Photo by: Chuttersnap (Unsplash)


Putin’s People – or Are They?

Russia’s dictator takes power, money, and even human life. Will he pay the price when things go wrong?

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, numerous outside voices have addressed themselves to the Russian people. They have asked them to go out onto the streets, to protest, to defy Vladimir Putin’s regime, and to stop the war.

Some have blamed Russians for the war, for a lack of morals and a slave mentality. After all, some polls have reported rising support for Russia’s leader, and after all, he was elected by those same citizens.

They are Putin’s people, aren’t they? Well, some are and some aren’t. Like all dictators, he would like us to think so, to believe that the leader and his citizens are fused as one. That is the image he seeks to present, but that does not mean that the Russia visible to outsiders is the real Russia.

Assessing support for the war is a tricky thing in an authoritarian regime. It is tricky because authoritarian states do not belong to their people, they belong to the rulers. And the people are well aware of it.

While polls do show growing support both for Putin and his war, they give no information on how support is defined. Starting from February 27, Public Sociology Laboratory, an independent collective of Russian researchers now based in various countries and studying post-Soviet politics, has been collecting in-depth interviews with Russians with a wide variety of positions on the war: from enthusiastic support to open protest.

The interviews were collected through so-called snowballing: informants were mostly reached through social networks and personal recommendations to create greater trust. The preliminary findings are fascinating — an analysis of more than 130 interviews shows that the “party of war” constitutes only a segment, and probably not a significant one, of those supporting the conflict. For most pro-war individuals we spoke to, their support, open or implicit, is composed of more than one element.

Between two poles — the “party of war” and the “party of peace” — there are many whose attitudes balance between support and opposition. Some of these say they have “no position” at all. However, those people do have something in common — they oppose any war, are upset by the conflict and the casualties, are sorry that the Ukrainian lives and cities are being destroyed. They don’t understand the reasons for the invasion, and instead repeat the opinions they have heard from others. They report confusion in the face of an “information war” fought by all the parties involved, and “propaganda” coming from both sides.

The “party of war” says it “knows” what the war is about and supports it. The “party of peace” is horrified by the war and sees no justification for the violence. Many of those who oppose the war did not join the anti-war protests because they were scared about the consequences — those accused of hooliganism can be jailed for up to eight years, and those accused of “disseminating of false information” or “discreditation of the Russian army” — up to 15. This is why protests cannot be treated as a measure of war support in Russia.

The key difference of the third group, between the two poles, is they feel powerless to judge. They delegate that right to the state, saying that in all likelihood there was a reason for Russia to attack, even if they cannot understand it. They believe that people and government live parallel and disconnected lives, and that ordinary people have no means to influence decisions made by the president. A young and well-off woman from Moscow explained:

“I’m not interested in politics [because] . . . I believe we know only 5% of what is happening . . . We see it one step forward, and Putin or Zelenskyy see it 30 steps forward. And all those discussions, to talk about it, to be upset with it without actually knowing what is going on — what for? That’s why I don’t want to spend my energy on it, to watch those videos — how the war is going, how many people have died. I understand that 90% is just a fake . . . If I have an opportunity to influence the situation, if something depends on me — sure I will do everything to stop the war”.

Why does this happen? It is not indicative of a Russian slave mentality and an absence of morals. It is depoliticization, a necessary part of the authoritarian regime. In authoritarian states, the fact that people stay at home does not indicate approval for the state or a desire to be silent; the plain fact is that their opinions mean nothing to the state, and those groups capable of organizing contrary views are usually pretty weak.

The regime also implicitly gives its citizen an out. They are not really responsible for their presidents, nor are they responsible for the wars the latter initiate. They may vote for a president (although the president’s men helpfully vote on their behalf when they stay home, by rigging the election) but they never choose him. He is already chosen.

But at the same time, they became hostages in their own country: they can be alienated from their governors, but they don’t want to be alienated from the “we” of the Russian people. If politics is not about policy and who gets what, as in democracies, then it is about identifying “friends” and “enemies.” To stay friends with their country, people have to support their governors’ decisions, even – and especially – if they don’t understand their reasoning. Because, as one of my informants said, explaining her position, “we” – Russia – should be “right about something” with this war. “Because if not – how can we live on if we are not right in everything? Probably, we must be right about something.”

The strength of authoritarian rulers is rooted in the fact that the majority of people allow them too much power. But, from the people’s point of view, only the ruler is responsible for the nation’s acts of aggression.

War may be popular, or at least tolerable, when the outcome is victory. But when defeat beckons, when sanctions hit, when daily life becomes uglier and more difficult, and when more sons return to their mothers in zin? coffins, there will be no question of who is to blame.


Dr. Natalia Savelyeva is a Resident Fellow at the Future Russia Initiative with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She is a sociologist who has studied at universities in Russia and the US, specializing in research on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.


By:   Natalia Savelyeva

Date : April 14, 2022

Source:  Center for European Policy Analysis



Climate change and pastoralism contribute to the Sahel’s conflict and insecurity

Depleting resources and climate-induced drought in the Sahel are increasingly provoking confrontations between farmers and pastoralists. Oluwole Ojewale argues that multilateral institutions and national governments in the region should prioritise solutions that recalibrate security strategies to address climate stress more systematically.

The West African Sahel region is one of the most environmentally blighted regions in the world. Drought and an increasingly variable climate is decreasing agricultural yields, accelerating the loss of pasture land and reducing inland water bodies. With countries including Chad, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger and the northern fringes of Burkina Faso and Nigeria, the region’s climate-induced precariousness is exacerbated by poor socio-economic outcomes.

Decade-long droughts and desertification in the 1970s and 1980s informed the region’s reputation as “the hunger belt”. The last few decades have brought little respite. A composite of weak state capacity and regional responses to pastoral conflicts, combined with climate change and demographic pressure from a rising population, have made Sahelian West Africa a developmental concern for its people.

Pastoralism as business and a way of life

With an estimated population of around 20 million in West Africa, pastoralists raise livestock as an intrinsic socio-cultural practice as much as a primary economic activity. Their economic contribution to the region is relatively marginal; the livestock sector contributes around 1.7% to Nigeria’s national GDP and around 9% to the country’s agriculture sector. Across the Sahel, pastoralists contribute up to 15% of the region’s GDP.

Pastoralists are mainly composed of two groups: nomads, who have no fixed home and continuously migrate with their herds and families; and sedentary agro-pastoralists, who have fixed homesteads but seasonally move their herds for grazing. But transhumance farming practices, where livestock are moved seasonally between different pastures, while long a source of conflict between people using land, now threatens public safety and security across the Sahel. Multiple fatalities have been reported from conflicts between farmers and pastoralists in Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin and Mali. And the conflict is not one-sided. The 2019 massacre of pastoralists in Mali is far from an isolated incident.

These developments raise pertinent questions about the sustainability of pastoralism in the Sahel – a complicated issue when transhumance livestock farming in West Africa is considered more profitable than sedentary ranching. So can states balance such socio-economic practice with public safety and security?

Climate change makes the bad even worse

Temperatures in the Sahel are reported to be rising 1.5 times faster than anywhere in the world. In a region where three-quarters of the citizenry depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, around 80% of farmlands, which constitute an essential resource for pastoralism and crop farming, are being degraded by climate change. Contestations over dwindling pasture resources, water and grazing routes are consequently a primary source of insecurity. The United Nations has warned of a heightened risk of famine in Burkina Faso, northeastern Nigeria, Mali and Niger.

As the effects of climate change across the Sahel are varied, so too are the intensities and dimensions of the region’s conflicts. For instance, in Lake Chad Basin countries, climate change is considered an enabler of armed conflict in an already volatile region beset by terrorism. Climate-induced drought, coupled with the shrinking of the lake without commensurate replenishment strategies, have left farmers, herders and fishing communities struggling for survival. Such hardship is said to have contributed to the recruitment of young people into Boko Haram. In frontier areas straddling Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, there is an increasing policy and media discourse that soaring terrorist and jihadist violence is linked to climatic and environmental factors.

Sahelian countries’ national policies are increasingly considering climate change-related risks, ratifying Multilateral Agreements on the Environment (MEAs). These include the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. These countries are also members of the Great Green Wall initiative, which stretches from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the continent’s East. However, climate commitments are hampered by a lack of coordination and finance. Measures to promote resilience and adaptation are continually limited by resource availability, fragmentation between different initiatives and a chronic dependence on international development partners for funding. In February 2019, countries set a plan to invest $400 billion in combatting climate change in the Sahel by 2030. This is yet to be backed with concrete action. Addressing climate-induced stress in the region therefore requires a fresh approach.

Policy solutions

Regional stakeholders must collectively prioritise the issue of pastoralism and transhumance in the face of demographic pressure and climate change, looking at broader economic and security implications of policy choices and governments’ inaction. In the absence of an immediate alternative to pastoralism, the ECOWAS Protocol on transhumance, after more than two decades of operation, must be revised, shifting the Protocol’s focus from control to coordination. Conflict between pastoralists and farmers across the region has evolved and so should the approach.

Secondly, generations-long informal systems of conflict resolution that formerly managed conflicts between farmers and pastoralists fairly and efficiently could be revived. Reducing the involvement of these informal institutions in governance issues at the local level has allowed conflicts to fester into a crisis across the region.

Also essential is the need for states in the Sahel to extensively review existing legal frameworks around land tenure systems. These could be fairer and more inclusive. Given the deeply political nature of access to land, current policies across the Sahel addressing land governance can be zero-sum games, with pastoralists largely on the fringes as outsiders.

There is a broader consensus that climate change has emerged as a major nexus between conflicts and pastoralism in the Sahel. The region’s national governments must prioritise and approach this challenge by recalibrating their various security strategies to respond to climate stress more systematically. They must also increase partnerships with the private sector to mobilise resources for climate-smart agricultural investment for adaptation.

Finally, for a coordinated regional response, ECOWAS must bolster support for national governments. This should involve communication of timely climate information to vulnerable populations, sustained awareness programmes, adaptation and mitigation strategies and technology transfer to help combat the effects of environmental change. ECOWAS must also activate immediate monitoring mechanisms for its 2021 Regional Climate Strategy in West Africa, aimed at strengthening the region’s resilience to the impacts of climate change, through support for the implementation of the commitments made by its Member States under the Paris Agreement.


Dr Oluwole Ojewale is the ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator for Central Africa at the Institute for Security Studies in Dakar, Senegal. His research interests span transnational organised crime, urban governance, security, conflict and resilience in Africa. He co-authored Urbanization and Crime in Nigeria (Palgrave, 2019). He tweets at @woleojewale.


By  :    Oluwole Ojewale 

Date : April 11, 2022

Source: LSE Blogs 



Education could be transformational if politicians would get out of the way

Wynn and Ziff are assistant professors of sociology and co-directors of the Community Research Center at the University of Indianapolis. The are public voices fellows through The OpEd Project.

The onslaught of bills about what can be taught in schools would imply that education is a zero-sum game. Florida recently enacted the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill and an Education Week analysis found that “37 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.” And, librarians in Pennsylvania reported a quiet but concerted effort to remove books from school library shelves. Prohibiting the discussion of topics only creates a vacuum of information and leads to a woefully underprepared citizenry. Rather than preparing students to tackle difficult issues in the world, bills like these harm them.

As sociologists and college educators who teach content that has been miscategorized and weaponized, we have been paying particular attention as these battles unfold across the country. After all, policies that address the substance of what we can teach directly impact our future students.

A new Brookings Institution report finds that these battles are being primarily fought by politicians seeking to stimulate their base rather than by concerned parents. In other words, Republicans in state legislatures are playing politics with children’s education. Classrooms are once again the battleground of the culture wars and kids’ futures are at stake.

When we walk into our college classrooms every day, we don’t see a battlefield for control over students’ minds. Instead, we see young people who are eager to learn.

In our social inequality, urban sociology and family sociology courses, we introduce undergraduate and graduate students to the U.S. government’s history of forcibly removing indigenous peoples from their land and giving it white settlers; to the federal government’s historical practice of refusing to secure loans in neighborhoods with Black populations; to the fact that as recently as 50 years ago banks often refused unmarried women bank accounts. Every semester we’re asked, “Why didn’t I learn this before?!” Students express dismay and disappointment that this material wasn’t taught to them growing up. They feel lied to.

Over the course of the semester, we watch students develop their sociological imaginations. A concept developed by sociologist C. Wright Mills, sociological imagination describes the idea that when large numbers of people experience social problems in patterned ways they are public issues, not personal troubles. Sociologists use their sociological imaginations to understand public issues.

Unlocking the sociological imagination requires understanding both history and how society is structured by social institutions. This learning process develops informational literacy, teaches students the skills to grapple with questions and information from multiple sources and viewpoints, and allows students to better understand the world around them.

We also see the power of students seeing themselves and each other in class content. For example, in one of our urban sociology courses, several Black male students shared in class discussions that they felt empowered through reading poetry about neighborhoods like the ones they grew up in and written by poets who looked like them.

In one of our sociology of families courses, while discussing scholarly work on transnational families, one Latina student shared that the reading helped her more fully understand her mother’s and grandmother’s immigration experiences.

In introduction to sociology and sociology of gender courses, students who have past experiences with abuse have written that they value the open space to read about and discuss sexual and physical abuse in our society in a non-stigmatized way.

