Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.
Showing posts with label Cold War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cold War. Show all posts

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Happy Independence Day, Namibia!

Your humble blogger reaches Swakopmund, crossroads of the Namib Desert and South Atlantic Ocean.
All photos RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-SA 4.0.
Yesterday, March 21 was independence day in Namibia. One of the youngest countries in the world, Namibia attained independence from South Africa in 1990 after a brutal war and bloody history of subjugation as the German colony of Southwest Africa. Public celebrations of 30 years of independence were cancelled because of the coronavirus, though an inauguration ceremony of President Hage Geingob, for his second term, proceeded.

Sign fallen to the ground in Windhoek.
I found mixed feelings on the ground about Geingob, who was the country's first prime minister and a hero of the independence movement. One middle-aged man from Namibia's rural north told me Geingob can't be blamed for entrenched intransigence and corruption in the political establishment, that he can only do so much. Meanwhile a young woman in the capital, Windhoek, stringing together multiple jobs to put herself through university, blamed Geingob squarely for double-digit unemployment--by various estimates, one in three Namibians, or more, need work--and fiercely lamented his second term.

The National Museum and historic German Lutheran church stand in juxtaposition in Windhoek.
Me and Nujoma. He holds the Namibian constitution.
I've been sensitive in traveling Africa to the subtleties of foreign influence, especially that of China, and that shadow turned up in a curious way in Namibia. Like elsewhere in Africa (I wrote earlier about Guinea-Bissau), communists financed the independence movement as an aspect of the Cold War; consider, for Namibia, this was the 1980s. North Korea grew close to legendary independence leader Sam Nujoma. North Korea financed a great many public works projects in independent Namibia, including recently and strikingly, the National Museum, which opened in Windhoek in 2014. The building is modernist (technically "socialist realist"), marking a contrast with Windhoek's colonial center, and boasts a Kim Jong-ish statue of Nujoma. The interior is to match, celebrating Namibian independence with socialist-style murals and cult-of-personality-type homages to national leaders.

A mural in the National Museum celebrates independence.
The sun rises over the Rössing Uranium Mine in the Namib.
Why does North Korea's interest persist so many years after independence? Locals point to Namibia's especially valuable natural resource: uranium mines in the western Namib desert. Though North Korea formally is walled off by the West from materials that might advance the DPRK's nuclear capabilities, suspicions point to China as a willing intermediary. And so the African "natural resources curse" persists.

Namibian Parliament: A banner on the Parliament's administrative building heralds 30 years of independence.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Can ‘Star Trek’ put the U back in –topia?



This weekend will see the premiere of the newest entrant in the Star Trek franchise, CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery (trailer).  Notwithstanding CBS’s dubious bid to build a new model for content delivery in CBS All Access—creative initiatives crushed by commercial imperatives is a tradition in Star Trek history—Discovery marks a worthwhile moment to take stock of where we are now as a global village, 51 years after the premiere of Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking Star Trek, now “The Original Series.

Roddenberry’s vision was a utopian one.  It seems almost clichĂ© now to recount the novel “enterprise” of a multi-national crew spreading humanist idealism throughout the galaxy.  Despite its military trappings, Star Fleet was tasked with exploration of the final frontier on behalf of a United Federation of Planets (UFP).  Star Trek represented all the good parts of cultural imperialism and mitigated all the bad with deep, moral self-reflection.

Martin-Green
(CC 2.0 Gage Skidmore 2016 via flickr)

It looks like Discovery will resonate in the Roddenberry tradition.  The series, which might vary perspective and setting across seasonal sub-arcs, opens with a strong black female lead in Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead’s Sasha) and a female captain of color in Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger’s Yu).  Discovery takes place after humankind’s first forays into deep space, which were depicted a decade ago by Star Trek: Enterprise, but still before the adventures of James T. Kirk and crew in the 1960s Original Series and the current movie-reboot series.  The nascent UFP is in a cold war with the Klingon Empire.  This fictional era and the name of the starring ship, U.S.S. Discovery, suggest fealty to Roddenberry’s vision of a “wagon train to the stars.” 

But can that vision get traction in today’s world?

However much our multi-platform electronic environment has served up an embarrassing surfeit of science fiction, we remain awash in dystopian imaginings.  Disclaimer one, yes, I realize that dystopian fiction is not new; even 1984 dates to 1949.  Disclaimer two, let me be no hypocrite; I have devoured it all, from The Hunger Games to The Handmaid’s Tale, having just finished the latter’s s1 yesterday.  (Nick is going to save her, right? right?!)  Yet many a commentator has observed the peculiar resonance of dystopian fiction today, in a world in which hunger and poverty persist, the wealth gap widens, and our standard of living and expectation of leisure seem after all not to have skyrocketed in consonance with technological ingenuity.

There was a time after the Berlin Wall fell, in the 1990s amid perestroika and glasnost, that it seemed like we might be on an upward trajectory.  The turn of the century brought with it a cautious optimism.  Maybe the era of world war and nuclear nightmare could be put to bed, and humankind would rise from those ashes and turn at last to the business of life on, and beyond, earth.

Then 9-11 happened.  The world went back to war, and we’re still in it.  Our American streets fill with protests fueled by racial division.  An unprecedented humanitarian crisis tears at the seams of European socio-economic union.  The septuagenarian United Nations—real-world analog of the thinly veiled UFP—seems impotent to stop a threatened nuclear detonation in the atmosphere.  And oh yeah, the ice caps: they’re melting.

Inevitable dystopia seems the apt model to envision our future on earth.  Wherefore art thou, Discovery, into our world of social and political fracture?  Can we even recognize ourselves in utopian science fiction?

It bears remembering that the world to which Roddenberry first introduced Star Trek was itself no utopia.  The Original Series tendered commentary that might seem trite now—e.g., TV’s first interracial kiss between Kirk (Shatner) and bridge officer Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols), the “black on the ‘right’ side” racism of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the futile primitive conflict of A Private Little War.  But that commentary was sophisticated and controversial in its time.  Star Trek’s very proffer of earthbound east and west in common pursuit of human survival and space exploration was a calculated critique of Jim Crow, the space race, Vietnam, and the Cold War.  Star Trek’s utopian vision was launched amid the civil rights fire that forged our second national reconstruction.

So maybe now is exactly the time for Star Trek.  Maybe we need utopia now more than ever, precisely because it is so unfamiliar.

As Star Trek turned 50 in 2016, Sir Thomas More’s enigmatic Utopia turned 500.  More’s Utopia was a social critique, not a social blueprint.  Critique always has been the raison d’ĂȘtre of science fiction.  There is no utility in only imagining the future.  The endgame is to hold up that parallel world next to your own, to see how the two compare.

For Star Trek, the final frontier is not space.  The final frontier—the discovery—always has been us.