Christopher F. Rufo, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything. New York: Broadside Books, 2023. 352 pages.

By the end of the last century, the Soviet model of revolutionary communism had been totally discredited everywhere it had been tried, and it seemed that the world had moved beyond the promises of Marx, Lenin and Mao. Except that it hadn’t, according to Christopher Rufo. In his book America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything, which hit stores this summer, he claims that, over time, the cultural version of left-wing revolution found a new home in the institutions of America. But it was only with the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 that it came to the surface among elites in education, the media and even big business.

I had never heard of Rufo when I encountered an article in a recent issue of the Economist that briefly summarized his ideas, noting his wide influence on the American right. I was intrigued enough to track down this book and soon understood why he has risen to prominence among American conservatives. He is very well read and writes clearly and interestingly about complex issues and ideas.

Rufo was raised by Italian immigrants in Sacramento and educated at Georgetown University. He began working as a documentary filmmaker, based in Seattle. He attracted attention when he attacked the city of Seattle in an article for City Journal, the magazine of the Manhattan Institute: “Under the banner of ‘antiracism,’ Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights is now explicitly endorsing principles of segregationism, group-based guilt, and race essentialism – ugly concepts that should have been left behind a century ago.”

The story generated leaks from civil servants who recorded and photographed their own antiracism training sessions and sent the evidence to Rufo. His reputation spread through the right-wing media, notably when Tucker Carlson became an ally and relied on him in his hour-long episode on “woke education.” His prominence has brought many thousands to his tip line, culled by an assistant. It took off in July 2020, when an employee of the city of Seattle sent him a video of a documented antibias training session.

Rufo ends his book with a call for a counteroffensive in the war of ideas to expose the nature of this ideology and how it operates within institutions. It would be easy to write off his claims, but it would be a mistake to do so. Rufo has done his homework, gathering and synthesizing in one place the existing evidence that supports those claims. His portrayal gives coherence to the “new right” interpretation of ongoing events that can be seen on Fox News and other media outlets, in think tanks on the right and among contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, Ron DeSantis in particular. In campaigning for the Republican nomination, Florida’s governor said he would “slit throats” in the federal bureaucracy by eliminating four federal agencies – the departments of Education, Commerce and Energy and the Internal Revenue Service – if elected president.

Rufo’s call for a cultural counteroffensive is being applied to Florida’s New College, the progressive public liberal arts school singled out by DeSantis for cultural transformation. New College ended gender studies and is setting up new majors in finance, communications and sports psychology. Appointed by DeSantis to its board of trustees, Rufo announced that it would be “the first public university in America to begin rolling back the encroachment of gender ideology and queer theory on its academic offerings,” a demonstration project to be replicated by red states nationwide.

The four prophets

The question of left-wing revolution was suddenly reopened. But to explain it, to understand the “dizzying cultural changes that have swept across the United States in the Black Lives Matter street revolution, the spread of racialist ideology in public education, and the rise of the ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ bureaucracy,” this book sets out to trace these ideas back to their origins in the student uprisings, urban riots and revolutionary violence of 1968 that provided “the template” for everything that followed. In this period, left-wing intellectuals developed a new theory of revolution in the West and their most dedicated disciples printed pamphlets, detonated homemade bombs and dreamed of overthrowing the state. As Rufo puts it, his goal is to “to reveal the inner history of America’s cultural revolution, tracing the arc of its development from its origin point to the present day.”

The book is divided into four parts: revolution, race, education and power. Each part begins with a biographical portrait of a prophet of the revolution: Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire and Derrick Bell (I admit that Bell, like Rufo, was new to me). These figures established the disciplines of critical theory, critical praxis, critical pedagogy and critical race theory, which “multiplied into a hundred subdisciplines and devoured the university, the street, the school, and the bureaucracy.” These critical theories “were not designed to operate as mere abstractions. They were designed as political weapons and oriented toward the acquisition of power.”

The bulk of this book relies on long quotes from the four, beginning with Marcuse, the preeminent philosopher of the New Left, whose writings sought to mobilize the White intelligentsia and the Black ghetto as a new proletariat. Then comes Davis, Marcuse’s student, who gave immediacy to the pledge to violently overthrow the state and became the face of racial revolt in the West. Freire, a Brazilian Marxist, sought to turn schools into instruments of revolution and inspired educational reformers (I met an American guru spouting this line in all seriousness when he was an invited speaker at the Umea University Education Faculty in Sweden). Bell, a Harvard law professor, recruited a cadre of students whose mission was to spread critical race theory through elite institutions.

By using quotes, Rufo avoids positive distortions, but his selectivity allows him to provide one-sided portraits while claiming a greater consistency among the four than an objective analysis would reveal. Nevertheless, it’s worth paying attention to the concrete examples he has identified in his research on the extremes to which the application of Freire’s ideas to American schools has gone. A long chapter describes how the post–George Floyd developments in Seattle played out in “mob rule” in that city.

Having deeply penetrated local politics, the media and the bureaucracy, local radicals set up barricades and established an autonomous zone (CHAZ). They sought to abolish the police and the courts and to close jails, what Rufo describes as their Paris Commune moment. He provides a vivid description of what transpired in CHAZ, where identity (Indigenous, Black, trans women …) determined social rank and access to positions and favourable treatment while Whites were to practise decolonization rituals, and social order quickly degenerated into violence until finally police authority was reestablished.

Though CHAZ failed, its underlying ideas had found their way, as Rufo describes it, into the Seattle school district, with its 52,000 students and billion-dollar budget, of which at least $5 million goes to its race and identity programs whose several hundred employees are tasked with designing programs to counter the race-based, White supremacist society. Even math is not spared, since Western math has been used “to oppress and marginalize people and communities of colour.” Racial equity teams are sent to the schools to form educators tasked with implementing antiracist pedagogy, notably through meetings in which teachers confess and renounce their status as colonizers.

In a chapter entitled “Marxism Conquers the American Classroom,” Rufo sets out the process through which local American school authorities, most notably in California, adopted Freire’s revolutionary pedagogy.

As he describes it, California’s ethnic studies curriculum for 10,000 public schools starts from the assumption that students must be taught to “challenge racist, bigoted, discriminatory, imperialist/colonialist beliefs” and to participate in “social movements that build new possibilities for a post-racist society.” Teachers are encouraged to lead their students in Indigenous songs, chants and affirmations, including one appealing directly to Aztec gods, which, he points out, were worshipped with human sacrifice and cannibalism. In the vision statement prepared by the Board of Education, the goal is to provide a “tool for … social, economic and political change and transformation”:

During the teacher training session, the teachers were told that the settler colonialist regime exists as long as settlers are living on appropriated land and they should awaken students to the oppression and eventually destroy the dominant political regime. Ethnic studies is a requirement for graduation in California.

To achieve these goals, departments of ethnic studies were established first in the universities and then in the school districts. They also, Rufo adds, serve to provide jobs for college graduates in race and identity studies. He notes that while between 1970 and 2010 the number of students in U.S. public schools increased by 9 per cent, administrators’ numbers mushroomed by 130 per cent. Now only half their employees actually teach.

The long march through the institutions

According to Rufo, while during the 1970s the most violent elements of the New Left coalition – the Weather Underground, Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army – fell apart, “the spirit of their revolution carried on in a subtler but equally dangerous form.” The most sophisticated activists and intellectuals of the New Left initiated a new strategy, the “long march through the institutions” – out of the streets and into the universities, schools, newsrooms and bureaucracies.

They developed intricate theories along the lines of culture, race and identity and “silently rooted them into the entire range of America’s knowledge-making institutions.” The process was so gradual and bureaucratic that it largely escaped the notice of the American public, until it burst into consciousness following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. In response, there came a “stampede toward identity politics,” which was embraced by leaders in business, sports, the media and other segments of society. It surfaced notably in Florida, pitting Governor DeSantis against the beloved Disney Corporation:

These developments signaled that the New Left’s long march through the institutions has reached its endgame, installing a sanitized version of their ideas first formulated in the radical pamphlets of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army into school curricula, popular media, government policy, and corporate human resources programs, into the official ideology of America’s elite institutions, from the Ivy Leagues to the boardrooms of Walmart, Disney, Verizon, American Express, and Bank of America …

The critical theories of 1968 have turned into a substitute morality: racism is elevated into the highest principle; society is divided into a crude moral binary of “racist” and “antiracist”; and a new bureaucratic logic is required to adjudicate guilt and redistribute wealth, power, and privilege. To enforce this new orthodoxy, left-wing activists have established departments of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” across an entire stratum of the public and private bureaucracies. Allies are rewarded with status, position, and employment. Dissenters are shamed, marginalized, and sent into moral exile. The ultimate goal is still revolutionary … to replace individual rights with group-identity-based rights, enact a scheme of race-based wealth redistribution, and suppress speech, based on a new racial and political calculus. They want a “total rupture” with the existing order.

Still, despite its successful blitz through the institutions, the revolution has its limits. It cannot escape the fundamental contradictions that have plagued it since its beginning. The revolution is not a path to liberation; it is an iron cage. Although it may seem that America’s cultural revolution has entered a period of dominance, the space between its ambitions and its outcomes has left open the possibility of reversal. The intellectual movement that began in 1968 was able to initiate the process of dismantling the old values, but it could not build a new set of values to replace them. The revolution’s proponents have not been able to reorder the deeper structures of society.

Rufo’s task as counterrevolutionary is not simply to halt the movement of his adversaries but to resurrect the system of values, symbols, myths and principles that constituted the essence of the old regime, to “make the eternal principles of freedom and equality meaningful again to the common citizen … This counter-revolution is already forming and staking out the territory for the fight ahead. The question now is which vision of America will prevail and which vision will return into the void.”

The enemy vision patiently built itself in the shadows and then, after the killing of George Floyd, exploded onto the American scene with its narrative inherited from the New Left of the late sixties and seventies: America was an irredeemably racist nation; Whites constituted a permanent oppressor class; the country could be saved only through the performance of elaborate guilt rituals and the wholesale overturning of its founding principles:

All of the formative institutions – universities, schools, corporations, government agencies – repeated the revolution’s vocabulary like a mantra:“systemic racism,” “white privilege,” “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Meanwhile, in the streets, mobs of left-wing rioters expressed the ideology in physical form, toppling statues of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln and burning entire city blocks to the ground.

Buy the trees, reject the forest

As I read what he wrote, and as I write this, I have been asking: how seriously we are to take Rufo’s claims and the agenda he sets out? As readers of Inroads know, I follow American politics closely, almost obsessively. In recent years, I have tried vainly to make sense of what seem to be simply absurdities on the right. There is, however, no escaping the fact that up to 40 per cent of Americans see what is happening in their country as resulting from a conspiracy against them – the true patriots – that has penetrated and stolen the institutions of their country. Rufo’s internally consistent account, however exaggerated, gives coherence to their beliefs.

If we set aside the wider claims, we can readily appreciate the author’s diligence in tracking down and bringing to our attention details of cases that highlight the extremism that has mobilized on the left (sic) on what we might term “woke” issues. He also brings out what can only be described as the intellectual shoddiness of the positions he attacks. At the same time, we must keep in mind that Rufo, like all conspiracy theorists, however sophisticated and well-informed, has an agenda that makes him selective, excluding cases that do not fit into his narrative. In sum, with reservations we can buy the trees but reject the forest.

Although briefly attracted to Marcuse and critical theory, I soon realized that there was little practical substance in the call to mobilize the White intelligentsia and the Black ghetto as a new proletariat. The ideological continuity that Rufo portrays leading up to the Black Lives Matter street revolution, the spread of racial ideology in public education and the rise of the “diversity, equity and inclusion” bureaucracy is more than anything else in the eye of the beholder. My experience tells me that, while not entirely giving up hope for social betterment, our generation took its distance from these next waves and often called out their weaknesses despite the pressure of political correctness.

I am thus not persuaded that a movement bringing “dizzying” cultural changes that have swept across the United States has captured America’s institutions. Nevertheless, it is important to read and understand Rufo’s argument, since it synthesizes and deepens what every one of a hundred million Americans believes. Rufo’s imagined reader understands intuitively that “appeals to a new system of governance based on diversity, equity, and inclusion are a pretense for establishing a political order that is hostile to his values, even if he does not yet possess the vocabulary to pierce through the shell of euphemism and describe its essence.”

The aspiration of America’s Cultural Revolution, as Rufo puts it, is to open his eyes. It is to reveal the nature of the critical theories, to establish the facts about the new ideological regime and to prepare the grounds for revolting against it. It should also open our eyes as to what lies beneath the support for Trump, DeSantis et al., and the challenge of taking it on.

A tyrannical FBI?

Perhaps the best indicator of how people Rufo seeks to mobilize think is their attitude toward the FBI, until recently the most respected institution among patriotic Americans. Only 17 per cent of Republicans view it positively. At a hearing of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives last July 12, various Republicans issued demands to “defund the FBI” (Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia even sold T-shirts with the slogan). Below are excerpts from their questioning of Christopher Wray, the Trump-appointed head of the FBI, and before that senior political appointee in the George W. Bush Justice Department, clerk to a noted conservative judge and contributor to the Federalist Society:

Chair Jim Jordan (Ohio): “American speech is censored. Parents are called terrorists. Catholics are called radicals.”

