Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas: "Help is on the way . . . "

Lights in the darkness

When you eat breakfast every day with a pastor, you're likely to encounter all kinds of questions.

Around this time of year, you might hear (in a matter-of-fact sort of way), "So . . . what does "the incarnation" bring up for you?"

And  . . . when you live across the street from a hospital, you hear ambulances go by frequently.

Recently, the ambulances and the questions reminded me of a story . . .

Back in the '60s, we had a family friend name Larry who was a philosophy professor and also a volunteer ambulance driver. One day we were together and we heard the sound of an ambulance in the distance. One of us shuddered and said, "The ambulance siren . . . it means someone's been hurt."

Larry (who frequently offered up the other side of things) replied, "Oh, don't think of it that way . . . . What the sound of the ambulance means is 'help is on the way.'"

Every time I've heard an ambulance in the past forty or so years, I've thought, "help is on the way."

And now, since that breakfast, I think, "help is on the way . . . like the incarnation."

Related posts

If one doesn't believe God's entry into the world is literal and in-the-flesh -- but rather some kind of abstract relationship -- much less if one has no conception of any kind to tie one to the the rest of humanity -- it becomes very hard to get beyond a concept of responsibility that is narrow and legalistic.

(See Drones: Am I Responsible? on the Awake to Drones blog.)

I believe that once the Church comes out of the closet -- that is, once we start speaking quite openly about the difference between the world as we find it and the world as we believe God wishes it to be -- there is no way this old world will be able to stay the same.

(See Let the Church Out of the Closet

I believe Easter is God's gift to humanity of victory over death, hopelessness and frailty, and I believe that God is alive and in our midst. The witness of the Guantanamo lawyers has confirmed me in those beliefs.

(See Easter Victory: The Guantanamo Lawyers )

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Problem With Technology: Nuclear Radiation Injury and the Need to Admit Our Limitations

Jacob Peter Gowy's The Flight of Icarus.

During my time at the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima (WNVF) I was struck again and again my the central role of technology -- or, more specifically, our failure to recognize the limits of technology -- in creating a hibakusha phenomenon that is truly global in scope.

The 20th century was the century of science and technology -- a time of belief that we can use science to solve any problem. "Everything is manageable."

The 21st century is starting to look like a century in which we say, "Knowledge, logic, ingenuity? Yes, but . . . . "

I remember the situation of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project in Chicago, and who thought their "expertise" would earn them the right to be heard about how the atomic bomb would be used.  (See Unfinished Business in Chicago (Nuclear disarmament, that is))

I think of the acres and acres of bags filled with contaminated soil from Fukushima. (See Radioactive Waste: "What are you gonna do with it?" )

Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster is replete with examples of how people in the Soviet Union thought scientists could make anything work. There was "the cult of physics" (p. 179) and everyone said "nuclear stations . . . they're safer than samovars" (p. 87) . . . "At school and at the university we'd been taught that this was a magical factory that made 'energy out of nothing,' where people in white robes sat and pushed buttons" (p. 164)

Why did that Chernobyl break down? Some people say it was the scientists' fault. They grabbed God by the beard, and now he's laughing. But we're the ones who pay for it. (p. 78)

"The scientists had been gods, now they were fallen angels, demons even." (p. 192)

Admitting our limitations

Dr. Hiroaki Koide
Dr. Hiroaki Koide provided sobering testimony during his keynote lecture at WNVF. He said that he had sought out nuclear studies in the belief that peaceful uses of nuclear energy for power could in some way compensate for the suffering caused by its military use [i.e. in the atomic bombing of Japan]. However, he said, he realized that that hope was "a mistake" . . . . He now realizes that there are no "safe" ways to "harness" nuclear energy.

(His statement had echoes for me of my own experience as a high schooler studying "nucleonics" in New Jersey in the 1970s.)

It is one thing to embrace science -- an understanding of the true nature of reality based on experiment, observation, and deduction. At the same time, it is necessary to see the limitations of technology -- human actions informed by science.