We believe deeply in the transformative power of education. Rather than prioritize research or seek better-paying jobs in the private sector, we both pursued jobs at a teaching university because we find nothing more invigorating than seeing a spark of understanding or watching a student connect with a new idea.

But transformation rarely comes without some discomfort. Too often in the past, teachers and administrators avoided uncomfortable subjects – such as racism, sexism or our country’s undeniable history of chattel slavery. As a result, no one had the opportunity to grapple with topics that have continued effects on every American’s life, regardless of background. By giving students the opportunity to learn about events, policies, and laws that have advanced hatred, we reduce the likelihood that we will repeat them.

What’s more, learning about something and feeling uncomfortable is nothing like experiencing the actual effects of it. A student’s discomfort, or adults' discomfort, at discussing racism, sexism, or genocide is nothing compared to enduring it.

Certainly, the role of education in society is multi-faceted. Students go to school to learn information, be socialized into the values and norms of their society, learn how to interact and work with others, and learn the skills to maneuver through adult life. Educating students in historical facts, providing a curriculum that represents every group accurately, and teaching them the skills to navigate diverse conversations and social settings is invaluable to their personal future, as well as the collective future of our society.

As sociologists, we know that representation, both historical and contemporary, matters to all students and provides fundamental building blocks to their development of self, empathy and connection to others. It also helps students be prepared to thrive in their future careers and communities.

We beseech politicians to stop playing political games and trust teachers and school districts to provide age-appropriate, quality educational content that will allow for the possibility of transformation. Ideally, a classroom is a space where students can grapple with difficult issues and find joy.


By    :     Colleen E. Wynn & Elizabeth Ziff

Date :     April 18, 2022

Source :  Fulcrum 



Human capital growth: An engine for structural transformation

Growth in human capital reduces agricultural labour supply, while in turn the expansion of non-agricultural sectors drives human capital growth

Economic growth is inherently tied to structural transformation, which is the movement of labour from lower productivity sectors (usually agriculture) to comparatively more productive sectors like manufacturing and services (Herrendorf et al. 2014). Accordingly, economists often ask: What drives structural transformation? And what economic forces push labour to step out of farms into factories and then offices? There are two broad explanations that have typically been employed to understand the impetus of structural transformation:

Unbalanced productivity growth: Over time, countries become extremely good at producing agricultural goods and thus only need a small share of the workers to feed the population (Ngai and Pissarides 2007). 

Income effects (lowering the relative demand for agricultural goods): As countries become richer, individuals spend a lower share of their income to buy agricultural products, leading workers to relocate to non-agricultural sectors and services (Kongsamut et at 2001).  

In both cases, country-level phenomena reduce the relative need for workers in agriculture, thus leading to labour reallocation. This is what labour economists refer to as a shift in the relative demand for agricultural workers.

These two arguments however typically focus on aggregate labour statistics and overlook an integral side of the story – the human side. To generate an aggregate decline in agricultural employment, individuals must decide to change job, transition between sectors, and possibly migrate from rural to urban areas. Similarly, new cohorts born in rural areas may choose to search for work in the cities rather than replacing the retiring farmers. Behind the decline in aggregate agricultural employment there are humans actively choosing which sector to work in and their choices are determined not only by country-wide trends, but also by individual-specific factors. Some of these include their preferences to live or work in rural areas, the barriers to changing sectors, and – most importantly – their skill sets.

In recent work with Gabriella V. Santangelo (Porzio, Rossi and Santangelo 2021), we argue that considering this human side is crucial to understanding structural transformation. We show that due to higher human capital, younger generations are endowed with skills that are more valuable outside of agriculture leading them to be less willing to stay in farming. This is known as a shift in the relative supply of agricultural workers. 

We develop this argument in four steps: (i) we show that the entering cohorts played a key role in structural transformation; (ii) we then argue that these cohort differences in large part reflect differences in human capital, which make new generations more suitable to work outside of agriculture; (iii) we use a quantitative model to quantify the aggregate impact of a supply shift; and finally (iv) we ask what the main driver of human capital is and what policy conclusions we can draw.

New birth cohorts play a key role in structural transformation

Using individual-level data from 52 countries covering more than two-thirds of the world population, we unpack the process of labour reallocation out of agriculture by following birth-cohorts of male individuals over time and studying their occupational choices. Figure 1 illustrates the empirical exercise for two countries: Brazil and Indonesia. Consider Brazil, in Panel (a). We notice that young cohorts tend to have a smaller share working in agriculture, yet most of the overall structural transformation is due to workers, within each birth cohort, moving out of agricultural over time. Not all countries look like Brazil. Panel B shows Indonesia: in this case, within each birth cohort we see almost no decrease in the share of men working in agriculture, while younger cohorts do have a smaller share in agriculture, as in Brazil.

We compute a similar analysis for each country in our sample. Overall, most countries look like a combination of Brazil and Indonesia, with large decreases in agricultural employment both within and between cohorts. Through a simple decomposition we show that on average, new birth-cohorts account for approximately half of the aggregate labour reallocation out of agriculture across all countries. This result implies that there has been a large decline in the supply of agricultural labour as the younger generations are more likely to take opportunities outside of the agricultural sector. 

What makes young cohorts different? Their human capital

Having established that younger birth cohorts have a comparative advantage towards non-agricultural work, our next step is to bring evidence that this is due to them having higher human capital. To do so, we collect a new dataset of events that might have affected schooling and, more broadly, human capital accumulation of birth-cohorts while young. We then show that events that positively affected birth-cohorts while young lead them to be relatively more likely to work outside of agriculture several decades after. 

A fitting example is illustrated in Figure 2 (a) by Mozambique’s independence war from Portugal fought between 1964 and 1975. The war disrupted the educational system, as confirmed by the stagnating educational attainment for the cohorts starting primary school during the war. In adulthood, the same cohorts were more likely to work in agriculture (as shown by lower cohort effects in the figure). After independence, the Mozambique Liberation Front led extensive programmes for economic development including free healthcare and education, which are reflected in the faster schooling growth and lower future agricultural employment for cohorts born after 1970. 

Figure 2 (b) shows that the example of Mozambique can be applied to all our other countries. Cohorts that have been exposed during their youth to political events or schooling reforms that limit their investment in human capital are more likely during adulthood to work in agriculture. 

Figure 3 further focuses on schooling reforms through a classic event study design which compares the birth-cohorts born just before and just after a reform of the educational system – like an increase in compulsory education. The figure shows what we would expect, namely, cohorts that are more likely to stay in school due to the policy reform are also less likely to work in agriculture several decades after. Schooling liberates individuals from farms by equipping them with skills more valued in the non-agricultural sectors.

Understanding the aggregate effects: General equilibrium matters!

To better understand the implications of our empirical results, we develop a theoretical model. We consider an economy with two sectors – agriculture and non-agriculture – where workers belonging to different birth-cohorts choose which sector to join and how much human capital to accumulate. This framework captures the drivers of structural change traditionally emphasized in the literature – unbalanced productivity growth and income effects – which are reflected in a decline over time in the demand for agricultural labour. Most importantly, given that skills are more useful in non-agriculture, the growth in human capital across cohorts leads to a decline in supply of agricultural labour.

Through the lens of this model, our empirical results can be used to show that the decline in the supply of agricultural labour was substantial; keeping prices fixed, it accounts for 40% of the global labour reallocation out of agriculture. The model also highlights that taking equilibrium forces into account is important, since when workers leave agriculture, agricultural wages and prices tend to increase. Considering these adjustments, we conclude that human capital growth contributed 20% of the observed reallocation out of agriculture.

Is human capital growth causing structural transformation, or vice versa?

In our model younger cohorts can invest more in human capital either as a response to lower demand for agricultural workers or for some other exogenous reason, such as a lower cost of schooling or a change in mandatory education. In either case, they would have a lower propensity to work in agriculture. But this leaves us with an open question: in which direction does causality run in practice? Is the increase in schooling across cohorts simply a consequence of structural transformation? Or is the educational expansion an independent cause of labour reallocation away from agriculture? 

To address this question, we exploit a natural experiment given by the Green Revolution, previously studied in Gollin et al. (2021). Starting in the 1960s, the introduction of high-yielding varieties led to a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity growth. As shown in Figure 4 (a), countries specialised in the crops more exposed to these innovations saw a faster decline in agricultural employment, as higher productivity made labour less needed in agriculture. If human capital accumulation responds to a lower demand for agricultural labour, then we should expect the affected cohorts in more exposed countries to stay longer in school; this is indeed what we find (Figure 4b). However, this effect is not as large as the overall increase in schooling we observe in the data. We conclude that the endogenous response to the decline in agricultural labour demand accounts for only about half of the overall growth in human capital. In other words, it is both true that human capital deepening causes structural transformation, and vice versa. 

Some final thoughts

Our work shows that the increase in human capital during the 20th century contributed to structural transformation, by equipping new generations of workers with skills more useful outside of the agricultural sector. This finding has important implications for policy. To the extent that human capital growth can be promoted by increased access to schooling and educational reforms, these should be considered potential tools to accelerate the economy-wide transition out of agriculture. At the same time, a word of caution is necessary. Formal education raises the ability and aspirations of workers to join the modern sectors, and the extent to which the labour market can absorb this change in supply becomes paramount. A failure to provide adequate jobs to this growingly skilled labour force would result in skills mismatches, workers’ frustration, and an overall waste of human capital. 



Gollin, D, C W Hansen, A M Wingender (2021), “Two Blades of Grass: The Impact of the Green Revolution”, Journal of Political Economy 129(8): 2344–2384.

Herrendorf, B, R Rogerson, and A? Valentinyi (2014), “Growth and Structural Transformation”, Handbook of Economic Growth 2: 855–941. 

Kongsamut, P, S Rebelo, and D Xie (2001), “Beyond Balanced Growth,” Review of Economic Studies 68(4): 869–882. 

Ngai, L R and C A Pissarides (2007), “Structural Change in a Multisector Model of Growth”, American Economic Review 97(1): 429–443. 

Porzio, T, F Rossi, and G V Santangelo (2021), “The human side of structural transformation”, NBER Working Paper 29390.


By   :   Tommaso Porzio (Assistant Professor of Economics, Columbia Business School) 

            Federico Rossi (Assistant Professor of Economics, University of Warwick)

Date:  March 23, 2022 

Source: VoxDev



Redefining my Thai identity

When I was 10, a teacher told my class to draw a picture about Thai identity. Something that is just unique to Thai culture, tradition, and our land.

I remember it was tough. “Thai costume” seemed obvious. But my 10-year-old self already knew that our neighbouring countries also shared similar costume. At that time, I also did not appreciate Thai foods enough. So, I decided to draw a banana tree, thinking that it was so Thai.

As I was growing up, I did not think much about Thai identity or Thai-ness. But I remember knowing that Buddhism and the monarchy are highly respected. They were perceived as the driving force, the soul of the country, the reason we have survived as a nation. If you criticised them, you would be burnt in damnation, or be socially excluded, sanctioned. Or worst, face a criminal legal charge with an infamous lèse-majesté law. Back then, I had nothing against them because I was a “good” kid. To be precise, I was a relatively obedient kid who listened to adults or those in power, my parents, my aunts, teachers, and of course, the mainstream media.

In my 20s, I learned, not from the mainstream media, that during the Cold War, the fear that the communist spectres would destroy the monarchy and Buddhism led to many inhumane killings. On Oct 6, 1976, student protestors were slaughtered on the campus ground at Thammasart University, for “insulting the monarchy” and “trampling the soul of the nation”. Bodies were burnt on street. Hung on trees and beaten with a chair. In broad daylight. In front of the Emerald Buddha Temple and the Grand Palace.

Yes, I am not over that chapter of history. And how can anyone move on when Cold War’s legacies are still there, scattered all over South-East Asia?

Did I go back too far? [But does time mean anything if no one is held accountable?]

How about the Red Shirt crackdown in April-May, 2010? Streets of Bangkok soaked with blood and bodies of “bad people” who “burnt the nation” and “wanted to overthrow the monarchy”. Later, everything is swept under the rug sugar-coated with the Thai smiles. That rug was guarded with guns and law.

Some say that we should forgive and forget like good Thai-Buddhists would do. But before we even think about forget and forgive, I wonder, why good Thai-Buddhists chose and accepted barbaric killings at the first place? Since when did massacres and oppression become a path to the “righteousness”, as if there is no other way? Why do good Thai-Buddhists have such a low tolerance for different ideologies? I thought tolerance and compassion are adjacent to the heart of Thai-Buddhism. Am I wrong?

At some points, it seems like being Thai means I have to overlook the barbaric killings and the state impunity as if it is a way of life. Of course, like many Thais, I cannot forgive and forget. Let alone moving on. I cannot unlearn those traumatic facts. I cannot unsee those photographs. Every time someone said that Thai people are nice, I saw the beaten body hung from the tamarind tree. How can I forgive and forget, as I roam Bangkok streets, knowing that people were slaughtered here? When no one was held accountable for any of these cruel acts.

That official narrative of Thai-ness: I can no longer identify myself with it. But I have to admit that its toxic fruits are real and there. Since I grew up there, that toxin is a part of me too. Haunting me, deeply rooted in me, shaping the way I think, feel and behave, somehow. Even if I cannot embrace it. Even if I cannot shed it the way snakes shed their skin.

