• Remembering D-Day and Tiananmen Square

    This week, we mark two very different milestones: the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, the allied invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe; and the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989.  How these days are marked and remembered tells us a lot about the difference between democracy and autocracy.

    Earlier this week, a friend pointed out that D-Day is perhaps the most celebrated, fictionalized, and talked about battle in American history.  From feature films like “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan” to video games like “Medal of Honor” and “Call of Duty,” the story of D-Day and the valor of those who stormed Hitler’s Atlantic Wall is something understood broadly, by multiple generations. 

    President Reagan’s speech on the 40th anniversary of the invasion celebrated the Army Rangers who scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc in the face of withering fire from German forces above.  The president noted the moral energy that fuels an army fighting to liberate rather than conquer.  Then, to the assembled veterans of the assault, Reagan said: “You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.”

    In 1989, other people separated from D-Day by time and distance, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, had been protesting since mid-April, calling for increased freedom and even democratization in China.  They, too, were willing to fight tyranny. They, too, loved the idea of liberty. And yes, they, too, died for democracy when their own government sent tank columns against unarmed protesters and students, killing hundreds and potentially thousands of peaceful activists.

    But where the nations of the West venerate the courage of June 6, 1944, the events of June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square have been stricken from China’s official history.  Students in China don’t learn about 1989’s pro-democracy protests in school and there are certainly no public commemorations of the sacrifice those protesters made, or the courage they displayed against impossible odds.  In fact, the Chinese government is actively censoring any efforts online to  remember the events of that day.  According to VICE News, “at least 27 activists, artists, and netizens . . . have been detained, questioned or disappeared since the start of May” for posting items online about the Tiananmen Square crack-down.  Even Western news agencies trying to report on the anniversary have had their content blocked by China’s “Great Firewall,” and CNN’s Matt Rivers was harassed on camera while trying to report on the anniversary live from Beijing.

    In the West, we celebrate D-Day because it is a testament to our finest qualities and the possibilities of what free people can accomplish when they work together.  In China, the censorship around Tiananmen Square is a sure sign of weakness, of a brittle regime that does not trust its own citizens with the truth, who turned its guns on students rather than risk losing its grip on power.

    In 1938, Americans celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  It was the last major celebration of that turning point in America’s Civil War.  It’s believed that 25 veterans of the battle made it to the encampment.  Only a few more D-Day veterans, 35 to be precise, are expected in Normandy this year.  But even with the eventual passing of that generation, the legacy and the meaning of D-Day will live on, just as Gettysburg did, because it is a historical moment whose salience has been captured by the culture.  We won’t forget D-Day because D-Day helps us define ourselves and we like what it tells us about who we are.

    In China, however, officials seek to edit history, to wipe an event from memory, and to pretend it never happened.  Why?  Because that moment defines the regime in China to this day, and the authoritarians who run China don’t like what that legacy reveals about them and their regime.

  • Local Journalism with Alexandra Watts

    Air Dates: June 3-9, 2019

    Local journalism is one of the key-stones of American democracy.  There’s no substitute for an experienced, local reporter—not just to get a story, but to share it with the insight and perspective that only comes from living in the community in which they report.  Alexandra Watts is one of 13 fellows with Report for America, a new effort to put reporters on the ground in communities across America. 

    Watts is a reporter with Mississippi Public Broadcasting, living and working in the Mississippi Delta where she focuses on under-reported issues. She is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • Democracy in Peril

    When I moved back to New England eight years ago, the state of Rhode Island was in tough financial shape and several municipalities were being administered by officials appointed by the governor.  Let’s be clear about what this meant: whole communities—and sizable ones at that—had local democracy subverted and replaced by appointed officials.  I was troubled by the phenomenon.  It struck me as running counter to so many of the ideals and myths about America that cut to the very core of our identity.  I did some preliminary research to try to figure out how extensive a phenomenon it was nationwide.  The answer: more extensive than you might believe.