That's why the "Declaration of the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima (Draft Elements of a Charter of World Nuclear Victims’ Rights)" states:

Complete prevention of nuclear chain related disasters is impossible. No safe method exists for disposing of ever-increasing volumes of nuclear waste. Nuclear contamination is forever, making it utterly impossible to return the environment to its original state. Thus, we stress that the human family must abandon its use of nuclear energy. (emphasis added)

(Read the Declaration of the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima (Draft Elements of a Charter of World Nuclear Victims’ Rights) in English | in Japanese )

The very fundamental problem that we must discuss thoughtfully with everybody is the tension between the hopefulness inspired by the many amazing things humankind can do using science, and the reality of the utter failure to control nuclear radiation.

"Knowledge, logic, ingenuity? Yes, but . . . . " It's a 21st century idea. It's also one that some have been inviting us to heed for a very, very long time.

Related posts

I never quite understood how much of a Chicago story the Bomb and opposition to it really is. I can think of at least three reasons why people right here in Chicago -- today -- need to make themselves heard about nuclear disarmament . . .

(See Unfinished Business in Chicago (Nuclear disarmament, that is))

I'm marveling at the adjacency of a piece of public art -- one with a very clear message about the risk of human ambition and self-absorption and heedlessness -- to the center of political power in the city of Chicago.

(See NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Who will bring us down to earth? )

We can now entrust all the dirty work -- including war -- to robots. (Or can we?)

(See A Modest Proposal: Debate the Drones )

Do we have a way to immerse ourselves in the experience of what the use of those nuclear weapons would really mean -- prospectively -- so that we can truly cause ourselves to confront our own inaction?

(See Stop engaging in risky behavior )

Monday, December 21, 2015

DRONE WARRIORS: Say Hello to the DoD's $125,000 Ostrich Feather

Anubis weighing the heart of the recently deceased.
(Image sourced from The Haunted Shoreline blog.)

In ancient Egypt, there was a highly-developed idea of how to assess the deep meaning of thoughts and acts during life. "The critical scene depicting the weighing of the heart, in the Book of the Dead, shows Anubis performing a measurement that determined whether the person was worthy of entering the realm of the dead (the underworld, known as Duat). By weighing the heart of a deceased person against Ma'at (or "truth"), who was often represented as an ostrich feather, Anubis dictated the fate of souls." (Wikipedia)

The US Department of Defense has replaced the ostrich feather with $125,000.

A recent report in The Fiscal Times says the drone pilots are being induced to re-enlist with bonuses of $125,000. Apparently, even though the military is moving as fast as it possibly can toward robotic killing, it still can't get the small number of people it needs to come volunteer and operate the controls. ("The service trained 180 new pilots in fiscal year 2014, while 240 retired, according to data provided to The Los Angeles Times.")

The situation is likely to become especially dire, now that drone operators are coming forward and saying what many have been suggesting for a long time: it's not worth it.

Hey, we live in a free market economy, and some people think that means everything has its price. It shouldn't be surprising that the military thinks it can buy off drone operators.

The US government has done us a favor: they've said what they really think the conscience of a drone operator is worth.

Now it's up to us to do something about it.

Related posts

Operating drones and other robotic killing machines still requires some human operators. And despite all their hopes to the contrary, the military establishment has discovered that human operators have consciences.

(See THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Drone Pilots Speaking Out)

With drones, people become just dots. "Bugs." People who no longer count as people . . . .

(See Drone Victims: Just Dots? Just Dirt? )

"Once the boat went to full pressure, there was really no other option."

(See In Whose Machine Will YOU Be a Cog? )

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bringing Christmas Back to Bethlehem

""Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"
A Charlie Brown Christmas
If you want to speak to the people of the US, you need to address them where they're at.

Often, this means going to the movies.

This is especially true during the Christmas season. Watching Christmas movies is a holiday ritual in the US, and many families have their list of favorites. For instance . . .

It's a Wonderful Life

Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol") (Alastair Sim version, please!)

A Charlie Brown Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

The Nutcracker

 . . . plus about 30 more, at least in our family. (Elf is a recent addition.) For the full gamut, refer to the "List of theatrical Christmas films" on Wikipedia.

When I visited Palestine in March, the question came up: how can we more effectively communicate the plight of the Palestinian people to ordinary people in the US? My immediate response grew out of a lifetime of watching Christmas movies . . . .

