Midnight in Paris & Vienna

On the last day of 2016, my family and I attended a performance by the Houston Symphony to commemorate New Year’s Eve. Christopher James Lees conducted the event, subtitled Midnight in Paris & Vienna!, which was precisely as advertised: an exhilarating tour through classic pieces from and about France and Austria. One highlight of the evening occurred when Mr. Lees, turning to face the audience, conducted us in clapping at various speeds and intensities to transform the audience into part of the orchestra, which was a splendidly executed and greatly entertaining feat. This was certainly a memorable musical experience.

New Orleans

Over Christmas break, I and seven other members of the OU Chess Club represented the University of Oklahoma at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship in New Orleans. From the title of the event, I had expected teams from a variety of countries. Therefore, I was surprised by the lack of international teams; the only one I know of represented Toronto, Canada. My team did not play against any teams from outside the United States. There were, however, several international students of whom I knew, including the team captain of our better team and now recently graduated president of the OU Chess club, Florian Helff. As this was my first time in New Orleans, I found time to sample some of the local cuisine. Specifically, I tried beignets at a branch location of the renowned Café du Monde. As you might expect from the spelling, the delicious pastries, buried under a layer of powdered sugar, have a French ancestry. Whatever your adventures this winter vacation, have a Happy New Year, and remember that the OU chess club is always willing to accept new members.

Modern-Day Slavery: In Ghana and the World

At the beginning of this year, I was given the opportunity to attend a 4-day seminar with the leading expert in modern day slavery Dr. Kevin Bales. I learned an extraordinary amount about modern-day slavery from Dr. Bales, but what I found most interesting was the many forms that slavery currently takes in the country of Ghana.

Slavery is commonly taught in the United States as a historic system that began with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the 17th century and ended following the US Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. However, slavery pre-dates the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade by thousands of years. In fact, Ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire made slavery integral to their social systems.” What many people don’t realize is that slavery is still alive and well today, it has simply taken a new form. Unfortunately, although the delusion that slavery is simply an atrocity of the past pervades many of our modern societies, it couldn’t be further from the truth – slavery still exists in the 21st century. In fact, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 45.8 million people are still enslaved around the world today. That means that there are more people enslaved today than there were during the entirety of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Unlike Antebellum Era slavery, modern-day slavery is far more difficult to detect, and often goes entirely unnoticed (or unacknowledged) for extended periods of time. According to Kevin Bales, in his book Disposable People, “even when shown photographs and affidavits, nations’ officials deny [modern-day slavery’s] existence.”

commonly referred to as “human trafficking” in the last decade, and the majority of coverage is in the form of sensationalist writing about the atrocities of sex trafficking. It is unfortunately common for organizations – especially those with Christian affiliations – to “employ enslaved people’s narratives as illustrations, while they provide their own philosophy,” thereby using slave narratives to further their own agendas. (Murphy 98). Also common in the media, is the portrayal of slavery survivors as victims, helpless to save themselves, who are in desperate need of our assistance. The results of this are perhaps best described by Dr. Kevin Bales: “When we typecast freed slaves as pathetic victims, however well-meaning that action might be, we deny the unique truth of each lived experience of slavery.” Furthermore, the mainstream media’s obsession with sex trafficking results in a lack of public awareness of other prominent forms of modern-day slavery. Certainly, sex trafficking is a severe issue that plagues our societies, and we must work diligently to abolish it. However, equally important, and yet often forgotten, are the atrocities of labor trafficking around the world. In fact, a larger number of people are forced into labor trafficking than sex trafficking, and yet it remains widely unreported on.

Of the 45.8 million people currently enslaved globally, there are an estimated “5.6 million people currently enslaved in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.” Many of these slaves can be found in Ghana, forced to work in galamsey mines or required to fish on Lake Volta. Both of these involuntary occupations prove to be incredibly hazardous for the men, women and children trapped in servitude due to their deplorable working conditions, and their lack of advanced tools. Galamsey mines are particularly dangerous “due to frequent mine collapses, poisonous dust inhalation, and exposure to toxic chemicals used to extract gold from ore.” This is because it is cheaper to simply replace a slave, than to provide safe working conditions and adequate medical access to insure their health and well being. Whereas in the past, slaves held a relatively high monetary value, following the exponential increase in the global population in the years following World War II, the price of slaves plummeted and now they are worth very little. Paired with the “rapid social and economic change” that the developing world was undergoing post-WW2, the conditions created a heightened level of vulnerability to trafficking in many third-world countries. Whereas in the past a slave was worth approximately $40,000 US dollars, in the modern world a slave is, on average, worth about $90. Slaves are especially inexpensive in the developing world, and can be sold for as cheap as $10.