Harriet Hageman (Wyoming): “You have personally worked to weaponize the FBI against conservatives.” The FBI is doing the “dirty work” of “mass censorship” to “suppress the First Amendment” as part of a supposed “two-tiered justice system that has been weaponized to persecute people.”

Mike Johnson (Louisiana): Your FBI “suppressed conservative-leaning free speech.”

Matt Gaetz (Florida): You are “protecting the Bidens”, “blissfully ignorant as to the Biden shakedown regime”, “whitewashing the conduct of corrupt people” and operating a “creepy personal snoop machine.”

Victoria Spartz (Indiana): You engage in “unlawful surveillance of American citizens, intimidation of American citizens … potential coverups of convenient political figures and potential setups of inconvenient political figures.”

Troy Nehls (Texas): The January 6 investigation is a “political witch hunt against the greatest president in my lifetime … more concerned about searching for and arresting grandma and grandpa for entering the Capitol building that day than pursuing the sick individuals in our society who prey on our children.”

Chip Roy (Texas): A “tyrannical FBI storming the home of an American family.”

Dan Bishop (North Carolina): The FBI is the “agent of a foreign power.”

Tom Tiffany (Wisconsin): The FBI “interfered with the elections in both 2016 and 2020.”

Image via FinnishGovernment, Wikimedia Commons

As I began to write this article, which argues that Finland today constitutes the best expression of the Nordic model, I received a discouraging note from a Finnish friend. A new government had finally been formed almost two months after the April election. The negotiations resulted in what he described as Finland’s most conservative government since the war, dominated by the centre-right Conservatives and the right-wing, nationalist Finns Party. It planned to restrict the rights of immigrants, downplay the green transformation, make it harder to strike and easier to sack employees, tighten criteria for most social benefits and increase police and military budgets while reducing development aid by a third.

Was my friend, a longtime activist with the Finnish Left Alliance, justified in his fears that this could constitute a Zeitewende, a turning point away from the Nordic model? So far, there is no indication that, although it is tightening the rules, the new government is challenging this country of 5.6 million people’s expectation of receiving high-quality universal public services. What its program does call into question is the inclusiveness of the model – its welcoming and integrating newcomers. However, recent events suggest that such a turnaround is unlikely.

The election result was unexpected. For the sixth straight year, Finland was designated the world’s happiest country by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. For several decades, election outcomes have reflected overall popular satisfaction, producing oversized multiparty coalitions transcending right-left polarization. The expected outcome of the spring election was thus of outgoing Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s Social Democratic Party leading another such coalition. But it was not to be. Unexpectedly, the surging Finns won more votes than the Social Democrats (20.1 versus 19.9 per cent), making it possible for the Conservatives (who came in first with 20.8 per cent) to look to their right for a coalition partner.

This development is all the more disappointing since in the last decade, Finland had been replacing Sweden as the fullest incarnation of the Nordic model. In Sweden, criminality surged in the wake of the uncontrolled opening of its doors to migrants between 2013 and 2015. This brought a backlash in the form of the rise of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, who won more than 20 per cent of the vote in 2022 and are now influential in the policies of the Conservative-led government.

Especially given the closeness of the vote, I am hesitant to see in the recent election results a parallel development in Finland. Finland is not like Sweden. To see this, we need to take a brief look back at Finland’s unique past. But first let us draw from a recent detailed analysis of the election campaign and results by Kimmo Grönlund and Kim Strandberg.1

No questioning of democracy

After finishing first in the election of 2019, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) formed a coalition government with the Centre Party, the Green League, the Left Alliance and the Swedish People’s Party (SFP). The three left-green parties were ideologically coherent and their cooperation in government went smoothly, as was the case with the SFP, which habitually works with coalition governments, left and right. This was not the case for the more conservative Centre Party, which forced Antti Rinne, who had led the SDP to the 2019 election victory, to resign after less than six months in office. Sanna Marin was chosen to replace him as SDP leader and proved a popular Prime Minister.

In the 2023 election campaign, the main opposition parties, the Conservative National Coalition Party and the populist, right-wing Finns Party took the initiative and came in first and second, slightly above the SDP. The SDP in fact gained votes over 2019 as a result of Marin’s popularity, but at the expense of its smaller coalition partners. Thus, unexpectedly, the Finns found themselves in a coalition with the Conservatives.

Interestingly, according to Finnish researcher Fredrik Malmberg, overall trust in political institutions actually rose compared to 2019. On a ten-point scale,

The lowest level of trust in both the current and the previous surveys can be found for politicians (x̄=5.39) and political parties (x̄=5.49), where responsibility becomes more personified compared to institutions such as the parliament (x̄=6.48) and the government (x̄=6.62) … The highest level of trust can be found for the president (x̄=8.41) … (who) does not partake in the same way in daily politics … The European Union has been the least trusted institution in previous FNES studies (x̄=4.95 in 2015 and 5.09 in 2019), but average trust levels were significantly higher (x̄=6.00 in 2019 and 6.21 in 2023) … a development argued to be a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.2

Nothing in the vote suggested any questioning of democracy, with 96 per cent of the respondents expressing a preference for a democratic type of governance in Finland. Support for liberal democracy was confirmed when the Finns faced a challenge to their participation soon after the new government was formed.

First, Economy Minister Vilhelm Junnila was forced to resign over repeated references to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis on social media and in campaign ads, which he described as jokes. Then, an old blog post was made public in the Finnish media in which the (then anonymous) Finns leader Riikka Purra – Finance Minister in the new government – wrote, “If I was given a gun, there’d be corpses” after a child of migrant background had mimicked shooting her with his fingers. Purra apologized for making inappropriate comments in the past, but added that the media took many statements out of context, exaggerated and misquoted others and failed to recognize sarcasm.

The government was forced to issue a statement affirming strong support for human rights and equality. Prime Minister Petteri Orpo said, “Every minister in the government will renounce racism and commit to active work against racism in Finland and internationally.” Purra added that “I and the Finns Party and everyone else will stand behind this announcement as a whole.” These statements reassured the centrist Swedish People’s Party, which had contemplated leaving the coalition.

Something deeper than election results

I first went to Finland in 1991 for a four-month research visit based in Turku/Åbo on its southwestern coast and returned to teach on several occasions afterward. This was just as the Soviet empire was coming apart. Unlike neutral Sweden, which emerged strengthened after World War II, Finland found itself much weakened and vulnerable. After signing the Nonaggression Pact with Germany in August 1939, the USSR sent troops into Finland and captured the eastern province of Karelia. The Finns attempted to regain the territory from Russia when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, but after heavy losses Finland was forced to accept a costly peace in 1944. It suffered further losses in joining the war against German troops in the north.

When World War II gave way to the Cold War, Finland had no choice but to be bound by an agreement with the USSR that imposed strict neutrality on its foreign policy. It was only in 1995, after the demise of the USSR, that Finland was able to join the European Union, and now, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to seek and gain admission to NATO.

My first arrival coincided with a challenging time for Finland. With the disintegration of the USSR, Finland had to overcome its dependence on Soviet markets, which it did by developing a world-class system of research and development, first through its high-tech “champion” Nokia. There were hard times again after 2007 when Nokia lost its dominant position in communications systems. But once again, Finland proved resilient.

One manifestation of that resilience was that Finland was able to react to the COVID-19 pandemic faster and better than most countries. As the OECD noted, “The Finnish government’s effective crisis management has mitigated the shocks.”3 It hasn’t been easy: it’s hard to replace the jobs and incomes of workers in cities dominated by a company, typically a paper mill, in a declining industry. The OECD recently shifted its prediction of a full economic recovery from 2022 and 2023 to 2024.4

Weighed down for decades by reparations to Russia, Finland went through struggles that gave rise to a wide and durable consensus in support of the welfare state. One manifestation of that consensus, according to the World Bank, is that Finland ties wealthier Norway and Denmark for the lowest level of income inequality among Western countries. (As I was writing this, I came across a report that on June 7, 2023, “A multimillionaire businessman has been hit with a fine of 121,000 euros for driving 30km/h over the limit in Finland, where tickets are calculated as a percentage of the offender’s income.”)

Finnish women were for decades the most educated in Europe; as early as 1907 a third of university students were women. Only about 10 per cent of candidates who apply to primary teacher studies are accepted. In its measure of educational performance in 2019, the OECD’s PISA study found that Finnish 15-year-olds remained near the top in reading literacy and math, far surpassing the other Nordics. Finland now ranks first for media literacy among 35 European countries.

These are expressions of something deeper than election results. Finland’s economy is characterized by openness and transparency. Tolerance of corruption is minimal. Modern Finnish architecture, in its concert halls, churches and museums, is internationally respected. Finland is close to carbon neutral, as a result of its history, its location, its land ownership rules and its renewable forests – an embarrassing comparison to Canada.

The invasion of Ukraine drove many thousands out of Russia, a large number of whom crossed into Finland. Clearly, the uncertainty as to just who was coming and for what purpose – which led to the construction of a fence – has something to do with the Finns Party surge. All things considered, I suggest that the election results can best be understood as an immediate response to ongoing developments. We should not bury the Finnish model just yet.

The Finnish electoral system

The polarization and instability of Finnish politics in the last century has been replaced by consensus and government stability under “surplus majority coalitions.”

Elections to the Finnish national parliament take place on the third Sunday of April every fourth year. The 200 seats in the Eduskunta in the last election were distributed in 13 districts including the single-member district of the autonomous Åland Island. Despite the candidate-centred electoral system, the Finnish parliament is characterized by a high level of intraparty voting cohesion, particularly among the government coalition parties.

Small parties often form alliances at the constituency level in the small districts. Alliances are generally considered purely strategic and do not involve a joint political agenda. A party can form alliances with different parties across constituencies or run independently in some districts while forming strategic alliances in others.

The aspect that makes the Finnish system stand out in comparison with most other proportional representation systems is that the fully open list makes it is impossible for parties or constituency organizations to guarantee the election to parliament of any individual candidate. Preferential voting is mandatory: to cast a vote, all voters are obliged to choose one candidate from a fairly large selection of aspirants. The sole criterion in determining the party internal ranking of candidates is the number of preference votes each candidate receives. Most parties present candidates in alphabetical order on the lists.

Decentralized nomination procedures empower the local and district levels at the expense of the central party organizations, and the pooling of votes provides parties with incentives to field a diverse set of candidates who are faced with the delicate balance of trying to maximize the collective party vote while simultaneously engaging in intraparty rivalry. And voters are overloaded with information from both a party-centred campaign at the national level and individualized candidate campaigns at the district level. Nevertheless, the system enjoys a high level of legitimacy at all levels.

Continue reading “Has Finland Turned Away from the Nordic Model?”

Leonardo Padura, The Man who Loved Dogs, translated by Anna Kushner. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 592 pages.

In April, Fox News agreed to pay $800 million to Dominion Voting Systems, which had sued it for endorsing claims about a stolen election that its own people knew were false. Fox News had done this because, as Paul Krugman pointed out, “it feared losing market share among viewers who wanted to believe the Big Lie.”

Around the same time, a Russian court sentenced Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in jail for exposing Vladimir Putin’s big lie about Ukraine. However patently absurd, Mr. Putin’s and the Trumpites’ big lies were bought by a large “market share” of Russians and Republicans since to reject them would constitute a psychological break with their political community.

On a small scale, such groupthink in Putin’s Russia is reminiscent of that in Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s, a period recently brilliantly recounted in The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura, Cuba’s most popular writer. Published in Spanish in 2009 and in English several years later, it follows the parallel paths of Leon Trotsky, from the time of his exile in 1929 up to his assassination in 1940 in Mexico City, and that of his murderer, Ramon Mercador.

Padura recounts the extraordinary lengths to which Stalin went to remove leading Communists not only from physical existence but also from history, forcing them to admit that from early on they were part of a conspiracy to bring down the workers’ state. Stalin waited until he had killed off pretty much all of the “conspirators” before murdering Trotsky, because he needed Trotsky around so as to cast him as the conspiracy’s mastermind manipulator. Moscow’s agents inside and outside the USSR spread the word of Trotsky’s ongoing betrayal, and citizens and sympathizers of the USSR apparently believed the absurd lie that this desperate exile and his small band of followers constituted an international capitalist-fascist effort to stave off the arrival of the promised socialist paradise.

We follow Mercador through the Spanish Civil War, during which he was recruited and groomed for his historical role by Stalin’s agent, Kotov. In the process, Mercador learns that everyone is expendable and that, in service to their historical mission, every lie becomes truth.

Reading Padura provides an insight into why Putin’s lies about the “special military operation” in Ukraine have apparently been accepted as truth by most Russians. Once one is convinced that a cause one has adopted, often at great sacrifice, is just, all evidence to the contrary is dismissed as enemy disinformation.

Is there something particular to Russian culture that makes its people especially susceptible to such self-deception? How will the people of Russia deal with looming defeat on the Ukrainian battlefield and the cost in lives, livelihood and isolation that that they will continue to pay?

In a sense, the Cuban backstory is Padura’s tentative answer to this question. The author could not have published this story, based on his Cuban narrator’s encounter with a man who turns out to be Mercador, in the years during which such an encounter would have taken place. Not even a mild criticism of the USSR, Cuba’s benefactor, would have passed the censors, let alone a deeply penetrating insight into the horrors of Stalinism.

The Cuban authorities have tried to discourage the book’s distribution in Cuba, but Padura is far too popular to be silenced. If only it were available in Russian.