Bethlehem Without Christmas

The Grinch
"Simple," I said. "First you've gotta get their attention . . . "

". . . so . . . cancel Christmas!"

I definitely had the Grinch in mind when I said those words.  You know -- the Dr. Seuss character who snuck into Whoville and stole all the presents so that Christmas couldn't even happen?

And it wasn't hard to make the connection after spending the previous week learning the facts of the occupation of the West Bank by Israel, and of Israeli settlers trespassing on Palestinian land, of obstacles to movement, and the Wall, and harassment by the IDF, and on and on. At each step of the trip, one half of me had been thinking, "I'm actually standing on the ground that is the site of Biblical events," while the other half of me was thinking, "This is a human rights catastrophe."

Another reason the Grinch connection leaped to mind was that my visit coincided with elections in Israel - the infamous 2015 elections in which Benjamin Netanyahu whipped up Jewish voters by announcing, "Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves."

So, yes, the Grinch. And also Mr. Potter. And a sprinkling of Scrooge thrown in for good measure.

At the time, some people were taken aback by my suggestion.  Um . . . cancel Christmas?

Admittedly, I was suggesting a bit of agitation. Yes, perhaps, it might even have seemed like a little too much agitation: no matter what, people have to have Christmas, right?

Regrettably, the situation in Palestine has become so dire in the intervening nine months that people there are, in fact, now recognizing the impossibility of having the usual celebrations at Christmas. "Hanna Amireh, who heads a government committee on churches in the West Bank . . . said the government has asked the municipality of Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born and where official Palestinian celebrations of Christmas take place, not to set off holiday fireworks this year and to limit the festive lights and decorations that traditionally adorn the town to two main streets." (See "Palestinian Authority limits Christmas celebrations in West Bank")

Bringing Christmas Back to Bethlehem

Scrooge (post revelation) with Tiny
Tim. In the end " . . . to Tiny Tim,
who did not die, he was a second father."
So Christmas -- at least "Christmas as usual" -- has been canceled this year in Bethlehem.  But I don't think the story (or the agitation) ends there.

In order to reach people in the US and educate them about the situation today in Bethlehem and the rest of West Bank, there does need to be an actual film made!

And why not? I know for a fact that there are talented young filmmakers right there in Bethlehem that could do a wonderful job with this.

As for treatment, there are lots of ways such a film could go, but IMO there are several "musts":

* The story needs to be told from a child's viewpoint.

* Be sure to give the place a co-starring role. The tragic geography of Bethlehem -- its proximity to Jerusalem, the Wall and checkpoints, the Aida refugee camp, the Israeli land seizures -- can be communicated clearly in the medium of film.

* Don't be shy about working in the hordes of (US and other) tourists who come to Bethlehem to get a taste of the Holy Land, but who are often insensitive to the situation of people there today.

Of course, I'll put in a pitch for a role for Christmas Church. (How many people know there's a large Lutheran congregation in Bethlehem?)

Every Christmas film -- especially (but not limited to) my "top 5" listed above revolve around the theme of finding the true meaning of Christmas, and of not settling for the world as we have let it become but instead reshaping the world be be what, in our deepest hearts, we want it to be. (Doesn't that sound like what Bethlehem needs?)

As for how the film should end . . . well . . . that's up to all of us . . . .

Coming in 2016: Bringing Christmas Back to Bethlehem!

I'm sure audiences will be lining up to see it.

Related links

Opinion piece by Patriarch Emeritus Michael Sabbah (with whom we met on the March, 2015, trip) in Haaretz, December 23, 2015: "Bethlehem Celebrates Another Occupied Christmas." "Israel’s Christmas gifts to Bethlehem this year serve towards consolidating the separation between Bethlehem and its twin city, Jerusalem; the city where Jesus was born and the city where he was resurrected – the essence of the Christian faith. Aside from the daily violations that the besieged Bethlehem suffers as a result of the occupation, Israel issued a military order last week announcing that it has confiscated 101 dunams of Bethlehem’s northern lands. In the same week, the Israeli government approved the expansion of the illegal settlement of Gilo - built on privately owned lands of Bethlehem - by 891 new housing units." Patriarch Emeritus Michael Sabbah was the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem between 1987 and 2008.