In order to fully understand modern-day slavery, it is essential to first understand how people come to be enslaved. After all, slavery is illegal in every country, and yet it still exists – to some extent – in nearly every corner of the world. One of the most common forms of trafficking is debt bondage, and it begins with one simple question: “Want a job?” Debt bondage allows traffickers to deceive victims into believing that their predicament is their own fault by using victims’ “pride and honesty to manipulate them [and] by appealing to their sense of fair play.”  The debt trap is precisely how Ibrahim and his Uncle were first trafficked into slavery in Southern Ghana to work in an illegal gold mine. Ibrahim was born in a small village in Northern Ghana that he describes as “very poor…the land is poor, there is little water. There are lots of people, but little work” (“Blood” 128). After his mother and father died, Ibrahim and his uncle decided to travel South, “following a trail of stories of the golden south where there was plenty of food and good jobs.” However, upon their arrival, they quickly realized that the “golden south” was simply a myth – there were no jobs for them.

Displaced and desperate, Ibrahim and his uncle “met a man who said he could get [them] jobs in a gold mine” (lbid). After following the man to his gold mine, Ibrahim and his uncle realized that it was not a legal operation, and began to question their new-found “employer”; however, by that time it was too late to escape – “there were guards to keep [them] from leaving” – but the two men still remained hopeful that they would receive the payment they had initially been promised after three months. Ibrahim describes the working conditions that he was forced to endure as nearly unbearable, and explains that – although his uncle tried to protect him – “any mistake [he] made would bring a beating” (lbid). After the three-month period had elapsed, Ibrahim, his uncle, and the other workers were expecting to be paid, but their trafficker (still masquerading as their legitimate employer) informed them that they hadn’t earned any money. Instead, they were told that they now owed even more, and would have to repay it with interest before they were allowed to leave the gold mine. Of course, the sum was entirely unattainable to the men, and so they remained enslaved under the pretense of debt. Ibrahim realized that “they were stuck,” but also “assumed that it was their own fault” (“Blood” 131). Thus began Ibrahim’s enslavement, although he was not fully aware of it at the time. Now, as an adult, Ibrahim continues to work in the same gold mine under the watchful eye of his “boss” who “encourages him to work harder with blows and abuse.”

The obvious question is: “why don’t victims simply run away?”. The answer, however, is far more complex. Initially, victims of trafficking are not fully aware that they are actually enslaved. Instead, they simply believe that they have accumulated great debt and, most often, they have a “very strong sense that a debt must be repaid, and that a person wo does not pay their debt is a thief and a sinner.”  Furthermore, their trafficker will maintain the charade of intending to pay them for as long as possible, so slaves continue to work with the hope that they might eventually get paid enough to fulfill their debt and move on. Of course, the charade eventually expires and victims come to the unfortunate realization that they are trapped in slavery. However, at this point, victims are keenly aware of the constant, and very real, threat of violence that hangs over their heads if they attempt to escape. Much like in the Antebellum South, runaway slaves in the modern world are hunted down by their traffickers and are punished with violence. The high level of political corruption in the developing world aids in the tracking down of slaves; it is all too common for corrupt local police officials to track down runaways, knowing that they will be paid off by the traffickers. On the off chance that an escaped slave is brought before a judge to plead for freedom, traffickers will simply pay “another bribe to secure a conviction for defrauding the gold buyer (in his role as lender)” (“Blood” 147). Even if an individual dies while enslaved, still their debt does not disappear; the burden is simply passed down to his or her next of kin, thereby shackling the entire family line.