Image: via Hathi Trust Digital Library, Wikimedia Commons.

Late in 2022, Canadian and international media began to pay increased attention to Haiti. Given the danger of entering the areas where criminal gangs operated or having someone living under those conditions being labelled an informer, they were typically limited to secondhand information on what was happening on the ground. Eight journalists are known to have been assassinated in 2022.

Here is some of what the media have reported:

Scores of civilians and angry police officers took to the streets in Port-au-Prince to denounce the violence following the murder of two officers inside a police station in a town in northern Haiti and the execution-style killing of four more on the street outside … (The attack was allegedly planned in Port-au-Prince by three senior officials of the Haitian National Police Union with links to the gangs according to media reports on January 30.)

The National Union of Haitian Police Officers says 14 men have been killed since the start of the year in various gang attacks on police stations. Seven officers were killed in shootouts on Wednesday alone, according to Haiti’s National Police … A Haitian human rights group, the National Network of the Defense of Human Rights, said 78 police officers have been killed since (Dr. Ariel) Henry came to power in 2021. Outgunned by the multiple criminal gangs, Haiti’s police have been unable to halt the violence.

— BBC, January 26, 2023

Mamaille’s neighborhood, Cité Soleil, is dominated by two rival gangs with spheres of control so well defined that residents can draw a precise map of the streets that divide their territories … Criminals fighting over territory blocked almost every escape route out of the nation’s largest slum, a sprawl of shacks and crumbling buildings in the capital. Armed men went door to door, setting fire to homes and killing residents they deemed loyal to their enemies …

One Saturday in July, Sister Paesie, whose given name is Claire Philippe, got a call from the principal at one of the schools she runs in Cité Soleil. Word had spread that the nun was prepared to take schoolchildren out of the slum, to a safer area, and so hundreds of students had gathered at a local chapel to wait for her. Mamaille’s 17-year-old daughter, dressed in her school uniform, was among them.

But Sister Paesie never showed up — she could not even make it into the area because of the violence that was raging that day — and so Mamaille and her daughter headed home. Just before they reached their house, automatic gunfire erupted, and Mamaille saw her daughter slump forward into the dirt … By the time she got her daughter to a clinic, the girl was already dead, her blue skirt and yellow blouse soaked in blood …

After leaving her daughter’s lifeless body at the clinic, Mamaille roamed the streets screaming in anguish. Her wails must have caught the attention of gang members lurking nearby because, suddenly, Mamaille said, a group of men with guns appeared, dragged her behind a house and raped her, one by one. There were eight of them, she said, and they beat her up before leaving.

After the men left, Mamaille had no choice but to get up, walk home and somehow resume the work of surviving in Cité Soleil. When she can get out of her neighborhood safely, Mamaille travels to one of Sister Paesie’s schools nearby to pick up some rice and cooking oil, or makes her way to churches to beg for money. She collects rainwater and mixes in a chlorine tablet to purify it enough to drink.

“Sometimes, I spend three days without being able to feed my kids and myself.”

— New York Times, January 20, 2023

Friday was that day that (Marie Caemel Daniel’s) ever-smiling husband of 18 years Ricken Staniclass did not return. That morning one of the nation’s 200 gangs rammed his police unit, sending gunfire through the streets of … Port-au-Prince …

A gang led by Lionel Lazarre battled the police patrol … as officers desperately called for reinforcements. But help never came … The confrontation resulted in the death of three police officers, a fourth officer was hospitalized for gunshot wounds and Staniclasse, 44, disappeared …

Jolicoeur Allande Serge, director of the targeted police unit … was among a pile of armored trucks dented by bullet holes (in which) a group of 50 officers were returning to the area where they fought Friday night to try to break the gangs’ blockade and search for the missing agent … “We don’t have enough equipment to fight,” Serge said: “We need ammunition, helmets, armored vehicles.”

Two years ago, violence began to worsen so much in their neighborhood, (Daniel’s family) applied for a visa to immigrate to the United States … They never received a reply … “If we could have left the country (earlier), my husband would be alive.”

— San Diego Union Leader, Spanish edition, January 22, 2023 (author’s translation)

The formal departure of Haiti’s last 10 elected senators early in 2023 was the latest signal of the absence of political order in the country. Haiti has known decades of crisis, but there hasn’t been anything like what is happening now. Moreover, while initially scepticism about foreign intervention prevailed, this has changed. In January, in a podcast, Renata Segura and Diego Da Rin, the International Crisis Group’s Latin America experts, concluded that a consensus is emerging: foreign intervention is the only option, and without external intervention it will be impossible to tackle Haiti’s spiralling gang violence, political gridlock and latest cholera outbreak.

When it comes to such intervention, Canada is the prime focus. As a former French colony, Haiti has had a long connection with Canada, especially Quebec, which has received many Haitian immigrants. In earlier years most were professionals, many being teachers and medical specialists; more recently, Haitian immigration has been composed largely of poorly educated economic refugees who entered the workforce as low-paid workers. The 2016 census notes that there are more than 170,000 first-generation Haitians in Canada, 90 per cent living in Quebec.

A state that no longer functions

In July 2021, Haiti’s crisis came to the world’s attention with the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse at the hands of about 20 Colombian mercenaries with unknown paymasters. Many questions as to why Moïse was killed remain. The United States has charged three men for their alleged roles in the assassination. The murder is tied to the operation of gangs now dominating much of Haitian life. Moïse himself was deeply implicated in their rise. He used the Tet Kale (Bald Head) gang as enforcers and ward heelers in poor areas of Port-au-Prince, allowing them to accumulate arsenals of smuggled weapons.

Moïse had been ruling by decree, having cancelled elections due in 2018 and again in 2019, with the result that the terms of most of the country’s legislators and mayors expired. Shortly before the assassination, Moïse appointed Dr. Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon and former government minister, to serve as prime minister. But lacking a quorum in the legislature to consider his appointment, Henry was never formally sworn in. Moreover, Haiti’s constitution requires elections to be held within 120 days of a presidential vacancy, a period that ended in November 2021. Thus, what remains of Haiti’s political class considers his accession illegitimate. It is worth noting in this regard that the last time a presidential succession took place under the rules set in the constitution was in 1941.

The World Bank noted that “according to the Human Capital Index, a child born today in Haiti will grow up to be only 45 percent as productive as they could be if he or she had enjoyed full access to quality education and healthcare. Over one-fifth of children are at risk of cognitive and physical limitations, and only 78 percent of 15-year-olds will survive to age 60.”

Haiti’s misfortune goes back to the regressive Duvalier dictatorship (François, or “Papa Doc,” and his son Jean-Claude, or “Baby Doc”), which ruled from 1957 to 1986. The fall of the Duvaliers was followed by clashes for power among typically corrupt and inept leaders backed by elites, some linked to actors based in the United States. Since the earthquakes in 2010, Haiti has been a in a fragile state, but Moïse’s 2021 murder – and a new earthquake the following month – sent the situation out of control. In thte Economist’s most recent Democracy Index, Haiti ranked 135th out of 167 countries – down 16 places from the year before. Haiti is not a functioning state.

The gangs – estimated at up to 200 – have filled the void, with Port-au-Prince the centre of a horrific turf war that has seen a proliferation of kidnappings, many civilian deaths, and gang rapes even of elderly women and children. This is the latest manifestation of the decades-long saga of armed groups with longstanding ties to political and economic elites that pay them off to keep their goods moving through the country or, when required, to mobilize or suppress voters.

There have long been deep connections between gangs and political parties in Haiti. These political links have provided protection to the gangs and given them access to funding directly through government “contracts.” In return, they have repressed opposition movements and maintained social order in impoverished neighbourhoods. In the past, the gangs concentrated primarily on gaining the trust of the people in the areas they controlled so that they could strengthen their hand with the elites. More recently, as the government weakened, they have annexed vast new territory, carrying out kidnapping and extortion on a wide scale. Estimates suggest that 70 per cent of Port-au-Prince is under the control of the gangs, which determine who goes in and out.

Most petty gangs in Haiti compete for control in relatively small territories, where they commit criminal acts such as theft, racketeering and drug trading, often terrorizing the local population with sexual violence. The international drug trade has contributed to the gangs’ emergence, but their power is secured locally: they draw income from customs, water and electricity distribution, and even bus services. There is effectively no constraint on the gangs’ actions, except from opposing gangs in the fight for territory across the capital. Thus, civilians are forced to take sides: many young men, with no real alternative for sustaining their families, end up in the gangs. Some gangs now have waiting lists for new recruits.

Gangs have blocked access to drinking water trucks, forcing residents to drink contaminated water. United Nations humanitarian chief Ulrika Richardson said that an estimated 155,000 people have fled their homes – almost one in six of the city’s population. An October report, jointly published by the UN Integrated Office in Haiti and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, documented sexual crimes, highlighting the sexual violence that occurs in the context of kidnappings, in which women and girls are repeatedly subjected to rape. Official figures put the death toll from gang violence in 2022 at 1,448, while 1,005 have been kidnapped for ransom.

In September, after months of mounting violence, one of the two most powerful armed groupings – the G9 gang alliance led by former police officer Jimmy “BBQ” Cherizier – imposed another fuel blockade on the Varreux Terminal, the main gasoline terminal in Port-au-Prince. It came after Henry announced plans to end gasoline subsidies, setting off public protests among Haitians already struggling with rising living costs. While large parts of the capital have been affected, a key flashpoint in recent fighting has been the southern commune of Cité Soleil, long a stronghold for G-PEP, the gang coalition opposing G9, and its leader Gabriel Jean-Pierre. Jean-Pierre has swollen his federation’s numbers with the addition of 400 Mawozo, a gang that brought with it control of numerous crucial areas surrounding the capital. With their leader extradited to the United States in May 2022, the Mawozo turned to Jean-Pierre in search of reliable new leadership.

The weeks-long blockade led to water and electricity shortages across Port-au-Prince, including at hospitals trying to treat cholera patients. Transmitted by drinking water or eating foods contaminated with cholera bacteria, the illness can trigger severe diarrhea, as well as vomiting, thirst and other symptoms. It spreads rapidly in areas without adequate sewage treatment or clean drinking water. The first infections in Haiti in more than three years were reported in early October. Following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, UN troops from Brazil, Nepal and other less-developed countries inadvertently introduced cholera into the impoverished country.

More than 17,600 suspected cases were detected before the end of 2022, according to the country’s public health department. After Haitian authorities regained control of the Varreux Terminal in November, Haiti received the first shipment of 1.1 million vaccine doses so that a cholera vaccination campaign could begin in December in some of the most affected areas.

The cholera epidemic is taking an especially horrific toll on children, with those aged between one and five making up more than 40 per cent of infections. The emergency campaign to vaccinate more than 10 per cent of the population, and a higher percentage of children aged one to five, is expected to fail in many areas that are under gang control because health care workers’ safety cannot be guaranteed.

Outside intervention?

As gang violence reached crisis levels in Port-au-Prince in October, the Henry government launched an appeal for an international armed force to restore order and secure a humanitarian corridor to allow fuel and water deliveries in the capital. Haiti’s army is not a factor. It was disbanded in 1995 after years of military interference in politics and collusion with gangs. Nor are the police in a position to take on the gangs in the areas where the gangs are based. At best the police can keep them from expanding that base. The Guardian reported on February 3,

The police force itself is in revolt … The catalyst that set off the latest rebellion was a grisly video showing the bodies of six young police officers lying naked on the floor, their weapons laid on top of them – a morbid attempt to humiliate the officers and demonstrate the power of the gangs. The six officers, killed in the shootout with the Savien gang in the town of Liancourt, bring the number of officers killed in January to 15. At least 54 officers were killed by the gangs in 2022 … The Caribbean nation has only 9,500 police officers serving its population of 12 million and they must fulfil many security roles, including those of the army … But Haiti’s security forces are outgunned by the gangs who flash their cash and automatic weapons on social media … Officers feel officials make little effort to console the families of those killed in combat and whose bodies are frequently left rotting in gang strongholds, Occil said. More than 3,000 officers have left the force since the beginning of 2021.

The United Nations said in December that it would appeal for $719 million for Haiti in 2023, about double the amount disbursed in 2022. It called for action, but direct UN action is blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes. Hence, as the United States position noted, “a non-UN mission led by a partner country” is required. A follow up visit to Ottawa by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it clear that the United States saw Canada playing that role.

With the United States preoccupied elsewhere, it is not surprising that no one within the Biden administration appears to fully “own” policy toward Haiti. In that context, the December 12, 2022, meeting of Henry with a high-level delegation led by Daniel Erikson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere, is encouraging. Erikson is widely known as being knowledgeable about Haiti.

France stated that it would contribute to an intervention led by Canada and supported by Haiti’s neighbours. (French leaders realize that Haitians are still sensitive to the devastating longstanding effect of reparations forced on Haiti by France to repay slaveowners after Haiti won its independence in 1804.) Discussing Haiti in an interview with La Presse, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognized that Canada had to play a leading role: “With 30 years of experience in Haiti, we know very well that there are enormous challenges when it comes to interventions. It is clear that our approach has to change this time.”