Because national identity is not something one can erase, no matter how disappointed or betrayed one feels.

So, I have to convince myself that the official narrative is not all Thai-ness is about. Deep down, underneath my rage and disappointment, I know that Thai identity means something to me. I know it means something to me when I experience racism outside Thailand. I know it means something to me because I miss Thailand, not just my family and friends. And I miss Thai foods so bad. Sometimes when I have not had Thai foods in a while, my body feels off, as if it doesn’t know how to function properly.


For me, Thai identity is not just a geographical body of land and borders (nor cuisine). As I was struggling to redefine it, I found pieces of my homeland I can still love and embrace in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films. From a tale created by seemingly-ordinary people across the country in Mysterious Object at Noon to an afternoon escape by a factory worker and her illegal Burmese lover who has flaking skin in Blissfully Yours. A love story between a male soldier and a country boy featuring magical-tiger folklore in Tropical Malady. Male soldiers with the mysterious sleeping sickness supposedly caused by dead kings in Cemetery of Splendour. Lastly, a terminally-ill man, who has killed “too many communists”, visited by his deceased wife and his son who has left home and turned into a red-eyed monkey ghost in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Uncle Boonmee also recalls his dream in which future authorities erase the people from the past.

These films are not only connected by illnesses and the tropical landscape. They also portray Thai lives in honest ways, signifying the people, their labour and local languages as well as everyday surroundings without romanticising their hardship nor employing a condescending tone. Unconventionally, they dig up unresolved/buried traumatic pasts, gently yet firmly expressing defiance of the official narratives.

Perhaps with the design of light, colours, framing, and ambient sounds, these films somehow were able to recreate memories, reminding me of this set of experiences and feelings of being born and raised there. These memories, mine and perhaps others’ as well, scatter all over the place. From the rain forest to the arid land. In trees/bushes/grasses. Mountains and hills. In animals roaming freely. The sounds of insects at dusk. On lonely country roads. Busy city streets. In food vendors, static and roving. Night markets.

In the ways music is played and languages are uttered. What [and how] people actually believe and hold on to. In the haunting red-eyed spectres of the past. In the interrupted/broken memories and the pains we carried, willingly or not. All these seemingly small things that weave Thai lives together.

Watching his films felt as if I was having an honest conversation with someone, sitting among the ruins, preparing for a coming storm. No more lies this time.

Somehow, this is warm and comforting, a moment of peace and consolation I can grab when the wave of traumas and ugly truth have crashed. And among all of these, the true meaning lies in the people who have struggled and fought to be alive and freed in that constrained geographical body. The fight has gained momentum in the last few years with the call I had not dared to dream of, they demand the monarchy to be reformed.

Today, if I were to draw something about Thai-ness. It wouldn’t be just one item. I would need a big canvas. On it I would paint a picture of a red-eyed spectre with a monitor ankle eating Pad-kra-pao in a night market somewhere, with rain forest and banana trees in the background. While the people are staring at a gigantic monument of a king, hoping their gaze will turn it into dust.


Srisuda Rojsatien is a PhD graduate student in Materials Science at Arizona State University, USA. Although she studies defects in solar cells, she couldn’t avert her eyes from Thai culture and politics.


By   :    Srisuda Rojsatien

Date:    April 11, 2022

Source: New Mandala




By:  Stijn Swinnen (Unsplash)


Why we as feminists must lobby for air defence for Ukraine

We are critical of militarisation, but we believe pacifism will kill and that Russia’s war crimes have left us with no option

As feminists, we are critical of militarisation. We do not support the military-industrial complex and international markets for weapons sales.

But Russia’s war against our homeland, Ukraine, has forced us into a situation where we believe the only ethical choice for us as feminists is to lobby for more air defence systems for our country.

Russia’s war crimes have left us no option but to campaign for more military aid to be able to defend ourselves and survive.

Why do we need better air defence?

Our home is under attack: though we now live in Scotland, both of us grew up in Ukraine and our parents and friends remain there, hiding in basements and metro stations, where their health is deteriorating from cold and lack of sleep, or defending their hometowns in territorial defence units.

Russia has been razing Ukrainian cities to the ground. This is not the strategic targeting of military infrastructure, but the ruthless killing of civilians in cold blood.

On 9 March, the Russian army destroyed a maternity hospital in the southern port city of Mariupol. Four days later, one of the women wounded in the attack died, along with her unborn baby.

Since the beginning of the escalation and the siege of Mariupol, more than 2,200 civilians have been killed. An adviser to the mayor of Mariupol said the actual number of the victims could be much higher – up to 20,000 people.

While we were writing this piece, on 14 March, there were at least 22 missile attacks on the city. In the previous weeks, more than 100 bombs have been dropped on Mariupol, in what seems to be an attempt to completely erase the city from the face of the Earth.

The siege continues, and the city remains without water, electricity and heating. When humanitarian corridors have been organised to evacuate residents, Russia has shelled them too.

Mariupol is not the only city where civilians have been mercilessly targeted. On the other side of the country, Kharkiv has been shelled heavily for days, and around 600 residential buildings, including 50 schools, have been destroyed. The list goes on: the towns of Irpin and Bucha outside Kyiv, and Volnovakha in the Donetsk region. On 11 March, Russians reportedly shot women and children who had tried to flee a village, Peremoha, in the Kyiv region, killing at least seven people.

Nowhere in Ukraine is safe at the moment. Russian soldiers have been committing war crime after war crime. They will continue to do so if we do nothing to stop them.

Why is this an imperial war?

It is impossible to tell the history of Ukraine and the history of its struggle against Russia here. But a few things are important to understand the broader context of Russia’s imperial war against Ukraine.

First, for centuries, Russia has been coercing Ukraine into its political, economic and cultural space. The country has constructed Ukrainians as inferior, as “little Russians”, as a colonial Other. In his speech on 21 February 2022, Putin stated that Ukraine is not a real country. All over the world, indigenous people have experienced this kind of violence and intentional destruction by a coloniser.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is not only an attack on the country’s land and sovereignty, and it did not start in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea or the occupation of parts of Donbas. Russia has been leading a colonial war of slow violence against Ukraine for centuries, erasing us as a people, society and culture.


Our understanding of feminism is an active intersectional struggle to dismantle all kinds of oppression. Our understanding of feminism is about helping the oppressed to survive.

The war in Ukraine presents us with a particular kind of oppression: Russia’s imperialism poses an existential threat to our homeland.

For us, dismantling Russian oppression starts with resistance. This resistance is of a very practical and down-to-earth nature: it means being able to first and foremost defend ourselves from the rockets and bombs dropped at us from the sky by the Russian military. The people of Ukraine have shown immense courage in defending their land and standing up against oppression. However, we will not last long on courage alone. With every moment it is increasingly clear that if we want Ukraine to be able to continue resisting, and if we want to stop the brutal murder of civilians, we have to support provisions of more air defence equipment to Ukraine.

Calling for military support has not come as an easy decision for us. Yet, at this point, a pacifist stance perpetuates ongoing violence. Pacifism kills. Inaction kills. Each day of this war means more and more lives are lost – and not only human lives, but also lives of other species, with whole ecosystems ruptured and attacked.

What we need is an empathetic and involved response to the unjustly treated people, a response that pulses with rage and solidarity. Hesitating to support more weapons for Ukraine means supporting the perpetuation of war crimes from the privilege of one’s safety.

There is no neat blueprint for practising ethical politics. But at this moment, non-military aid is not enough. In the case of Ukraine now, it is not an abstract ethical question of supporting militarisation. It is a question of life or death, of allowing people on the ground to defend themselves and defend civilians from constant shelling by Russia.

Finally, feminist ethics requires a collective responsibility to help the victim. The people’s military and civilian mobilisation in Ukraine emphasises the clear divide between the victim – the people of Ukraine, violently attacked in their homes – and the aggressor, Russia, which commits brutal war crimes against a peaceful and sovereign people. This conflict is black and white, and the world has a responsibility to help the people of Ukraine defend themselves.

What can you do now?

While in the long run, we commit to continue building anti-capitalist, anti-imperial, intersectional feminist solidarity. Now we call for your support to put political pressure on Western governments to provide Ukraine with more air defence equipment.

If you are organising a demonstration or a campaign for Ukraine, please remember to raise the question about military aid for Ukraine. The conversation about weapons is a difficult one, so we ask you to talk to your friends and share this article. We recently organised a video discussion with people on the ground in Ukraine about Russian shelling and air assaults. We also ask you to write to your government representatives and we suggest some ideas here for what to include:

  • supply Ukraine with anti-air equipment, especially ones that would allow the targeting of high-altitude jets (or aircraft) during night time and in poor visibility
  • supply Ukraine with UAVs (drones) to aid in their fight on the ground
  • provide MiG and Sukhoi (SU) fighters which could be supplied to the Ukrainian Air Forces as these are the same planes that Ukrainian forces fly currently
  • provide logistical support to Ukraine to transport weapons to the country and across the country
  • declare that, in the event of Russia using biological and chemical weapons, a no-fly zone will be established
  • provide vital military and humanitarian supplies to Ukraine that will sustain the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ capabilities and alleviate civilian suffering; bulletproof vests (ballistic level 4 at minimum) and helmets are a priority
  • make sure sanctions are implemented thoroughly

Only together can we dismantle Russian oppression and stop the murder of civilians in Ukraine. The people of Ukraine are already fighting with all their power. Do not leave them alone in this struggle – help them to get the tools to defend themselves.


By :   Darya Tsymbalyuk and Iryna Zamuruieva

Date: March 16, 2022

Source: Open Democracy 



71% of Russians feel “pride, joy, respect, hope” regarding war against Ukraine – poll

Nearly three-quarters of Russians support the war against Ukraine. In particular, 71% of Russians feel pride, joy, respect, and hope in connection with the war and support it, RFE/RL reports referring to two surveys conducted by independent Russian sociologists, one at the end of February and the other one in the middle of March 2022. This support appears to have grown since the start of Russia’s war.

Views varied depending on age, the study’s authors note. Russians aged above 35 are more inclined to express feelings of pride, respect, and hope, while those under 18 are more prone to resentment and frustration. Overall, two out of five Russians expressed concern about the war, and these feelings were most often reported by young Russians. Russians in the middle age groups (25 to 44) were more likely to report feelings of anxiety and fear about the military operation. More than half of respondents over the age of 55 support the war with Ukraine.

The differences between the first and second polls show an increase in the number of people supporting the “military operation” and the independence of Russia’s puppet “republics” in Donbas. At the same time, there is growing pessimism about respondents’ personal financial situation in connection with the sanctions imposed on Western countries against Russia.

According to the survey’s results, ¾ of Russia’s population use television as the main source of news. Of these, 87% (and 64% of all Russians) receive news from state TV channels. 22% of Russians listen to the radio for news, and only 1% of respondents have access to information on shortwave. The use of VPN for news of the “military operation,” according to the authors of the study, is 5.5%. Of those who use the Internet to learn about the war, 37% do not know what a VPN is. 11% of respondents use YouTube, and 7% use the Telegram messenger.

According to sociologists, young Russians under 35 are more likely to “partially or wholly” distrust news about Ukraine compared to the older generation. At the same time, the authors of the study note that young Russians in the age group 18 to 24 were more likely to express indifference to what is happening in Ukraine.

When asked how they are affected by the actions of the Russian president, a third of respondents said they firmly believe that Putin is working in their interests, and another 26% say he is working in their interests to some extent. In general, most Russians believe that it would be better if Putin remained president for as long as possible. This opinion is most common among television audiences. Russians who rely on personal connections and digital platforms perceive the president differently, according to a study by independent Russian sociologists.

An earlier survey conducted by the independent research group Russian Field together with Russian political activist Maxim Katz at the end of February showed that 59% of Russians supported the war against Ukraine. A street report conducted by Current Time showed that most Russians on the streets of the cities of Perm and Vladivostok supported Putin’s war after being shown photos of civilian destruction in Ukraine.

 Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine started on 24 February. In its course, Russian troops have shelled and dropped bombs on civilian objects, targeted residential areas, schools, and medical facilities. Every fourth Ukrainian is now displaced, while Russian troops have suffered significant casualties. Russia’s aggression has caused an international backlash, as western countries enacted financial restrictions making Russia currently the most-sanctioned country in the world.


Date: March 19, 2022

Source:  Euromadian Press 



Viral Stories: On Guobin Yang’s “The Wuhan Lockdown”

THE RADISH IS CARVED into the shape of a bullet train. Its purple rind is shaved into stripes and patches that resemble windows. It rides on a golden field of soybeans and fried rice. A red banner above it reads, “Sing loudly. Power forward!”

In the photo, an elderly woman is pointing at the tray and explaining the dish to a young child. The toddler lifts his face and stares intently at the design. Aunties and grannies gather in the background. The flaming hues in their outfits match the bright decor on the walls. Looking at the image on my computer screen, I can feel the warmth and joy seeping through.

The photo was taken by Chinese state media in Wuhan on January 18, 2020. The caption notes that over 40,000 families came to the banquet, an annual tradition in the Baibuting district to celebrate Lunar New Year. Five days later, the city went under lockdown. Unbeknownst to the happy crowd at the banquet or most of the 11 million Wuhan residents, a novel coronavirus had been spreading for weeks. Wuhan, the metropolis by the Yangtze and the capital of Hubei province, became “ground zero” in a global pandemic.

