Saturday, February 17, 2018

Inside Story



In conjunction with Story in the Public Square, the weekly Rhode Island PBS/SiriusXM Satellite Radio show I co-host and co-produce with Pell Center head Jim Ludes, I write an occasional column, Inside Story, for The Providence Journal. And with the great producer Whitman Littlefield, I frequently produce a podcast from these shows.

We have a marvelous range of guests -- noted scholars and storytellers from the worlds of film, TV, still photography, books, journalism, social activism, academia and more -- more than a few Pulitzer and other prize-winners -- and I highly recommend you see the full slate at the Story in Public Square episode site. Story is a partnership of the Pell Center, where I am a visiting fellow, and The Providence Journal, where I have been a staff writer for many years.

So let's get to it. I will archive my Inside Story columns -- and links to the podcasts -- here on my blog, and I invite you to read... and to download and listen to the 'casts. I always welcome feedback, and suggestions for guests. We are in Season Three and growing. Welcome to our audience!


-- Weekend of March 3, 2018: Award-winning photographer Maddie McGarvey 

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Photography has cast its spell on me since the Christmas my dear Aunt Edna gave me a Kodak Instamatic camera. I was in third grade. Many cameras have succeeded that little wonder, which I still have, and my love of image has undergirded another enduring passion — storytelling. I have worked with many accomplished professionals over the years at The Providence Journal, and we have explored the power of the photo previously on “Story in the Public Square.”

So when I first saw the work of Ohio-based photographer Maddie McGarvey, whose portfolio includes national politics, domestic violence, the demise of the nuclear family and much more, the only question was whether she would accept an offer to appear on our program.


Maddie McGarvey, center, on the scene.

She did, and if you get the chance to watch or listen this weekend, I think you will agree that McGarvey — whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones and The New York Times, among many other places — is worthy of the honors that have come her way. Those include Magnum’s 30 Under 30 photographers three years ago and TIME's 51 Instagram Photographers to Follow in the U.S., in 2016.

McGarvey is Midwestern-modest regarding those accomplishments, but eloquent in discussing her work and where it appears. Her frequent use of Instagram, where @maddiemcgarvey has attracted some 36,000 followers, particularly intrigued co-host Jim Ludes and me.

“Instagram can be whatever the individual wants it to be,” McGarvey said. “With some people, it's just pictures of their dogs; some people, it's food. I like Instagram because it’s a place to show my documentary photography where 36,000 people who don’t know anything about an issue or don’t know a lot can get an intimate look…

“I’ve photographed, for example, the opioid crisis. This man whose son died 10 years ago from heroin and every week he goes and cleans and polishes the gravestone and mows the grass along it. He invited me to take pictures of him one day. I did and posted [one] on Instagram and I got a lot of comments from strangers that were like ‘My son died from heroin’ or ‘I have someone struggling.’ That’s a way to reach an audience that I don’t think I would ever been able to before. Or people can see that other people are going through this.”

“Connecting people,” Ludes said. “They’re not alone.”

“Yes,” McGarvey said. “I think Instagram is sort of beautiful for that.”

During our nearly half hour on air, McGarvey discussed 30 of her photos. One depicts the son of a woman who became pregnant with him when she was working at a chemical factory. Grown now, the man has a severely deformed face. When I first glimpsed it, I was taken aback. The more I looked, however, something drew me in. Perhaps it was how McGarvey posed him, or the rapport she had built with him. Whatever it was, the man’s deformity no longer mattered. That wasn't him. That, was, well, superficial. I don’t know how else to put it.

“It tells a story of what happened to him, the larger story, but it also captures his humanity,” I said. “He’s a person… Is that in your mind, too?"

“Absolutely," McGarvey said. "When I approach photography — and subjects in portraiture especially — the largest thing I look for is how I can connect with them in an empathetic way. I’m not looking to sensationalize anything. I just want people, the viewers, to look and connect.”