In December, Canada’s UN ambassador, Bob Rae, travelled to Haiti for a three-day fact-finding mission, during which he held talks with leading government officials and opposition figures, notably civil society organizations and political parties associated with the Montana Accord reached after Moïse’s assassination. Named after the hotel where it was negotiated, the accord calls for a “transitional government,” including leading opposition leaders, to pave the way toward an election in 2024. In comments to the CBC in late October, Monique Clesca, a former UN official and now a leading member of the Montana group, stated that the opposition was now open to supporting intervention, provided it has the necessary “legitimacy.” In January, Haiti’s UN Ambassador Antonio Rodrigue noted that ongoing efforts to implement the Montana Accord could succeed only if security is restored.

After Rae’s visit, Ottawa announced that it would be sending additional armoured vehicles to Haiti, as well as a small number of experts to assist the Haitian National Police. In November, gangs had attacked the police and stolen several recently delivered Canadian armoured vehicles. Canada’s approach was to implement sanctions on “oligarchs” profiting from the violence and instability. It froze the Canadian assets of Gilbert Bigio, Reynold Deeb, Sherif Abdallah, Charles Saint-Rémy and Arnel Belizaire, who are barred from entering Canada. They joined a list that includes former president Michel Martelly and prime ministers Laurent Lamothe and Jean-Henry Céant. Saint-Rémy has been linked to drug trafficking and corruption, and is close to Dimitri Hérard, the head of palace security implicated in Moïse’s assassination. (At the same time, Canada has suspended removal orders for Haitians without a criminal record who are in Canada illegally because their temporary permit has expired or their claim for asylum or refugee status has been refused.)

For its part, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control placed the most recent president of the Haitian Senate, Joseph Lambert, on its sanctions list. France is working toward a UN-sponsored list. It is sceptical that sanctions by individual countries have any real effect.

Late in December former Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean, who was born in Haiti, issued a strong statement noting that rich countries need to own up to policies that have sowed instability in Haiti. These policies range from economic reforms that led to the collapse of agricultural sectors to turning a blind eye when autocratic leaders undermined civil society. She concluded, “It is difficult to imagine the resolution of this Gordian knot without outside intervention.”

Haitians who are able to leave have sought to improve their lives abroad. Some have tried to cross the Darién Gap, a perilous jungle passage spanning the Colombia-Panama border. Others have taken boats in hopes of reaching the coast of Florida. Haitians have been among those turned away by U.S. authorities at the country’s border with Mexico in 2022. But at the end of the year, the Biden administration announced that it was extending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitian nationals already residing in the United States by 18 months.

The administration cited conditions in Haiti, “including socioeconomic challenges, political instability, and gang violence and crime,” as the reason for extending TPS. In January it included Haitians, along with Venezuelans and Cubans, among those eligible to be among the up to 30,000 migrants it would accept every month. These migrants must prove that there is a risk of being arrested in their countries of origin and that their lives are in danger.

The urgency of action

In this context, as 2023 began, international organizations called urgently for more support to help Haiti respond to the crises it faces. “Things are now at a breaking point. This crisis will not pass,” said Jean-Martin Bauer, Haiti director of the UN World Food Programme. He noted that close to half the Haitian population – approximately 4.7 million people – face a food crisis: “Haiti is experiencing a crisis on an unprecedented scale that can only worsen – unless we act fast and with greater urgency from us all.”

Haiti is among the most densely populated countries in the world. Large portions of its population have nothing to eat as a result of the drying up of imports and the criminal gangs’ control of key transport routes, including the north-south highway. The food available is beyond the financial reach of the vast majority, who rely on the informal sector to make ends meet. Widespread food shortages, combined with the cholera epidemic that has claimed more than 290 lives and infected an estimated 14,000 since October, are fuelling worries in Washington and Haiti’s Caribbean neighbours that the social devastation in Haiti could destabilize the entire region. It is feared that if Haiti implodes, the result could be a “refugee crisis” – a flood of people seeking to escape repression, violence and unspeakable social misery.

Canada’s reaction came in a public statement by Bob Rae on January 18 defending Canada’s “Haitian-led” approach. Rae pointed to the ending of the port blockade, allowing cholera medication to reach Haiti, and the role of the UN security fund, which with donations from Canada, the United States and Japan supported the Haitian National Police. He said that since military intervention had not worked in the past, Canada was not ready to consider sending in a police force to assist the Haitian police. In reporting the statement, the Globe and Mail noted that that kidnapping was still widespread and important transportation routes in the country remained blockaded by gangs.1 In early January Trudeau said that Canada and its allies “are preparing various scenarios if it does start to get worse” in Haiti. In a statement before a February 1 meeting of the OAS, Thomas R. Hastings, the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission, stated that “the United States continues to discuss with international partners the possibility of sending a multinational force composed primarily of police.”

As long as one is convinced that a “Haitian-led” solution exists, one can avoid taking armed intervention seriously. The experts tell the politicians that the risks are high, and the chances of success are low. But can it really get worse than it is now? According to reports to the CELAC (Heads of State and Government of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) meeting in late January, murders have doubled in recent months, kidnappings and rapes are rising rapidly and gang-controlled territory is expanding daily. At the same time, inflation and global tensions make food scarce.

From my vantage point in the Dominican Republic where Frances and I have spent the current and previous winters, it appears clear that only external armed intervention could meaningfully break the gangs’ blockade over the flow of supplies into the areas they control and thus mitigate the grave humanitarian crisis.

As noted, with action under Chapter Seven of the United Nations Charter blocked, member nations must take action. If there is to be such an intervention, despite the hesitancy of its government, Canada is the country in the best position to lead it. There are a number of countries in the region with significant experience (if uneven success) in dealing with criminal gang and trafficking networks that could be enlisted in such a “non-UN” security mission – Jamaica, Mexico and Colombia come to mind. At the beginning of February Jamaica indicated its willingness to participate militarily in an international force in Haiti.

The argument that the lesson from unsuccessful past interventions is that resolution of the crisis must be left to the Haitians does not stand up. The situation, everyone agrees, is far worse than ever before. Even the opposition realizes that elections are a nonstarter. Monitoring by international observers would not be enough to make them meaningful, since many voters would be unable to safely express their true preferences or have them tabulated.

The first step in planning an intervention is to avoid repeating the errors of the past. Such an intervention starts but does not end with strengthening the Haitian National Police and military, including replacing damaged or stolen vehicles and other equipment. A next stage would seek not only to hold off the gangs but to displace them, including recruiting gang members who had been coerced into joining. There is no avoiding the fact that bringing real change will be a long and difficult process. As the Brookings Institution concluded in early January, “Even a robust multi-year force would struggle holding cleared territories … There is no prospect for a rapid successful DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) for Haitian gangs.“

Before considering what such a process would entail, we need to address a key and often ignored dimension of the situation: the role of the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican dimension

The situation in Haiti profoundly affects its neighbour. In the Dominican Republic’s last census in 2017, roughly 500,000 Haitian Dominicans were identified. We cannot know how many avoided being counted for fear of deportation, nor do we have a tally of new arrivals since 2017. We can be sure that their numbers were larger than the thousands who have been forcibly repatriated.

In November, top UN, American and international officials called on Dominican authorities to halt the removals. Easy for you to say, respond the Dominicans. From their standpoint, while their country has been most affected by the unauthorized migration, it has not been given credit for the heavy burden it has accepted, delivering fuel to hospitals in Haiti, providing safe transit to diplomats and other personnel, and making it possible for many Haitian women to give birth in Dominican public hospitals.

According to data compiled by the International Organization for Migration, 25,765 Haitians were deported to Haiti from its neighbours in the first two months of 2022. The United States repatriated 20,309 of them. In the next seven months, more than 60,000 Haitians were deported from Mexico, the United States and South American countries. Another 45,000 were deported from Caribbean countries, the large majority from the Dominican Republic.

According to the Group for Support of Returnees and Refugees, at least 85,306 Haitians were repatriated from the Dominican Republic in all of 2022. At least 60,000 had been arrested before being deported. The long and largely uninhabited border and the susceptibility of Dominican guards to being bribed means that many come back the way they came in in the first place.

Because of geography, it is unavoidable that no intervention can succeed without Dominican cooperation. But history makes it problematic. As the title of a study by Bridget Wooding and Richard Moseley-Williams put it, Haitians in the DR are “needed but unwanted.” Leaving aside the wars that pitted the two former colonies against each other during the 19th century, the tensions go back to the days of Papa and Baby Doc. In that period the Dominican economy grew and Haiti’s deteriorated, so that many thousands of Haitians came to work in the DR, mainly in agriculture. They took jobs under conditions Dominicans would no longer accept, their status and ability to cross the border largely unregulated. More recently, as the Haitian situation became desperate and the numbers of migrants mounted, that status of many Haitians, some long established in the DR, became politically charged.2

If anything, the worsening conditions in Haiti have made ordinary Dominicans less rather than more receptive to helping their neighbours, for example rejecting the idea of setting up refugee camps on the Dominican side of the border. The former president and current leader of the Fuerza del Pueblo party, Leonel Fernandez, recently claimed that American authorities were seeking to have Haitian refugees who were refused entry into the United States directed toward such camps. He concluded that “faced with this situation, all Dominican society, unanimously, has said that it cannot be done.”

Nevertheless, things could change if there were outside intervention. In the words of Dominican Foreign Minister Roberto Alvarez before the UN General Assembly in September 2022, it is up to the international community to act immediately: we must “remove the blindfold and admit that the Haitian police, on its own, will not develop the capacity to guarantee order and subdue the gangs. The Dominican Republic … cannot do the job alone.”

Alvarez noted that while in the past Haitian society was able to unite and act in difficult times – in the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1986 and in reaction to the disaster created by the 2010 earthquake – the situation is dramatically different now.

On January 25, 2023, addressing the CELAC summit in Argentina, Dominican President Luis Abinader called for action based on resolutions 2645 and 2653 of the UN Security Council encouraging some states to act unilaterally within the framework of international law. Other neighbours also voiced the need for intervention. For example, Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis said unauthorized migration due to the crisis in Haiti poses a substantial threat to its neighbours.

This was in the context of wider efforts. That same day, UN Secretary-General António Guterres reaffirmed “the urgent need for the deployment of an international specialized armed force” in Haiti since “the people of Haiti are suffering the worst human rights and humanitarian emergency in decades.” For her part, Helen La Lime, the special envoy for Haiti, noted that “on average, we face one kidnapping every six hours in 2022.” She reiterated the secretary-general’s October appeal for the deployment of an international specialized force “without which any progress will remain fragile and vulnerable to being reversed.”

Guterres urged countries in the region to consider halting the deportation of Haitians until the human rights and humanitarian crises have been adequately addressed, since gang-related violence and human rights abuses have reached a critical level. For the Dominicans, however, it is only if the situation in Haiti improves so that some kind of orderly movement can take place at the border that an end to deportations can be considered.

The Dominicans are wary of efforts to place the burden of fixing Haiti on them, but those in positions of authority understand that intervention to improve the situation in Haiti is in their national interest. They know that if and when real external intervention begins, their country will be expected to do its part. Unsympathetic to the Haitians as many Dominicans are, they know that they cannot ignore outside opinion because of the dependence of their economy on tourism, if for no other reason.

Dominicans are proud of recent significant advances in their democratic institutions. As International Idea’s 2022 Global State of Democracy report noted, the Dominican Republic, almost alone in the Americas, has experienced improvements in civil liberties, media integrity, judicial independence and access to justice. Hence the DR can be enlisted to do its part, as long as the priority remains on addressing the desperate situation within Haiti and not on – the contested interpretation of – the treatment of Haitians in the DR past and present. Especially as the DR enters an election year, no Dominican politician seeking to get elected can be expected to appear “soft on Haiti.”

To be clear: the initiative will have to come from outside, from members of the international community with a special link to Haiti. That special link starts with Canada, which has provided $1.87 billion in assistance to Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. If Haitians cannot look to Canada for help in their hour of greatest need, where else can they possibly turn?

Epilogue: A tentative scenario

I am hardly an expert when it comes to strategy and tactics, but I venture into this area – if only to be corrected – because specific concrete alternatives need to be advanced to counter the still prevailing presumption that all external intervention is doomed.

I see a two-pronged intervention (alongside the existing financial and medical aid). The first entails taking on the gangs in Port-au-Prince and other areas they control to make it possible for closed stores, schools, medical services and offices to reopen and for a strengthened and reformed Haitian police force to maintain a semblance of order.

In itself, this is insufficient, since the gangs will bide their time until they are in a position to return. It must thus be complemented by a long-term plan to gradually but permanently liberate a region and set up a functioning system of administrative institutions there that over time could be linked up with other parts of the country.

The region most suited to this is the northeast from the border with the Dominican Republic extending through the city of Cap Haitien. This is the part of Haiti that has been most open to tourism and other external involvement. (In fact, on February 11, a cruise ship from Orlando will make a stop at Labadee, the Caribbean port close to Cap Haitien.) In this region longer-term projects would be initiated, combining the experience of international development organizations with the energies of Haitians inside and outside the country.

Obviously, it will require significant preparation and coordination – with no guarantees of success. But what is the alternative?

Continue reading “Haiti’s Crisis, Canada’s Moment of Decision”

Haitian Day of the Dead – First of November: for the year 2022, the party is not taken, the activities of the GEDE have not attracted crowds. Because of the different problems of the country, the groups, the people, don’t really travel.