Both sides of my family were from Hubei. Work and school brought them to neighboring Anhui, where I was born and raised. I moved to the United States in 2009. To be a Chinese person abroad in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak was to exist in two timelines at once. I watched the future unfold in the country of my birth, while politicians and the public in my adopted home remained oblivious to the looming disaster. As the Chinese government has brought the viral spread under control, at times with draconian measures, the United States appears trapped in a cycle of restrictions, easing, and rising infections.

We are officially in Year Three of the pandemic. I flinch at this thought. While the name of this place, “Wuhan,” has faded from the headlines, what lessons have we learned from the city and its people? Beneath a simplified account of cover-up and confinement, who are the ones carrying out the state’s policies? Who reaped the benefits, and who bore the cost?

These questions are probed in The Wuhan Lockdown, a new book by Guobin Yang. Across nine chapters in chronological order, starting with “Festivities, Interrupted” and concluding with “Mourning and Remembering,” the book documents and interrogates the state and the public’s responses to the pandemic. The stories expand from official narratives to personal experiences and cover both real-life activities and those in virtual space. A professor of communication and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, Yang grew up in China and has extended family there. The affinity, folded over distance, infuses the text with an emotional undercurrent. Compared with Yang’s earlier two books, on the Chinese internet and the Cultural Revolution respectively, his latest work is the most accessible but no less thoughtful. The new volume builds on Yang’s decades-long study of digital activism in China and how memories of politically contentious events evolve over time, making it a uniquely valuable contribution to the growing literature on COVID-19 as well as that on contemporary China.

As Yang writes in the preface, “mere attempts to theorize look rather pale” in light of the many sacrifices made by ordinary people, whose experiences “cannot be distilled into a few propositions.” By rejecting oversimplification and placing each story in its social and political contexts, often in comparison with past events, The Wuhan Lockdown is a narratively rich and intellectually rigorous account of an unprecedented chapter in the city’s history. The book offers many insights on pandemic response and Chinese governance. More importantly, it reaches beyond the immediacy of occasion to shed light on human nature: What’s the role of an individual in the crushing tides of time? What stories do we tell ourselves in order to survive?

In popular portrayals of China, the country is often presented as the subject — “China does this,” “China wants that” — as if it’s the main character in a master plot, imbued with ancient wisdom, destined for world domination. The fantasy of absolute control may be what leaders in Beijing desire, but even autocrats need to contend with reality. Power within the Chinese system is fragmented. In everyday governance, the central government dictates the themes and local officials construct their own narratives. The personal fortunes of the latter depend on how well the stories are told.

When social stability and economic growth are the top priorities for the state, political rituals hold particular significance. Nestled in bureaucratic inertia, a recurring form signals command and continuity. Disruption suggests trouble and invites scrutiny. The default response to any bad news is to minimize exposure. Hide and lie. The show must go on.

Yang refers to this phenomenon as “formalism,” or xingshi zhuyi in Chinese. “[O]ne of the most insidious problems in Chinese politics,” the obsession with form or appearance “often comes at the expense of substance or reality, sometimes with disastrous consequences,” Yang writes. The Baibuting banquet was a prime example. By 2020, the annual festivity had been going on for two decades. More than a community celebration, the banquet was a propaganda coup for district officials. With over 10,000 dishes shared among tens of thousands of families, the ceremony showcased material abundance and neighborly love, “core values” as defined by Beijing. It attracted dignitaries and was lauded in the national media. Canceling the event over concerns of a new respiratory disease, whose severity was yet unknown, was deemed a greater cost by those in charge than risking mass infection.

The spread of a virus does not conform to any political agenda. Exacerbated by initial missteps, the COVID-19 outbreak quickly became a crisis of governance in China, which, if not properly managed, could jeopardize regime legitimacy. The government responded by changing the narrative. As Yang describes in the book, “an appearance of war replaced the facade of harmony.” With stunning efficiency and a whole-of-society approach, Wuhan was placed under lockdown and the rest of the country soon followed.

From banners and barricades to loudspeakers and door-to-door inspections, the shapes and sounds of the “people’s war” against COVID-19 were reminiscent of past political struggles in China, in particular the Cultural Revolution. As Yang and several other scholars have noted, the optics and logic of war are familiar occurrences in Chinese governance. Be it against a political enemy, a natural disaster, poverty, illiteracy, or disease, the state deploys a similar rhetoric, describing the conditions as a battlefield and organized efforts as akin to combat.

The analogy always unsettles me. War is destruction, while pandemic response is about saving lives. War as metaphor is intellectually lazy but politically expedient. It glorifies the state and appeals to the public psyche. In war, the state assumes paramount authority. Violence is not only justified, but necessary. Death is never in vain but in service to a cause. For a government that prizes obedience, what better way to mobilize the masses than a call to battle? For people feeling powerless in the face of a virus, imagining themselves as soldiers in a war is a way to reclaim power and make sense of a senseless tragedy.

When war is the dominant narrative, the state-centric framework can morph individuals into statistics. Among the distinct strengths of this book is Yang’s insistence on exploring nuance and showing the “human faces” behind collective measures. Boundaries between state and non-state actors in China are often blurry, and even the most ruthless policies require people to execute.

Much attention has been given to blunt force tactics, like the storming of private homes to prohibit social gatherings or the nailing down of doors to enforce quarantines. These dramatic actions fit the image of an authoritarian state, but the mundane task of governing rarely explodes in spectacle. Yang points out that the lockdown was more often implemented through “community organizing and grassroots persuasion.” Party cadres and neighborhood volunteers patrolled the streets and guarded residential compounds. They also provided essential services like grocery delivery and welfare checkups, performing the dual duties of surveillance and care.

To tell the individual stories from an ocean away, Yang relied on press reports, official documents, and social media posts on the Chinese internet. The most important sources for Yang were the “lockdown diaries” written and shared online by ordinary people. From an archive of over 6,000 entries, Yang selected 46 diarists and cited them throughout the book. They span a wide ideological spectrum, from staunch nationalists to liberal intellectuals and many politically agnostic ones in between. They also represent a variety of professions, including teachers, students, activists, government officials, and health-care workers. One of them is a delivery driver. Two recovered from COVID-19. Through these diaries, the people of Wuhan registered their quotidian struggles. They voiced complaints and counted their blessings. They used virtual space to motivate themselves as well as their readers.

“One day when I look back from my old age, [my ‘Lockdown Diary’] will be the ‘Grand Historical Record’ (Shiji) of part of my life,” Mr. Amber, who worked in the telecommunications industry, wrote on the sixth day of confinement. The invocation of Shiji, the magnum opus of second-century BCE historian Sima Qian — China’s most famous chronicler and biographer of long past times — might appear self-aggrandizing, but it fits the occasion. The primary purpose of pandemic diaries was to engage in “self-mobilization,” as Yang puts it, and to bear witness to history.

Journaling in extraordinary times is nothing new. The English official Samuel Pepys kept a detailed account of London in the 1660s, including during an outbreak of the bubonic plague that swept the city. Seamen on polar expeditions frequently documented their journeys. Chinese commanders in World War II often required their soldiers to write diaries as a way to cultivate discipline. During the political fervor of the Mao years, private letters were routinely seized as evidence of “thought crimes”; penning them became a mark of moral courage.

Unlike their predecessors who wrote in seclusion, the diarists in the era of social media have repurposed the intimate form for the public gaze. Attention from strangers comes at a cost, but vulnerability is often the first step to community building. Living through a pandemic is a constant reminder of the porousness of the human body. While isolation and protective gear have closed the physical boundaries of one’s being, sharing details of a private life online is a means of opening, an acknowledgment of our interconnectedness and dependency on each other. Journaling in quarantine, Yang explains, was “a moral act of citizenship.”

Among the many chroniclers of COVID-19, none have received as much attention, or been the subject of as much controversy, as Fang Fang. The Wuhan native and acclaimed novelist wrote 60 diary entries in a span of two months on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging platform. Her poetic statement became one of the most famous refrains during the pandemic: “When an era sheds a speck of dust it might not seem like much, but when it falls upon the shoulders of an individual it feels like a mountain.” By April 2020, the “Fang Fang Diary” had amassed 380 million views on Weibo, according to The Guardian.

Fang Fang’s first post, dated January 25, 2020, began unassumingly: “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to send anything out through my Weibo account.” She had been suspended on the website after criticizing a group of young nationalists for their aggressive behavior, foreshadowing the berating her diary would later generate. For the next two months, Fang Fang wrote about daily life under quarantine — figuring out grocery deliveries in the neighborhood, receiving care packages from friends, paying extra attention to the weather — and commented on stories of the pandemic as seen on state or social media. After reading a report in the Chinese outlet Caixin on worrying conditions at retirement homes, she reflected that

the true test of a country’s level of civility has nothing to do with building the tallest skyscraper or driving the fastest car, nor does it matter how advanced your weapons system is or how powerful your military might be. […] There is only one true test, and that is how you treat the weakest and most vulnerable members of your society.”


Ai Xiaoming, a prominent academic and documentary filmmaker, who also wrote a series of incisive essays on the lockdown in her hometown of Wuhan, has observed that the literary quality of Fang Fang’s diary falls short of that of a celebrated author: just about anybody could have written it, and its striking popularity reflects the paucity of public discourse under censorship. There is much truth to Ai’s comment, yet when I would check the latest update in Fang Fang’s diary, as millions did in the first months of the pandemic, I was not looking for soaring prose or searing analysis. That would be too selfish a demand. What I saw in her simple words was the quiet dignity of living as a Chinese person, who must navigate a perilous world of pathogens and political oppression but strives to never lose their moral compass.

Fang Fang is not a dissident. As part of the cultural establishment, her words, including the occasional critique of government policies, are always measured. It is emblematic of the shrinking space for expression in China that her diary garnered waves of backlash from day one. Public denunciations intensified after news came that the series would be translated and published overseas. Michael Berry, the English-language translator of the diary and a literature professor at UCLA, was accused of being a CIA agent and received death threats. Even readers who had once appreciated Fang Fang’s words began calling her a “traitor.”

As Yang cautions in his book, this change in public opinion, or at least the appearance of it, cannot be attributed solely to censorship or propaganda. The Chinese state and Chinese people, despite the former’s authoritarian nature, are not opposites but overlapping forces. In the early days of the outbreak, people were rightfully outraged at the deception and failed response from the authorities. The government relaxed its restrictions on speech in response to public sentiment and as a way to gather information. Journalists produced in-depth reporting. Fear and fury flooded social media.

The moment was short-lived. It was only a matter of time before the state retightened its grip. Investigative reports were censored. Citizen journalists were jailed. Social media posts disappeared. Fang Fang’s Weibo account was shut down again in early February before it was reinstated two weeks later. As the pandemic subsided in China and raged elsewhere, many Chinese people’s view of their government also veered from frustration to gratitude. They felt proud of their country and protective of its image, especially when policies and rhetoric from the West were increasingly hostile toward China. Fang Fang’s lucid, real-time depiction of the plight in Wuhan, however honest and moderate in tone, was deemed “too negative” when the primary narrative of COVID-19 in China had shifted to one of triumph and optimism. The diary had sullied the motherland. Releasing it to a foreign audience was tantamount to aiding the enemy.

In his acclaimed first book, The Power of the Internet in China, Yang analyzed the beginning of digital activism in the country. Published in 2009, the volume predated the rise of social media and the more oppressive policies of the Xi Jinping era. Writing in the new book, Yang points out that earlier visions of the internet as a democratizing force and medium for free expression have faded. The Chinese party-state and its propaganda organs have caught up with the new technologies and, to a significant extent, co-opted the platforms. For the average Chinese citizen, the internet is “a daily utility,” not a site of protest.

But voices of dissent persist. Since the dawn of the Chinese internet, netizens have used clever tactics to discuss the forbidden. Similar methods, perfected over time and assisted by new tools, were deployed during the pandemic to preserve and pass on information. Social media users raced against censors with spontaneous “relays,” copying and sharing posts before the originals were removed. Words and images wore creative disguises to evade automated detection: texts were shared as screenshots, rotated, and scribbled over; Chinese characters were translated into emojis, telegram codes, and even fictional languages like Klingon from Star Trek. A digital memorial was set up on the blockchain for Dr. Li Wenliang, the young ophthalmologist in Wuhan who blew the whistle on COVID-19 and later died of the disease.

“Are virtual memorials ephemeral or enduring?” Yang asks in his closing chapter. Perhaps the answer is both — true for all memorials and for memory itself. Even monuments set in stone can be toppled, and any corporal existence has an expiration date. Whenever I browse the Chinese internet, each encounter with a daring message brings a thrill as well as a profound sadness: I am already grieving its eventual, inevitable vanishing. But as Yang’s work has shown, anything that has disappeared online leaves traces, imprinted in the deep memories of the web and sustained by viewers who remember and retell the stories.

What about those who lack access to digital technologies? One regret I have when reading The Wuhan Lockdown (and coverage of this pandemic in general) is that the stories suffer from an urban, middle-class bias. Most of the diarists Yang samples are well-educated professionals who experienced quarantine from the relative comfort of their homes. Their living conditions afforded them the ability to journal online. For the elderly, the poor, the disabled, the farmers who lost their harvest, the migrants without stable housing, the millions who live in the margins neglected by the state, how will their stories be told and who is listening?