"Days before Christmas, Bethlehem erects ‘resistance tree’ outside Nativity Church" on Mondoweiss -- Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun said, “We plant our roots and we are rooted to this land. Olive trees are the trees of life. We see our people’s eyes and the hopes of our women and the dreams of our men reflected off this tree.”

"Tree of Resistance in the courtyard of the Nativity Church Bethlehem, West Bank."
(Image: Middle East Monitor)

Related posts

Eventually, in large part due to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the United States was converted from a country in which a small number of people thought slavery needed to be ended into a country determined to act to end slavery. This literary work took the movement wide, and it took it deep.

Why is a novel an important tool for creative resistance?

(See Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin )

I often refer to how important the films of Iran have been in helping me open my mind to the possibilities of a peaceful relationship with that country.  I have been fortunate to be able to go see some of the best films from Iran every year at the wonderful Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago. The will be another Festival of Films From Iran showing there in February, 2014.

(See A Force for Peace: Getting to Know Iran Through Film)

There is no question in my mind that justice in Israel/Palestine is fundamental to peace and justice throughout the Mideast, and in the world. And there is also no question in my mind that, just as it was a group of people who considered themselves very serious about the Bible that got us into the present situation in Palestine, it is those of us who have inherited that tradition of seriousness about the Bible that need to "own" the consequences of our tradition, and work for a rectification of wrongs we have inherited.

(See Palestine: enough with 'the Lutheran both/and' already . . . !)

"Inhumane treatment of young men and boys, arrests under cover of night, unjust torture while in police custody, missing husbands and brothers and sons, children stripped of internationally agreed upon human rights. For these Palestinian boys and men, we weep with the women."

(See Palestine: The Women Weep (34th Annual 8th Day Good Friday Justice Walk) on the Working Group on the Middle East (MCS, ELCA) blog.)

“Now, you all know about Palestinian hospitality,” said Angie. “At the time Mary and Joseph came here, there were many travelers who had come for the census. I don’t think anyone would turn away a woman large with child! So of course they would say, ‘Come in, we have room for you,’ even if it meant they had to be near the back where the animals were!”

(See "The Gospel According to Angie" on the Faith in the Face of Empire blog.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CHINA: What's Black and White and Lives Behind Bars?

Bei Bei (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
A legendary character in our family was the cat we had in the years before I was born. It was black and white, and was named "Newark News."

My father's father -- also Joseph Thomas Scarry -- had been an editor at the once-prestigious Newark Evening News, and so I guess we felt a kind of protective instinct for the Fourth Estate.

I thought of our beloved Newark News when I saw a picture of another black and white critter this morning -- the newest panda at the National Zoo, Bei Bei.

I guess Newark News leaped to mind because I was holding a clipping entitled, "China Is Leading Jailer of Journalists, Group Says," by Rick Gladstone in yesterday's New York Times, and I had been wondering what to say about it on my blog. I had come up with several ideas, but this crystallized it all for me.

When you hear "panda," think "China jails journalists" . . .

China is brilliant at conducting diplomacy and promoting friendship in "soft" ways. By providing breeding pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, China has assured intermittent reinforcement of the notion that when you think "China," you should think "soft, cuddly, cute, adorable" . . . .

That's fine as far as it goes. I think China's "soft and cuddly" PR provides a necessary counterweight to the idea that China is a military threat, and that the US needs to be an even bigger military threat to "contain" China.  At the same time, it's not fine if people can't also hold in their heads the opposing idea that the Chinese government harms individuals and its whole society by persecuting journalists.

And pandas? The inconvenient thing about symbols is that they can cut both ways.

Yes, pandas are soft, cuddly, cute, and adorable . . . .

They're also black and white and live behind bars.

So, I would suggest, when you hear "panda," think "China jails journalists" . . .

Read the Committee to Protect Journalists 2015 report, and specifics about the 49 journalists who have been jailed in China.

I'll be using social media to spread the story of one of these 49 journalists every day. (Updates to follow . . . . )

Liu Xiaobo
Update: December 17, 2015

Number 4 on the CPJ list is the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, imprisoned in China since 2009. I wrote about him at that time.

There is a robust social media campaign working for justice for Liu. See, for instance: @free_liu_xiaobo @liuxiaobo and @freeliuxiaobo.