In a special report sent to Inroads subscribers in February, and in an editorial elsewhere in this issue, I have made the case for Canada to lead an international force to deal with the severe humanitarian and security crisis in Haiti. Here I touch on some additional elements of the situation in that desperate country.

Recent developments include Joe Biden’s visit to Ottawa in March, in which he, not surprisingly, failed to persuade Prime Minister Trudeau that Canadians should lead an international mission to Haiti. (When asked, Biden said the idea of deploying an international force was “not in play at the moment” but “had not been taken off the table.”) In response to Biden’s request, Canada promised another $72.7 million USD in new aid and support and equipment for the Haitian National Police – though it is no secret that some of that will end up with the highly organized gangs that dominate the country.

In the late fall, Canada deployed two Navy ships to patrol Haitian waters. Georges Michel, a Haitian historian who helped write the nation’s 1987 constitution and one of many observers who have called for a foreign security force as – as he put it – the only way Haitians can breathe, wrote, “When Canada sent a plane and a boat to fight against the insecurity, the population laughed. We don’t have problems with the birds or the fish.”

I am frustrated not so much by the Canadian government’s reluctance to get its hands dirty, to avoid consideration of boots on the ground, to take on a difficult mission where Canadian soldiers will die. We are used to peacekeeping; in Haiti there is no peace to keep. The politicians know that there would be little support for such a mission and significant public opposition. But it is disappointing that the Canadian media have shown sparse interest – even the francophone ones of whom more might have been expected given French Canada’s traditional links to Haiti. Had they taken their responsibly of keeping their readers and viewers informed, the government would have had to justify its refusal to act in a meaningful way.

This is shortsighted, since putting one’s head in the sand does not make a problem go away. It only makes it more likely that one will be bitten in the rear. We can be sure that developments will arise that will make addressing the Haitian situation unavoidable; we just don’t know when. One argument justifying nonintervention is that intervention failed in the past. This is a cop-out. Experience teaches us where we went wrong and points to the challenges to be overcome. And the situation in Haiti is much changed since the previous intervention.

One dimension of the issue is the role of the Dominican Republic, from where Frances Boylston, who reads and writes in Spanish, and I, like informed Dominicans, closely observed the situation in Haiti from mid-December to late March.

There is a long and mainly antagonistic relationship between the two countries. Spanish is the primary language spoken in the Dominican Republic while French and Haitian Creole are spoken in Haiti. Race is another defining factor. The ethnic composition of the Dominican population is 73 per cent mixed-race, 16 per cent White and 11 per cent Black, while 95 per cent of the Haitian population is Black. While the Dominican Republic’s longtime dictator, Rafael Trujillo, was a modernizer, the Duvaliers who ruled Haiti for 30 years presided over the deterioration of the Haitian economy.

Even before the current crisis, the Dominican Republic faced a significant illegal migration dilemma, with Haitians providing cheap labour, especially on the farms and in the mines. As the title of a book on the subject put it, Haitians in the Dominican Republic were “needed but unwanted.”

This has become an acute situation in the current period, with thousands of Haitians continuously crossing the border illegally only to be deported if apprehended. It is clear from our informal discussions with Dominican politicians that, despite its being inescapable that the DR will have to cooperate with any external intervention, no one in this election year will publicly call for helping Haiti, as the DR did after the last earthquake. But privately they would add that if nothing is done, their country will see increasing violence pitting Haitians against Dominicans.

A recent report on the situation in Haiti by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights updates the numbers in the article I sent out to Inroads subscribers:

Clashes between gangs are becoming more violent and more frequent, as they try to expand their territorial control throughout the capital and other regions by targeting people living in areas controlled by rivals. Since the beginning of the year, up to 15 March, a total of 531 people were killed, 300 injured and 277 kidnapped in gang-related incidents that took place mainly in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

In the first two weeks of March alone, clashes among gangs left at least 208 killed, 164 injured and 101 kidnapped. Most of the victims were killed or injured by snipers who were reportedly randomly shooting at people in their homes or on the streets. Sexual violence is also used by gangs against women and girls to terrorize, subjugate and punish the population. Gang members frequently use sexual violence against abducted girls to pressure families to pay a ransom.

Students and teachers have been hit by stray bullets during gang confrontations and the kidnapping of parents and students in the vicinity of schools has surged, forcing many of them to close. Without the protective environment of schools, many children have been forcibly recruited by armed gangs.

People are fleeing to escape the daily danger. As of mid-March 2023, at least 160,000 people have been displaced and are in a precarious situation, staying with friends or relatives and having to share meagre resources. A quarter of those displaced live in makeshift settlements, with very limited access to basic services such as drinking water and sanitation.

Chronic instability and gang violence have contributed to surging prices and food insecurity. Half of the population does not have enough to eat, and in some areas, such as Cité Soleil, hunger has reached particularly alarming levels.

We call on the international community to urgently consider the deployment of a time-bound specialized support force under conditions that conform to international human rights laws and norms, with a comprehensive and precise action plan.

The last paragraph in the above leaves no doubt that the Office of the High Commissioner understands that there must be a military dimension to the needed international intervention. If it is to happen as it should, Canada needs to take a leading role, even though Canada has no recent experience in military intervention. Canadians are used to having troops posted far away for long periods of time – they have been in Cyprus since 1964 – but not their being engaged in violent combat. It is one thing for soldiers to look east from barracks in Riga; it is quite another to try to pacify armed gangs in the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Nevertheless, it makes sense for Canada to take the lead. Indeed, its reputation as a disinterested peacekeeper makes it an obvious candidate. Canada has good relations with the countries in the region ready to support such a mission and its historical record of relations with Haiti is a mixed rather than a mainly negative one, like that of the United States.

It is clear why President Biden came to Canada. The United States, once disengaged from Ukraine, will not wait long for Canada to take responsibility.

Image: Toluca de Lerdo, Mexico. From Abraham Lagunas, via Pexels.

The Winter/Spring issue of Inroads included an article about the challenges facing the newly elected President Lula in Brazil. But it was the exception that proved the rule: leaving out the special cases of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Inroads has never given our neighbours in Latin America the attention they deserve. Here we begin to make up for this, with three in-depth analyses. Mario Polèse’s focus is on Mexico in Mexican Journey, while Geoff White’s is on the Pacific Alliance, in Is There Still Some Life in Free Trade? The fastest-breaking story among them – leaving aside my latest update on the Haitian tragedy – is Crisis in Peru, the report by Maxwell Cameron on recent developments there.

Coincidentally, Frances Boylston and I were in Cuzco in the Peruvian Andes in early December, visiting the sights of this ancient city of the Incas. We were lucky to get out before martial law set in to quell protests – some of which became violent in that region – in response to the jailing of President Castillo after his failed power grab. In his description and analysis of the events, Cameron finds that the protesters, many of them members of the indigenous population concentrated in the Andes region, are justified in feeling abandoned by the state. But underlying the policy failures, there is an important institutional dimension to the challenge facing Peru: the recurring refusal of political losers to accept the outcome of a free and fair election – an unwillingness not absent from politics elsewhere in South America, as the other contributions illustrate.

While Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are the only Latin American countries that effectively remain dictatorships, democracy in Peru, like that in Guatemala and El Salvador, has proven shaky. Elsewhere in Latin America competitive elections based on universal suffrage allowing for the peaceful alternation of power are a matter of course, something that was not the case not too long ago. On the other hand, vote buying is common, while money from organized crime still plays a role in elections and policy-making.

Surveying the situation, Geoff White, a former Canadian senior trade commissioner in Chile, asks if we are unrealistic in promoting a Pacific Alliance, in Is There Still Some Life in Free Trade? He responds that however unpromising the current situation, Canada should persist in its efforts. He argues that governments sceptical of the benefits of openness may discover that their interest still lies in that direction, pointing in particular to Ecuador. More generally, left-leaning administrations that have emerged, for all their rhetoric, have not closed the door to freer trade.

In his contribution Mexican Journey, Mario Polèse focuses on Mexico, where he spent a sabbatical year and was a visiting professor from 1990 to 2010. From his experience, he concludes that Latin America will continue to fail to live up to its potential and the social well-being gap with Canada will not close in the foreseeable future. This is because Latin America remains, with rare expectations, a prisoner of its past.

The case in point is Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO for short), a classic authoritarian populist, nominally left-wing, not very different from others who have sprung up throughout Latin America’s history. AMLO is in the process of further weakening Mexico’s young democratic institutions, notably in a law reducing the budget and mandate of the National Electoral Institute (INE).

Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the situation in Haiti, which has degenerated into a no man’s land dominated by highly organized gangs. It is a terrible situation and if anything getting worse. Nothing significant has happened to change conditions in Haiti, which only outside intervention could do. The latest indicator of how low things have sunk is talk of the Wagner Group of current Ukraine infamy being hired to protect the state against the gangs. With media attention focused on Ukraine, Haiti has been left to fester. Canada, the country most suited to lead an intervention in Haiti, has been let off the hook. But for how long?

In a vain attempt to revive Russia’s imperial mission, Vladimir Putin has sacrificed tens of thousands of young Russians on the battlefield, lost many more who have fled his autocracy, and undermined his country’s economic future. How could this happen?

In this section, we contribute to an understanding of how Russia reached this point, and whether it was inevitable. When it comes to reporting on the latest Russian horrors in Ukraine, a twice-yearly publication like Inroads is not in a position to compete with cable news, the daily press or instantaneous online reporting. But sometimes we can track down ongoing developments that others miss. What lessons does the failing Russian invasion of Ukraine provide for our understanding of post-Soviet Russia?

Ronald Beiner traces the link between the Russian rationale for the invasion of Ukraine and the writings of far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, the apparent target of a recent assassination attempt in which his daughter was killed, in Fascist International.

In Russia and the Rogue Intellectuals, Filip Kostelska takes on the interpretation of the invasion by the “realist” school of international relations. Realists argue that the world’s most powerful countries are naturally sensitive to any threats to their security and will remove those threats if they can. Against some of its leaders’ better judgement, NATO opened the door to membership to Ukraine in 2008. So, when in a position to do so, Russia has only naturally acted to defend its interests in Ukraine. According to John Mearsheimer, Professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago and the best-known exponent of the realist position, what the West should have done was promote a balance of power in Europe, with Ukraine “neutral.”

I attended Mearshimer’s much-contested presentation at the convention of American political scientists in Montreal in September. A few months earlier, he addressed the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where Filip is a visiting professor. That lecture has been viewed more than two million times on YouTube, and has been shared by Russian authorities on social media. Filip, who is Czech, lays bare what such “realism” means for countries formerly under Russia’s thumb.

Derek Shearer, Director of the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, reviews his lifetime of encounters with Russia and the Soviet Union, going back to the 1960s. I met Derek when he served as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Finland in the 1990s, a period when hopes were high of Russia moving toward liberal democracy. He asks, among other things, whether Putin was inevitable and to what extent, if any, Western actions in the 1990s contributed to recent developments in Is There Hope For Russia?

Economic turmoil and wishful thinking

In a sense, history is repeating itself. As became the case with the USSR, in Russia today the emperor has no clothes, save nuclear weapons, gas and oil. Without “clothes,” the USSR began to unravel under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. This was a time of profound economic turmoil. As revealed in Russia’s muted reaction to his recent death, the majority of Russians have not forgiven Gorbachev, despite his opening their country to free expression.

But the story goes back before Gorbachev and Yeltsin. As Paul Krugman noted in the New York Times, by the late 1970s, when we in the West were still mesmerized by the Soviet menace, “the Soviet growth story fell apart, and by some measures technological progress came to a standstill.” Krugman pointed out that with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, real GDP per capita fell more than 40 per cent – worse than America’s decline during the Great Depression. Moreover, Russia also “suffered from extreme inflation and a plunge in life expectancy.” Krugman offered this explanation for Russia’s performing far worse after liberalization than other “transition” economies:

At first, Russia only moved partially to a market economy, and the partial privatization wasn’t systematic … The worst of both worlds. Where it did privatize, Russia did so without the institutions – things like security regulation, rules against predatory behavior and general rule of law – a market economy needs to function. Haphazard privatization created a proliferation of monopolies, whose efforts to extract as much as possible from everyone else turned them into the modern equivalent of robber barons … creating a class of oligarchs, men with vast, unearned wealth … And the power of the oligarchs surely distorted economic policy.

Once the former Soviet republics became independent countries, the status of Russians in these countries outside Russia deteriorated. They were no longer members of the dominant majority but of a minority. In Ukraine, with its ambivalent relationship with Russia, young people especially came to see that their future lay elsewhere, with an expanding European Union.

Demonstrations in Kyiv early in 2014 ousted pro-Russia Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. In response, Russia incorporated Crimea. Ukrainians thus found themselves having to make a choice: Russia or Ukraine. Even among the Russian-speaking minority, most chose Ukraine. This was inconceivable to their cousins in Russia, explicable only by a conspiracy of Nazi sympathizers, and hence it was the duty of Russia to liberate Ukrainians. To the apparent astonishment of the Kremlin, they did not wish to be liberated.

The invasion of Ukraine has confirmed the fears of the peoples of eastern Europe, not long out from under Russia’s thumb: once Russia was stabilized, it would try to undo the abandonment of the empire that had taken place under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. They sought – and were granted – the protection of NATO. As he consolidated his power, Putin chose to portray these choices, in stark Cold War terms, as NATO aggression against the Russian people.

