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Sparks – Channel 4 News

Sparks, the iconic music duo otherwise known as Ron and Russell Mael. The American pop and round band have influenced generations upon generations of musicians over the years from the glam rock of the 1970s through to indie bands of the 80s and 90s.

Ron and Russell talk to Krishnan about how they have succeeded in the music industry for half a century and why they want their songs to make people think.


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So join us as we explore the big ideas changing the way we think, act and live – and how much impact we can really have as individuals.

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‘It’s becoming increasingly dangerous to speak out about Zimbabwean government’ – writer Tsitsi Dangarembga – Channel 4 News

The Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga almost didn’t get published at all. But even though her debut novel – when it finally came out – attracted international acclaim, publishing the next two still wasn’t easy.

Now, while the third part of her trilogy has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Ms Dangarembga was arrested in July this year after joining anti-government protests in Zimbabwe, in opposition to president Emmerson Mnangagwa who was sworn in three years ago, replacing the long time dictator Robert Mugabe.

We asked Ms Dangarembga about the circumstances which had led to her arrest.

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‘I want to see young people writing about nature’ – Channel 4 News

His writing has been praised by nature writers and naturalists alike and he’s been described as the young star of the Conservation movement.

Autistic teenager Dara McAnulty is the youngest ever winner of a major literary prize. He won the Wainwright Prize about an hour ago for his moving and heartfelt chronicle, reflecting on nature and the world’s changing biosphere.

Here is Dara reading an extract from his book, Diary of A Young Naturalist.

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Pandemic life and hope – VoxEurop (English)

The day is grey, cold and rainy. I’m shivering in my light summer dress while waiting our turn to dance during the May Day parade in Minsk. As we waltz by the grandstand full of top state officials, I notice that they are bundled up in hats, gloves and coats. At the end of the huge square, my grandmother is waiting for me. Usually smiling, she looks worried as she wraps me in a warm jacket. As soon as we are home, she rushes me into the shower and vigorously scrubs me with soap. It is May 1, 1986, five days after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. There is still no official news about the disaster and the government is hiding the truth, but everybody whispers that something terrible has happened. 

This childhood flashback came to me as I watched the surrealistic streams from this year’s May 9 Victory Day parade that took place despite the coronavirus pandemic. Belarus’ permanent president Lukashenka in his military uniform, surrounded with elderly veterans – none of them wearing a mask – proudly oversaw hundreds of soldiers and students marching by a live crowd in Minsk. In his address he claimed: “We had no other choice, and if we had, we would have done the same.” He suggested that we owe our lives to those who died in the war.

The parade and Lukashenka’s speech caused an outcry. Unlike 1986, Belarusians today are well-informed about the danger and scale of the Covid crisis in Belarus and elsewhere thanks to the internet and smartphones. The public’s response was that our grandparents who suffered for us wouldn’t want to see us die from a virus helped to spread by a parade. 

The authoritarian regime can still force citizens to attend and march in parades, but it has lost control over the information space. In the Soviet tradition, the state first tried to squelch news about the virus. But people started sharing their stories online and reports spread like wildfire through social networks, messengers, and online outlets. Independent journalists published the Covid stories of ordinary people and exposed the poor state of the healthcare system and its lack of means to protect patients and staff.

By making endless inquiries to state institutions and asking uncomfortable questions to state officials they succeeded in breaking the government’s information blockade and forcing the authorities to provide regular updates. However, the state continues to obfuscate, avoid responsibility, and try to silence critical voices. People here know all too well that, when the state TV promises the situation is under control, it means things are really bad. They have learned from this regime that, at such times, they have no choice but to take the initiative themselves. And they have. 

While Lukashenka issued hollow orders – shaking the air with empty words, as my grandmother used to say – for protective gear nobody had and blamed frontline doctors for getting infected, volunteers urgently launched a crowdfunding campaign, purchased thousands of respirators, safety masks with filters, and delivered them to hospitals across the country in just a few days. Several of the capital’s trendy restaurants, whose clients were mainly hipsters, switched to making free meals and delivering lunchboxes for medical workers.