While this situation seems almost-entirely hopeless, there are many ways to reduce the amount of slavery on Ghana’s “gold coast.” For instance, governments of developed nations can crack down on slavery by forcing corporations to better regulate their supply chains. Great Britain is doing just that with the “Modern Slavery Bill…which will require businesses with over a certain level of turnover to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement.” With this Bill, the British Crown hopes to reduce the 11% of UK businesses that currently “think it ‘likely’ that some sort of modern slavery exists in their supply chains,” by requiring a higher level of transparency. However, although supply chains seem like one of the best ways to eradicate modern-day slavery because they are our most direct link to the atrocity, they are not the most efficient way to combat slavery because most slave outputs never actually reach the global market. Instead, slave-made products are most often produced, bought, and sold at the local level. Fortunately, many NGO’s like Free the Slaves are dedicated to ending modern-day slavery through other – more effective – methods. Free the Slaves works with local-partner organizations in Ghana to help spread awareness about the threat of slavery, and provide at-risk communities with preventative measures to shield them from traffickers. Since entering the fight to end forced mining in Ghana, Free the Slaves has taught communities how to identify a legitimate job from a debt trap, and the percentage of people “who could identify suitable work rose from 5 percent to 93 percent.” Furthermore, the organization has also given communities more information on government assistance for survivors of slavery, and “The percentage of people who had knowledge of government agencies to contact in cases of child exploitation rose from 25 percent to 61 percent.”

One of Free the Slave’s oldest partnerships is with a Ghanaian-founded organization called Challenging Heights that works to “rescue children in forced labor,” and “offer continuous survivor rehabilitation and recovery support” (“James”). Since its founding, Challenging Heights has managed to rescue over 1,500 children from traffickers on Lake Volta, and have put over 400 children through their survivor rehabilitation center which provides much-needed medical care, education, and support as children are reunited with their families and reintegration into their communities. In addition, Challenging Height’s is also in the business of slave proofing communities through education and economic empowerment programs that provide legitimate jobs to those in need. The founder of Challenging Heights, James Kofi Annan, is actually a survivor of child slavery on Lake Volta himself. Mr. Annan was trafficked at age six, and was enslaved for seven years before he escaped and went on to pursue his education. Today, Mr. Annan uses his powerful personal narrative to raise awareness on the issue of modern-day slavery around the world. Most recently, he addressed the United Nations assembly on December 2, 2016 which marks the International Day for the Abolishment of Slavery.

Child trafficking is the most common form of enslavement on Lake Volta in Ghana. In fact, an estimated 4,000 children have been trafficked into the fishing industry on Lake Volta. Due to the lack of education opportunities in Ghana, many parents are often persuaded to send their children (Some even as young as four years old) to receive a “proper education” in return for what they are told will be “a few hours of work.” However, in reality, “Ghanaian children are sold into a life of forced labor, malnutrition, and abuse,” and are forced to work long and strenuous hours in life-threatening conditions. Although the children are forced to work in rickety boats on Lake Volta, many of them are never instructed on rudimentary water safety skills, and lack even the most basic swimming abilities. As one would imagine, this results in many unnecessary child deaths; furthermore, many children also get tangled in underwater nets and, unable to escape, drown in the lake. Aside from the danger of drowning, children are also forced to struggle with severe malnutrition since they are provided with only one small meal a day. In addition, much like Ibrahim in the Ghanaian gold mines, James Kofi Annan recalls: “Each time I made a mistake as a child fisherman, I was tortured.” Unfortunately, many young children like Mr. Annan endure his same fate.

Fortunately, Free the Slaves, Challenging Heights and their partners have a plan that could end child slavery on Lake Volta in the next five years. Using modern surveying technology, anti-trafficking workers plan to use spatial recognition technology to identify trafficking site on Lake Volta, that will allow them to better coordinate their extraction methods for rescuing victims of child slavery. Furthermore, they hope that this new technology will soon be adapted to help identify other forms of modern-day slavery – such as the trafficking that takes place in illegal Ghanaian gold mines like the one that Ibrahim was enslaved in – as well. Surprisingly, the cost of eradicating slavery is relatively low on the global scale. In fact, it only costs $400 US dollars to liberate and completely rehabilitate a slave. On an aggregate level, that means that we can end slavery for 18.3 billion dollars. At first glance, that seems like an unachievable sum. However, Americans spend $18 billion on video games annually; $18 billion also the annual amount of accrued credit card late fees in the United States. According to a recent study done by the Washington Post, President Trump’s incredibly-controversial border wall is estimated to cost approximately $25 billion dollars. If President Trump chose to use that money to eradicate modern-day slavery, we could liberate 45.8 million people, save $7 billion dollars, and avoid the environmental disaster that the border wall is sure to create.