Director Scott Saracen, editor Nicholas Moraites and I cut that photo and 29 others into the final video. Our radio audience should be satisfied — we verbally describe each image verbally — and I would be surprised if our TV viewers, seeing those 30 images and watching 44 seconds of documentary film we also added, are not as wowed as everyone on set was.

“Story in the Public Square” is a partnership of The Journal and the Pell Center at Salve Regina University. It airs on Rhode Island PBS and on SiriusXM’s P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), Channel 124. Broadcast times and more at storyinthepublicsquare.org

*****


-- Weekend of Feb. 17, 2018: Immigration, Latino issues, with guest Gabriela Domenzain.

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I knew from meeting Gabriela Domenzain last fall that she would soon make her mark in Rhode Island. The newly arrived head of Roger Williams University’s Latino Policy Institute, Domenzain brought impressive credentials from her time in Washington, the national media and the Hispanic advocacy organization National Council of La Raza, now known as UnidosUS. With her distinctive energy, Domenzain, the daughter of Mexican immigrant doctors, got right to work on Latino issues, including significant educational and economic disparities here and across the nation.

But the public has come to know her best with her recent involvement in the case of longtime Rhode Island resident Lilian Calderon, wife of U.S. citizen Luis Gordillo and mother of their two young children who this week was released after a month in federal detention. Thirty years old now, Calderon came to America from Guatemala as a 3-year-old, and in January she was seized by ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Her story made national headlines as Congress once again tackles the hot-button issue of immigration.

Gordillo, daughter Natalie, Miller, Domenzain, and Ludes on set
So we were keen to discuss that case and the larger issues surrounding it with Domenzain, this week’s guest on “Story in the Public Square,” TV and radio. Her intimate knowledge of immigration and her life experiences give Domenzain an authority that is often lacking in the local and national conversations, when some people are quick to post Facebook comments and fire off tweets based on hot emotion and misinformation, not cold facts.

Lilian, Domenzain said, was seeking to set her record straight when “she was literally vanished from her community without any explanation.” For Domenzain, it represented a chilling change of tactics by federal authorities. It was one of the first such in New England, she said — but not the last in the region and country, she fears, under the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress.

How did we get here? we asked. Efforts at comprehensive immigration reform date to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, more than three decades ago.

From the GOP side, Domenzain said, an explanation can be found in those congressional Republicans who bitterly opposed Barack Obama in his first term. “A backlash,” she called it, led by extremists who understood that a hard-line anti-immigration stand would appeal to some white voters and might prevent America’s first African-American president from winning a second term.

“We’re talking about the Tea Party and the very, very right fringe extreme caucus that is now in the middle of the Republican Party,” Domenzain said. “It used to be fringe. Now it’s actually front and center.”

Across the aisle, Domenzain asserted, other factors were in play.

“On the Democratic side, they haven’t decided to use their political capital on these issues,” she said. “President Obama tried his first year. It didn’t work. He decided to go with health-care reform, which, by the way, was the number-one priority for Latino voters because we are the most underinsured and uninsured population.”

Like many others, Domenzain sees this year’s elections as potentially game-changing. Surveys suggest that greater numbers of Hispanic, African-American and other traditionally non-Republican voters will cast ballots than in 2016.

That, she said, does not bode well for today’s Washington.

“The Republican Party has no chance with Latinos right now. They have the most anti-immigrant, racist president in the history of this country and Latinos recognize that they’re scapegoats.”

I have only touched on our wide-ranging conversation (which, I would note, Lilian’s husband and one of the children watched from the control room). Wherever you stand on the immigration debate, this is a broadcast well worth hearing or watching.


*****


-- Weekend of Feb. 10, 2018: Russia meddling in the 2016 election, FBI, with guest Tim Edgar.


You are unlikely to find a more qualified individual to discuss cybersecurity, government surveillance and personal privacy than Timothy Edgar, senior fellow with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University and author of the critically acclaimed new book, “Beyond Snowden: Privacy, Mass Surveillance and the Struggle to Reform the NSA.”