Update: December 18, 2015

There is an especially urgent need today for the world to be able to be able to receive frank reporting about the conflict between people in the western region of China and the Chinese government. Of particular concern to people in the US and Europe is the way in which the Chinese government more and more invokes the "global war on terror" and growing Western anti-Muslim sentiment to get away with abrogating civil rights and trampling press freedoms. (See CHINA: Where Minority Nostalgia is One Thing, Minority POLITICS Quite Another )

Eight of the journalists on the CPJ list are involved in reporting on developments in western China - the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region:

Ilham Tohti
Ilham Tohti
Perhat Halmurat
Shohret Nijat
Luo Yuwei
Mutellip Imin
Abduqeyum Ablimit
Atikem Rozi
Akbar Imin

Tohti is the founder of Uighurbiz/UighurOnline; the other seven are students of Tohti imprisoned after a secret trial for working on Uighurbiz/UighurOnline.

Connect to the social media effort in support of these prisoners via Ilham Tohti's daughter @JewherIlham; the writers' groups @pen_int, @PENamerican, and @chinesepen_org; and human rights organizations like @hrw_chinese and @amnestyHK.

(More on China's state repression of news about Uyghur affairs: "China didn't like Ursula Gauthier's reporting — so it is kicking her out of the country. . . . " see Emily Rauhala in the Washington Post, December 26, 2015: "China expels French journalist for terrorism coverage.")

Update: December 19, 2015

Yesterday I wrote about eight of the imprisoned journalists on the CPJ list who are associated with reporting about the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region via Uighurbiz/UighurOnline.

Gheyrat Niyaz (Hailaite Niyazi)
There are seven more who are also involved in reporting on Xinjiang and Uyghur affairs:

The common thread in most or all of these cases: reporting about demonstrations in Xinjiang -- including instances of rioting. Apparently reporting about protest is treated as "incitement," and transmitting reportage out of the country is "revealing state secrets."

The silencing of this large number of journalists raises a very fundamental question: What is really happening in Xinjiang? People and businesses with interests in China need to be concerned . . . .

The cases of all of these journalists are monitored by the @UyghurCongress. The Uyghur American Association / Uyghur Human Rights Project (@uaauhrp) is also an advocacy organization in these cases.

Update: December 20, 2015

My principal involvement with China has been through business, and I think the most likely advocate for press freedom in China ultimately should be the business and investment community. That's why I asked several years ago, "Will the global investment community continue to yawn at developments in China? Sadly, they seem to think Liu Xiaobo and a few stray intellectuals are the only victims. Unfortunately, the real prisoner's dilemma is theirs . . . ." (See Merry Christmas, Mr. Liu: The Prisoner's Dilemma in China)

Nine of the journalists on the CPJ list are associated with a specialized business and investment media group - 21st Century Media Group. To be clear: business needs to support all journalism, because all journalism bears on the knowledge needed for business. In any event, if influential businesses need any prodding to push for press freedom in China, the case of these 21st Century Media Group journalists is it.

Shen Hao
The names of the jailed journalists are:

Liu Hui
Zhou Bin
Liu Dong
Wang Zhuoming
Xia Xiaobo
Shen Hao
Chen Bin
Xia Ri
Luo Guanghui

It seems like an appropriate place to mention that a major Chinese corporation, Ali Baba, has purchased the leading English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post. It's time for businesses around the world to read the handwriting on the wall: their sources of truth about China are drying up, and that places them in a position of unacceptable risk.

Want to advocate for these journalists in China? Start by asking your investment adviser whether s/he has any confidence in the news they're receiving about China and its business developments . . . .

Update: December 21, 2015

Kunchok Tsephel Gopey Tsang
Five of the journalists on the CPJ list are associated with Tibet:

Kunchok Tsephel Gopey Tsang
Gartse Jigme
Dawa Tsomo

Tibet is a very important place. The government of China has long thought so, and observers in the West are beginning to develop a deeper understanding of this fact, as well.

However, Tibet gets intermittent attention in the Western media, at best, and the coverage it does get usually focuses on the exotic aspects of Tibetan culture and religion. Add to that the fact that numerous journalists who might otherwise be reporting on dissent in Tibet proper (as well as ethnic Tibetan areas in other parts of China) are in prison, and it becomes clear that the story is not getting to people.

