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Did the Fall of the Berlin Wall Produce the Trump Presidency?

7 hours 17 min ago

Sections of the Berlin Wall (Shutterstock)

The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago. It was one of the few unambiguously joyous moments in modern history. This popular, nonviolent explosion of dissent effectively toppled East Germany’s despotic regime. And it signaled, if only symbolically, the end of the Cold War that had divided Europe for nearly half a century.

Thirty years later, a united Germany remains far and away the largest economy in Europe (and the fourth largest in the world). Most of the countries of the former Warsaw Pact are members of the European Union, and their populations have seen dramatic improvements in living standards. After the horrendous bloodletting that tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the threat of war in Europe has again receded.

Who can argue with such success?

It turns out: a lot of people. At some point, something seems to have gone terribly wrong with the transition from communism to liberalism to the end of history.

A new version of the Berlin Wall runs through Ukraine to divide east once again from west. Actual walls have been built throughout the Balkans to block desperate refugees and migrants from heading northward. Right-wing authoritarian leaders are challenging democracy in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and elsewhere in the region.

Frozen conflicts and kleptocracies prevail all over the former Soviet Union. Virulently racist movements have been consistently gaining political power throughout Europe, with Vox most recently becoming the third largest party in the Spanish parliament. The United Kingdom is involved in a slow-motion secession from the European Union.

And Donald Trump presides over the unraveling of the international order like some imp of the perverse.

I recently attended a conference at the University of Pennsylvania on the lessons of the “transition.” Two dozen scholars provided a variety of ground-level and big-picture analyses from the disciplines of economics, political science, and anthropology. Their goal: to reconcile these two pictures of the last 30 years.

On the one hand, there’s the purported triumph of liberalism. On the other, there’s the widely held view in the region that liberalism is the “god that failed,” as I’ve recounted in my book Aftershock: A Journey Through Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams.

Economists and political scientists, looking at the numbers, have declared the transition over because the countries of Eastern Europe have become more or less “normal.” Anthropologists, looking at people’s lived experience, have argued that the transition, in the sense of a continued legacy of the Communist period and a painful adjustment to life in a larger Europe, is still very much a flawed work in progress.

After two days of bifocal analysis — of scrutinizing the fine print and gazing into the distance, of trying to determine whether the glass is half full or half empty — I was convinced of one thing above all. The “transition” is not unique to Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. The entire world, to one degree or another, has been undergoing a comparable transformation. That’s why Hungarians are suffering under Viktor Orban just as Americans are enduring Donald Trump.

In a circuitous, contradictory, and confounding way, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reactions to it have produced both of these morbid symptoms.

The Short End of the Stick

Poverty in Bucharest (Shutterstock)

Comparatively speaking, East Europeans got a raw deal after 1989.

For one thing, they didn’t get a Marshall Plan, a huge influx of capital to repair their ravaged countries. After World War II, an enormous helping hand from the West contributed to producing the Wirtschaftswunder — the economic miracle — that put West Germany on top of the European economic order only a decade after the war.

After 1989, some assistance flowed into Eastern Europe — and less into the former Soviet Union — but nothing on the order of a Marshall Plan. Instead, the West assumed that the invisible hand of the market would do the trick.

Nor did East European countries, as they entered the European Union, get the same kind of deal that earlier incoming members received. Tens of billions of dollars in EU structural funds helped Ireland, a primarily agricultural country, close the gap with the rest of the EU within a single generation.

By the time that Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and the Baltic countries joined in 2004, the EU no longer had the funds or the collective commitment to bringing new members up to the community average. For Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007, the gap was larger and the resources even scarcer.

Having shucked off their old Communist identities, the new populations of Eastern Europe expected to live like their counterparts in Austria or France or Sweden within five or ten years (or so they told me when I interviewed a couple hundred folks throughout the region in 1990 and again nearly 25 years later). That expectation gave meaning to their sacrifices when the new democratic governments pushed through “shock therapy” economic reforms that turned their lives upside down. They’d experience the pain of adjustment, but it would be worth it in the end.

Thirty years later, however, even the best performing countries in Eastern Europe haven’t closed the gap with the West. Slovenia’s per-capita GDP ($36,747) — adjusted for cost-of-living differences — is about three-quarters that of Austria ($52,137). Bulgaria ($23,156) is not even halfway there.