So with the Nunes memo bringing investigations of Russian interference in American democracy into the news once again, Edgar’s appearance on this weekend’s TV and satellite radio broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square” could not be more timely.

Timothy Edgar, right.
I have known Edgar for several years, and have followed his exemplary work during that time. If you are not familiar with him, here’s a primer: he joined the American Civil Liberties Union just before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, then worked for several years advising the director of national intelligence during George W. Bush’s administration. He later advised President Barack Obama, and came to Brown in 2013. Yes, highly credentialed — and an expert and scholar, not a partisan.

Our nearly half-hour discussion covered many topics, but “Story” co-host and co-producer Jim Ludes and I started with the Russia investigations by Congress and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Have they been compromised by political bias, as President Donald Trump and others assert? I asked.

“I think it’s fairly weak to say that the entire investigation is just a witch hunt or it’s just people in the ‘Deep State’ who dislike Trump,” Edgar said. “I think that’s a huge stretch.”

But Edgar, who sees nuance where others might see only black-or-white, raised a caution.

“I do think there are legitimate civil liberties issues in this foreign intelligence investigation, as there always are in foreign intelligence investigations because they’re pretty wide-ranging …. We don’t necessarily trust the government to always get it right when it comes to these very intrusive powers. So I do think we need to look carefully at the possibility that they went too far in certain cases involving Trump campaign officials. That’s completely possible and we shouldn’t dismiss it just because we don’t like Trump or we think they’re trying to distract us from the main focus of the investigation.”

Ludes sought Edgar’s opinion of media coverage of the Nunes memo and related issues, asking, “Have they gotten it right?”

“It’s hard to explain because it’s a complicated issue,” Edgar said. “It’s hard sometimes for people in our polarized media environment to have two ideas in their head at the same time. One idea is it’s a very serious matter: the Russian interference in our political process in 2016. It appears that the president is not taking it seriously and that’s really troubling.

“And at the same time, it might be the case that there might be legitimate questions to be asked about the investigation. You can believe all of these things at the same time, but the media wants to put us in one camp or another. Either we’re on the side of Trump or we’re on the side of the ‘Deep State,’ and I don’t think that should be the way that we, as Americans, look at the most intrusive surveillance authorities.”

Ludes noted that when the Nunes memo was leaked, he channel-surfed to assess coverage.

“I was struck by the difference in the tone and the tenor,” he said. “It’s almost three different news universes out there depending on whether you’re a CNN follower, an MSNBC follower or a Fox follower.”

“Yes,” Edgar said, “and I think that’s really unhealthy for our democracy.”

We were only a quarter of the way through the discussion at that point, and I can assure you the last 75 percent was equally informative. So tune in!


*****


-- Weekend of Jan. 27, 2018: Genocide, the Holocaust, with guest Omer Bartov.

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On Saturday, the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, #WeRemember, in honor of the 6 million Jewish victims of Nazism and the millions of others killed when Hitler was in power. So it is appropriate that during this weekend’s TV and radio broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square” we feature Omer Bartov, the esteemed Brown University historian who has written extensively about Nazi Germany and ethnic cleansing.

His latest book, “Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz,” published this week by Simon & Schuster, is an extraordinary story of how one small town in Eastern Europe descended into unspeakable atrocity in the first half of the 20th century.


Miller, Ludes, Bartov.

“Genocide is often being studied from the top,” Bartov tells us on “Story in the Public Square,” “from the point of view of the perpetrators: how was it organized, how do you organize the mass destruction of a group. One of the ideas in explaining that was you have to dehumanize people, that you have to think of them as different from us, as not normal.”

In “Anatomy of a Genocide,” Bartov focused on the border town of Buczacz, which is today part of Ukraine. Before Hitler and Stalin, the Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian residents there had gone centuries without conflict.

