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In times of crisis, we should cherish our journalists

June 4, 2020

Unless I’m reviewing a book, I very rarely devote a post to other people’s writing. In this one, I’m going to do both.

We’re living through the most interesting of times, both in the Chinese sense and in the normal meaning of the word. But without the contributions of journalists, my perception of these times would be far narrower than it is today. I suspect that many others would, if they stopped to think about it, would say the same thing.

This morning I’ve read some outstanding writing on a subject close to my heart: Trump’s America. Whether you love Trump or despise him, whether you live in Kyrgyzstan, Britain, Bahrain or Cambodia, what happens in America, and the decisions that leaders in America make, will have an effect on you, in some way, great or small.

So, without much adornment, I’d like to call your attention to three articles in the so-called mainstream media that make me grateful for the efforts of writers whose work illuminates rather than obscures, even if I don’t always agree with what they say.

The first article is in the Washington Post. It’s by Patrick Skinner, a former CIA agent who is now a police officer in Savannah, Georgia. In it, he talks about the militarisation of police forces in the US and explains how, in contrast, he sees his role – as a neighbour to those he serves. He offers what in my view is a lesson not just for the police in America, but in my country too.

Here’s the article: I’m a cop. I won’t fight a ‘war’ on crime the way I fought the war on terror. I managed to read it without being challenged by the paywall. Hopefully you will too.

The second piece is by Susan Glasser in the New Yorker. She writes as a witness to the protests in Washington DC that led to the clearing of demonstrators from Lafayette Square in order that Trump could pose in front of a church, bible in hand, for a photo-opportunity as the “law and order President”.

The piece is here: It’s called #Bunkerboy’s Photo-op War.

And finally there’s a long read by Anne Applebaum, of whom more later. In The Atlantic magazine she writes about different forms of collaboration with those in power. It’s a powerful piece in which she discusses France under Petain during the Second World War, East Germany and the Stasi in the 1950s and finally those in America, including leading politicians, who claimed before his election to despise everything Trump stood for and yet became his willing enablers.

As I said, it’s a long article, but well worth the time and effort. Here it is: History Will Judge the Complicit

Anne Applebaum has also written a book that I’ve just finished. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine tells the story of an episode in the history of the Soviet Union that Stalin and his successors spent fifty years covering up.

After the Russian Revolution, Ukraine’s loyalty to the new regime in Moscow was far from assured. There was a strong nationalist movement in the country, although it had been part of the tsar’s domain for centuries. At one stage, shortly after the First World War, the nationalists declared an independent republic. Only after the intervention of the Red Army were the various nationalist groups suppressed and a Soviet government installed.

The origins of the famine of 1932-3 lay in the USSR’s urgent need for foreign currency to pay for industrialisation. The currency came largely from grain exports. The fertile plains of Ukraine were major contributors of that grain.

Stalin’s efforts to extract ever more grain from the country were stymied by passive resistance from the peasant farmers. In response he began a system of collective farming. in which the peasants were “encouraged” to pool resources into huge farms ran by the state.

The main resistance came, understandably by the wealthier peasants, who typically has livestock and hired others to cultivate the land. They were commonly know by the state as kulaks. In a campaign of repression, hundreds of thousands of kulaks were dispossessed, relocated and in many cases imprisoned in the gulags.

By 1932, with shortfalls in the harvest further impacting exports, Stalin embarked on a systematic effort to deprive the peasantry of all the food they owned, including grain seed for the following season. The result was a man-made famine that accounted for up to four million deaths (the precise figure is still not known) by starvation.

After the famine, Ukraine underwent a process of eradication of the cultural symbols of nationality. The Ukrainian language was no longer taught in schools. Writers whose work celebrated nationality were banned. All mention of the famine was strictly forbidden. Even Western journalists in the USSR, many of whom knew perfectly well about the famine, colluded in the cover-up, reflecting in their reports the party line that yes, there had been food shortages, but no famine. Britain and America, both of which for various reasons were seeking closer relations with the Soviets, did not intervene.

Ukraine’s suffering didn’t end when Stalin took measures to stop further starvation. The Nazi invasion in 1941 was welcomed by many, until they realised that the occupiers were only interested in the country’s resources, including food, as a means of supporting the invading forces. A programme of mass starvation planned in order to provide land for German migrants was only averted by the defeat of the Wehrmacht in 1944-5.

And then, in 1986, came Chernobyl, a disaster that affected millions of Ukrainians and is widely considered to be the tipping point that led to the end of the Soviet Union.

It was only after Ukraine gained independence that the full story of the famine emerged, both through official archives and the long-hidden written accounts of survivors.

Applebaum’s narrative of an event that was no less horrific in its way than the Nazi holocaust that followed a few years later, yet was conveniently forgotten for half a century, is compelling and heartrending.

As she also points out in the Atlantic article, these events didn’t come out of the blue. They were the result of a slow process of infringements of liberty, an accumulation of measures that arrived at their climactic outcome only after each step had conditioned the population for the next stage. The boiling frog syndrome, if you will.

The story of the Holodomor, as the famine is known in Ukraine, is relevant to today as governments in many parts of the world, including the US, the UK, Poland, Turkey, Hungary and Russia slowly, bit by bit, move their countries down the authoritarian road. So slowly, in fact that many of us don’t notice or, with so many other things to worry about in a pandemic, don’t care.

We should care, which is why we need journalists to call out the infringements, the encroachments and invention of alternate truths. In the US and the UK, we’re not so far down the road as Russia, where journalists are routinely intimidated and sometimes murdered, or Turkey, where thousands are languishing in jail. But the arrests of TV crews during the US riots, and the banning of journalists from an area of one city, are ominous signs that the free speech we take for granted is by no means guaranteed, whatever a constitution might decree.

Even if we don’t always like what we read we should never take journalism for granted, By and large, it’s an honourable profession. It’s still populated by people of integrity, curiosity and often courage.

I for one would be lost without them.

From → Books, History, Politics, UK, USA

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    hurrah and thank you
    we’re getting closer and closer to the brink

  2. deborah a moggio permalink

    I’m hoping this will work…

    • Depends what you hoped would work!

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        I hit the request to be notified of responses. Until this time, it just froze me out of the site. This time, your response means….
        IT WORKED!!!

      • Wunderbar

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