Advocacy for the cases of the Tibetan journalists is carried out by organizations like @tchrd_, @SaveTibetOrg, @icpc_eng, and @CHRDnet.

Update: December 22, 2015

Jiang Yefei
Today, as the world learns of the devastating mudslide in Shenzhen that has buried dozens, it is an appropriate time to lift up the names of two of the journalists on the CPJ list who symbolize the importance of freedom of the press to report on and question government handling of disasters, and to report on environmental issues.

Number 45 on the list is journalist Ye Xiaozheng. He was prosecuted specifically for reporting on protests about environmental issues in Guangdong -- the southern province of China of which Shenzhen is a part. You can read more about Ye Xiaozheng on the Independent Chinese PEN Center website.

Number 49 on the list is cartoonist Jiang Yefei. A key aspect of his case is that he moved away from his home in Sichuan province after being persecuted for his criticism of the government's handling of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.  You can read about his case in a Human Rights Watch letter and in an Amnesty International campaign.

Yao Wentian
Update: December 23, 2015

At the opposite end of Guangdong province from Shenzhen, in northern Guangdong, lies the city of Shaoguang. Two of the journalists on the CPJ list -- Liu Wei'an and Hu Yazhu -- are jailed in apparent retaliation for their reporting on mineral extraction in Shaoguang.

Also imprisoned in Guangdong is Yao Wentian, head of Morning Bell Press in Hong Kong, which publishes books about government figures in China.

Update: December 24, 2015

It is time to speak of the Epoch Times.

In my neighborhood of Berkeley, California, there are newspaper boxes on many street corners with free copies of the Epoch Times. I read it every week.

Yang Tongyan
The Epoch Times is a publication of Falun Gong. Falun Gong is a group which combines meditation and Buddhist thought, holistic health practices, antagonism to the government of China, and extremely determined devotion. There is a significant history of conflict between the government of China and Falun Gong.

Two journalists who have been jailed in China and are part of the the CPJ list -- Yang Tongyan and Qi Chonghuai -- have apparently been targeted (at least in part) because of pieces they have written for the Epoch Times.

I plan to write in more detail about the Epoch Times and Falun Gong. For now I'll just say: the suppression of voices like those of Yang and Qi underlines the fundamental difference between China and the US with respect to freedom of expression. The government of China doesn't like the message of the Epoch Times, so it seeks to silence it. In the US -- at least in theory -- all kinds of messages get to see the light of day, and audiences get to use their brains to sort it all out.

Related posts

Despite the difficulties associated with engaging in effective solidarity with dissidents in China, it is important to make the effort. A fundamental tenet of all peace and justice activism is that if we have the power to speak we can do anything, and if "they" succeed in shutting us up, it's the beginning of the end.

(See What is the US Peace and Justice Movement Doing for Dissidents in China?)

Beijing has an intuitive understanding that, in a way that is determined by conditions of unequal information, it can monolithically dictate terms, and that other, "distributed," parties will be hard-pressed to stand up to those terms. Specifically, Beijing observes a cynical cost/benefit calculus which says, "Sure, a few players will always wise up and exercise their options to move away from us; but, by and large, everyone else is too paralyzed to move."

(See Merry Christmas, Mr. Liu: The Prisoner's Dilemma in China)

"There's one thing you don't understand," he said. "What you are calling 'the best and the brightest,' the leaders in China call 'troublemakers.; A hundred thousand Ph.D.'s stay behind in the U.S.? Two hundred thousand? A million? Fine! Let them! There's more where that came from! China's got nothing if not people!"

(See Why Beijing Always "Wins")

Make no mistake: Sandy was a high-powered lawyer with a high-powered lobbying firm. In that setting, Sandy was a big mahoff. But what made him really big was his ability to help the rest of us have the confidence to raise our voices.

(See REMEMBERING SANDY: Samuel Berger, 1945-2015 )

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

IN ORDER TO HAVE A FUTURE: We MUST Study Chernobyl . . .

Map of radiation levels in 1996 around Chernobyl
(map scale is about 300 miles across)
My participation in the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima (WNVF) made me pay renewed attention to Chernobyl.