“I wouldn’t say it was a harmonious coexistence, but they lived together and they did not know any other reality,” Bartov said. “This was what they had always done.”

“They didn’t have gangs and killing squads or anything of that sort,” I said.

“No, no, no.”

“They had their differences, but they lived together.”

“Yes,” Bartov said. “They lived side by side quite peacefully. And they often speak each other’s languages, they go to school together.”

As World War II unfolded, German authorities took control of Buczacz after driving out the occupying Soviets.

“The mass killing begins in the late summer, early fall of 1942,” Bartov said, “and by spring 1943 most of the Jewish population in that town has been murdered, about 10,000 people. So by June 1943, this area is decreed by the Germans ‘clean of Jews.’”

“Who did the killing?” my co-host Jim Ludes asked.

“The killing of the Jews is done primarily by about 20 to 30 Germans who are members of the security police,” Bartov said.

Police, not soldiers.

And not at Auschwitz or Dachau, but in Any Town in East Europe — as neighbors watched and, in some instances, cooperated.

As the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides and other ethnic cleansing after (and before) World War II demonstrate, the Holocaust was not unique. Given the right, terrible conditions, human nature can turn horrific.

Bartov explained how ordinary people can conspire in such a descent into the worst darkness.

Say, for example, he told us, “you live in a house and the house has four stories and the people upstairs have the nicest apartment and they have a piano and they’re taken out by the police and shot on the street. You had nothing to do with it. You were friends, your daughters went to school together. Now what happens to their apartment? Who is going to live there? If you don’t move in — it’s a nicer apartment, it has better air, it’s the fourth floor, it has a piano — somebody else will.

“So you move in. And once you’ve moved in, well, you are already part of this process. On the local level, there are no simple victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. Everyone is involved in this process. Everybody gets roped in in one way or another. And the veneer of civilization — of saying hello to your neighbors in the morning — suddenly disappears.”

This process of demonizing or dehumanizing someone who is racially, ethnically or religiously different, Bartov says, is key. He sees similar social dynamics at work today in many parts of the world, including America, where racism and nativism bring headlines.

Born and raised in Israel, where he served four years in the army, Bartov is the son of a woman who grew up in Buczacz, so there is a strong personal element to “Anatomy of a Genocide.” Hear more about that and Bartov’s latest book this weekend on “Story in the Public Square.”


*****


-- Weekend of Jan. 20: War coverage, ISIS atrocities, with guest Sulome Anderson.

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In an astonishing article for Foreign Policy, “Women Survive. They Do Not Live,” writer Sulome Anderson chronicled her experiences interviewing captured ISIS members in Iraq and some of the Yazidi women they enslaved, raped and abused. Anderson asked one woman what she would tell her captors now that they had been captured.

“I have nothing to say to them,” the woman said. “Even if you put them here in front of me and tortured them, cut them into pieces like a salad, I would say nothing, because my heart is broken and my life will never go back to the way it was, no matter what I say.”

Sulome Anderson.
Anderson had those words in her head when she spoke to an ISIS member.

“The prisoner denies that he saw what happened to the Yazidi women,” Anderson wrote. “But he seems to have absorbed the terrorist group’s attitude toward women. As we speak, he looks at me with hunger in his eyes.”

And then he said to Anderson: “You are very beautiful. If ISIS had you, they would lash you, cover you, and take you as a slave as well.”

Such is the power of Anderson’s work, which she discussed during this weekend’s TV and satellite-radio broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square”. Based in New York and in Beirut, Anderson specializes in what she describes as “people existing in extreme circumstances.” We have featured other guests who do similar work — Pulitzer-winning Javier Manzano and Oscar-nominated Daphne Matziaraki, for example — and we were delighted to welcome Anderson into their ranks.

Anderson’s work for NBC, Harper’s, The Atlantic, New York, VICE, Village Voice and other outlets has brought her to some of the planet’s most violent regions. She largely eschews politics for people.