Was this inevitable? Several books have given Putin the benefit of the doubt. Given that his coming to power coincided with the stabilization of the Russian economy and improved living conditions for many, observers were willing to downplay the corruption around him and his circle, his lies and military incursions. Engaging with Putin’s Russia in the hope that it would evolve into a democracy has turned out to be wishful thinking, reminiscent of the wishful thinking that led many Western progressives in the 1930s and 1940s to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s horrors (see Arthur Milner’s column in this issue).

After Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, Western academics were again willing to give the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt. Among the first international scholarly associations to break through the Iron Curtain was the International Political Science Association (IPSA). At the height of the Cold War, a divided IPSA executive decided to hold a congress in the USSR, knowing that the Russians who took part had to follow the party line.

I learned this bit of history when I was on the IPSA executive in the 1990s, as the USSR was falling apart. We became especially critical of the United States pushing its weight around as the only superpower, and were little inclined to see the deep-rooted obstacles to Russian democratization. We reached out to Russian social scientists and I met a number of them; they were excited at the possibility of collaborating with Western colleagues in their research. But that period was short-lived. Now for such collaboration they need to leave Russia, which a great many have done.

I do not claim any expert knowledge of Russia, though I can claim to be among those in the New Left who, early on, harboured no illusions about Soviet-style Communism. On one occasion, when I was in graduate school in the early 1970s, I received a grant to go to Varna on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast to attend an international sociology conference. Early each morning we were handed a newsletter announcing that day’s great accomplishments on the local state farms. When a friend, a rotund professor from Montreal, tried to buy a bathing suit, he could find only size small. There were no other sizes, he learned. That was the only way the local factory could meet its quota.

A visit in December 1985, early in the Gorbachev period, confirmed the nakedness of the feared emperor. My wife Frances and I took a Russian boat from Stockholm to what was then Leningrad. In the city, we saw long lines outside the food stores and visited department stores with nothing of any interest on the shelves. On the boat, as in the hotel restaurant, food was minimal, though wonderful Russian music was plentiful. By the time of our second visit a few years later, we were rich with rubles bought with hard currency on the black market. People were still queuing up. This time – guides could now speak frankly – local citizens were queuing for whatever was on sale, in the hope of later trading for something useful.

During the Yeltsin years, a friend organized a visit to Moscow, where we stayed with his cousins, both doctors who were seeking some hard currency. (They now live in New Jersey.) For two weeks they put us up in their apartment; they provided meals and served as tour guides. Moscow, we could see, was undergoing rapid and apparently ramshackle changes.

One revealing incident during the Yeltsin period occurred in Umeå in northern Sweden, where I had come to give an intensive “summer university” course for visiting Russian civics teachers from northern oblasts. As they taught it, they told me, civics was a hodgepodge of whatever history, social science and philosophy they themselves knew. “Do you teach them about the actual functioning of democracy?” I asked. “Why would we want to talk about that?” they replied in unison. “Russian politics is nothing but corruption.”

As was the custom, at the closing dinner the Russians and Swedes took turns singing songs. I suggested the “Internationale” (“Arise ye prisoners of starvation …”) in their own words. For the Swedes, used to hearing it on May 1, it was a song they all knew. Then these post-Communist Russians (all but one were women) stood up straight and loudly sang the stirring anthem with dignified pride – though when it ended they showed distinct signs of discomfort.

It was not quite so evident at the time, but the incident illustrated that we in the West were engaged in wishful thinking in seeing in the intellectuals around Gorbachev and Yeltsin the vanguard of Russia’s becoming a liberal democracy. I doubt that today these teachers have any problem with Putin’s clamping down on democratic expression, and I suspct that they readily support his “special military operation” in Ukraine – as long as their sons are not drafted.

Image via LouisRoyQc, Wikimedia Commons.

The result of the October 3 Quebec election makes a powerful case for replacing our electoral system. This case appears to be catching on with young people: a new group known as Mobilisation Citoyenne pour une Réforme du Scrutin (MCRS) is planning a big protest march in Quebec City. They are, however, coming up against a stone wall in the form of Premier François Legault, who came out of the election stronger than ever.

Legault wasn’t always an obstacle to electoral reform. In 2016, as leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), he joined the other opposition parties in a joint public statement calling for Quebec’s adopting a mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system, similar to the one used in Scotland. In the 2018 Quebec election, CAQ won an unexpected majority, 74 of 125 seats (59 per cent) with 37.8 per cent of the popular vote. Living up to his commitment, in October 2019 Legault promised a referendum to decide whether Quebec should adopt MMP. But pressure from the CAQ caucus led the government to water down this proposal and delay its consideration by the legislature. When COVID struck, it provided a pretext for ending the process.

Which brings us the election that took place on October 3. As predicted, it was a landslide victory for the CAQ, with 40.97 per cent of the popular vote and 90 candidates elected (72 per cent of the seats). Four other parties divided the remaining 60 per cent of the vote almost equally. The Liberals received fewer votes (14.37 per cent) than Québec Solidaire (15.42 per cent), but with 21 they had nearly twice as many seats as QS. The Parti Québécois had 14.0 per cent of the vote – just 9,507 fewer votes than the Liberals – but won only three seats. Conservative leader Éric Duhaime was able to break through in the popular vote, with 12.92 per cent, but his party was shut out of the National Assembly.

Apart from the representational injustice, the result starkly illustrates another, increasingly worrisome, dimension of the negative consequences of our venerable first-past-the-post electoral system. Outside the Montreal region, the CAQ averaged around 50 per cent of the vote and won almost all the seats, while its roughly 20 per cent on Montreal Island won it just two seats at the island’s extreme east end. So CAQ speaks loudly for Quebec sans Montreal, and the other parties speak, mutedly, for Montreal. The Liberals are the official opposition, but will have a hard time acting as anything other than an Anglo rights pressure group, with their supporters in francophone districts entirely unrepresented.

The regional metropolis/hinterland divide is a result of developments noted well beyond Quebec. Congressional elections in the United States again manifested a red/blue cleavage, with contested elections limited to a small number of “purple” states and districts. Blue voters in red states and red voters in blue states not only are unrepresented but were essentially ignored in the campaign. In Canada there is a well-established literature among political analysts tracing the link between regional voting patterns and the electoral system we imported from Britain.

In contrast, consider another election that took place earlier in the fall, in which Swedes elected the 349 members of the Riksdag under a system of proportional representation with a 4 per cent threshold. Regional voting patterns were discernible. The left alliance won by large margins in big cities and university towns, with major gains in the Stockholm region, where the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats (SD) had their lowest score, 10.67 per cent. SD’s highest score was 28.75 per cent in Skane in the south, where Islamic immigrants are concentrated. Overall, the right made significant gains in industrial regions in the hinterland and northern Sweden.

All of this was reflected in the seats won by each party. But the outcome in terms of composition of the Riksdag, as well as coverage of the election and analysis of its implications, did not magnify these regional differences.

And while many, including this writer, bemoan the result, the new government’s priorities accurately reflect the evolution of public opinion, resulting from a period of effectively uncontrolled immigration followed by a significant rise in violent crime (see Sweden Opens the Door to the Right elsewhere in this issue). Unlike the heavy CAQ majority in Quebec, no one can say that Sweden’s move to the right is an artificial product of the electoral system.

Image: The ABBA members on Dutch television show TopPop, 1974. Via Wikimedia Commons.

As this article is published, the Swedish group ABBA is taking “virtual” residency at a custom-built, 3,000-capacity venue called the ABBA Arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Their multitudes of fans will see “ABBA-tars,” as avatars of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad perform alongside a live 10-piece band. The event is linked to their album Voyage, which came out last fall.

In the context of this renewed international focus on the four, I decided that the time has come for me to acknowledge that I have long been a devoted ABBA fan. In this essay I provide excerpts from songs that I consider to be among the most important ones recorded in ABBA’s earlier incarnation, in the 1970s and early 1980s. Then I turn to Voyage and what the new songs add to those they wrote in the decade they performed together, when they – and we ABBA fans – were a lot younger. The excerpts, I contend, illustrate that not only the tunes but also many of the lyrics stand the test of time.

It is hard to believe that songs performed and recorded between 1972 and 1982 remain so popular today. Why is it that ABBA’s music is alive when that of other popular groups is forgotten? In my view, it endures because it is different from that of other successful “rock” groups – indeed, it is better compared to the music of great composers and lyricists of the past that is still cherished today.

Readers familiar with my writing, while probably surprised by my straying so far from political science, will see in this effort a reflection of my interest in things Swedish. The ABBA four remained Swedish, not tempted to move to New York, London or Hollywood – despite their commercial success not going down all that well in egalitarian Sweden. Yet, while their Swedish temperament is reflected in many of the themes of their songs, there is nothing in the specific content – no Swedish place names or expressions, let alone Swedish words – to link their music with the land of its creators.

From the start Björn and Benny chose to write songs in the international language, English, taking the risk of getting expressions wrong. They sought to make their listeners, wherever and whoever they were, feel that the words spoke for them. And they succeeded well above their own expectations.

I can think of only one example of their mistakenly assuming that Swedish experience reflected that of their listeners, one especially salient to me given my work on comparative civic literacy. In the last song they recorded together in their original incarnation, “The Day Before You Came” (1982), about how a lover’s imminent arrival brings a change to Agnetha’s mundane life, the references are all to popular (American) culture:

I must have left my house at eight, because I always do
My train, I’m certain, left the station just when it was due
I must have gone to lunch at half past twelve or so …
The usual place, the usual bunch

At five I must have left, there’s no exception to the rule
A matter of routine, I’ve done it ever since I finished school …
I’m sure I had my dinner watching something on TV
There’s not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn’t see

But one reference is jarring:

I must have read the morning paper going into town
And having gotten through the editorial, no doubt I must have frowned …
The train back home again
Undoubtedly I must have read the evening paper then

For someone living in Sweden during that period as I did, it was evident that their assumption that everyone read newspapers – editorials no less – was accurate as far as Scandinavia was concerned. But it was hardly universal – and certainly not for the land that produced Dallas.

The Deceptive Image of Superficiality

It is understandable that when they burst on the scene, ABBA’s music was dismissed by almost everyone – except their fans. What came through, apart from the rather silly costumes, was the prosaic lyrics that carried the catchy tunes. Moreover, their sudden success met with some resentment among rock music gatekeepers, who dismissed it as superficial, commercial and clichéd. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau once wrote of ABBA, “We have met the enemy and they are them.”

And the image of superficiality remained, even though anyone listening carefully would have realized that ABBA’s songs increasingly contained profound lyrics that complemented highly complex musical arrangements. The respected musician Pete Townshend of The Who was ahead of his time when he shocked the world in 1982 by coming out in Rolling Stone as an ABBA fan. He noted that “ABBA was one of the first big international bands to actually deal with middle-aged problems in their song writing.”

I suspect that the rare beauty of the voices of the two women singers – combined with Agnetha’s haunting appearance – also may have further distracted listeners from paying attention to the complexity of the lyrics and the music. It was thus natural just to get swept up with the beat and the melody.

My initial involvement with ABBA began in Stockholm in organized aerobics (gympa) in public parks in 1985, moving in step with the beat that, for many of the songs, worked perfectly with the rhythmic exercises. Indeed, though I cannot swear to it, if memory serves ABBA music was also used in the less sophisticated aerobics classes in my neighbourhood gym in Montreal in the 1970s and early 1980s, well before I went to Sweden. Humming along with the very catchy tunes and even mouthing the words, one paid little attention to their meaning.

Returning to Sweden in the 1990s (I was teaching in Umea in the north), I found myself starting to pay more attention to the words of the ABBA songs during gympa sessions. But it was only more recently, especially as I exercised on a stationary bicycle, that I started to listen intently to the lyrics, and to the themes that kept on recurring, discovering unexpected complexity and depth.

I couldn’t miss cases of ABBA’s misuse of English words that the critics had seized upon. The most glaring is in one of their lesser earlier songs, “Does Your Mother Know,” in which the lyrics go “You can dance with me, honey, if you think it’s funny,” mixing up “funny” with “fun.” Another such error, the misuse of the definite article, an error I encountered regularly among Swedes, comes in an especially poignant song for someone of my generation. “Our Last Summer” from 1980 was apparently based on Björn Ulvaeus’s memory of a teenage romance in Paris:

Walks along the Seine
Laughing in the rain
I was so happy we had met
It was the age of no regret
Those crazy years, that was the time
Of the flower-power

My guess is that these few errors were pounced on by critics who resented their “undeserved” (sic) success. This was especially the case in their native Sweden where some were not happy with the image of Sweden they presented to the world. In 1982, for example, Professor Gluck and his associates at the Stockholm College of Music attacked the popular tabloid Expressen for “outrageously” awarding the annual prize “to a group that makes a fortune by manipulating our prosperous teenagers those who seriously aim at making music a meaningful art form.”

I do not accept that great music, or other great art, cannot be popular. I would rank Andersson and Ulveaus with the composers of the great operas. On Amazon’s list of the 40 greatest arias, Puccini leads with 11, followed by Verdi and Bizet with four each and Mozart with three. In an endnote, I offer a list of memorable songs from the great days of Broadway musicals and Hollywood films. By my admittedly subjective reckoning, at least 15 of ABBA’s earlier songs and at least one from Voyage would qualify to be on the list.¹

Below I offer excerpts from them. I exclude several of ABBA’s early and still very popular songs in which their then-manager Stig Anderson contributed to the lyrics: “Ring Ring,” “Honey, Honey”, “I Do, I Do, I Do”, “Mamma Mia” and “SOS.” Their most successful, “Dancing Queen” – the only ABBA song to top the charts in the United States – owes much to its appeal to the Gay and Lesbian community.