But even these figures are deceptive. After all, the metropolitan centers of Eastern Europe — Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia — have attracted the lion’s share of foreign investment and closed the gap more quickly with their western counterparts. So, that means that smaller towns and the countryside in Eastern Europe are really far behind the West.

Poland B: that’s what Poles call the areas that have by and large not benefited from the economic transition. The “losers of transition” include pensioners, minority populations like the Roma, farmers who can’t compete with Western imports, and workers in industries with no future. You can find this “B team” throughout the region.

Anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee has chronicled the rise and fall of Madan, a predominantly Muslim city in southern Bulgaria. Once a mining town with a population of over 100,000 people, Madan has dwindled to a scant 6,000 or so. The mines closed during the economic transformations of the 1990s and virtually everyone of working age left for the larger cities or to go abroad, leaving behind pensioners and children sent to live with their grandparents.

With many of the buildings in the town in ruins, Madan looks as if it were hit by war or natural disaster. There are many towns and cities like it in Bulgaria, where the population decline has been catastrophic: around 9 million in 1989, Bulgaria’s population is down to around 7 million today. It’s part of a region-wide demographic crisis.

For a lot of people in the region, then, it’s not a question of a glass half full versus a glass half empty. That metaphor implies a balanced scoresheet from the last 30 years and divergent perceptions of that scoresheet. But this image is misleading. Instead, the glass overfloweth for a handful of super-wealthy, who made out like bandits during the economic upheaval, and the glass is practically empty for many others.

The political parties that pushed through the economic reforms, with the encouragement of international financial institutions and their advisers, also ended up as the losers of transition, as voters took revenge on them at the polls. Liberal parties disappeared or drifted into irrelevance. Former Communist parties, which returned to power in the initial backlash against the economic reforms, by and large instituted the same austerity measures and were relegated to the political margins as well.

With both liberals and leftists discredited, a new kind of party emerged: nationalist, culturally conservative, and anti-liberal in its economic and political orientation. These populist parties have consolidated control in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. Even more reactionary movements — like Pegida in eastern Germany, the Our Homeland Movement in Hungary, and Ataka in Bulgaria — lurk in the wings.

Sound familiar?

Transition, Western Style

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (Shutterstock)

Consider the economic transformations that took place in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s as a transition not to the market per se, but to the global economy more generally. After all, a number of Eastern European countries had experimented with market reforms prior to 1989 (like goulash communism in Hungary). But other than a few loans from and some anemic trade with the West, they all remained disconnected from global capitalism.

That would change after 1989. But instead of a gradual accommodation to the global economy, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union jumped off the high board into the deep end. The huge splash of chlorinated water has stung the eyes of all concerned, even the onlookers.

It turns out, however, that a lot of other countries preceded the Eastern bloc into the pool.

In the 1980s, conservative politicians like Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the United States pushed a similar agenda of economic adjustment: cutting government spending (except on the military), reducing barriers to trade, promoting the financialization of the economy.

As in Eastern Europe a decade later, it wasn’t just conservative politicians who felt compelled to push this agenda. Socialist Francois Mitterrand pursued something similar in France. Then, in the 1990s, it was the turn of Third Way liberals — Bill Clinton in the U.S. and Tony Blair in the U.S., but also the Labor parties in Australia and New Zealand and the Swedish Social Democratic Party — to move toward the neoliberal center.

Whether a project of market-oriented conservatives or liberals, this neoliberal accommodation to economic globalization has produced a similarly skewed pattern of benefits: Planet B if you will. It has increased the gap between rich and poor nations — with a few notable exceptions like the Asian tigers — as well as the wealth divide within nations. Planet B contains some of the same communities left behind during the Eastern European transition: workers in sunset industries, minorities, pensioners.

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 only exacerbated the problem. In the United States, the government bailed out the big losers — like banks — and those in the top income brackets actually improved their position. Everyone else took a hit, with economic inequality widening.

In Europe, the EU failed to protect its member states from the crisis. In fact, the countries in the Eurozone had fewer government levers at their disposal — such as significant deficit spending — to pull themselves out of the crisis. The EU was beginning to look like part of the problem, not part of the solution.