“The reason I prefer to focus on the human beings is because they are so often lost in the narrative,” Anderson told me and “Story” co-host Jim Ludes.

“I consider it my mission or my job to make people in America — just for a moment, doesn’t have to last very long — for them to look at the life of someone across the world who they seemingly have nothing in common with and think: Oh, wow, if I were in that situation, how would I feel? How would I react? I want them to imagine that person as a human being. ”

“It’s a mission of empathy,” Ludes said.

“Yes,” Anderson replied.

I asked Anderson about the personal impact of reporting the Foreign Policy piece. “You were hearing horrible, horrific things, the worst kind of human behavior almost imaginable,” I said. “How did that affect you emotionally and spiritually?”

“That was definitely one of the hardest, if not the most difficult, group of interviews that I’ve done,” she said, of her interactions with the formerly enslaved women.

“I know journalists who consider it a kind of badge of honor to detach emotionally from this work. I personally do not. I focused my attention on not crying in front of them because I find that disrespectful. It’s not my life. I didn’t go through anything like that. I don’t feel like it’s my place to sit there and cry in their homes, but it is very difficult to hear these things and maintain composure.”

Quite different when she got to the ISIS prisoner.

“I was very angry and that kind of informed my interview of him,” Anderson said.

As they talked, she seemed able to read the man’s thoughts.

“I knew the ultimate humiliation was to be interviewed by an American woman, unveiled, who isn’t afraid of him,” Anderson said. “For someone who has been living in that ideology and believes it — I knew that would be the ultimate insult.”

But she contained her anger.

“I didn’t do anything overly aggressive with him. I just sort of noticed his reactions to the questions I was asking, to the way I was asking them, to the fact that I was not afraid of him.”

This was not Anderson’s first encounter with terrorists. Daughter of former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, who was held captive for seven years by Hezbollah militants, Anderson writes of finally meeting one of her father’s captors in “The Hostage’s Daughter: A Memoir of Family, Madness and the Middle East,” which won an International Book Award and has been optioned for film.

Anderson has begun work on her next book, about radicalism in America, and it’s one I can’t wait to read. Meanwhile, you can watch or hear Anderson talk for nearly a half-hour about her compelling and growing body of work — from America and abroad, about topics and people, good and bad — this weekend on “Story in the Public Square.”



*****


-- Weekend of Jan 13, 2018: Obituary writing, with guest Margolit Fox, New York Times.

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Margalit Fox has had the last word more frequently than anyone you’re likely to ever meet.

Literally.

An obituary writer for The New York Times, Fox is a master of this form of news story, and during her career, she has penned the obituaries of more than 1,200 people — from the well-known to the obscure.

Obscure, that is, until The Times goes to print and suddenly, you know the name and life story of the person who invented the Frisbee or the pink plastic flamingo.

Fox talked about her craft on this weekend’s broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square,” and while admittedly I am biased, our half hour with her was uncommonly informative and entertaining. Not only is Fox a master wordsmith — she is an author, too — but she possesses compelling stage presence. Perhaps it is her training as a cellist, or her master’s degree in linguistics. Whatever, co-host Jim Ludes and I were mesmerized.

Margolit Fox, middle.
We opened the program asking Fox to tell us how one becomes what she became.

“Well, the child has not been born that comes home from second grade [saying] ‘When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer,’" she said. True enough. "One backs into it — or, rather, lucks into it.”

Fox also holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia, and before joining The Times’ obit desk in 2004, she was a staff editor at the paper’s Book Review. She found her true calling when she began writing about the dearly (and recently) departed.

“Historically, obits were Siberia in any newsroom in America,” Fox said. “It was where they sent you to punish you. It was where they sent you if you were a hair’s breadth away from needing an obit yourself.”

Jim and I roared, not for the last time during the broadcast.

As for penning obits, Fox soon concluded that “the dirty little secret is it’s the best beat in journalism.”