In all, they recorded 117 songs, of which 25 made it to the top 40 in the U.K. – an extraordinary accomplishment for a group that was together from 1972 to 1982 and broke through only in 1974 when their song “Waterloo” won the Eurovision Song Contest. (It was to take advantage of this exposure that Stig Anderson moved to concentrating on promoting the group, leaving the words and music to Björn and Benny.)

The more I listened to the words, the more I came to appreciate the tinge of sadness and gloom that reflected the lived experience of these two dazzling couples that seemed to have everything. Quite soon the lyrics and the weightier beats begin to reflect the unravelling of both domestic unions.

As Barry Walters suggested, based on an interview with Benny Andersson on U.S. National Public Radio in May 2015, it is here that the effect of growing up in Sweden can be felt:

What Andersson did point out was that his group possessed a rarely acknowledged capacity for the sorrows of artists living within the “melancholy belt” above the 59th latitude, where the sun virtually disappears for two months, and snow falls for nearly half a year. He argued that this despondency runs through Swedish folk, Russian folk, classical composers like Finland’s Jean Sibelius and Norway’s Edvard Grieg, Ingmar Bergman movies, the voice of Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo and, sometimes, the harmonies of Lyngstad and her front-line vocal partner Agnetha Fältskog.

Walters added,

When it comes to pop, ABBA have been for the last several decades far more influential than The Beatles, rule easy listening radio with nuanced, nearly subversive stuff because they seemed so quaint on the surface … These unashamedly heterosexual couples appeal to the LGBTQ community because Gay people particularly respect entertainers who cloak suffering behind carefully constructed artifice because it’s a skill most of us are still forced to learn. ABBA concealed the distress of their ditties with as many deliciously gaudy overdubs. Embedded in some of the brightest whiteness pop has ever known, ABBA invented their own blues, one that hasn’t left the radio. They whispered private anguish in the midst of the party.

Though ABBA stopped recording, Björn and Benny did not stop producing music. There were 13 ABBA albums released by the time of the breakup in 1982, of which four were compilations. This does not include special compilations then and afterward for Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and Australia, and two albums in Spanish, as well as CDs and video albums recorded in the later years. Several of the most successful compilations came after 1992, when ABBA Gold was released. It reached the top of the charts everywhere outside North America, selling more than the previous chart-topper album, Arrival in 1976.

Mixing Bitter and Sweet

I cannot articulate in writing what only listening to the songs makes clear: how complex the harmony is, mixing bitter and sweet, and how the melodies merge with the powerful lyrics. Listening makes plain that the harmony was attainable because of the wide range of the voices of Fältskog, a soprano, and Lyngstad, a mezzo-soprano. Somehow their voices become aligned to create something larger than the sum of their parts, capturing the depth and power of Benny Andersson’s music.

I highlight some of the most representative of Ulvaeus’s lyrics, which speak for themselves in giving expression to the themes noted here. Readers can easily find the full lyrics as well as the sounds themselves on YouTube and elsewhere on the web. In ordering the songs, I identify certain themes and follow then as the treatment goes from lighter to darker. Only by listening can one appreciate the coming together of words and music in the emerging themes.

Even in their early, more superficial, period they drew on historical metaphors, stating with “Waterloo”:

I was defeated, you won the war
Promise to love you forever more
Couldn’t escape if I wanted to
Knowing my fate is to be with you
Finally facing my Waterloo

And in 1976 came their fine ballad “Fernando,” about two freedom fighters recalling the Mexican revolution of 1910. In 1980 “The Piper,” based on the Pied Piper of Hamelin, constituted a move away from the mainstream, with its dark lyrics belied by the apparently happy melody and use of medieval-sounding flute and drums. The next year brought “Cassandra,” about the tragic historical figure from Greek mythology who was not believed as she foretold the fall of Troy:

Down in the street they’re all singing and shouting
Staying alive though the city is dead
Hiding their shame behind hollow laughter
While you are crying alone on your bed

Another recurring theme is bittersweet nostalgia, of which a well-known instance is “Slipping through My Fingers” (1981), about a mother’s missed opportunities to spend time with her daughter before it was too late, sung by Meryl Streep in the 1994 film Mamma Mia. The theme comes through especially in “Our Last Summer” (1980), in which the lines quoted above recalling Ulvaeus’s teenage romance in Paris are followed by:

But underneath we had a fear of flying
Of getting old, a fear of slowly dying…
And now you’re working in a bank
The family man, the football fan
And your name is Harry
How dull it seems
Yet you’re the hero of my dreams

It seems that almost all the songs touch on the precariousness of relationships. The theme of separation first emerges in 1974 with “Hasta Mañana,” one of the dozen or so songs ABBA also recorded in Spanish.

Hasta mañana ‘til we meet again
Don’t know where, don’t know when
Darling, our love was much too strong to die
We’ll find a way to face a new tomorrow
Hasta mañana, say we’ll meet again
I can’t do without you

It emerges again a year later in the highly successful “S.O.S.” with its memorable chorus:

Where are those happy days?
They seem so hard to find
I try to reach for you
But you have closed your mind
Whatever happened to our love?
I wish I understood
It used to be so nice
It used to be so good
So when you’re near me
Darling, can’t you hear me, S.O.S.
The love you gave me
Nothing else can save me, S.O.S.
When you’re gone
How can I even try to go on?

The precariousness of relationships is the theme of “The Name of the Game” (1977), in which a young, vulnerable person struggles with unfamiliar feelings:

If I trust in you
Would you let me down?
Would you laugh at me
If I said I care for you?
Could you feel the same way too?

A more positive approach to the theme is found in “Take A Chance on Me” (1978), another song that the film Mamma Mia had everyone singing. The bittersweet treatment returns with “Chiquitita,” in which the singer is trying to help a friend through heartbreak; then, with “Lay All Your Love on Me” two years later, other women are perceived as a potential threat.

But the emerging dominant theme was the unravelling of relationships. In 1976 came the poignant “My Love, My Life”:

I’ve watched you look away
Tell me is it really so hard to say? …
Sitting here close to you
Knowing that maybe tonight we’re through

And then in 1977 came “Knowing Me, Knowing You”:

In these old familiar rooms, children would play
Now there’s only emptiness, nothing to say
No more carefree laughter
Silence ever after
Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes
Here is where the story ends, this is goodbye
Knowing me, knowing you
There is nothing we can do
We just have to face it,
This time we’re through

Then comes nostalgia with a hint of bitterness. “One of Us” (1981), recorded after both ABBA’s couples had separated, is a tale of loneliness and empty beds with Agnetha “wishing she had never left at all,” while “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme (a Man after Midnight)” (1979) is sung by the now divorced Agnetha, as is the evocative “The Winner Takes It All” (1980):

I was in your arms
Thinking I belonged there
I figured it made sense
Building me a fence
Building me a home
Thinking I’d be strong there
But I was a fool
Playing by the rules

As their career is coming to an end in 1981, they try to accept their fate with equanimity in “When All Is Said and Done”:

Here’s to us one more toast and then we’ll pay the bill
Deep inside both of us can feel the autumn chill…
When the summer’s over and the dark clouds hide the sun
Neither you nor I’m to blame when all is said and done.

From this perspective, it was only fitting that in 1983, after they had announced their breakup, “Thank You for the Music” came out. The light tone in which they rhetorically ask “Without a song or a dance what are we?” belies the unstated and disheartening answer: nothing.

The 2021 Comeback

The various rerecordings of these songs kept people listening, but no one could have imagined their comeback so many years later to record new songs, released in a new album, Voyage, in the fall of 2021. The reception from the critics was divided, though their return was hardly unnoticed. The Guardian even published two reviews, one negative, one mixed,

As Björn put it in an interview, these songs are the expression of 40 years of experience: several are definitely worth the wait. Agnetha and Anni-Frid still sing beautifully, even if the range of notes they can reach is smaller. All the melodies are catchy. One of the songs, “Don’t Shut Me Down,” in which highly memorable music is combined with very powerful lyrics, clearly belongs in ABBA’s top 20:

A while ago, I heard the sound of children’s laughter
Now it’s quiet, so I guess they left the park
This wooden bench is getting harder by the hour
The sun is going down, it’s getting dark
I realize I’m cold, the rain begins to pour
As I watch the windows on the second floor
The lights are on, it’s time to go
It’s time at last to let him know
I believe it would be fair to say, “You look bewildered”
And you wonder why I’m here today
And so you should, I would
When I left, I felt I’ve had enough
But in the shape and form, I appear now
I have learned to cope, and love and hope is why I am here now

Then comes the strong chorus, though the words are admittedly a bit offputting:

And now you see another me, I’ve been reloaded, yeah
I’m fired up, don’t shut me down
I’m like a dream within a dream that’s been decoded
I’m not the one you knew, I’m now and then combined
And I’m asking you to have an open mind

The Guardian’s initial review by Jude Rogers, “No Thank You for the Music,” has kind things to say only about this song, as well the album’s other headline song “I Still Have Faith in You.”

In my view, there are several additional interesting songs in the album. While not in the top category because the music does not quite make the grade, these songs feature lyrics that are as good as anything ABBA have ever written. I am thinking of “I Could Be That Woman,” in which a woman and her beloved dog watch her estranged lover wake up, and they argue as she admits “Oh God, I’m sorry for the wasted years,” with a glimmer of hope at the end:

You’re not the man you should have been
I let you down somehow
I’m not the woman I could have been
But I can be that woman now

Another is “Keep an Eye on Dan” in which a divorced mother has left her son with his dad for the weekend:

My little boy looks so happy
He throws me his “go mummy” kiss
And he loves his dad
And I loved him too
Maybe I still do
But it’s over
Certain that I’m out of sight
I pull over and turn off the car
And I bang the wheel
I can’t believe that I’ve actually
Held it together this far

In Rolling Stone last November 4, Rob Sheffield concluded that “the first new ABBA album in 40 years was worth the wait … It’s a surprise to have these Swedes back in the game. But it’s a bigger, sweeter surprise that they returned so full of musical vitality.”
In “I Still Have Faith in You,” Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid sing, “How inconceivable it is that we have reached this far.” Perhaps more then they realize, they are speaking for all of us.

Continue reading “Thank You For The Music”

Robert Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020. 480 pages.

By remaining merely pessimistic, not necessarily catastrophist, I have become a relative optimist.
— New York Times columnist Ross Douthat

There is a profound contradiction in this otherwise valuable book. This contradiction is reflected in the cover, in which the cheeriness of WE in bold red is belied by the downward-facing curve. If readers are to be persuaded that America can “come together” as it did in the early 20th century, they would at least expect to find a “how to” section at the end, with insight from current manifestations about how to “do it again.” But it is only in more recent short writing and public lectures that Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett try – unconvincingly, in my view – to have us believe that Americans have good reason to be optimistic about a coming “upswing.”

Going deeper

I am a few years younger than Robert Putnam, and, though not an American, I have spent much time in the United States over the years and continue to follow developments there closely. I have been impressed by Putnam’s work since first encountering his development of the concept of social capital to explain deep and lasting economic differences between northern Italy, with its guilds, clubs and choral societies, and the south, where such social capital – networks and norms of civic engagement on which trust is built – was absent. I attended the ceremony in Uppsala, Sweden, at which he was awarded the Skytte Prize (political science’s “Nobel” prize) in 2007.

The prize was richly deserved. Putnam has been a rarity among social scientists: taking on important issues (rather than just ones to which you can apply state-of-the-art statistical analysis that will get you published in academic journals), painstakingly gathering and applying the fullest relevant data and secondary source material available to address those issues, and writing in clear, nonacademic prose. In addition, while careful to be as objective as he can be, he never loses his perspective as what Americans call a liberal in the best sense of the word.

It was when Putnam, now at Harvard, turned his attention to his own country and began portraying how American life had been steadily unravelling that he became known outside of academic circles. In Bowling Alone (2002), he documented the decline of social capital, for which he used as proxies membership in bowling leagues (he was an avid bowler growing up), Rotary Clubs, churches and other local associations. As the social bonds created by these groups frayed, life satisfaction went down. Declining social capital, he showed, brought rising crime rates and other indicators of deteriorating neighbourhood quality of life. More recently, in Our Kids (2015), he described the new inequality – the precipitous fall in social mobility – in numbers and stories from his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, and other communities.

For much of his career, his focus has been on exploring what went wrong and why. Bowling Alone made Putnam and social capital household words. In the process, he challenged his compatriots to address what was going on around them. He didn’t always have comprehensive explanations for what he described, something unavoidable if you are prepared to take on hard issues in a changing context. This is especially the case with his latest book, which is also his most ambitious – though it has received only a fraction of the attention that Bowling Alone did. The Upswing is a sweeping analysis of 125 years of American history, highly readable and full of interesting insights. His brief conclusion, however, which he has followed up with shorter recent contributions, has more than a whiff of wishful thinking.