    In fact, it was a similar set of circumstances that led to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.  Because of the crumbling finances of the city of Flint, then-Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an “emergency manager” who took charge of Flint’s finances and determined to save municipal money by terminating Flint’s relationship with the Detroit water authority, and instead using water from the Flint River.  The Flint River water, however, was not treated with corrosion control chemicals and ate through the old pipes at the heart of that once-mighty industrial city.  The resulting corrosion put lead into the water of Flint—lead, perhaps the best understood neurotoxin.  Exposing young brains to lead is to sentence those souls to cognitive decline.  It changes lives for the worse.  Flint became a full-fledged public health crisis.

    In Flint, people new something was wrong.  Despite reassurances from state and local officials, the water tasted odd.  It looked worse.  But the person making the decisions at that time wasn’t accountable to the people of Flint.  He was accountable to the governor of Michigan, and that is one of the dangers of setting aside democracy: when the people don’t matter, their voices aren’t heard.

    It took a remarkable coalition, including a crusading pediatrician, a water scientist, and local activists to reverse what was going very wrong in Flint.  But for me, this is a story about disenfranchising Americans—about diminishing, devaluing, or eliminating the power of people’s votes.

    The alarming truth is that there are efforts to diminish the power of democracy happening all over the United States.  We see evidence that people want to resurrect poll taxes, and literacy tests.  In some cases, the efforts to disenfranchise voters takes the form of how many polling machines you put in a given voting precinct.  Every case of gerrymandering you hear about is an effort to concentrate blocs of voters into as few Congressional districts as possible, often by race.  Cases in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and Michigan have either been settled in the courts, or will be, but all raise profound and troubling questions about the commitment of many American political leaders to the very meaning of democracy.

    I think we have to keep an open mind, too, about whether the loss of suffrage due to criminal conviction isn’t, itself, a type of structural disenfranchisement.  We know that African Americans and Hispanics make up only 32% of the country’s population; but they make up 56% of the prison population.  When they get out, if they’ve been convicted of a felony, they won’t be able to vote in most states.  The end result is a large segment of the American population—many of whom are from under-represented communities—who can’t vote; and whose voices are effectively eliminated from the American public square.

    I am of the view that American democracy is strongest when every voice has an equal chance to be heard.  We should be looking for ways to make participation in the political process easier; not harder.  We should be helping Americans vote in races that are meaningful and consequential.  Democracy is not just about who won; it’s about discerning the consent of the governed.  We compromise that at our own peril.

  • Environmental Justice with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

    In April 2014, officials in Flint, Michigan, switched the source of the city’s water from the Detroit water supply to the Flint, River.  It was a cost-saving move, but it touched the lives of citizens across that city.  Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha helped blow the story open.  With science and determination, she proved the decision was poisoning the children of Flint. 

    An associate professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University, Dr. Mona is also the founder and director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, a model program to mitigate the impact of the Flint water crisis so that all Flint children grow up healthy and strong. She is also the author of What the Eyes Don’t See, a memoir of her role in exposing the Flint water crisis, which was the Rhode Island Center for the Book’s selection for Read Across Rhode Island, it’s annual state-wide read.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • “Story in the Public Square” Awarded Bronze for Best Political/Commentary in Television in the 40th Annual Telly Awards

    NEWPORT, RI – “Story in the Public Square” has been awarded bronze for Best Political/Commentary in Television for the 40th Annual Telly Awards. This is the second consecutive Telly Award win for the show.

    The Telly Awards honor excellence in video and television across all screens as judged by leaders from video platforms, television and streaming networks, agencies, and production companies including Vice, Vimeo, Hearst Digital Media, BuzzFeed, and A&E Network.  “Story in the Public Square” was honored, specifically, for its 2018 episode on the death penalty featuring Sr. Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking.

    Story in the Public Square” is an initiative to study, celebrate, and tell stories that matter. To do that, the show’s hosts, Jim Ludes from the Pell Center at Salve Regina University and G. Wayne Miller from The Providence Journal, sit down each week with talented storytellers and scholars to make sense of the narratives shaping public life in the United States.

    In announcing the award, Sabrina Dridje, Managing Director of the Telly Awards, praised “Story in the Public Square” and said this year’s award “is a tribute to the talent and vision of its creators.”