After 2008, as Sheri Berman writes in a study of Why the Left Loses, “the center-left lacked a convincing message for dealing with the crisis, or a more general vision of how to promote growth while protecting citizens from the harsher aspects of free markets. Instead, it kept on trying to defend outdated policies or proposed watered-down versions of neoliberalism that barely differentiated it from the center-right.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the democratic world experienced the same political reaction as Eastern Europe after its particular economic disruption. The benefits of economic globalization were unevenly distributed; so, too, was the pain of the financial crisis of 2008-209. Politics as usual was beginning to look inadequate to the task.

Unintended Consequences

Neo-Nazis stand off with anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville. (Photo: Evan Nesterak / Flickr)

Donald Trump and his populist coevals are not only the result of a revolt of the have-nots or a political backlash against the parties that supported undiluted economic globalization (and its industrial-strength version in Eastern Europe). They have taken advantage of another facet of globalization: migration.

There were two major sources for the major uptick in refugee flows in the last three decades.

The first is war, particularly wars launched by the United States. Those wars initially mobilized a wide range of support from both conservative and liberal governments (with some notable exceptions). As the wars dragged on and produced an increasing flow of refugees, support waned, providing an opening for a populist like Donald Trump to claim opposition to America’s “endless wars.”

The migrants themselves, even if they served the economic needs of the receiving countries by taking jobs that the native-born didn’t want, became a rallying point for xenophobes of various political hues. Right-wing populists giddily seized on the Afghans, Syrians, Libyans, and others fleeing war zones as yet another malign side effect of globalization, for was it not “globalists” in the EU elite who were welcoming these outsiders into Europe?

In the United States, meanwhile, Trump was railing against the influx of people from Mexico and points south and repeating the canard that his opponent Hillary Clinton, another “globalist,” supported “open borders.”

War, free trade, “open borders”: these became associated with a national elite supposedly addicted to all manner of malign activities beyond their national borders. Even populists who’d supported various military operations and benefited personally from economic globalization — like Trump — saw advantages in championing the opposite: a nationalist fixation on sovereignty, strong borders, and government-sanctioned xenophobia. Even populists who’d once championed fast-track transition, like Viktor Orban, switched sides at the first whiff of political opportunity.

A second source of migration was connected to the policies of the European Union. As part of the “four freedoms,” citizens of member countries have the right to work in any other member state. There have been exceptions. The Roma, for instance, discovered that they weren’t welcome when they left their homes in Eastern Europe and went to Italy or France. A state could invoke concerns about “public safety” or “public health” to keep people out. Established member states were also granted phase-in periods to block workers from the new states that joined in the 2000s.

But in general, EU accession created an enormous outflow of East European workers to the west. Roughly 750,000 Poles, for instance, went to Great Britain after accession, turning Polish into the second language in England after English. Because of this influx, a sufficient number of Brits soured on the European project to give Brexit its thin margin of victory in the 2016 referendum.

Internal migration after the accession of the 1990s has likewise boosted Euroskepticism and nativism throughout the continent. One of the great virtues of the EU has turned out to be, thanks to a poorly thought-out accession process, an Achilles’ heel.

Rethinking the Transition

(Photo: Garry Knight / Flickr)

It’s not a direct line from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Donald Trump or Brexit.

Rather, it’s the way Eastern Europe handled the transition — or had the transition handled for them — that has ultimately given rise to today’s populism. Moreover, the same factors in play in Western Europe and in the United States, namely a “transition” to an economically and politically polarizing global economy, has produced a similar crop of political figures.

Yes, of course, other factors produced Trump, Brexit, and the like: feckless opposition, the impact of social media, outright fraud and misrepresentation. But such idiocies could never have gotten within whispering distance of success without these underlying economic “adjustments” and the backlash to them.

Many East Europeans expected a kinder, gentler transition. When that didn’t happen, they either voted out the parties that orchestrated the shock-therapy adjustments or they voted with their feet. The disgruntled of Western Europe and the United States have focused their revenge on the polls.

Could it have happened differently 30 years ago?

Theoretically, yes. There could have been a Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe. The EU could have helped create a giant social safety net for its newest members. But resources were tight in the early 1990s because of an economic downturn that lasted from 1990 to 1994. And austerity, not largesse, was the watchword of that era.

Also, you could legitimately ask: why just Eastern Europe? Shouldn’t the former Soviet Union be included among the recipients? And why not South Africa after apartheid? Or, to backtrack just a couple years, the Philippines after Ferdinand Marcos? Were the people in these countries somehow less deserving?