It is understandable that, after having written highly influential books that told Americans to be very concerned, indeed depressed, about the developments taking place in their country, on turning 80 he would be reflecting on his legacy, looking for a perspective on the future of his country that could coat the bleak portrait associated with his work with a silver lining. This presented a real challenge since he could not, as comparativists can and do, look to improvements elsewhere, in developing countries in particular, to compensate for the bleakness of the contemporary picture back home. So if he could not go wider, then he would go deeper than in his earlier work: into the long historical trends – the “arc of history” – of the United States over 125 years.

Writing a book about the United States with Trump in the White House and entitling it The Upswing was, as Jim Hacker in Yes Prime Minister would say, “courageous.” Still, in the months following publication, Putnam could see Biden’s election (despite Trump and his allies trying to block it) and the Democrats taking over Congress as confirmation that things were getting better. This perspective is harder to maintain as the pandemic enters its third year, with a likely coming congressional victory by Trumpite Republicans. Consider this excerpt from a January 14 column in the New York Times by the moderately conservative and generally not pessimistic David Brooks:

In 2020, the number of miles Americans drove fell 13 percent because of the pandemic, but the number of traffic deaths rose 7 percent … In 2021 motor vehicle deaths were up 18.4 percent even over 2020 … The number of altercations on airplanes has exploded, the murder rate is surging in cities, drug overdoses are increasing, Americans are drinking more, nurses say patients are getting more abusive … Schools have seen an increase in both minor incidents, like students talking in class, and more serious issues, such as fights and gun possession … Drug deaths had risen almost continuously for more than 20 years, but overdoses shot up especially during the pandemic … In October, CNN ran a story titled, “Hate Crime Reports in U.S. Surge to the Highest Level in 12 Years, F.B.I. Says.” … The number of gun purchases has soared …

When I went to college … I never worried that I might say something in class that would get me ostracized. But now the college students I know fear that one errant sentence could lead to social death … This is what it feels like to live in a society that is dissolving from the bottom up as much as from the top down.¹

Yet, dissolving from bottom up is the opposite of what Putnam, in his most recent interventions, suggests. I return to his contention that things are on the verge of getting better after summarizing the argument in The Upswing, which is full of rich material giving flesh to the curve depicted on the cover. It says very little about America today, arguing instead by analogy: the same things that were wrong and made improvement seem hopeless before the first upswing began are once again present now. Readers who are unconvinced by this argument, as I am, will nonetheless learn much from the historical analysis presented in clear, nonacademic form by Putnam and his coauthor, Shaylyn Romney Garrett.

To summarize, The Upswing sets out “a long arc of increasing solidarity” beginning early in the 20th century, and then increasing individualism beginning in the early 1960s, affecting economic equality, politics, social capital and culture. The authors see the urban riots, assassinations and campus violence, as well as the Vietnam quagmire, as putting an end to that solidarity. This was the beginning of a downswing toward an increasingly zero-sum view of society, with a depletion of social capital in the form of bitter partisanship, deep inequality and isolation, leading eventually to Trumpism.

Here The Upswing builds on Bowling Alone, with a depressing portrait through the second decade of this century. But by showing that this depressing description of America over these past 50 years also applies unexpectedly closely to the America of 1900, the authors arrive at a positive conclusion. It didn’t stay that way back then: early in the century there came an upswing of “mutualism and solidarity,” depicted in numerous charts setting out such indicators as rates of unionization, voter turnout and membership in churches and community clubs. The new ethos was expressed in the emerging communitarianism of the Progressive era, in reformers like Jane Addams and John Dewey and muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. In portraying the trajectory of American society since 1900 in their four curves – economic inequality, political partisanship, social capital and cultural narcissism – they see “an unexpected and remarkable synchronicity in trends in four very different spheres.”

Through painstakingly researched and presented data, every gauge turns out to take the form of an inverted U- or V-shaped curve; from very low rates of all of these (let’s simplify by referring to the sum total as social capital) at the turn of the century to a high point around the beginning of the 1960s and then down to levels similar to 1900 as we get into the 21st century. At the high point of the curve, we find the lowest gap between rich and poor, the most favourable health indicators, the highest social spending to help the poor, the lowest political polarization and the strongest feeling that Americans were moving forward together.

Apart from the standard statistical indicators, the authors make use of an innovative measure to track social capital in the form of “cultural narcissism”: the “Ngram” database from Google’s digitalization of millions of books since 1880, which makes it possible to measure the use of particular words and phrases over time. They are thus able to track the rate of usage of terms reflecting “we” compared to “I,” showing the rise of the “selfie culture” emerging in the late 1950s. They use such Ngram data for terms like survival of the fittest, which faded through most of the 20th century “only to win a new lease on life in the twenty-first century.” Usage of association, cooperation and socialism rose steadily for 75 years following 1880 and then declined. The path of the term common man began its decline sooner, in the early 1950s.

In a parallel analysis published since, in the December 2021 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Marten Scheffer and his coauthors report on the rise of fact-free argumentation. Use of sentiment-laden words such as feel and believe declined systematically while the use of words associated with fact-based argumentation such as determine and conclusion rose steadily until the 1980s, when emotion-laden language again surged in both nonfiction and fiction, as well as in New York Times articles.²

Overall Putnam and Garrett paint a convincing portrait of an America that was broadly improving, when children could expect to earn more than their parents, when politics was not purely partisan, when hope of a “Great Society” seemed realizable. This was the time when Putnam – and Joe Biden – were embarking on their careers. I frequently visited the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s when still a teenager.

I came back generally hopeful about the openness to improvement and optimism about future possibilities of my American neighbours (something I later learned was shared by the Swedes and Europeans generally). While Putnam admits that the rosy picture applies especially to Whites, he presents data showing that the real conditions of Blacks were improving significantly even before the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schooling in Brown, mainly as a result of economic conditions that favoured Blacks moving to the industrial north, and that despite the consolidation of the civil rights movement, progress toward equality slowed by the latter 1960s.

Unlike Putnam, I am a boomer, and like many of my generation, I identified with the North American New Left movement in the 1960s. Hence, like many, I look at that decade from a different perspective than he does. What Putnam portrays as the high point of America living up to its goals as the 1960s began was for us, a few years later, a “one-dimensional” society to be rejected. In my commune in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s, we read Herbert Marcuse and agreed with him that the “advanced industrial society” around us created false needs to tie us into the “system” of production and consumption via the mass media and advertising. We sought to escape a technology-based totalitarian rationality that permeated the culture and public life and to oppose in words and deeds the hyperconsumption, waste and environmental damage it caused. And since the industrial working class – and thus the trade union movement – was now integrated into capitalism, and state socialism in the East failed to inspire us, we looked, with Franz Fanon, to decolonization movements in the developing world as the harbingers of change.

Hence, while I find persuasive the data presented by Putnam and Garrett showing that by the late 1960s the curve had begun to swing downward away from involvement in community associations, I do not see this merely as a reflection of a new self-centredness but rather of our having measured the accomplishments of previous generations against an unattainable standard. I could see this as, writing in 1969, I reflected on my generation’s experience:

The American New Left is … groping, it seems, more than ever. It is learning that its “holy” alliance with the Black Power movement is little more than a treaty to cover dirty linen. It is finding that the people it appeals to in its theory of participatory democracy are being mobilized all right – but against it. It is finding that it is more capable of seizing university buildings than of knowing what to do … after the inevitable restoration of stability.

It is turning, quite understandably, to questions of the whole person – of how to live as a radical person in the society; thus the emphasis of radicalism in the professions, and on the building and maintenance of community; from sensitivity groups to urban co-ops, to rustic communitarian retreats …

The division between … the wheelies and the feelies is far deeper than factional … The wheelies … concentrate on direct action and look upon the entire attempt to build new ways of life as self-indulgence … The feelies … answer that there’s no use trying to bring change and organize others when you’re uptight yourself … In an underground newspaper, a free school, or a commune, the feelies demand that all the structures be simply eliminated … The wheelies say that all this is well and good, but the paper won’t get out.

Putnam’s depiction of the emergence of advanced industrial society in the United States is the other side of Marcuse’s coin. A key case in point is that for Putnam support for trade unions is a positive indicator of social capital. He draws from Gallup polling data to show how popular (after the red scare of the late forties and early fifties) unions became, and how they fell to their lowest level in the 21st century (figure 1). That they are now apparently making a comeback suggests that in this one area, perhaps, Putnam’s optimism may be warranted.

Another positive measure is that in recent years a similar curve shows emerging generations to be especially open to racial and religious intermarriage – as opposed, we should add, to marriage between partners of different partisan political affiliations. Indeed, one of the starkest contrasts between 1960 and 2020 is the attitude toward a Republican marrying into a Democratic family and vice versa.

Putnam’s bet

Though I have only skimmed the surface of, and thus not done justice to, this important book, I turn to the claim in the title that the low point has been reached and that there are signs of an upswing, signs mostly identified elsewhere than in the book itself. For example, Putnam and Garrett cite a journal article written by Putnam’s daughter Lara along with Theda Skocpol and published in February 2018 in the dark early days of Trump in power:

The new upsurge is not centered in the progressive urban enclaves where most national pundits live … About half the country lives in the suburbs, twice the number who live in either fully urban or rural settings. More than half of Americans are also women – and of those, half are in their thirties to sixties. It is in this Middle America, and among these Middle Americans, that political developments since the November 2016 election have moved fastest and farthest … At the current pace, it seems likely that the pop-up leaders and grassroots groups will, by 2019, have repopulated the local layer of the Democratic Party in much of the country … It will look like retired librarians rolling their eyes at the present state of affairs, and then taking charge.

This change will come smoothly and cooperatively in some places and through conflict and displacement in others. The change will move farthest and fastest outside of the metropolitan cores where local Democratic Party patronage structures still persist. Purple suburbs, mid-size cities, big towns in red regions – these are the unexpected epicenters of the quake underway. The cumulative result will be local Democratic Party leadership across much of America that is slightly more progressive and much more female than it was, although not much more socio-economically diverse. Everywhere, the renovated party locals will be passionate about procedural democracy: determined to fight gerrymandering, regulate campaign activities and finance, and expand and guarantee voting rights for all.³

It is impossible to quantify this upsurge. But I am sceptical. So far, the only evidence of its effect on politics was the mobilization of parents seeking to take power over the schools that allowed GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin to be elected Governor of Virginia in 2021 over his Democratic opponent, former Governor Terry McAuliffe – a mobilization that apparently is spreading.

One aspect of Putnam’s hopes for an upswing lies in technology. In the afterword (written with Jonah C. Hahn) to the 2020 update of Bowling Alone, he declares that he is open to a positive response to the question of whether the internet has reversed the decline of social capital. Social media, which had not yet really emerged when the book was first published in 2002, carry implications for social engagement: they both enable and deform.

In lectures and interviews along with his coauthor in 2021,⁴ he was somewhat more positive, stressing that the internet has greatly increased the possibilities for real-time communications which can merge with actual direct human face-to-face encounters in what he calls an “alloy” between virtual and real, as in a neighbourhood book club. While suggesting that on balance the internet may actually be reversing the decline in social capital, introducing previously unthinkable opportunities for social connection, it can also bring unprecedented levels of alienation and isolation. Putnam and Hahn noted in the afterword to the updated Bowling Alone that “social media seem to foster political disagreement, amplify polarizing content, and suppress constructive discourse.” The internet also contributes to inequality between white collar workers who can work from home and blue collar workers who cannot.

Still, Putnam is hopeful, in part reflecting his experience during the pandemic: “Emerging digital technology like Papa … can hook you up with companions of different ages, arrange for grocery delivery and many other activities we took for granted when we were younger. Along with the necessities of life, Papa brings members and Pals (younger folks who assist older adults) together with a mobile app that makes lasting connections easy.” Putnam, who was at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg was there initiating Facebook, insists that many Facebook friends are real friends and that such networks proved their worth as people like himself were isolated by the pandemic. Hence, in response to a question at one of his lectures, Putnam said that he is willing to give favourable odds that the upswing is on its way. I personally would take that bet.

If it were up to him, Putnam would restore some form of national service, rallying youth around “the moral equivalent of war.” In earlier years the draft constituted a kind of “bridging” program that promoted social capital. He admits that young people have been very much against restoring the draft, but he finds hope in recent signs among the young of a decrease in cynicism and increase in idealism: support for environmental causes, Black Lives Matter. I would like to believe that he is right, that he could call on young people the way JFK did when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” and founded the Peace Corps. But that was in 1961 and, as Putnam tells it so well, all things considered, it was a downswing from there.

Trumpism unshaken

As I write in early March, the Ukranians are heroically standing up to the Russian invaders. At the same time I read that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have invaded Ukraine had President Trump still been in office, a majority of Americans said according to the results of a new poll. The survey released Friday from the Harvard Center for American Political Studies (CAPS)–Harris Poll found that 62% of Americans believed Putin would not have pulled the trigger if Trump were still president.

Unquestionably, Putin’s gambit brought a missing sense of common purpose to the democratic world. Yet it does not seek to have shaken Trumpism in the United States. In the first days of the Russian invasion Donald Trump, at a Conservative Political Action Conference event, told his audience of high-profile Republicans that if Democrats want to fight for democracy abroad, “they should start with the democracy that is under threat right next door, a place called Canada.”

I wonder if today Putnam would still tell his American readers that that the upswing is on its way.

Continue reading “Is the United States Ripe for an Upswing?”