“In seventy-six days, the structures of some families were completely changed,” wrote Wuhan resident Chu Ma on the last night of the lockdown. “What does not change is the rolling waters of the Yangzi [Yangtze] River and the bright moon that has shone over our ancestors and bathed in the spring wind.”

“All the stories are gone with the flowing river,” Chu Ma continued. “Only history will tell the story of Wuhan many years later.” For millennia, the Yangtze, which flows through the city, has occupied a special place in the Chinese imagination. The eastbound current, in eternal motion, becomes a metaphor for the passage of time. I grew up with legends of ancestors who planted rice and spun cotton by the river. The water carried the fruits of their labor to city markets. My mother told me stories of her father, who, as a student in Wuhan in the 1950s, helped repair the dam when the Yangtze rose to historic heights. The river that nourishes can also be merciless. To live by the water is to learn humility, to accept the fragility of being and reckon with the forces of nature.

“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was,” Toni Morrison wrote in The Site of Memory. Her immortal words remind us that what we call flooding is in fact remembering; and writers are like that, remembering where we were and how to return to our original place. By recording their experiences, the writers of the Wuhan lockdown have inked their share in the river of time. Present and future generations are indebted to their service.


Yangyang Cheng is a fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, where her research focuses on science and technology in China and US-China relations. Trained as a particle physicist, she worked on the Large Hadron Collider for over a decade. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, MIT Technology Review, and many other publications.


By : Yangyang Cheng 

Date: February 9, 2022

Source: Los Angeles Review of Books



Technology and the Soul: The Spiritual Lessons of Digital Distraction

The age of digital media has unleashed a profoundly threatening human experiment. By drawing us to waste not only our time, but our attention, social media seduces us to waste our souls. Our brightest engineers have trained our most powerful technology to act with the psychological craftiness of demons. Neuroscience helps us understand how digital media is changing us, but we need a more classical language about the soul to understand, and protect ourselves from, the most ominous of these changes.

Technology changes us. Electric light bulbs, and gas lamps before that; automobiles and gasoline-powered farm equipment; gunpowder and steam locomotion; clocks and the printing press; bronze and iron: these technologies took hold because they helped us to achieve what we wanted, and they created opportunities for new things we didn’t know we wanted. In doing so, they also changed our patterns of behavior, our relationships, family dynamics and economic institutions, the nature of political authority and social status, and our very sense of self. In other words, these technologies changed not only what we wanted, but also the we that were doing the wanting.

This observation is neither new nor controversial. Plato, in the Phaedrus, has Socrates remark that the very invention of writing had psychic and social costs. We are used to promoting writing as an essential skill of a well-developed soul (and Plato used it to great effect), but Socrates argues that as a tool for reminding, writing weakened the faculty of remembering—“implanting forgetfulness in [our] souls.” He warned that, after the advent of writing, people will “seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, . . . filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

Digital devices are changing us—especially portable devices, and their most popular applications, social media—combining communication with entertainment. This was less well understood several years ago, but now it is common knowledge. The phenomenon invites multiple levels of analysis, and has been addressed from the perspectives of political theory, media studies, sociology, childhood development, and more. If you are interested in how digital media influences your sense of your political and bodily agency, read Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. If you are interested in how digital media has fostered social alienation and isolation, learn from Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. For practical advice about how to discipline your use of digital media, try Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. And for neuroscientific analysis of the way the new online ecosystem puts such stress on our old biological hardware, there is The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen.

Following Plato’s lead, we can also ask about the effect of the smartphone at a deeper level. What does it change in our soul? What appetites does it feed, and what does it starve? What powers does it exercise, and which does it allow to atrophy?

In this essay, I want to explore how digital technology is changing our understanding of ourselves—our sense of self-awareness, our interior life, our very experience of agency. I want to examine not only in what ways are those changing, but by what mechanisms. Increasingly, we are aware that the personal effects of digital technology are not accidental—that in many ways the devices, and the applications they run, are designed to change us, engineered specifically to capture and modify our sense of self, how we think, and what we do. Most attention to the problem of social media focuses on other effects—political polarization, media manipulation, economic exploitation, depression and anxiety, relationship breakdown, disrupted family dynamics, body image and bullying—but to understand those things, we can’t stop there. We need to ask what the new technology does to our inner life.

The designers of digital technology have paid particular attention to the closest thing our contemporary culture has to a classical analysis of the powers of the soul: cognitive science, and especially neuroscience. One doesn’t need to be an expert in these areas to appreciate how the insights and limits of modern neuroscience can illuminate, and be illuminated by, some basic insights of classical philosophical psychology. Neuroscience helps us understand how digital media is changing us, but we need a more classical language about the powers of the soul to understand, and protect ourselves from, the most ominous of these changes.

A Brief History of the Digital Experiment

The term “smartphone” was coined in the 1990s, but the word—and for most people the very idea—didn’t become common until the first iPhone was released in 2007. Within three years, Apple released the first iPad, the iPhone was well established in world markets, and other web-browsing, app-based, touch-screen pocket computers were competing for market share.

2010 was also the year Nicholas Carr published The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr had noticed that spending more time online had changed his habits of attention as a reader and writer, and he turned to neuroscience to explain his experience. The way we interact with the internet, he said, “rewires our brains”; surfing the web “makes us shallow thinkers.” The interruption, scrolling, and clicking all break up attention and prevent information from getting from working memory to long-term memory, and the abundance of stimuli presents too much “cognitive load.” The brain adapts, thanks to its neuroplasticity, literally reconfiguring its patterns of activity, making it easier for us to keep scrolling and “multi-tasking,” but harder to concentrate, to remember, to contemplate. Although concerned mainly with the internet in general, rather than specifically with portable devices, Carr described phenomena that the advent of the smartphone greatly accelerated.

Carr’s attention to the neurological effects of online life is well complemented by a reflection, five years ago, from Andrew Sullivan, when he checked himself into rehab for digital addiction. The 7,000-word essay he published about that experience—what led him there, how close he was to breaking down, what it was like to suffer withdrawal—highlights the spiritual stakes. The original print title was, “My Distraction Sickness and Yours” (New York Magazine, September 19, 2016). Online, and in his 2021 collection Out on a Limb, it is: “I Used to Be a Human Being.” It describes more than just his personal experience but “a new epidemic of distraction” which “is our civilization’s specific weakness.” The problem is spiritual: as Sullivan put it, the “threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any” (emphasis added).

Sullivan aptly draws on traditional religion to make sense of this challenge.

The Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction—and tension—between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath—the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity—was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity.


According to Sullivan, the loss of a cultural habit of Sabbath “changes us. It slowly removes—without our even noticing it—the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them.”

I want to try to bridge the gap between these two discourses: brains and souls, the neuroscientific objectivity of Carr and the spiritual interiority of Sullivan. I believe philosophical approaches to the soul help to bridge that gap. But first, it will help for us to examine an attempt to bridge it technologically: the project of “artificial intelligence.” Advances in computer processing that have made portable digital devices possible have also enabled the collection and analysis and use of data on a scale and in a manner never before imagined. Developments in artificial intelligence are informing the design of digital technology. It is not that digital media devices just happen to change us; more than any other previous technology, they are designed to change us.


Admitting We Have a Problem

We know that social media is not really “free.” We aren’t the customer, but the product. That is to say, by using social media, we are voluntarily providing information about ourselves, and that information is valuable. But a common misunderstanding is that social medial companies collect data to sell it. This leads many to assume the problems we face relate primarily to privacy and economic exploitation. In fact, however, social media companies don’t exactly sell the data they collect. That’s because it is too valuable to sell.

Every major smartphone app, especially social media, is the interface for an artificial intelligence “algorithm” which constantly processes everything it “learns” about you, updating a virtual representation of you, testing hypotheses about it against your real behavior, and continuing to update the model. The goal is not merely to predict your patterns of behavior, but, by presenting you with customized digital stimuli, to actually shape what you do. What is commodified is not information from and about you, but your very attention and behavior.

The closest analogy is to the insidious, absurd, but dangerous manipulation of demons as described by C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. Like Screwtape and Wormwood, digital technology companies observe and gather and analyze information about you, and it is not the “data” itself they seek to harvest, but your very mind and your will. Jaron Lanier, a former artificial intelligence innovator who has become a sharp critic and an evangelist for more responsible technology, clarifies that the “product” of social media is not information or attention but “the gradual, slight imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception.”


Weaponized Neuroscience

If unaccountable powers are using weaponized neuroscience in the form of AI algorithms to manipulate us, maybe there should be some oversight? It is increasingly common to advocate greater regulation of tech companies, and last year a Facebook employee “blew the whistle” on her company—asking the government to direct Facebook’s political influence. If the algorithms are manipulating us, we might want to appeal to a power strong enough to make sure it manipulates us the right way.

Alternatively, maybe we could design the algorithms better, or contrive a new algorithm to protect us? Thrive Global is a company that helps organizations create a “behavior change ecosystem.” Its website currently touts its “BEHAVIOR CHANGE TECHNOLOGY PLATFORM,” which promises “A holistic approach to increasing your people’s well-being and resilience.” The Thrive app uses artificial intelligence to develop the “Whole Human”: “Supporting your people’s physical, mental and emotional well-being in one comprehensive platform.”

Thrive’s holistic behavior modification app was enabled by the purchase, in 2019, of a company called “Boundless Mind,” a “neuroscience-based artificial intelligence company” offering an “[AI] platform for behavior design.” Website copy from 2018 bragged about building “engagement and retention” and helping app usage to “Becom[e] a user’s habit.” Our “habits are programmable. . . . The Boundless AI optimizes when and how to praise and encourage each user uniquely.”

Notice the progression: from “get them hooked” and “brain hacking” and “mind control,” to “behavior design” and “behavior engineering,” and then to “behavior change” for “holistic” “well-being.” Rebranded from engineering addiction to cultivating wellness, the packaging has changed, and perhaps the intention has too; but the method and mechanism is the same. “Artificial intelligence” does not fortify the self against manipulation. It only submits it to a more comprehensive, benevolent form of control.

It is understandable that we would respond to the dangers of technology by seeking better oversight or more humane design. But if that is all we do, we are only accepting the technocratic paradigm that gave rise to our concerns—a paradigm that sees people as means, not ends; that doesn’t take responsibility for action; that doesn’t care about truth. A technocrat only focuses on the effectiveness of a means to a given end, with no wonder about what the end should be. That may well describe the operation of artificial intelligence, but it can’t be the attitude of intelligent human beings who want to know how to resist the influence of the algorithm.

If the algorithm is functionally demonic—if what it achieves through digital processing is exactly what C. S. Lewis depicts the fallen angels doing in his famous portrayal of temptation—we should not want to centralize, regulate, or even tame its influence. We must find some way to protect ourselves from it, and to strengthen the powers of our soul against it.


How Is the Soul in the Body?

How threatening you find the insidious algorithm will depend, to some degree, on how you think human consciousness is related to our biology. For if you think human agency and awareness is entirely a function of and dependent on physical processes, it would be very scary indeed to realize just how much power modern technology can and will exercise over your body. It implies the possibility of not merely technological temptation and manipulation, but of technological oppression and possession.

That agency and awareness are functions of physical processes is a common assumption—but not a necessary assumption—of modern neuroscience. The project of neuroscience proceeds with the working hypothesis that by understanding the operations of physical, physiological systems, we will be able to explain the cognitive life of human beings.

This hypothesis goes way back. Plato, in the Phaedo, puts an argument in the mouth of Simmias: that our life or psyche or soul is a function of the physical activity of our parts. To communicate this, he strikes on a charming metaphor: the soul is like the harmony of an instrument. This is an attractive hypothesis, for it seems to account for features of the life-power that we regard as mysterious—like music coming from an instrument, it is invisible, it is valuable, it can’t exactly be reduced to physical structure, nor located in one part or another of the physical instrument. And yet one can “kill” a harmony by physically damaging the instrument. The soul as harmony—as a function of physical activity—implies all this.

In the Phaedo, Socrates quickly demolishes the theory, reasoning that a harmony has no power to direct or rule the instrument; rather, the instrument directs or rules the harmony.  A soul, however, is more like the musician than like the music: it directs the actions of the body. Socrates does not deny that the soul is affected by the body, nor that we can learn about the soul’s powers by studying the body. But, in large part due to its ruling or providence over the body, the soul is even more marvelous than a musical harmony.

There is much to wonder about here, and we could say, to modify a phrase from Plato and Aristotle describing philosophy, that neuroscience begins with wonder.

How are particular life functions related to bodily activity? This is the key question that motivated the Aristotelian understanding of the soul, and it proceeded to differentiate various life powers—the different things a living organism does to move and grow and negotiate its environment. To understand human life, we especially need to differentiate various cognitive powers or modes of awareness, some but not all of which we share with other animals. We tend to think of consciousness or intelligence as one function, but the mystery of it is that it draws on and unifies so many different functions: sensing, feeling, imagining, evaluating, judging, anticipating, wishing, guessing, remembering, calculating, intending, deliberating, wondering, contemplating. We seem to have more control over some of these functions than others, more responsibility to direct or exercise them at will.

Neuroscience imagines each of these as a function of something physical in our bodies, and so, in principle, detectable and even replicable. For hundreds of years we didn’t have tools (like electromagnetic resonance imaging, or x-rays, or even sophisticated surgery) to detect that activity; nor did we even have the theoretical models (like chemistry, or atomic and electromagnetic theories) that have made modern neuroscience what it is; nor did we have the ability to try to build replicas or simulations of such activities. In fact, all these arise and advance together.