There is something out of whack about the way the Chernobyl disaster keeps getting "put into perspective."

For instance, I have learned that a UN report (Chernobyl Forum) puts a number of four thousand on the total number of deaths attributable to the accident. It is hard to square this with the suggestion in Voices from Chernobyl that "[t]wo hundred and ten military units were thrown at the liquidation of the fallout of the catastrophe,which equals about 340,000 military personnel." (p. 131).

Similarly, the testimony of speakers at WNVF, like Alexander Velikin (who had himself participated in the cleanup as a "liquidator"), Anton Vdovichenko (Radymich, Russia, representative of Chernobyl Nuclear Accident Victim Support NGO), and Anatolii Chumak (Ukraine: Vice Director of the Institute of Clinical Radiology of National Research Center for Radiation Medicine) gave glimpses into specific aspects of the health effects of Chernobyl, but could not begin to encompass the whole.

As a brief review of the section on "deaths due to radiation" at Chernobyl on Wikipedia indicates, the estimates range widely and it's hard to get your arms around the truth.

Svetlana Alexievich,
Voices From Chernobyl:
The Oral History of a
Nuclear Disaster
As suggested in my post about the "human nexus" in addressing the challenge of global hibakusha, I pointed to the importance of personal testimony. Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster is an immensely rich resource for anyone concerned with nuclear issues, and, in fact, with protecting our future.  (It's author/compiler, Svetlana Alexievich, was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. just a few months ago.)

The examples from Voices from Chernobyl that I share below give just a glimpse of the richness of this resource.

Just another "battle"? ("We'll defeat Chernobyl!")

An unmistakable element of account after account in Voices from Chernobyl is the way in which response to the Chernobyl disaster was conditioned by the wars and threats of war that the Soviet Union experienced in prior years.

Over and over, reference is made to World War II, and how it shaped people's response.  "You can't compare it to a war, not exactly, but everyone compares it anyway. I lived through the Leningrad Blockade as a kid, and you can't compare them. . . . ." (p. 119)

Closely associated with the war years were the years of Stalin's terror. "Stalin's old vocabulary has sprung up again: 'agents of the Western secret services,' 'the cursed enemies of socialism,' 'an undermining of the indestructible union of the Soviet peoples,' Everyone talks about the spies and provocateurs sent here, and no one talks about iodine protection." (p. 124)

Memorial to Chernobyl liquidators (Moscow)
The closest referent was the expectation of nuclear war. "You know, we all had a military upbringing. We were trained to block and liquidate a nuclear attack. We needed to be ready for chemical, biological, and atomic warfare. But not to draw radionuclides out of our organisms." (p. 119) "People didn't understand. They'd been frightened over and over again about a nuclear war, but not about Chernobyl."(p. 168)

This was essential to bolstering a spirit of cohesion, with strong statist and militant character. "[w]e were a Soviet generation." (p. 182) "My neighbor told me in a whisper that Radio Free Europe had reported an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I didn't pay her any mind. I was absolutely certain that if anything serious happened, they'd tell us." (p.202)

And the enemy of cohesion, of course is "panic".  "We got telegrams from the Central Committee, from the Regional Committee, they told us: You must prevent panic. And it's true, a panic is a frightening thing. Only during the war did they pay so much attention to news from the front as they did then to the news from Chernobyl. There was fear, and there were rumors. People weren't killed by the radiation, but by the events. We had to prevent a panic." (p. 196)

All this adds up to a war-based attitude and response toward Chernobyl. "We were all part of that system. We believed! We believed in high ideals, in victory! We'll defeat Chernobyl! We read about the heroic battle to put down the reactor that had gotten out from under man's control. A Russian without a high ideal? Without a great dream? That's also scary." (p.197)

Soviet military badge (left) and medal (right) awarded to liquidators. (Wikipedia)

Wasn't anybody thinking?

As Voices from Chernobyl progresses, the accounts touch more and more on the question of the personal responsibility of the people involved. Yes, there were external factors -- the government, the legacy of the past -- but at some point someone has to start to ask: How come no one spoke up? Why did people go along with the government's approach to the disaster, especially all the hiding and silencing?

I focus on this question because it is one we all have to face in our own lives. What are the distractions and excuses that we use to enable us to look the other way?