    “We are passionate in our belief that story has the power to shape the world,” said Ludes, who is also Executive Director of the Pell Center at Salve Regina University.  “It’s a privilege to share stories that matter with the world, and we’re humbled to be recognized for this work.”

    “The team we work with is world-class,” said Miller.  “Everyone we work with at Rhode Island PBS, the entire crew behind the cameras, is dedicated to sharing these stories and these storytellers with the widest audience possible.  We’re proud to accept this honor on the team’s behalf.”

    “Story in the Public Square” airs on 239 public television stations across the United States in 460 broadcasts every week.  Locally, the show can be seen on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, and Sundays at 4:30 a.m. 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center at Salve Regina University and The Providence Journal.

    The show was honored in the 39th Annual Telly Awards with a Bronze in the same category for its 2017 end of year special featuring Dr. Evelyn Farkas.

    “Story in the Public Square” this year joins a remarkable list of honorees in its category: including CNN for its Parkland (FL) town hall (Silver); CBS for The Late Show with Steven Colbert (Bronze); HBO Latin America for Greg News (Bronze); and WRNN for RFL Where I Stand: Immigration Frustration (Bronze).

    Today’s announcement caps a year-long celebration of the 40th Anniversary of The Telly Awards. Throughout 2018-2019, The Telly Awards celebrated four decades of honoring the video and television industry, whether through its inaugural international screening series or its online video interviews with industry experts. This year also saw the continued expansion of new categories further to the awards’ recent initiative to rebuild the honors for the multi-screen era. New categories included serialized Branded Content and expanded Social Video categories. Last year, The Telly Awards attracted more than 12,000 entries from top video content producers including Condé Nast, Netflix, Refinery29, RadicalMedia, T Brand Studio, and Ogilvy & Mather.

    The Telly Awards were founded in 1979 to honor excellence in local, regional and cable television commercials with non-broadcast video and television programming added soon after. With the recent evolution and rise of digital video (web series, VR, 360 and beyond), the Telly Awards today also reflects and celebrates this exciting new era of the moving image on and offline.

    View all of winners of the 40th Annual Telly Awards winners at www.tellyawards.com/winners.

  • The Press and the War in Afghanistan with Katherine A. Brown

    Air Dates: May 20-26, 2019

    America’s war in Afghanistan is the longest war in the history of the United States.  Katherine A. Brown served on the staff of the U.S. ambassador there in the years after 9/11 and she argues now that the role of the American press in Afghanistan is essential to understanding the conduct of the war. 

    Brown is the author of a compelling new book about the press and America’s war in Afghanistan, Your Country, Our War.  She’s also the President and CEO of Global Ties U.S.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • Iran? I’ve seen that movie, too

    On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine was at anchor in Havana Harbor when an explosion sank her killing 260 officers and men.  The so-called Yellow Press—led by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer— promptly blamed the Spanish government and cried “Remember the Maine!” In truth, historians remain uncertain about what caused the explosion, but the leading theory is that a fire in one of the coal bunkers on board touched off ordinance stored nearby.  Regardless of the truth, the sinking of the Maine helped the yellow press make the case for Spanish treachery and, soon, the United States found herself at war with Spain. 

    On September 19, 1931, a Japanese military officer placed a small explosive device under a rail-line operated by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway near the city of Mukden, in Northeast China.  While the explosion was so small as to not damage the line, the Imperial Japanese Army accused Chinese resistance for the so-called “attack” and used it as a pretext for the invasion and occupation of Manchuria.  The League of Nations investigation concluded that China was behind the explosion and that the invasion of Manchuria was not justified.  The Empire of Japan rejected the conclusions and withdrew from the League of Nations.

    On August 2, and August 4, 1964, American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin—off the coast of Vietnam—were reported to have been targeted by North Vietnamese patrol boats.  American officials at the time reported that the Vietnamese had fired first and that U.S. forced returned fire only in self-defense.  Within a week—on August 10, 1964—Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, giving the administration of President Lyndon Johnson the authority to escalate America’s involvement in Vietnam.  Subsequent investigations concluded that the August 2 incident did take place, though the U.S. ship opened fire first, but there was no second engagement on August 4.