The eradication of slavery is within reach – it can be achieved in our lifetimes – but first we must expand our efforts to spread awareness, rescue and rehabilitate survivors, and take preventative measures to ensure that now-vulnerable communities are slavery-proof in the future. After all, although there are 45.8 million people currently enslaved, that is the smallest percentage of slaves to be represented in the global population to this day. Furthermore, the collective revenue created by slavery also accounts for the smallest percentage of the global economy in all of history. We have made tremendous progress in the fight to end slavery, but the war is not yet won. If we are to truly eradicate slavery in the 21st century, we must continue on diligently, remembering the wise words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “No one is free until we are all free”

Laura-Kate Seitsinger 2017-05-17 18:49:33

Over the past school year, I have walked past the statue that sits outside of the newly renamed Farzaneh Hall, and wondered who the statue depicted and why it had been placed in front of the College of International Studies.

However, until April 21st I had never taken the time to find out — content to continue on with my normal schedule.

Fortunately, on April 21st I decided to attend  the second annual Khayy’am Day — created to celebrate the life (and many accomplishments) of a prominent Persian poet and mathematician named Omar Khayy’am. You guessed it, the man portrayed in the statue!

Khayy’am Day was an incredibly immersive experience, and I learned a lot about the Persian culture (which I previously knew very little about).

While listening to Persian-language students recite the beautiful poetry written by Omar Khayy’am, I was able to try an array of traditional Persian foods and watch a Persian calligrapher as he created his artwork.

As I said before, I have very little experience with the Persian culture, but Khayy’am Day allowed me the opportunity to interact with and learn about the culture.

After attending  Khayy’am Day, I am excited to continue to learn more about the Persian culture!

Sanitation Solutions in Haiti

“Sanitation Solutions for Haiti” // Nick Preneta, Deputy Director of SOIL // April 19, 2017

Sanitation standards in Haiti are some of the worst in the world. In fact, only 26% of Haitian citizens have access to clean water, and 40% of urban residents in Haiti don’t have access to a toilet – private or public. During his presentation, Mr. Preneta explained that these two issues are highly interconnected. Due to their lack of access to toilets and the severely limited sewage sanitation system, many people in Haiti resort to disposing of their waste in local water sources. Given the fact that Haiti has a high water table and flooding is extremely common, this polluted water carries human waste into huge intersections where it collects indefinitely. Furthermore, there is only one functioning waste treatment facility in Haiti, which means that a mere 4% of waste is treated. The lack of sanitation in Haiti continues to cause a multitude of health problems for the Haitian people – and especially those living in urban areas. Diseases like cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, chronic diarrhea, and other waterborne diseases are spread via these waterways and cause mass-infections. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti only worsened sanitation conditions as millions of people were displaced and took up residence in public areas like parks and golf courses. Following the earthquake, water conditions deteriorated rapidly and a massive Cholera outbreak plagued the Island.

Fortunately, Mr. Preneta and his organization SOIL are actively assisting in implementing sanitation solutions in Haiti. SOIL was first established in 2006 after the founders designed and developed their first “Ecosan” toilet – similar to a port-a-potty – and tested a number of prototypes out in various places throughout Haiti’s two largest cities – the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in the South and Cap-Haitian in the North. However, much like in the United States, the public bathrooms were not properly cared for in the communities and became incredibly dirty within short time periods. It soon became clear that SOIL did not have adequate funds or staff to efficiently maintain the bathrooms, and so they were all closed within 5 years of their creation. This presented a major setback for the SOIL team, but they learned from their mistake and soon began devising a new in-home toilet prototype. By 2009 they had developed a new strategy that enabled them to improve sanitation by working from the micro level of individual households and out through the entire sanitation chain. The first step was to build a waste treatment facility which would be used to cleanse the waste of any bacteria and then transform it into compost – the facility was completed by the end of the year. The second phase of this new sanitation strategy required slightly more time, but by early 2012, the SOIL team had installed 140 “trial” in-home toilets in a certain community for a three-month period, and had remarkable success.

Today, SOIL provide sanitary in-home toilets to over 1,000 families in the two urban areas that they serve. These toilets are extremely efficient for a number of reasons. First of all, they only cost approximately $25.00 to produce (a cost which is nearly offset by the $3.00-a-month fee that clients pay to use the toilet service). Secondly, the toilets are designed to separate solid and liquid waste immediately into 5-gallon and 1-gallon buckets – thereby expediting the composting process. Unfortunately, the SOIL team has not yet found a sanitary way to dispose of the liquid waste, but the team is currently in the process of exploring sanitary (and cost-effective) options. Finally, and probably most important to users, the SOIL toilets emit almost no odor. This is primarily due to a certain type of sawdust that SOIL includes with the toilets that absorbs the odor almost entirely. Furthermore, SOIL also provides a weekly collection service that picks up the waste-filled buckets (replacing them with clean, empty buckets) and transports them to the SOIL waste treatment facilities.