The Minsk Hackerspace tech club designed and manufactured plastic face shields for healthcare staff using 3D-printer technology. A popular local clothing brand made reusable protective wear. A tech startup working on a VR suit produced masks. Hundreds of private companies and thousands of citizens donated money to support healthcare institutions and victims. Different civic initiatives joined forces in the national #BYCOVID19 campaign and raised 250,000 dollars in 45 days in one of Europe’s poorest countries. 

For more than two decades, the regime has tried to suppress freedom of association and expression by staging fake elections, building a propaganda machine, controlling the private sector, and employing pervasive repression. And yet today we see that it has failed. The remarkable response of citizens to the Covid crisis shows that civil society is rising in Belarus, despite adverse conditions. The so-called “strong state” is, in fact, a bully who is confused and cowardly in the face of a real threat. Committed and courageous citizens, who have self-organized and mobilized so quickly and on such a large scale, are proving more effective than the state’s bumbling bureaucracy. In Belarus, authoritarianism doesn’t seem to be the answer. 

Unfortunately, arrogant rulers rarely admit mistakes or back down. On the contrary, they often become even more aggressive. Rather than words of compassion and gratitude, Belarusians hear angry and threatening speeches from our head of state. Transparency and accountability remain alien concepts for government institutions. The virus has exposed the inability of the authorities to act responsively and responsibly. Accordingly, public trust has fallen. 

It seems to me that there is greater dissent in society now, across more groups, than ever before. With a presidential election scheduled for August, protests are starting to break out. These are led by bloggers who have been trying to hold the government accountable and speak truth to power. Medical workers, disappointed by the inability of the state to protect and support them, have joined demonstrations and spoke openly online for the first time. Some have been arrested and lost their jobs.

We’ve seen this story before. The police break up the protests and persecute activists, journalists and bloggers, even those diagnosed with the virus and already in hospitals. And our servile courts continue to sentence them to prison terms. But somehow this feels different. 

At the moment, Belarusians are focused on surviving the virus. But as uncertain as post-pandemic life might look like, people are already questioning if they want to see the existing state order in their tomorrow. Three decades ago, it took a tragedy at Chernobyl to shock people into perceiving a different future and launching the changes that led to a new and independent Belarus. Like then, the changes will not come fast or easy this time. But at this strange and challenging moment, I feel very proud of my compatriots and hopeful about my country’s future.

This piece is dedicated to the life and work of Yuri Zisser, a pioneer of internet media in Belarus, founder of the country’s largest independent portal, philanthropist, and renaissance man, who passed away on 18 May 17.

This article is part of the Debates Digital project, a series of digitally published content including texts and live discussions by some of the outstanding writers, scholars and public intellectuals who are part of the Debates on Europe network. An online discussion with the authors will take place on 9 June at 7 PM CEST, and will be streamed on YouTube.

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J’accuse! The Case for Pre-modernism, or, the Rural-urban Divide

Emile Zola’s now world-famous letter to the President of the French Republic, dated 13 January 1898, “J’Accuse!” (complete text of the letter in English translation here), set the stage for correcting a grave miscarriage of justice carried out by the French military and the secular French state against an innocent Jewish military officer, Alfred Dreyfus.  The degree of corruption that Zola identified in his letter occurred not in pre-Revolutionary France as a mobilizing force for the (secular) revolution.  Rather, it occurred in late-19th century France, a hundred years after the Revolution, at the height of modernism, secularism, and centralized state authority.

Without the Dreyfus Affair, which Zola brought to light with his letter, Theodore Herzl might not have had his political conversion experience in which he lost faith in the promises of the European secular Enlightenment and decided that Jews must have a national home of their own to defend their interests everywhere.  The Dreyfus Affair was some combination of beginning-point and turning-point for Herzl, as with many Jewish Europeans at the time.