    In the spring of 2002, less than a year after the al Qaeda attack of September 11, 2001, the administration of George W. Bush began making the case for war in Iraq.  They warned that Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism was an unacceptable risk to American security in the post-9/11 world.  The only way to counter the threat from Baghdad, said officials at the time, was to remove the regime, if necessary, by force.  In 2003, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, completing the policy of regime change.  In the aftermath, we learned that the U.S. intelligence community simply got the WMD intelligence wrong—having been gamed by Hussein himself who worried about his rivals in the region and wanted to project strength.  But the links between Hussein and Islamic extremists were patently and unquestionably over-stated by administration officials making the case for war.

    These stories loomed large in my mind this week as media reports swirl about rising tensions between Iran and the United States.  Last week, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its battle group were directed to the Persian Gulf, along with a bomber task force made up of American B-52s, and elements of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in response to threats posed by Iran, despite concerns from England, Spain, and Germany who have said they don’t see any new threat.  This week began with reports of possible sabotage of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman that U.S. sources blamed on Iran.  Meanwhile, The New York Times broke a story that the White House was reviewing plans to deploy 120,000 U.S. forces to the region to confront Iran.  On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department ordered “non emergency” employees to leave Iraq.

    If it all feels eerily ominous and yet, somehow familiar, that’s because it is.

    The reality is that none of us without access to highly classified intelligence are in a position to know, definitively, what the threat posed by Iran is.  I have no doubt that there are hard-liners in the Iranian regime who would welcome a conflict with the “Great Satan”—as they refer to the United States—as a means to prop up their regime. But I also know that the president’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has long wanted to confront Iran militarily and has spoken openly of a need for regime change in Tehran, just as he once spoke hopefully about regime change in Baghdad.

    History is full of examples of states staging events to either build, shape, or confirm narratives that justify the use of armed force.  Our responsibility as citizens in 2019 is to listen to the evidence and claims with a critical ear; to ask hard questions of our elected representatives, to resist being caught up in the surge of events or thinking that simply because a government official says something—any government official from any government—it must be true—or false.  We have to think critically and to make our own concerns about evidence, actions, and consequences heard.  The stakes are immense.

  • Leap of Faith: Decision Making Before the Iraq War with Michael Mazarr

    Air Dates: May 13-19, 2019

    In 2003, the United States military unleashed a campaign the press had pre-christened “Shock and Awe,” the dominant and overwhelming application of American military power against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and its military.  Within weeks, U.S. forces controlled all of Iraq, and then the fighting really began.  This week on “Story in the Public Square,” Michael J. Mazarr unravels the decision making that led to what he calls, “America’s greatest foreign policy tragedy.” 

    Mazarr is author of a new book about the run-up to the Iraq War, Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy. Currently a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, Mazarr worked previously at the U.S. National War College, where he was professor and associate dean of academics.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • The Campaign I’d Like to See

    As of this writing, there are 21 declared candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president of the United States. The challenge of breaking through the field and emerging as a major candidate is daunting, but I have a modest proposal:

    Tell a story.  Tell a story about where we are as a nation.  Tell a story that challenges the narrative advanced by this president and his campaign.  Tell a story that paints a picture about the America you would create as president.  Tell a story that calls all Americans to action.   

    One thing I should stipulate up-front is that I’ve never been a fan of political leaders who go for the easy score.  I admire the leaders who speak truth to power; who aren’t afraid of difficult issues; who talk about things that need to be discussed; who speak for those who cannot—or dare not—speak for themselves.

    So I would advise a candidate looking to break out to tell a story about Americans who have been left behind in our country.  I wouldn’t tell this story with a speech or a video or a tweet storm—I would travel to places in America that have long suffered economically.  I wouldn’t care if they were in early caucus or primary states.  I’d seek out communities where the poverty grinds on the spirit of too many; where jobs and opportunity are scarce; where food-deserts threaten hunger in this land of plenty. 