Since 2009, the SOIL team has built and currently runs two composting waste treatment facilities that they use to compost thousands of gallons of waste over the past eight years. In fact, SOIL is now one of the largest waste treatment operations in Haiti. Mr. Preneta and the SOIL organization take great pride in their composting facilities because the vast majority of sanitary development projects “start and end with toilets.” The problem with this, Mr. Preneta explained, is that the human waste still eventually ends up in the public water system, spreading deadly pathogens to everyone in a community. Water-borne pathogens can cause severe damage in a society; according to Mr. Preneta, in Haiti – an island with the relatively-low population of 9 million (roughly equivalent to that of New York City) – 10 children die from water-borne illnesses each day.

The process required to transform human waste to usable compost is rather complex and requires multiple steps: First, after arriving at the treatment facility, the human waste must be tested for pathogens. In the past SOIL partnered with the US Center for Disease Control to test the feces for various pathogens, but they now operate out of a local lab that uses E. Coli as an indicator of pathogens – the pathogen-removal process typically takes 5-6 weeks. After the waste is processed and cleansed in the lab it undergoes thermophilic (“hot”) composting during which soil microbes slowly decompose and produce heat so that thermophilic microbes can thrive. During this process, the intense levels of heat kills pathogens and expedites decomposition. Finally, the finished compost is tested for pathogens once more, packaged in 40 pound bags, and sold to local farmers and larger corporations. Per Mr. Preneta, one ton of SOIL’s compost costs approximately $300.00, and the organization currently has a waiting list of individuals and businesses that want to purchase their product. Not only does the composting method of disposal significantly decrease the amount of human waste that infiltrates public water stores, it also helps revitalize soil that has been eroded or lost nutrition due to extensive deforestation on the island.

In my opinion, one of the most unique and admirable qualities of SOIL’s operations is that they largely employ internally. According to Mr. Preneta, apart from the few US founders of SOIL who now largely work on advertising and fundraising abroad, the entirety of the SOIL team (approximately 30 full-time employees) are native Haitians. Not only are these employees highly qualified for their positions but, being natives themselves, they are also acutely aware and sensitive to the sanitation situation in Haiti and the many ways in which it negatively affects Haitian citizens – especially those living in poverty. In addition to SOIL’s 30 full-time Haitian employees, SOIL also employs a significant number of “daily workers” at their composting facilities. Per Mr. Preneta, each morning, large lines of Haitian citizens hoping to earn a day’s wage form outside of both SOIL composting facilities. In this way, SOIL also assists in the reduction of poverty in both Port-a-Prince and Cap-Haitian (both of which are hosts to high levels of unemployment) by way of job creation.

Despite all of the excellent work that SOIL does in Haiti, there are multiple ways in which the operation could be significantly improved. Based upon the information provided by Mr. Preneta, SOIL faces numerous economic shortcomings that severely inhibit their productivity. For one, the $3.00 monthly fee that SOIL charges for their toilet services does not quite cover the cost of toilet production and waste transportation to and from users’ homes. After a thorough cost-analysis, the SOIL team came to the realization that their costs were $1.50 more than their profits. However, Mr. Preneta is confident that with a few modifications to the current process (such as outsourcing transport in order to avoid unnecessary costs like vehicle repair), in the near-future, this portion of their operation – the “front end” – will soon be a money-making business venture that will be extremely attractive to private-sector corporations. Unfortunately, the “back end” of the operation – testing human waste for pathogens and subsequently composting waste – is a far more expensive endeavor. According to Mr. Preneta, SOIL’s average costs currently outweigh their profits by approximately $8.00 (a far larger gap).

Of course, there are certain actions that the SOIL team can take to reduce the current back-end costs – for example, employing new machinery to make the composting process more efficient. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent to the team that they will require some level of public funding by the Haitian government in order to continue operations sustainably. Unfortunately, there is a high level of political turnover in the Haitian government that makes it difficult to build and maintain government relationships. Furthermore, much like in the United States, the environment does not take top priority in Haitim so the DINEPA (the Haitian equivalent to the US EPA) does not have adequate resources to allocate to SOIL’s project. That said, during one of SOIL’s meetings with the DINEPA, the agency made it clear that they are willing to provide some level of funding to SOIL when the team presents them with a self-sustainable business model. Mr. Preneta was adamant that SOIL is on the verge of developing such a business model, and is hopeful that it will allow the public and private sectors to work together in solving Haiti’s sanitation problems.