But something like the neuroscientific aspiration—to discover and explain the inner bodily workings of cognitive experience—did evolve even without the assumption that all cognitive experience is a function of bodily activity. Neuroscience didn’t begin with materialism, it began with wonder, and it proceeds, as Plato’s Simmias did, through metaphors.


Modeling the Soul

As Plato’s Phaedo shows, the key question raised by neuroscience is: To what shall we analogize the soul’s activity? Empirical study of the mechanisms of life function does not require the Simmias hypothesis that the soul is a harmony, but it seems to draw energy from having some metaphor or other. We can see the development of neuroscience as grasping for ever more advanced and complicated metaphors for how the wondrous activity of mind could be connected to bodily activity.

Some ancient thinkers thought of the body as a series of pumps and vessels. Descartes thought of the body as a machine. Indeed, he took the metaphor so literally that he believed that life and consciousness were in principle separable from the body. He regarded consciousness and embodiedness as so different that the one could be imagined totally without the other—I may be dreaming, and the I that is dreaming may only be an immaterial being, an angel.

The discovery of electricity gave rise to a new set of metaphors—the soul as charges moving through circuits—and the invention of computers provided an even more elaborate metaphor. Indeed, computers are so sophisticated we started by comparing their functions to human ones: storage as “memory,” and processing as “decisions.” But now that the computer is more familiar and comprehensible than the mysterious brain, it has become the root of the metaphor for human “processing” and “retrieval.” Many have imagined that human consciousness is software that could, at least in principle, be uploaded to run on another platform. The technological details have changed, but we are not far from Simmias’s metaphor of a musical instrument’s harmony.

Increasingly, however, neuroscientists themselves are facing the fact that the mechanistic models are inadequate, and that trying to isolate the brain from the rest of the body may itself be as much a mistake as Descartes’s isolating the pineal gland from the rest of the brain. It seems we think with our whole bodies—an important branch of neuroscience explores the cognitive significance of our intestinal tract!—and organic life has proven stubbornly irreducible. Not only can we treat the brain almost as an organism in its own right, we can treat it as a collection of organisms. Empirical research itself is running up against the limits of the brain-as-computer model. Both the complexity of the brain, and evolutionary accounts of its development, lead us to compare it to an organism, or even to a collection of organisms, in a kind of mysterious parliament. With his “Thousand Brains” hypothesis, Jeff Hawkins imagines the brain as a kind of socio-political entity, with collections of structures building consensus, voting, vetoing.

Neuroscience often learns from, and contributes to, the field of “Artificial Intelligence”—attempts to produce (simulate? replicate? approximate?) these living functions in machines. Along the way, both neuroscience and artificial intelligence find greater need to attend to psychology and philosophy, in the form of “theoretical neuroscience,” “cognitive science,” or “cognitive psychology.” In other words, even the empirical study of animal life activity cannot leave behind the original Aristotelian reflection on the different kinds of consciousness or cognition.

“Boundless Mind” was itself a strategic 2017 rebrand of a company originally founded in 2014 as Dopamine Labs. Its website was unapologetic about the drug-addiction metaphor: usedopamine.com announced: “Keeping users engaged isn’t luck: it’s science. Give users the right [hit] of dopamine at the right moment and they’ll stay longer, do more, and monetize better.” Cofounder Randy Brown said: “We crafted for it to learn something about the structure of how human motivation works. It is now gathering enough data on its own to make meaningful observations to change human behavior.” Their home page announced it was “build[ing] the future of web-scale mind control.”

Which metaphor-hypothesis neuroscientists work with informs their research into the brain, and it also suggests the best hopes of replicating the brain’s work by artificial means. So maybe your consciousness is not a harmony, a pump, a network of gears and levers, a collection of circuits, nor even a deterministic software program. Maybe, instead, it is a complex, “self-learning” algorithm, rewriting itself in iterative feedback loops of parallel processing. Maybe.

Yet there remain some pesky functions, used even in pursuing empirical science, which are not captured in even our most advanced metaphors or models. Human memory is not mere retrieval but an act of conjuring, inherently creative and akin to imagination. Deciding is not simply running a subroutine but an exercise of agency, of will. And abstract thought is more than “processing information” but understanding concepts and affirming truth: comprehending realities that transcend whatever physical means may encode or communicate them.

To the extent that the algorithm is still played out only in and through physical activity, it is no more like a rational soul than is a musical harmony. The same is true of any metaphor or model that would reduce living and thinking to motion in a machine. If Plato and Aristotle are right, we won’t be able to “build” a brain, only to simulate it, and really to simulate only some of its cognitive functions, without the ones that most make us human.


Spiritual Armor and Weapons

Practical evidence of this seems to be that the most insidious algorithms are limited to reading and stimulating physical phenomena; like angelic natures, they cannot directly control our intellect and will. They seek them, but can never possess them without our consent. Defense against the new dark arts of Silicon Valley thus relies on the same tools as ancient spiritual warfare, especially custody of our attention.

Demons attack our weaknesses, the vices the make us vulnerable. Hence, virtues have been called “spiritual armor” protecting us from assault. Screwtape counsels Wormwood to do anything possible to distract his victim from engaging in basic exercises of will and reason. Going for a walk, reading a book, even asking questions—these are all powerful human defenses against the distractions of the devil. Individual acts of thinking and choosing for oneself, exercising self-awareness and taking responsibility for one’s actions and thoughts—the distinctive activities of the rational animal—are themselves safeguards against the soul-snatchers’ designs.

Reading a philosophical essay, I hope, can be an occasion for soul-strengthening too. Understanding concepts, interpreting language, following arguments, all require a disciplined focus of spiritual powers. Contemplating, wondering, and asking why are all exercises of rational attention. All of these intentional human acts are, in the face of temptation, subversive and protective.

Perhaps this can also give us new appreciation for the power of prayer, sometimes described as a spiritual weapon. More than any other deliberate activity, prayer activates and directs the soul’s various modes of cognition, disciplining them and orienting them to deeper understanding of self and union with God. Think of the four phases of traditional lectio divina—reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation—each focusing and directing the intellect and will and ordering them to God: receiving and interpreting words, considering their meaning and application, addressing God in specific intentions, and lovingly receiving God’s presence.

Or consider the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a classic handbook for retreat. Its cycles of prayer repeat three steps, each demanding discipline over one’s attention:

  • First, composition: exercising imagination and memory—recalling sins, visualizing oneself in the presence of other people, even imagining particular sensations of smell, touch, hearing—all to be more aware of one’s soul and put oneself in the presence of God.
  • Second, analysis: activating the intellect: conceiving, understanding, and assenting to truths, reasoning about their implications and connections, contemplating them.
  • Third, colloquy: reflecting on choices and principles of choice, resolving to make good decisions, exerting the will in acts of humility and love.

This method of prayer exercises the traditional Trinitarian powers of the soul—Memory, Intellect, and Will. These are three powers that, incidentally, the algorithm wants but cannot access without our cooperation, three powers that the most advanced “artificial intelligence” will prove incapable of simulating.

At a very basic level, simply directing our attention—taking responsibility for that to which we give our cognitive energy—we experience the mysterious agency that Simmias’s harmony theory could not account for, and we discipline the very thing that digital media is so eager to distract.

The powers that neuroscience thus finds most elusive are the powers that can protect us from assault. As it ever has been, the central challenge of spiritual discipline is: Are we choosing where to give our attention? Attention is the inner energy of the soul, and when it is sucked away and diverted, the soul falls into acedia, spiritual sloth, a failure of the will to act. A path to the deadly apathy of acedia is the vice of curiositas, which we may call a cognitive intemperance: discharging the energy of the soul’s attention without the discipline of intention.

Digital technology depends on, fosters, and exploits this cognitive intemperance. This is why so many of the books mentioned at the beginning address the problem of distraction. In our natural environment, we have plenty of things to distract us, but also plenty to remind us where we must give our attention and to move us to action. What is unprecedented about the environment of social media is its potentially limitless distraction.

The age of digital media has unleashed a profoundly threatening human experiment. By drawing us to waste not only our time, but our attention, social media seduces us to waste our souls. Our brightest engineers have trained our most powerful technology to act with the psychological craftiness of demons. To protect ourselves from the tempting distractions of technology, we can begin by asking about it and recognizing it for what it is, and by wondering about our nature and remembering who we are. Then, we can go for a walk or read a book; we can philosophize and pray.


This essay is adapted from a lecture developed for campus chapters of the Thomistic Institute. A version was delivered as a 2021 Faith and Reason Lecture for the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto.


Joshua P. Hochschild is Professor of Philosophy and Director of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Mount St. Mary’s University. With Christopher O. Blum, he co-authored A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction.  He can be found on Twitter @JoshHochschild.


By : Joshua P. Hochschild

Date: March 17, 2022

Source: Public Discourse 



Orthodoxy’s Missed Opportunity: Denying Putin Victory

In this response piece to Giles Fraser’s ‘Putin’s Spiritual Destiny‘, journalist Paul DeGroot writes about his coverage of Ukraine and the Orthodox Church. In this piece, DeGroot explains the power-based relationship between Putin and the church and how the Russian Orthodox Church could end the war.

As religion writer for the Edmonton Journal, I visited Ukraine in 1988, the 1,000th anniversary of the baptism of Vladimir the Great. Edmonton has the largest Ukrainian population of any city in Canada, and Canada has the most Ukrainians of any country outside of Russia and Ukraine itself.

On my journey through Ukraine, I could see one reason for their emigration to Canada—rippling wheat fields extending to the horizon, a common site in Canada’s prairie provinces. Ukrainians feel at home there.

In my early coverage of the baptism I made the same mistake as Giles Fraser in his recent post for RGS, who called it the “iconic act of Russian Orthodox Christianity.”

When I used similar language my mailbox was deluged with lengthy letters from religious partisans demanding that I reference the correct communion—depending on the writer, Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Catholic, or Ukrainian Catholic. Since selecting any of these choices would only invite more lengthy correspondence, I elected to call it “the millennial anniversary of Prince Vladimir’s baptism in Kiev.” No argument there.

The baptism is generally considered to be a matter of convenience rather than faith, since the Byzantine Emperor Basil II gave his sister Anna to Vladimir in exchange for Vladimir’s help in defeating Basil’s enemies.

History is full of strongmen who sought divine permission via a public religious pantomime.

It starts in the Bible with the first child ever born, Cain. He complains to God that he deserves as much love as his brother Abel, and God counsels him to “do what is right and will you not be accepted?” Cain still believes that he can bash out his brother’s brains without consequence. Many other biblical luminaries–Jacob, Moses, David, Job, Jonah—tried to put a thumb on the scale of divine justice.

Unholy mixing of God and politics reaches its zenith in the Bible when religious leaders of Jesus’ time are asked by Pontius Pilate “Shall I crucify your king?” and they respond, “We have no king but Caesar.” We have echoes of this today in North America. Across the border in the United States  substantial groups of evangelical Christians believe a recent president was sent by God, and it brings me back to that dialogue in St. John’s gospel. These pastors have sold their souls to Caesar.

Smart despots like Vladimir Putin know that co-opting a culture’s fundamental values delivers the most devoted minions of all.

Having the most guns is good. Having followers willing to die for the sake of some self-serving, quasi-religious manifest destiny is unrivalled power. Add in the assertion that wholesale slaughter of innocents is God’s (Allah’s, Shiva’s) will and guarantees a blissful afterlife, and you have an army that will never retreat.

Any suggestion that Vladimir Putin’s goal is some Russian Christian crusade leading to a Holy Russia screams for evidence, all of which is contrary. If the means to some divine end includes assassinating rivals, committing war crimes, and indiscriminate killing of innocents, spiced with lies and inventions, it has no overlap with the Prince of Peace.

Nevertheless, between the unfortunate accidents—poison, bullets—to which Putin’s enemies are prone, and Putin’s religious act, he has captured the fawning support of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. It even sees a useful congruence between Putin’s attacks on Ukraine and Russian Orthodox attacks on the Ukrainian Orthodox church.

Imagine for a moment that the Russian Orthodox hierarchy had a collective Damascus Road experience. Imagine that the Russian Orthodox Church decided that Jesus, not Vladimir Putin, was its guide. Instead of countenancing a war whose victims undoubtedly include its own parishioners, what if it could no longer look away? What if it could not endorse war crimes, crimes against humanity, or the carnage claiming innocent lives?

Instead of licking his boots, what if the Church excommunicated Vladimir Putin for the war crimes he has directed, the assassinations he has arranged, and the threats that he will unleash weapons of mass destruction on the world unless he gets what he wants?

What if the Moscow Patriarchate warned Russian soldiers that anyone whose military unit played a role in civilian casualties, destruction of hospitals and schools, and denying escape to starving people would be denied the eucharist, marriage in the church, and baptism of their children for the next decade?

What if the church proclaimed truth from the pulpit–this war is not some limited, patriotic exercise against Nazis, but indiscriminate and repulsive slaughter of civilians? Such a challenge would be the most significant intervention of a Christian community into the policies and practices of a wayward government in modern times.

The church could quite possibly end the war.