Political corruption, then, for small favors or nodes of power that seem consequential at the time may end with results in world historical shifts that the small (and large) instigators would never anticipate, nor likely desire.  It is unlikely that the anti-Semites who wrongfully imprisoned Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason would have favored the establishment of a Jewish state.  At the risk of being too cheeky, although not, I think, heretical, the Dreyfus-Zola-Herzl-Israel chain of (at least in retrospect) path-dependent events is some of the best evidence I have ever heard for the existence of God – and that S/He has an awesome sense of humor.

Enter several of my great intellectual heroes, including James Scott, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Clifford Geertz, Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, Timothy Mitchell, E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Mircea Eliade.  Putting them together suggests a story for the late-modern era (approx. mid-1700s to present) that looks something like the following:

Modernist bureaucrats and technocrats, acting upon their [almost certainly woefully flawed] understandings of contemporary science decide to raze the center of cities like Paris, or to flatten villages altogether.  They replace said cities, towns, and neighborhoods with quarters built upon grids that will require no local knowledge to navigate.  Local practices – social, political, economic, and otherwise – are violently, non-violently, and through intimidation crushed and banned in efforts to “homogenize” the populations into something that bureaucrats and technocrats can understand as one people or nation.  The state takes over lands that had supported many peoples, who are thus evicted and made homeless.  It takes over agriculture, or, it works in tandem with a few capital holders to institute mono-cropping on said lands, which results in forest death in old growth forests in parts of Europe.

According to Emile Durkheim, God, Grandfather and Grandmother are replaced with the [centralized] State in effort to maintain social solidarity based upon a social unit too small to have any chance of success at ever achieving social solidarity (e.g., the nuclear family).  The state is suddenly fascinated with collecting all manner of intimate minutiae about its citizens and its landscape, including family practices and home addresses for whatever eventualities might arise in terms of the state’s need to know (Enter, the state as voyeur.)

The “thick description” and “local knowledge” necessary to navigate (what Scott calls to “make legible”) pre-modern towns, villages, cities, agricultural works, and social relations (e.g., privacy) is replaced with the great impersonal (centralized and benevolent) State.  In reality, ethnographic variation, social solidarity, and the local knowledge needed to navigate it all are replaced with anomie for many and suicide for some (in increasing numbers at the time).  For others, new enforced land laws eventually result in mass migration to urban centers, and the demotion of agricultural peasants – who freely directed their own personal schedules and largely engaged in self-rule at the local level – to urban factory workers (e.g., prior to approximately the early 20th century, paid slave labor), often with no political franchise.

The replacement of God with secular authority is a significant part of the picture, as seen in important fictional works from the period, such as The Brothers KaramazovThe grounding, stabilizing, and (emphasis on self-) self-disciplining effect of experiencing the Divine for most people is crushed (at least in public expression) and discredited as a sort of heresy against modernism in what has long-since come to be known as modernization theory.

Closer to home, (sub-)urban cultural norms – which many officials and academics alike appear to approach as necessarily hegemonic, or which, at the least, go unquestioned as naturally hegemonic – are contrasted with that great enemy, Country Music, in as much as it appears to (and does) represent a sort of cultural and political opposition to the cultural hegemony of the Center.  In the U.S., by my observation, said self-appointed (cultural) hegemonic Center is dispersed geographically but is represented primarily by people whose families came from the Eastern Seaboard at least as recently as the 1950s and 1960s.

(Sub-)urban politics vis à vis rural peoples today smack of the worst of 19th century technocratic efforts to quash difference.  Difference and diversity exist within ethnic groups, not only across them. I suggest the rural/urban as our great and typically unquestioned divide in significant parts of the West today.  With it come our own religious-secular tensions, or what I am calling premodernism (e.g., an evoking of tradition in religion and social practices) in contrast to and in conflict with both modernization and postmodernization.  The latter two, when it comes to these questions, are very much the same in orientation: secular, top-down, authoritarian, and disappointingly non-self-reflective.

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