Prior to attending Mr. Preneta’s lecture, I had never heard of SOIL and was relatively uninformed about Haiti’s poor sanitation. Truthfully, upon hearing that 40% of urban residents in Haiti do not have access to a single toilet, I was racked with guilt over the fact that I myself have three toilets in my own apartment – all of which I take for granted. After hearing Mr. Preneta speak about the work that SOIL is doing on the ground, I am of the belief that their operations are paramount to improving sanitation conditions in Haiti. I am especially impressed by the holistic approach that SOIL takes to solving sanitation problems – not only providing access to toilets, but also repurposing human waste as compost in order to revitalize soil and employing local Haitian residents at composting facilities in order to reduce unemployment (and in turn, poverty). I am curious to know if it would be possible for the SOIL team to somehow implement a device into toilets that could detect pathogens on a house-to-house basis, thereby enabling Haitians to recognize their illnesses and better treat them. I wonder if, additionally, a pathogen-detecting device would also be beneficial to the Haitian government in accessing public health. It will be interesting to see if, as their operations continue to grow, SOIL eventually begins to repurpose liquid waste as well as material waste – especially seeing as numerous studies have proven that it can be used as an excellent fertilizer.

Seeing as the situation in Haiti is so deeply complex, there are a number of interconnected “geographic standards” that create the conditions in which the poor sanitation conditions are allowed to thrive. However, I would say that at its core, the sanitation problem essentially boils down to overpopulation in urban areas (Element 3, Standard 6). According to Mr. Preneta, the population of Port-au-Prince is nearly 1 million and Cap-Haitian’s population is approximately 250,000. In both of these cities, poverty is rampant and Haitian citizens live in extremely close quarters that promote the spread of various pathogens. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti severely exacerbated this situation due to the migration of thousands of displaced families to cities in order to gain better access to resources. Upon their migration, thousands of people set up temporary settlements in public places, worsening the already suboptimal sanitation situation in the highly urbanized areas.

As I mentioned before, the Haitian people are extremely impoverished and so over 40% of the urban population in Haiti does not have access to a toilet and so they dispose of their waste in local water sources. This disposal method is worsened by the fact that both Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitian are coastal cities prone to flooding. When these cities are flooded, the waste-filled water flows through the cities narrow streets and collects in major intersections where it remains. Since these intersections are so heavily trafficked by city-dwellers, the pathogens contained in the waste are spread rapidly throughout the city. These diseases lead to high death rates on the Island, but the CDR is far outweighed by the extremely-high birth rate in Haiti which is causing the population to grow exponentially. Since children are far more susceptible to disease, Haiti’s high CBR also expedites the spread of deadly pathogens.

Populism: Into The Mainstream

Prior to attending Professor Heinisch’s lecture entitled “Populism: Into The Mainstream” about the many diverse forms that populism can take, I was largely unaware of the extensive spectrum that Populist parties can span.  Of course, I knew better than to believe that “populism” fit perfectly into the single homogeneous categorization like the media attempts to portray. However, the extent of difference between the European Populist parties is quite shocking. For example, as Professor Heinisch explained, the distinction between populist parties in the East, West and South are significantly different from each other – varying along the lines of style, scapegoat, etc. Furthermore, even the public’s reactions to these populist parties vary geographically; in the West, traditional political parties attempt to isolate populists and refuse to cooperate with them, while in the East traditional parties shift their alliances to benefit from the populists.

That said, I was equally as surprised by one of the similarities that European Populist parties have in common – “the Putin connection.” As Professor Heinisch explained, populist parties across Europe have continuously received financial aid and media support from Russia. Initially, it seemed odd that Europeans were not more outraged by this connection – attempting to use it against the populist parties. However, after Professor Heinisch explained the division between populist voters and traditional-party voters, it became clear that the Russia connection would make little difference in political elections.