Some might quibble with that, but let her make her case.

“We’re paid to tell stories,” Fox said. “Think of how an obit is structured. You say ‘John Smith was born in Providence on January 1, 1920. John Smith died yesterday.’ That gives you a built-in narrative arc. And readers love to hear the stories of other people’s lives. How does a life go? How much of what happens in life is the product of free will? How much is dumb luck? How much is pure blind faith? How does Joe Smith get from A to B to C — to Z, when he crosses my desk — in his life? To be paid to tell stories is the best beat there is.”

Having written more than a few obits myself — including of former Rhode Island governors Bruce Sundlun and Joe Garrahy, and Newport’s last grand dame, Eileen Slocum — I could totally relate.

Fox has written the sendoffs for some of America’s most prominent (and notorious) individuals, including Charles Manson, the writer Maya Angelou, and the advice columnists Dear Abby and Ann Landers.

The final words for such prominent people, minus a few pertinent but unpredictable details, are typically written before the final passage. Fox told some great stories about that process — and hinted of ones she has in the can of people still among us, though she respectfully declined to identify these future features.

But others are written on deadline, and it is that sort of obituary that Fox cherishes, in a writerly way.

“The ones obit writers particularly love and the ones I particularly love are these unsung heroes — the backstage players, men and women we’ve never heard of. They’re not household names, the man on the street wouldn’t recognize them, yet they’ve done something, invented something, had an idea that somehow changed the world. They’re people who, I say, put a wrinkle in the social fabric.”

She gave examples including Frisbee inventor Frederick Morrison; Don Featherstone, who imagined the plastic lawn flamingo; and Ruth M. Siems, who created Stove Top stuffing, whose manufacturer, Kraft Foods, says is sold by the millions of boxes during the Thanksgiving period alone.

Siems “did us a solid by dying in November. We were able to run her obit the Wednesday of Thanksgiving week,” Fox said, as only, perhaps, a master of the form could.

Honestly, we could have listened for hours. And, yes, for this episode, Jim and I did extend Fox the courtesy of the final word.


*****


-- Dec. 16, 2017: Trump & Russia, National Story of the Year, with guest Evelyn Farkas.

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Every December, a panel of judges from academia and the media selects the Pell Center Rhode Island Story of the Year. The UHIP debacle was voted 2017’s top story.

The Pell Center also selects a National Story of the Year, announcing the winner in a media release and video. But for 2017, Pell director Jim Ludes and I decided to reveal the top pick on our "Story in the Public Square" TV and radio program — and invite a distinguished national expert to discuss the choice.

And so, in this weekend’s broadcasts of "Story in the Public Square," you will hear someone eminently qualified to discuss our choice: Evelyn Farkas, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, national security analyst for NBC News, and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia.

Evelyn Farkas.
Competition for the top story is always intense, but 2017 brought an unusual number of powerful narratives affecting our country and its people. The #MeToo movement empowering women. The growing threat of nuclear attack by North Korea. Immigration and President Donald Trump’s efforts to limit it. White supremacy. The list is long.

But we chose Trump and Russian attempts to undermine American democracy as the top national story of 2017. It is a narrative with profound implications for our democratic system and many threads — including a connection to Rhode Island in former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a Middletown native, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and who has agreed to cooperate in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

“The first thing you need to know about Russia is that the Russian government, the Kremlin, [President Vladimir] Putin and his cronies decided the U.S. was an adversarial state,” Farkas said.

And that arguably was the greatest threat to Putin, whose goal is “to stay in power,” Farkas said.

“What he has in the back of his mind is himself. What he fears most is a United States that is strong and can ultimately, somehow, engineer a change in Russia’s government that will put him out of a job. That’s why he saw an opportunity to attack our elections and he did so.”

“Do you have any doubt about the fact that Russia intervened in the U.S. election in 2016?” Ludes asked.

“Absolutely none,” Farkas said. “It surprises me that he took that risky move, but the fact that he would meddle in our democracy doesn’t surprise me.”