Finally, Eastern European countries were not in a position to buck the status quo. Neither the United States nor Western Europe was interested in delaying the region’s entrance into the global economy. There were choice properties in the region to acquire and lower-wage workers to exploit. But the even more salient point is that the West was engaged in a similar process of transition, though it had started earlier and could therefore attenuate the negative effects.

This larger transition is still ongoing. Economic globalization is now encountering two significant backlashes.

The first comes from the right-wing populists, who basically want to redirect the economic benefits accruing from their control of the state into their own pockets and those of their loyal clients. The second comes from environmentalists, who recognize that an ever-expanding global economy has pumped a dangerously high amount of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Perhaps the notion of a largely unregulated market spreading into every nook and cranny of the earth will one day seem like a very quaint notion, like the spread of a single religion across the map or a single country’s domination of the globe. As the waters continue to rise, let’s hope that there will still be economists, political scientists, and anthropologists who will debate the costs and benefits of this great transition.

But that will depend a great deal on whether the world embarks on a more sustainable transition to replace the one that has brought us all to this perilous crossroads.

The post Did the Fall of the Berlin Wall Produce the Trump Presidency? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and author of the dystopian novel Frostlands.

Is China an Imperial Power in the Image of the West?

8 hours 2 min ago

Shutterstock

This article is the first part in a series on China as a global power.

Owing to geography and geopolitics, my country the Philippines finds itself in the middle of an escalating conflict between the United States and China.

Like the trench lines that stretched from the North Sea through France to Switzerland during the First World War, the front lines of this conflict stretch across both land and sea for over 4,200 kilometers — from Korea and Japan to Taiwan and the East China Sea, and on to the Philippines and the South China Sea.

Like most other people in Southeast Asia, Filipinos know much about one actor in this conflict: the United States, an imperial superpower whose troops we host in nominally Philippine bases. Though they are much closer geographically to the other actor, China, they know much less about it.

What Is China? And What Is It Up To?

What is clear, though, is that Filipinos don’t like the People’s Republic of China. They know it mainly as a powerful country with a Communist government that claims 90 percent of a body of water traditionally called the South China Sea — and, lately, the West Philippine Sea — and says “fuck you” to the claims of the Philippines and four other countries which border it.

In particular, Filipinos feel — justifiably — that China is a bully that has seized two maritime formations that belong to us, Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, that lie much closer to the Philippines than they do to China, and that it has done so in violation of international law.

But while Filipinos don’t have much affection for the People’s Republic of China — and much of the rest of the world doesn’t either — there are questions for which they must find credible answers so they can arrive at the appropriate strategy for dealing with it.

The big why for Filipinos, Vietnamese, Malaysians, and Indonesians is: Why is China behaving in this crude, big power fashion in the South China Sea? This brings up a related question: Is China an imperial power like the United States and other western powers that preceded it as powers on the world stage?

There follow other related queries, such as: What kind of economy does China have? Is it really priming itself to be next global hegemon? Is it really as powerful as it is cracked up to be? What is China’s record in its relation to other countries in the global South?

In this article and others, I’ll seek to provide some clarification on a number of these questions — and to provide a guide with which China’s neighbors can formulate a strategy to deal with this big, threatening, and yet in many ways still mysterious neighbor.

China’s Road to Capitalism

Perhaps the most urgent question is what kind of society is China at present, for the way a society is organized is a key driver of its relations towards the external world. If we take the social relations of production — the way people organize their economic life — as central in shaping a society, then China is a capitalist society.

China embarked on state-led capitalism after its leaders felt that building socialism (or what Marxist economists called “socialist accumulation”) was too costly in terms of lives, and failed to deliver rapid economic growth that would banish poverty. Millions were said to have died in the famine and dislocations following Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s.

But while Mao’s economic policies failed, the strong state that his revolution had created provided a powerful political framework for a significant measure of independent development in the global capitalist economy from the 1980s on. This was an asset that was missing in developing countries that had not undergone revolutionary transformation.

Market relations were introduced first in the countryside, leading to peasant prosperity in the 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, the cutting edge of the economy became export-oriented industrialization centered in the cities.

Key to this strategy was the marriage of low cost labor provided by migrant workers from the countryside and foreign investment, the latter coming first from overseas Chinese and Taiwanese capital, then from big U.S. transnational firms attracted by what was seen as the so-called “China price” that other developing economies such as Brazil, Mexico, and China’s Southeast Asian neighbors could not match.