Given the number of varying strategies that have been used to eliminate populist parties in Europe, my question to Professor Heinisch would be which strategy he believes is most efficient, or if there is no single strategy for combating Populism that can be universally applied seeing as populists adapt to the current political climate of a given country. I was particularly curious about Professor Heinisch’s comment about traditional parties that have allowed the Populist party take power, fully expecting them to flounder and thus lose public support. From my perspective, this strategy seems like a rather uncertain gamble but, if it is common for populist parties to fail after taking office, perhaps the risk is worth it? I would like to know the percentage of populists that thrive while in power, as opposed to those that fail.

Khayy’am Day

On April 21, I attended the opening of the second annual Khayy’am Day. This day celebrates the life of Omar Khayy’am, a prominent Persian poet and mathematician. A statue of him sits outside the newly renamed Farzaneh Hall.

The reception was relaxed and casual. I ate baklava for the first time. I’m not the biggest honey or pastry person, but I’m trying to be a more adventurous eater. I watched a Persian calligrapher write as well. I have no knowledge of the Persian alphabet or language, but his work looked beautiful.

Amid this, Persian-language students recited poems by Khayy’am. The poetry reading drew me to the event. I could only stay long enough to hear a few poems, but I think the students did an excellent job. After the recitations, faculty members explained their meanings. My favorite line was something like “I am the ocean and the pearl inside the ocean.” I think the metaphor captures how someone can be both fierce and gentle, loud and quiet.

Unfortunately, I left for class before the day’s lecture about Khayy’am, but I enjoyed the exposure to Persian culture. I also liked the reminder through Khayy’am’s poetry that many feelings are universal to the human experience.

“Revolutionary Women: Gender Politics in 1917 Russia” Lecture

To celebrate International Women’s Day, March 8, I went to the lecture “Revolutionary Women: Gender Politics in 1917 Russia” by Dr. Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild.

Similar to the Arabic Talent Show last semester, I attended this event because it focused on a culture outside of my usual area of interest. It also incorporated a competent I enjoy, like the talent show. As a Women’s and Gender Studies minor, I have an interest in feminist topics.

Dr. Ruthchild explained how women’s demonstrations helped trigger the Russian Revolution. Despite date discrepancies that result from the Russian use of a different calendar, these protests took place on International Women’s Day in 1917, making them a well-timed topic for the day’s lecture.

Dr. Ruthchild laid out the reasons these women were successful in their endeavors for change, connecting the reasons to their gender. For example, male soldiers who were sent to control and shut down the demonstrations would not fire into the female crowds. They saw men as a threat, but they could not bring themselves to harm their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters – people they were taught to protect. I liked this because it highlighted the particular strengths of women in these types of situations.

Events carried out by women, while important in the moment, are often overlooked by history. Because of this, I’m always glad to learn about them and develop a more true and complete picture of the world.

“Into the Mainstream: Explaining the Rise of Radical Populist Parties in Europe”

On May 2, I attended a lecture by Dr. Reinhard Heinisch from the University of Salzburg. As a renowned scholar of European politics, he offered a diverse and interesting account of the highly publicized phenomenon of once-fringe populist parties gaining considerable traction throughout Europe.

I’m familiar with right-wing populists parties such as the French National Front, UKIP, the Freedom Party and Alternative for Germany (along with their often humorous leaders), but Dr. Heinisch brought up a fascinating point that I did not know: several of these new parties are not right-wing and some are even far-left. This connected to his larger argument that while the media paints these parties as a connected occurrence and of similar agendas, they each possess key differences from one another. He gave six categories generally associated with the far-right (nativism, ethnocentricism, racism, heterophobia, religocentrism, and antisemetisim) and gave numerical figures for each party that reflecting their presence. The scores were all across the board. Dr. Heinisch basically wanted to prevent clumping these parties together as ideologically identical.

Despite their ideological diversity, these parties tend to share similar organization and methods. They all: “call into question liberal democracy, break rules and taboos, and preach nationalism.” They hate globalization (hence the latter characteristic). They tend to single out a group or occurrence on which to blame society’s ills. They are often represented by one, charismatic leader (although they are actually more complex behind-the-scenes). And most insidiously, they changes their ideologies to match the voters– which is why Dr. Heinisch referred to the “populist chameleon.” I also found it interesting how the parties followed regional trends. Western European parties are far-right and target immigrants and Islam as scapegoats. Eastern European parties blame Roma groups and the “liberal West.” Lastly, Southern European parties are leftits.

To conclude, I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Heinisch’s lecture. His first-hand experiences as an Austrian professor definitely shone through to make it all the more interesting. I have yet to attend a CIS lecture that didn’t leave me feeling more intrigued and informed!