Any military win in Ukraine might be matched by an unwillingness among the troops to support or serve in this unjustifiable conflict, knowing that participation in this brief military campaign could earn them years of personal grief.

How would Putin respond? A Stalin-style destruction of churches and execution of clergy seems unlikely. That would inflame opposition to both Putin and the war, pouring grease on Putin’s slippery grip on power. Putin is not a Stalin. He has no popular movement behind him. He has few friends and those are oligarchs whose loyalty was bought, not earned. They are not enough for a platoon, let an army, and will desert him with little remorse.

Putin is a master at upping the ante, acting or threatening action with disastrous consequences to get concessions without actually doing anything, but the church could prove a hard target if it lived up to its Christian calling. Patriarch Kirill would likely face the heat, losing his palace, his $30,000 watches, and other perks. Putin would call the church lackeys of America and NATO, but being lackeys of Putin has little reward, costs them respect, and neither America or NATO views them as allies.

A courageous challenge to Putin would win the church many friends, including some who left the church’s embrace long ago, and would be a shining example to other communities of a communion that did not confused its faith with unquestioned fealty to a political master. Their action would be seen as an authentic, inspiring, and courageous expression of a Christian response to evil.


Paul DeGroot’s journalism career has spanned nearly 40 years, interrupted at times by calls to work in IT. He covered federal politics in Ottawa and provincial politics in British Columbia and Alberta. He was religion writer for the Edmonton Journal for seven years. He lives on Vancouver Island in Canada.


By : Paul DeGroot

Date: March 18, 2022

Source: LSE Blogs 



Photo by: Viktor Forgacs (Unsplash)


How Midwives and Doulas Are Working to End Birth Disparities

Statistically, Black mothers have more, and more serious, complications for their births. Often, the concerns and issues they raise are disregarded by doctors, which can increase the risk of death and complications for both mothers and babies.

Angela Phillips had been in labor for almost three days when her doctors began to pressure her to have a C-section.

There wasn’t a medical reason other than the fact that her labor had been long, and didn’t seem to be progressing. She declined the procedure. But then Phillips felt the doctors’ and nurses’ attitudes toward her change.

“I felt like I was under a microscope and couldn’t really relax,” Phillips said. It felt as though her experience “didn’t matter” to the doctors, who seemed to be set on performing a C-section “so they could be done with it.”

Phillips, who lives in Richmond, eventually gave birth to a healthy baby girl without a C-section. But her hospital experience was painful and traumatic, and, as a Black woman, she wonders if part of that was due to unconscious biases among the health care workers or the institutional racism embedded in the medical system. Doctors often fail to listen to Black mothers, resulting in higher complications for their births, research has shown. Disregarding input from pregnant women increases the risk of death and complications for the mothers and their babies. C-section rates are also higher among Black women.

For her next three children, Phillips gave birth at home with midwife Laura Perez who listened to her needs while also providing medical care. The use of alternative birthing methods like home births and birthing centers has risen over the past decade, especially among Black women according to Bay Area doulas. Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die from childbirth than white women, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, partially because doctors often shrug off Black women’s concerns.

In 2020, 5,600 people gave birth outside a hospital in California, up from about 4,600 in 2019 and 3,500 in 2010 according to an analysis using California Department of Public Health data. Births outside of hospitals nationwide rose from 1 percent in 2009 to 1.6 percent in 2019. Data from 2020 and 2021, and data by race are not yet available, according to the report.

Across California, midwives and doulas are working to increase access to their services to more Black and brown women. Bay Area organizations like NuBirth Midwifery and the Oakland Better Birth Foundation are also raising awareness about the options people have to welcome a child into the world.

Some “women of color are unaware that there’s another way to be in your pregnancy, labor and birth, and postpartum than what’s generally done and prescribed,” said Perez, who works in San Francisco. “You can’t have access to something if you don’t know it exists.”

Perez has primarily worked with communities of color in the Bay Area. Her practice is rooted in traditional midwifery, which means she focuses on clients’ needs and their right to make their own decisions while also adhering to standard regulations as a licensed midwife in California.

“Part of the answer, in terms of access and addressing things like maternal mortality and infant mortality and morbidity, has to do with having providers coming from our own community,” said Perez, who has Native American and Peruvian ancestry.

To ensure her services are accessible to all who want them, she works on a sliding scale and offers bartering. Perez is also the mentorship program director at SisterWeb, a San Francisco-based network of community doulas that works to provide doulas free of charge to women who can’t afford one. A doula is a person that provides non-medical guidance, information, emotional support and comfort to a birthing or pregnant person.

According to Perez, women of color have been practicing midwifery for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Before women started going to hospitals to give birth, and before giving birth became a medical intervention, a birthing person would be surrounded by family and friends as a child was being born.

The mythology that women were not safe to give birth at home has been rooted in racism, sexism and xenophobia. Midwives who served Black or Native American families, or working-class immigrants were marginalized and even forced underground during the 20th century as states sought to restrict their practice and encourage women to give birth in hospitals, according to the National Association of Certified Professional Midwives.

Trained midwives were among the enslaved Africans brought on ships in the early 1600s. As chattel slavery boomed in the colonial United States, Black midwives were the primary source of care for both Black and white women and babies, according to researchers at Vassar College. Black midwives were well-respected members of the communities they served.

In the 1910’s, at a time when most women gave birth at home, white physicians began attributing high infant and maternal mortality rates to the “unsanitary” practices of traditional midwives. In Northeastern states, midwives were displaced as white women considered hospital births the “modern” and “advanced” form of delivery, according to researchers. Traditional midwives, also known as granny-midwives, were slowly erased as health care reformists pushed for midwives to become licensed professionals.

By the 1970s, midwifery practiced outside of hospitals started making a comeback, and has slowly increased in the decades since.

“Birth at home with a midwife is a woman of color’s birthright,” Perez said. “That’s why I do the work that I do.”

The Oakland Better Birth Foundation was founded by Samsarah Morgan, a doula, community activist, mother, grandmother and author. Morgan has worked as a doula for 42 years.

“We have been working on expanding our reach and ability for more folks to be able to have doula services and childbirth education in ways for people who would never have access to it,” Morgan said. “African American families need to have informed consent in order to avoid the pitfall of over-medicalized births and unnecessary cesarean births.” The Oakland Better Birth Foundation also operates on a sliding scale, meaning mothers and students have the option to pay whatever they have in order to receive Morgan’s services. Morgan invites people from the community to attend classes and workshops on how the body works, opening access to education.

Morgan has seen first-hand the disparity in treatment among low- and high-income communities in the Bay Area, as her clients come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. “Our mission is not to turn anyone away”, Morgan said.

Zaree Persley, a 21-year-old mother living in Hayward, gave birth to her daughter in February. Persley was an eager and excited first-time mom, and she hoped to give birth without hospital staff navigating her delivery for her. “I wanted freedom, mobility and one-on-one care,” she said.

But because nurses work in shifts, a woman could have as many as five to seven nurses during her delivery, leaving less time for individualized care. Five months into her pregnancy, Persley started seeking out birth centers, where she could labor with a midwife. She gave up when a birth center in Castro Valley asked for $6,500 up front, and another in San Mateo asked for a similar amount. Her only option was to stick with her HMO for care.

Doulas and midwives are often not covered by medical insurance. The state’s low-income health program, Medi-Cal, will occasionally cover midwifery care or a portion of the costs of birthing centers. Midwifery fees often cost around $5,000 or more per pregnancy. Doulas will be fully covered by Medi-Cal insurance starting in January of 2022, according to DHCS.

Doula services can sometimes be more affordable or free. Some city health departments, like Contra Costa Health Services, offer programs to people who want to be trained as a doula. Other hospitals, like San Francisco General Hospital and Dignity Health, have similar programs. After training, volunteers can offer services as a doula for a woman who can’t afford one.

On September 29, lawmakers passed the Black Maternal Health ‘Momnibus’ Act, a federal bill that addresses the higher maternal mortality rate among Black mothers. The bill aims to invest in factors that influence maternal health outcomes, like housing, transportation and nutrition, among a list of many other goals like more funding for organizations fighting health inequities and removing barriers to access.

At the first White House Maternal Health Day of Action on Dec. 7, Vice President Kamala Harris described the bill as “a comprehensive bill designed to improve maternal nutrition, to expand affordable housing, and to extend our maternal health workforce to include more doulas and midwives.”

The Momnibus bill would provide funding for doulas to work in hospitals under the supervision of hospital staff. The ultimate goal is to make doulas more accessible to women that would like to work with one but can’t afford one.

Some doulas, such as Morgan, oppose the bill because they fear the supervision would impose unnecessary constraints and regulations that will hinder doulas and prevent them from advocating for the mother when it’s dire. Others, like Perez, applaud the efforts of the Momnibus bill, but feel more still needs to be done to help Black mothers and their babies, because the problem of racism in health care is systemic.

“It’s like asking doulas to put a Band-Aid on something that is hemorrhaging,” Perez said. “It’s not enough.”


By : Myah Overstreet (California Health Report)

Date: January 31, 2022 

Source: Next City (https://nextcity.org/urbanist-news/how-midwives-and-doulas-are-working-to-end-birth-disparities) 


Are the social sciences and humanities positioned to meet key employment skills?

A new report explores the foundational skills today’s employers need, and the disconnect with what universities say their programs offer students.

A few years ago, our research team started work on a platform that offers innovative pathways to bring social sciences and humanities

researchers’ expertise – from philosophy and sociology to psychology, history, anthropology, cultural studies and beyond – where it is needed in the community. This project has been one way to reflect on a range of questions that go to the heart of the work universities do. One question, in particular, has kept resurfacing. What are the skills that make a social science and humanities (SSH) education valuable?

Outside the academic “ivory tower,” SSH tend to suffer from perceptions and value judgments that are often prejudicial and inaccurate, like calling a humanities degree a “barista degree” or assuming that the research is “really just common sense.”

In a report last year, the University of Toronto’s Jonathan Turner and I discussed how to leverage SSH talent, and how universities can support its development meaningfully. A number of recent reports and news articles cite prominent industry leaders who associate the future of a strong and resilient workforce with the social sciences and humanities (and sometimes arts) degrees precisely because they see valuable skills as their focus. Our new report, “Foundational Skills and What Social Sciences and Humanities Need to Know,” seeks to gauge employers’ skills needs to understand how SSH departments are positioned to meet them.

The report should be of interest to a broad range of people beyond those in industry who are worried about hiring a real-world ready workforce. It was designed also for deans, and department and committee chairs who make decisions about curriculum and programming in universities. Those who are in senior leadership positions and whose role it is to support student success and meaningful learning must also take note, as should government agencies responsible for supporting the development of emerging talent under increasingly complex conditions.

The report starts by drawing a picture of employers’ claims about what skills are needed and focuses on the claims about “foundational skills” specifically. These are the “soft,” “social,” “human,” “transferable” and/or “global” competencies that are increasingly associated with a social sciences and humanities education. We wanted to develop an analytical framework that could be expanded and used to help articulate the value of foundational skills in the context of employment. This is particularly relevant with increasingly frequent workforce disruptions. It allows employers to think about the concrete skills their employees need for their organization’s success. The framework also gives graduates tools to explain how the skills acquired through their education can be used and applied in various contexts.

Then, we set out to examine how Canadian universities promote social sciences and humanities programs to prospective students. We gauged the disconnect between employers’ needs and social sciences and humanities’ self-perceived ability to meet them. Predictably, SSH generally consider that it falls within their purview to help build the skills employers identify as central to innovation and adaptability, for instance. This includes critical thinking, effective problem-solving, creativity and analytical skills.

However, we were surprised to discover that the skills associated with socialemotional and ethical intelligence such as judgment, integrity, teamwork, self-management and intercultural awareness were almost completely overlooked, as if SSH degrees did not cultivate those skill sets.

One reason for this disconnect may be the gaps in our understanding of what the industry actually needs (as opposed to what they say they need, which is not based on data and evidence, and uses analyses that are often unreliable), and the nature and value of foundational skills and how they can be fostered. This represents a problem.

In order to make responsible and informed decisions, stakeholders across the board need to be equipped with the evidence and adequate conceptual tools to reflect on these questions. That is part of the reason why we need more research on all aspects of these issues.

But knowledge gaps are not the only factor when it comes to the disconnect between employers’ perceptions of their skills needs and social sciences and humanities’ apparent lack of readiness to fulfil these needs.

One obstacle might be cultural. Social scientists and humanists are understandably wary of being perceived to be the means of corporate gain. Another obstacle might have to do with what faculty members see as the role of academia, and they are right to exercise caution when it comes to making decisions about their programs that might affect their capacity to fulfil their mission. But this does not mean that SSH faculty should in principle be opposed to helping students hone and perfect foundational skills.

Just like SSH research, SSH graduates often end up shaping the public and not-for-profit sectors. They will find employment as civil servants, not-for-profit managers, judges and policy-makers. We must expect that whatever the positions in which SSH graduates land, foundational skills will be an ingredient of organizational efficiency. In order for economic, social, legal and political institutions to create and further the conditions of a fair and inclusive society, it is necessary to secure the participation of individuals who have the competencies for the relevant roles. This is directly relevant to SSH’s mission.

