grade” salt to the development of lithium-ion battery cathodes and, finally, to the production—at an industrial scale—of fully functional lithium-ion batteries targeted for the booming global electronic vehicle (EV) market. 

In the months and years to come, the four-year research project I direct (now at the beginning of its second year) will be focusing on three main developments and possibilities. First: how quickly will the new MAS government resume production and construction activities at the main site in the Uyuni Salt Flat, which have been effectively paused for a year, a stoppage that took place even before the Covid-19 crisis struck Bolivia? Although a skeleton crew has been maintaining the evaporation pools, there is real concern that neglect and degradation over this period have set the process back.

Second, will the new MAS government revisit the decision taken by Evo Morales’ administration—as a late-breaking act of desperation during the social unrest in the days after the 2019 election—to annul the contract with the private German company ACI Systems? ACI Systems was acting as a proxy for Germany, which was acting as a proxy for the European Union, which is rushing to ramp up the transition to EVs and, apropos of the annulled contract, rapidly and exponentially increase the capacity to produce lithium-ion batteries within the EU. The contract with ACI Systems gave the German company the right to manage the later stages in the vertical integration process, but this contract was used by a largely Potosí-based anti-MAS civic movement to oppose the alliance and justify the threat of action against production at the facilities in the Salt Flat. Will the new MAS government reconsider the annulled contract with ACI Systems, and, if not, will the government require the state-owned company Yacimientos de Litio Boliviano (YLB), to take charge of the entire process from extraction to the production and distribution of lithium-ion batteries?

 And finally, will the new MAS government continue to structure economic policy, including lithium industrialization, based on the radical blueprint set out in the “Patriotic Agenda 2025,” a plan for national development that purports to respond to many of the critiques of the state’s reliance on traditional resource extraction, especially around gas and oil? In particular, will the lithium industrialization process remain the centerpiece of the Agenda’s concept of “productive sovereignty,” which imagines the state’s commitment to more sustainable development (although lithium is also a non-renewable resource) as the expression of both economic independence and decolonization?

The future of drug policy in Bolivia – Thomas Grisaffi

978-1-4780-0297-0_prOver the past fifteen years, Bolivia has emerged as a world leader in formulating a participatory, non-violent model in confronting the cocaine trade. The MAS victory in the October 2020 elections ensures that this innovative strategy will continue, but the Luis Arce administration will face challenges to implement it.

Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of cocaine, a drug manufactured from coca leaf – which is central to Andean culture. Under the Evo Morales administration (2006-2019) farmers in specific zones were permitted to cultivate a small (between 1,600 – 2,500 square metre) plot of coca and were encouraged to self-police to respect these limits. 

This community-based model has proven more effective in reducing coca acreage than militarized forced eradication. Government investment has encouraged economic diversification away from coca. In Bolivia, 23,100 hectares were under coca cultivation in 2018, less than half that in Peru.

The policy has been lauded by the United Nations Development Programme as a less violent and efficient way to reduce coca cultivation, and has served as an inspiration to coca farmers in Peru and Colombia.

The relative success of the model does not mean it comes easy. There are debates over enforcement at every local union meeting, and some farmers complain that the upper limit on coca production is too low to meet their basic needs. Some farmers play the system and grow more coca than they are legally permitted.

Morales’s forced resignation in November 2019 threatened the future of the program. Despite being an interim government, the Jeanine Añez administration drafted its own five year drug strategy, which presented a hard-line stance to drug control and threatened a return to forced eradication.

Coca growers can breathe a sigh of relief. The incoming MAS government will surely continue with the community coca control model– but there will be challenges to its implementation.

Many growers supported the program out of deep-seated loyalty to Morales, who as President also headed the federation of growers. By contrast, incoming president Luis Arce, a UK-trained economist, lacks any history in the country’s social movements. He will find it difficult to convince farmers to make the sacrifices necessary for the policy to work.

The community control model relies on high levels of trust between the local coca growers’ organizations and the state, but the violence enacted by the police and military following last year’s coup – including the massacre of eleven coca growers – destroyed these foundations. Luis Arce will have to work hard to rebuild faith in the state, so that going forward coca growers are able to collaborate with the police, military and other official actors to restrict coca and curtail drug trafficking. 

The End of Gas and What’s Next for Eastern Bolivia – Bret Gustafson 

Bolivia in the Age of GaThe amazing victory of Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca of Bolivia’s MAS party comes amidst a public health tragedy and challenging economic conditions.  During the government of Evo Morales (2006-2019), the country benefited from high natural gas prices and the expansion of the public sector, policies in part overseen by Arce himself, who was Morales’s Minister of the Economy.  

As I explore in Bolivia in the Age of Gas, the period of the MAS government was nonetheless marked by contradictions. On the one hand, Indigenous and other social movements expanded their presence in government and made significant gains, especially in occupying new political spaces and state institutions long characterized by racial exclusion. On the other hand, the dependence on gas revenues led to compromises with foreign capital – and with more conservative sectors of the Bolivian society – that ran against what many hoped would be a more radical political transformation.  

In the case of the Guaraní of southeastern Bolivia, the impacts were significant. The gas industry transformed daily life in many communities, bringing new forms of labor and some material benefits, but also new forms of social and ecological violence. Many Guaraní benefited from access to jobs working with the government. Others were forced to deal with huge gas plants, large camps of male workers, disruptive seismic exploration (blasting with explosives to chart the underground), and endless efforts to eke out some compensation for damages.  

The right-wing forces that ousted Evo Morales in November of 2019 hoped to bring the MAS era to an end, and would have surely intensified these violences had they stayed in power. Yet the victory of Luis Arce has confirmed that despite the contradictions of the era of Evo Morales, Bolivians overwhelmingly wanted the MAS to return. 

Arce confronts a challenging scenario. Gas reserves are not growing, prices are low, and Brazil and Argentina – Bolivia’s main customers – may soon stop buying so much gas. Many Bolivians see lithium as the new boom, yet its prospects are complicated by national politics and global markets. If Bolivia can find a way to industrialize lithium – making batteries and electric cars, perhaps – there might be some hope there. Yet given what we know about the limits of extractivism, and the particular problems of fossil fuels, one might also hope Bolivia’s new government will deepen its turn to renewables, pursue more economic diversification, and slowly work to free itself from a longer history of being what I call “extractive subjects,” those whose own desires, for better and for worse, paradoxically align with the forces of extractive capitalism.

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