One can't help noticing that vodka is a big factor.  Vodka was pushed especially hard at the people with direct access to the disaster -- "It will counteract the effects of the radiation" -- and a lot of people in Voices from Chernobyl describe escaping the call to think independently through serial inebriation. "If we weren't drinking like crazy every night, I doubt we'd have been able to take it." (p. 157)

Detail: "Chernobyl. Last Day of Pripyat"
(See full work and additional close-ups.)
Of course, people were dazzled with incentive pay, too. "[P]eople talked more about the rubles than the radiation." (p. 205)

(In the West, of course, we obtain our inebriation from a more varied buffet of intoxicants and inducements, but the resulting paralysis is the same . . . . )

Another big factor was the need to belong.  Over and over, people in Voices from Chernobyl refer to their "Party card." "That evening on the way back to Minsk on the institute bus we rode for half an hour in silence, or talking of other things. Everyone was afraid to talk about what happened. Everyone had his Party card in his pocket." (p. 178) It took me a while, but I began to understand that the need to continue being part of the system, to not be shunned, was so strong that people couldn't really bring themselves to contemplate going against the mainstream.

(Is it so different in our society? You don't have to have a Party card in your wallet to feel the gnawing sense that "people will turn their backs on me if I'm difficult" . . . . )

The converse of this, of course, was the medals and certificates handed out for "heroic service" in the cleanup.

Do we need a radical re-examination of our material culture simply to assure that our minds can truly be free to see (and communicate!) a clear path to a healthy future?

In order that the truth be told . . .

from Chernobyl Children:
"On UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities
we think of those affected by the Chernobyl disaster."
Voices from Chernobyl
is itself a rock upon which to build a global effort to tell the truth about Chernobyl and the hibakusha of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.

The short film The Door dramatizes one of the accounts in Voices from Chernobyl. (The Door made me realize, "My city could become off-limits -- a ghost town -- if there was a nuclear accident here!")

The novel All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a dramatic entry point into understanding the Chernobyl disaster. For one thing, it makes clear that, once radiation is released, it is a monumental (and nearly hopeless) task to contain it.

Some of the facts are being publicized by charities helping the survivors, such as Chernobyl Children International.

In fact, there is a continuing stream of video, images, and other information being shared via Twitter using the hashtag #Chernobyl.

The question is how to lift up the questions of Chernobyl into the larger #GlobalHibakusha discourse.

Some of the images shared on Twitter at the hashtag #Chernobyl.

Related posts

Upon returning from the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima, I introduced 10 of the post prominent examples of "global hibakusha" about which I learned at the conference.

(See NUCLEAR RADIATION VICTIMS: 10 Dimensions of the #GlobalHibakusha Phenomenon)


Three factors have played a big part in Germany's decision to go 100% "zero nuclear" by 2022 has relied on : the threat posed by the big powers, soul-searching within a very "bourgeoise" society, and organizing.

(See GERMANY TURNS OFF NUCLEAR: The long road to freedom . . . . )


According to the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, "Illinois is by far the most nuclear state in the United States . . . . Illinois was also home to the first commercial power reactor . . . one of the first commercial power reactors to close prematurely . . . . ComEd’s two large PWR reactors in Zion, IL also had to close prematurely . . . . We also have the first and only commercial storage facility for high level waste . . . Besides the 3 plants which closed prematurely, Illinois currently has eleven operating nukes – far more than any other state . . . etc. etc."

(See Chicago, IL: Zero Carbon AND Zero Nuclear! )

After removing a thin layer of soil from just the residential areas, the workers had produced acres of garbage bags full of contaminated soil.

(See Radioactive Waste: "What are you gonna do with it?" )

It can all happen very fast . . . . No one really knows ahead of time what will happen . . . . That's why it's so important for people to get together and talk.

(See The Lesson of Reykjavik: TALK About Nuclear Disarmament (You Never Know) )

"It's not enough to remember this just once a year; it's not enough that we make a single book -- Hiroshima -- required reading, and never go beyond that. There should be a whole canon that people study progressively, year by year, to grasp and retain the horror of this."

(See FIRE AND BLAST: A Curriculum that Confronts Nuclear Danger?)