    I’d advise the candidate to bring the journalists covering her campaign with her, and to linger in that place.  Spend time talking to real Americans and giving them a chance to tell their stories to a wider audience—not in staged-events or photo-ops or rallies, but in real, one on one conversations.  The candidate should ask his fellow citizens for advice about what the federal government can do to help their communities turn around.  But on these trips, the candidate’s tasks is to listen and to empathize.  Speeches and policy proposals can come later.

    President Trump boasts about a booming economy, and America is, absolutely, the wealthiest country on Earth when you measure the per-capita income of our citizens.  But that wealth is concentrated on America’s coastlines and in major cities.  Travel to places like the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, do the drive from Washington, DC to Clarksburg, West Virginia; visit cities like Buffalo, New York, or Flint, Michigan.  Travel, like Bobby Kennedy did more than 50 years ago, to the Mississippi Delta and listen to the stories of Americans who are struggling—not because of a lack of effort or desire, but because of a lack of opportunity.

    This isn’t a rural or urban thing.  It isn’t a black or white thing.  It’s an American thing.  Through our tax policies, we’re concentrating wealth at the top.  Through the way we finance America’s wars, we’re redistributing wealth from lower-income families to upper income Americans.  Because of the way we finance our healthcare, 530,000 American families each year have to declare bankruptcy.  Because of the way we finance higher education, college graduates are leaving school with more than $32,000 in debt.  They’re waiting longer to make major investments in homes and cars, and they’re delaying having children. 

    Just this week, the Trump administration proposed a new rule to change the way the government measures inflation—which seems like a sufficiently wonky policy initiative that people outside of Washington, generally speaking, wouldn’t pay much attention to, or care much about.  But they should.  The result of this proposal, over time, will reduce the number of Americans eligible for nutrition assistance—not because these Americans would suddenly be able to afford to buy food for their families, but because the government adjusted the way it calculates cost increases.  Over time, this same rule would reduce the number of Americans eligible for Medicaid through the same mathematical slight-of hand. 

    The president’s greatest political vulnerability is his empathy deficit.  A smart Democrat would grab hold of that issue and never let go.

    To borrow a phrase from another campaign and another candidate: I believe that America is great because America is good.  We look out for the most vulnerable members of our society.  We help every citizen live up to her or his God-given potential.  We help those in need, in part because we know that someday, we too may need help ourselves, but, more fundamentally, because we know that a hand-up is better than a hand-out.  This kind of leadership promises a future with human dignity—something not always on display in a policy speech, but you’d see that humanity if you traveled with my imaginary campaign to the places I mentioned, talked to Americans about the challenges they face, and listened to their stories.

    Would my candidate win the nomination?  I don’t know, but that’s a campaign I’d like to be a part of.

  • New Papers in Series on Timor-Leste Published

    Newport, RI – Today the Pell Center released two new papers on the foreign policy of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

    Finding Partners: Timor-Leste’s Evolving Security Ties with Southeast Asia, authored by Natalie Sambhi, explores how Timor-Leste’s sense of geopolitical vulnerability, as a young democracy in an increasingly rivalrous region—when coupled with a number of pressing domestic imperatives—has played a key role in shaping its strategic outlook. Ms. Sambhi is currently a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre, and a PhD student at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

    Despite the Odds: Timor-Leste’s Quest to Avoid a Debt Trap Dilemma and Achieve Democratic Stability, penned by Hunter Marston, details how Dilli might opt to confront some of its most sizable challenges—whether in terms of providing sustainable economic growth, pursuing democratic consolidation, or in fending off some of the more predatory trade policies of its larger neighbors. Mr. Marston is currently an independent consultant based in Washington DC, and a PhD candidate at Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

    “Both Natalie Sambhi and Hunter Marston are rising stars in the field of Southeast Asian studies, and these papers—in their analytical rigor, clarity and policy-relevance—are clear testaments to their expertise,” noted Dr. Iskander Rehman, Senior Fellow for International Relations at the Pell Center. “We’re delighted to publish their timely and insightful papers on the challenges confronting Asia’s youngest democracy.”

    The papers are part of a Pell Center series of short essays and opinion pieces, made possible with the support of the government of Timor-Leste, on maritime dispute resolution and the future of the Asian order.  The full line-up of papers is available at this link.