“Are there any experts like yourself who have studied this authoritatively, scholastically, with knowledge and background, who disagree?” I said.

“Not that I know of," Farkas said.

With its continued manipulation of social media, distortion of facts, engineering and promulgation of “fake news” and other measures, Russia, of course, continued its attacks on American democracy in 2017 and is expected to remain aggressive into 2018, another election year.

“Ultimately, it becomes an issue where information isn’t credible, and there are no facts anymore,” Farkas said.

Should that happen, she said, “the American people will eventually say, ‘Well, we don’t even care what the truth is. We don’t want to hear it.’ ”

The winner then?

Putin.

The National Security Agency’s digital spying operation was the 2013 National Story of the Year.

“Emperor Obama” was the 2014 pick, racial tension and the explosion of nativism in American politics was the top story in 2015, and the assault on fact and truth in public life, fueled by fake news and propaganda, was the 2016 winner.


*****

-- Nov. 25, 2017: China, Russia, war, with guest Adm. Jeff Harley, Naval War College president.


It was with a degree of nostalgia that I welcomed Rear Adm. Jeffrey A. Harley, president of the Naval War College, to the studios of Rhode Island PBS for the taping of this weekend’s broadcast of “Story in the Public Square.” Co-host Jim Ludes and I had invited Harley to discuss the role of his university, the world’s oldest such, in an era of rising global tension.

Rear Admiral Jeff Harley.
Long ago, when Harley was himself a young student, I covered the War College for The Providence Journal. This was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency — another era of acute global tension. Among other events, I wrote about war games the college sponsors. One involved conflict, sparked by an act of terrorism, in the Caribbean and South America. Another pitted the U.S. and NATO allies against Warsaw Pact nations, led by the Soviet Union. During this weekend’s “Story in the Public Square” broadcast, Harley tells our TV and radio audiences that war-gaming is very much alive at the Naval War College, in Newport. And the threats these computer-assisted games address are as North Korea threatens nuclear attack and Russia, an old power, flexes its military might, along with a new naval power, China.

“Maritime security is more important than ever before,” Harley says. “If you look at the statistics of the billions and billions of goods that transit through the sea lanes every day, most of the items that make it through and end in our hands travel by sea. … There are nations that are challenging the international order of the sea lanes today.”

I asked Harley specifically about China and Russia. China has been building islands and increasing its military presence in the South China Sea, through which much world cargo transits, and Russia under Vladimir Putin has been increasing its naval forces and demonstrating its new might with operations in several parts of the world.

“We do study China and we do study Russia,” Harley said. “We certainly focus on war-fighting at the college. We also look at the constructs of peace, particularly deterrence and the other elements of national power. ... We work very closely with our [international] student body to ensure that we inculcate an understanding of the Chinese systems and the Chinese military writ large. We do the same for Russia.”

The two nations rank so high on the college’s list of priorities that it has created two divisions devoted exclusively to them: the China Maritime Studies Institute and the Russia Maritime Studies Institute. Military and civilian scholars together advance knowledge — and not only for the armed forces.

“These people provide world-class research at an international and national level,” the admiral said. “They’ll testify before Congress based on their expertise. We’ll conduct [war] gaming so that we can best understand the military capabilities of all the different nations in the world and how those integrate together to ensure our success if we ever got to a place where we had to have conflict.

“Principally, we’re seeking to ensure that we can deter a conflict. But if that day comes, we will fight and win in that conflict because of the efforts that are made at your United States Naval War College.”

This weekend on “Story in the Public Square,” Harley expands on this and much more, including the Naval War College’s new strategic plan, which aims to solidify its transformation into a university that, like an Ivy League school, recruits and maintains scholars who are provided tenure and academic freedom, whether or not their views echo official Pentagon policy. I wrote about this earlier this year.

Read an account of a 1983 war game at the Naval War College. 

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