With this in mind, it is important to emphasize the importance of so-called “collaborative skills” that overlap substantially with those we use to describe social, emotional and ethical intelligence. They include teamwork, effective communication, self-management and intercultural awareness. Employers need employees who have these skills whether they operate in the private, public, or not-for-profit sector. Graduate students and researchers in social sciences and humanities also use these skills. Collaborative skills, however, are effectively amongst the hardest to foster meaningfully, and their development needs to be supported in ways that complement individual supervision.

The misalignment between SSH’s understanding of what employers need and what employers say they need raises a number of questions. Many of them point to missed opportunities to take control of the narrative around talent and re-affirm the academic mission, while at the same time securing the support of unexpected allies.


By:     Sandra Lapointe

Date:   February 2, 2021

Source:  Policy Options



A convergence research perspective on graduate education for sustainable urban systems science


Sustainable urban systems (SUS) science is a new science integrating work across established and emerging disciplines, using diverse methods, and addressing issues at local, regional, national, and global scales. Advancing SUS requires the next generation of scholars and practitioners to excel at synthesis across disciplines and possess the skills to innovate in the realms of research, policy, and stakeholder engagement. We outline key tenets of graduate education in SUS, informed by historical and global perspectives. The sketch is an invitation to discuss how graduates in SUS should be trained to engage with the challenges and opportunities presented by continuing urbanization.


Lobo, J., Alberti, M., Allen-Dumas, M. et al. A convergence research perspective on graduate education for sustainable urban systems science. npj Urban Sustain 1, 39 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42949-021-00044-8



The G20 Presidency of Indonesia: With Great Trust Comes Great Responsibility

Indonesia leads the G20 in the challenging and complex situation of global uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with its priority agenda around global health architecture, economic and digital transformation, and energy transition. The G20 presidency is significant for Indonesia, reflecting trust and honor in the country but also responsibility and opportunity, to contribute more to the global economic recovery and to align with ASEAN, Pacific and developing countries’ interests.

The G20 (Group of Twenty) was formed in 1999 when the monetary crisis severely hit Asia, which had been previously applauded as a region with the most promising economic potential. It was upgraded to the Leader’s Summit in 2008 when the global financial crisis (GFC) hit the US and made serious impacts on the international economy. The G20 played its key role as crisis responder to the two economic crises and led entire nations to survive the crises.

Now is the time for Indonesia to ensure that the G20 can help the world survive another unpredicted difficult crisis. It has been two years since the COVID-19 pandemic affected all aspects of human life in early 2020. Under the presidency of Indonesia, the G20 must formulate the best and comprehensive recovery strategies to effectively restore productivity and strong growth. At the same time, the G20 is also responsible for laying a solid foundation for accelerating green growth, in line with the global leaders’ commitment pledged at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). In this respect, the indicators of recovery do not only include inclusive and strong growth, high productivity, massive job creation, access to quality health facilities and the return of education to normalcy, but also the need to ensure that the overall recovery process shall not endanger the planet and future generations.

Three main priorities
The theme of the G20 presidency of Indonesia is Recover Together, Recover Stronger. Under its leadership, Indonesia wants to lead the G20 to build common efforts to make a stronger recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and enable sustainable and inclusive growth across the world. The expected primary outcome is a comprehensive exit strategy to support recovery, with a concrete and doable action plan.

Three major agendas have been selected as key pillars to formulate the strategies to accelerate this sustainable, inclusive and strong recovery: the global health architecture, economic and digital transformation, and energy transition.

For the first agenda, particular attention will be paid to efforts to ensure global health system resilience and to develop a global pooling resource mechanism for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response (PPR); initiatives for harmonizing global health protocol standards; technology transfer and equitable access to vaccine, therapeutics, and diagnostics production. In particular, Indonesia is offering to play a role as the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub to Asia. As its short-term goal, the G20 will help to achieve the ambitious target of 70% of the total population to be vaccinated by mid-2022. In the long run, this agenda will strengthen global health governance and architecture in the post-pandemic era.

The second agenda is economic and digital transformation specifically designed to restore the post-pandemic global economic order by leveraging digitalization. Indonesia will lead the G20 to focus on creating digital economic value to accelerate economic recovery, particularly to support the development and financial inclusion of MSMEs (micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises). Other focuses include the development of digital literacy and skills, digitization of sectors that constitute sources of new economic growth potential for the acceleration of economic recovery, and the necessity of global data governance. It is hoped that there will be better understanding of global data governance and the creation of economic value through the utilization of digital technology.

The third agenda is the energy transition aimed at strengthening the global sustainable energy system and a just transition. The priority issues include the expansion of energy access which focuses on clean cooking, electrification and small island countries, the escalation of viable clean technologies implementation, and the intensification of the financing of the energy transition. The immediate target of the presidency is to achieve a global deal on the acceleration of energy transition. This deal will contribute to the long-term agenda for supporting the global commitment to achieving the net zero emissions commitment. Indonesia’s presidency wishes to demonstrate that the G20 shall take a higher degree of responsibility for supporting the global leaders’ commitment at COP26, following the legacy of the Italian presidency that put the protection of the planet as one of its priority agendas.

The G20 presidency of Indonesia will organize around 150 meetings at different levels including one Summit, 19 ministerial meetings, 7 Sherpa (deputy) meetings, 70 working group meetings, and 51 engagement group meetings, as well as several relevant side events.

Priority issues in the Finance Track
To support the theme of Recover Together, Recover Stronger, the Finance Track envisages the realization of three ambitious targets in the post-pandemic era. The first is a more productive and balanced global economy that will be promoted through an even recovery and an enhanced efficiency in the economy. The second is a greater financial and monetary system stability which will be achieved through the increase of financial system resilience and macroeconomic stability. The third is broader equality and sustainability through sustainable and inclusive growth.

To strengthen recovery and sustain inclusive growth, the Finance Track addresses six priority issues. The first is the exit strategy to support recovery, which includes a macro exit policy and a financial sector exit policy. The second addresses the scarring effect in real and financial sectors to secure future growth. The third is the digital payment system, with particular attention paid to cross-border payment and central bank digital currencies (CBDC) by exploring macro-financial implications and options for cross-border interlinking.

The fourth priority issue is sustainable finance which covers the discussion on the incorporation of transition finance in the sustainable finance alignment, the development of market infrastructure to enhance accessibility and affordability of sustainable finance, and the development of policy levers to incentivize financing and investment to support sustainable development. The fifth consists of digital financial inclusion and SME (small and mid-sized enterprise) financing, with attention on to how to harness digitalization to improve productivity and inclusion, especially for underserved communities, the implementation of a framework for High Level Principles for Digital Financial Inclusion policy options to leverage digital financial services, and good practices to improve financial services for SMEs.

The sixth issue is international taxation, which addresses the international tax package, tax certainty, tax transparency, tax and development, environment and tax, and tax and gender.

Priority issues in the Sherpa Track
There are four priority agendas in the Sherpa Track: (1) Devising a comprehensive exit strategy to support recovery; (2) Meeting the vaccination target; (3) Transforming the economy with the benefits of digitalization; and (4) Securing access to technology and funds for energy transition. The priority issues are selected carefully by the Indonesian presidency to reflect the urgent needs for finding exit strategies to support inclusive and strong recovery that will create a conducive environment for future generations.

Every working group develops specific priorities according to its main responsibilities. For example, the Health Working Group addresses the global preparedness and response, the health system transformation, and antimicrobial resistance. The Digital Economy Working Group focuses on connectivity and post COVID-19 recovery, digital skills and literacy, and cross-border data flow and data-free flow with trust.

The Energy Transition Working Group concerns itself with strategies for securing energy accessibility, scaling up smart and clean technology, and advancing energy financing. The Environment and Climate Sustainability Working Group is responsible for discussing the environment and climate change-related issues and identifying strategies to support more sustainable recovery, enhance land-and-sea-based actions to support environment protection and climate objectives, mobilize resources to protect the environment and achieve climate objectives.

The Employment Working Group discusses sustainable job creation in the context of the changing world of work, including the labor market and affirmative decent jobs suitable for persons with disabilities, human capacity development for sustainable growth and productivity improvement, and adaptive labor protection. The Development Working Group pays attention to strategies to strengthen recovery and resilience to withstand future crises, to scale up the innovative financing instrument for sustainable development, to renew global commitment to multilateralism for sustainable development and to coordinate the G20’s achievement in the implementation of SDGs.

Particular attention is also paid to the tourism sector which has suffered considerably because of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak since early 2020. The Tourism Working Group carries an important role to support the revival of the tourism sector through the innovative and creative economy in tourism, and strengthening the community as agents of change for tourism transformation in the post-pandemic era.

As the pandemic has also caused the decline in international trade volume and foreign direct investment, the Trade, Investment and Industry Working Group (TIIWG) aims to address the obstacle of international trade and investment. A stronger multilateral system for a robust global recovery, reliable global value chains for “building back better” and incentivizing sustainable investment are three main specific issues to be discussed. The Indonesian presidency also proposes the inclusion of industry to be discussed in this group, adding to the initiative of renaming the TIWG to TIIWG. The acceleration of industry 4.0 for inclusive and sustainable industrialization has been chosen as a priority issue.

The Finance and Health Joint Task Force (FHTF)
Health has become the most pivotal issue during the pandemic. At the Rome Summit in 2021, G20 leaders agreed to set up a special task force with a mandate to strengthen global preparedness in bringing the pandemic under control through prevention, preparedness and response (PPR). G20 leaders have also agreed to work closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure every nation should have fair access to vaccines, therapeutic and diagnostic production and facilities.

The formation of the Task Force is highly significant for securing pathways to recovery as the condition of health constitutes necessary foundations for the exit strategy. No-one will be safe until everyone has been vaccinated. The first and immediate responsibility is thus to find the best possible ways to ensure that 70% of the total world population will be vaccinated by mid-2022. If this is not accomplished, the recovery process will take longer.

The FHTF consists of representatives of the G20 Finance Ministries and Health Ministries and coordinates closely with the WHO. At the first meeting in December 2021, the Task Force set up a work plan and a road map, formed a secretariat in the house (headquarters) of the WHO, and addressed the PPR financing gap between countries. The first meeting highlighted the importance of the FHTF to support collective efforts to strengthen global coordination and cooperation in addressing the current pandemic and anticipating similar unpredictable pandemics in the future.


Outreach to include other nations

Outreaching to non-G20 members has been used as a strategy to respond to the critique of exclusivity which refers to having a very limited number of members, by addressing the interests of all countries in the world instead. Indonesia has invited the Netherlands, Spain, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates to participate in the G20 meetings.

Appearing on the list of invitees are also several regional organizations which had been traditionally invited in previous presidencies. The Democratic Republic of Congo joins the G20 meetings to represent the African Union, Cambodia to represent ASEAN, and Rwanda to represent the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). Based on its privilege as the holder of the G20 presidency, Indonesia has invited Fiji to represent the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), and has invited the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to contribute to the negotiation process along with the G20’s longstanding partners such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the International Labour Organization, and the WHO.


What does the G20 Presidency mean for Indonesia and the region?

Indonesia holds its role of the G20 presidency in high esteem, with President Joko Widodo proudly suggesting that it means a form of trust and honor given by global leaders to Indonesia: “This trust is an opportunity for Indonesia to contribute more to the global economic recovery, to build a globally sounder, fairer and more sustainable governance based on independence, perpetual peace and social justice.” He also highlighted that under Indonesia’s presidency, the G20 will articulate the aspirations and interests of developing countries.

The Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs has echoed the President’s message, saying that the G20 Presidency is a privilege that brings great responsibility. Indonesia must now show its global leadership competence to the worldwide community and determine the global agenda setting. Indonesia bears the responsibility to set its presidency as the momentum of global transformation to build the post-pandemic global economy and health architecture better. Indonesia must strengthen key sectors in the economy through the G20 in trade, investment, employment, agriculture, health, education, human capital, and MSMEs. Indonesia must also convey its leadership by ensuring that the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 target is on track.

The G20 presidency has philosophical and constitutional meaning as well. In 1945, the founding fathers of the Indonesian republic envisaged a visionary role according to which the country must contribute actively to the establishment of a world order, based on freedom, perpetual peace and social justice. Here comes the golden opportunity to translate the constitutional mandate into reality.

The Minister of Finance has highlighted the importance of Indonesia in the G20’s presidency in designing an economic policy to support recovery. As the largest emerging economy among ASEAN members that has a stable political system, Indonesia can exercise its leadership to shape highly strategic policies that affect the global economy.

Indonesia’s chairmanship in the G20 is also very important for ASEAN members and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). Three ASEAN members will be at the negotiation table along with G20 members, representatives of many leading international organizations and other invitees. The G20 priority agendas reflect ASEAN’s high priority interests. The first is to help all ASEAN members to survive the pandemic, find the best exit strategies to make a strong recovery and subsequently further pursue the regional integration that will deliver welfare for all of the nations in the region. For island countries in the south Pacific, the Indonesian presidency of the G20 brings new hope: the island countries will not only recover from the pandemic, but also survive the threat of climate change. The recovery strategy shall thus also lay strong foundations to protect all forms of human life from natural catastrophes caused by the failure of global leaders to agree on which concrete actions to take in order to tackle current climate change.


Dr. Yulius Purwadi Hermawan is a lecturer in International Relations at Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung, Indonesia and consultant for international development cooperation and foreign policy inputs. He has been researching on G20 issues since 2010.


By: Yulius Purwadi Hermawan

Date: January 31, 2022

Source: Heinrich Boll Foundation