How China Capitalized Differently

In contrast to Europe and the United States’ eras of early capitalist transformation, China’s “primitive accumulation of capital” over the last 40 years has been relatively peaceful.

This does not mean that there was no state violence or direct coercion at all, of course. There was the relocation of thousands of peasant families to clear the way for the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, as well as legally sanctioned takeovers of peasant properties by revenue-short local authorities for urban development, a practice that continues until today.

Still, the overall approach in the first decade of the reform was to promote peasant prosperity. And while the countryside took a back seat to urban-oriented development beginning in the 1990’s, peasants today benefit from reforms such as free compulsory education for the first nine years, provision of basic health insurance, and a minimum income guarantee. There was none of the massive violence employed across the board against peasants and workers during Europe’s period of capitalist transformation.

There was, of course, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. But while the dynamics of capital accumulation did contribute to popular discontent, it was largely the demand for greater political democracy that triggered the protests that met a violent, inexcusable state response that brought about the death of thousands.

Global Expansion: The Western Record and China’s

The contrast with Europe and the United States is even clearer when it comes to China’s expansion globally from the 1990s on. There has been none of the violence of colonization or military intervention that European states and the American state visited on other societies during their periods of global expansion.

China’s going out to the world in search of raw materials and markets took place in the era of corporate-driven globalization, when the U.S. and Europe were pushing down trade barriers via the World Trade Organization, which China joined in 2001. Insofar as coercion, formal or informal, was used to liberalize global trade via the WTO, it was the United States and the European Union that deployed it. China simply sat back, as it were, to enjoy the benefits of trade liberalization while other countries 00 including, paradoxically, the main advocate of free trade, United States — were stuck with its costs as cheap Chinese goods poured in and dislocated their industries and communities.

Why is it important to point this contrast in the use of force? Because for many analysts, both Marxist or orthodox, the use of force to secure formal or informal colonies or dependencies is one of the essential trademarks of imperialism. In China’s going out to the world, one simply cannot find equivalents of the violent scramble for colonies that the western powers pursued in the late 19th century in Africa, nor instances of the gunboat diplomacy that both Britain and the U.S. resorted to in Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries and even today.

There have been cases of abuse of labor, environmental destruction, and preference for Chinese over local workers, which shall be looked at more closely later in the series, but there is nothing in China’s record that matches the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert actions to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, and Salvador Allende in Chile in the second half of the 20th century.

China’s neighbors have little fear of China mobilizing for intervention in the event of an investment dispute — not only because China does not have the military capabilities to do so, but because intervention is simply not part of China’s economic diplomatic repertoire.

For instance, China’s army lay just across the border, but the Thein Sein government in Myanmar did not even take the prospect of military intervention into consideration when it abruptly cancelled the construction of the Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam in 2012. Indeed, when Yangon opened up to the world in 2011, Beijing acknowledged that it lost much of the economic influence it had built up during Myanmar’s period of isolation, but there was never any consideration on its part to restore its preeminent position by force or intimidation.

Nor was the deployment of force entertained when two nearby countries, Pakistan and Nepal, cancelled multibillion dam projects that the two governments had entered into with Chinese state enterprises — in the first case because of objectionable conditionalities, and in the second because of the lack of competitive bidding.

In contrast, Latin American countries, such as Venezuela, have always factored in the possibility of U.S. intervention — not only by direct gunboat diplomacy, but by covert action and support for opposition forces when they nationalize U.S. firms or adopt progressive economic policies not sanctioned by the U.S.

This does not mean that China has never used force in its foreign relations. It has, though as will be shown later, its deployment of arms has been largely triggered by border-related issues.

China’s use of force to secure economic advantage and resources from its neighbors has been rare. And this is precisely why its recent behavior in the South China Sea, where its employment of force appears to be motivated not only by border-related security considerations but also economic and resource acquisition, departs so strikingly from the norm that it begs for an explanation.

Does this mean that China is becoming an imperial power in the image of the West, where force either preceded or was quick on the heels of economic expansion? This is a question that will be explored later in this series.

This series is based on the recently published study by Focus on the Global South titled China: An Imperial Power in the Image of the West? on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China this year. 

The post Is China an Imperial Power in the Image of the West? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

FPIF columnist Walden Bello is a founding director and current co-chair of the Board of Focus on the Global South. He is the author or co-author of 26 books and monographs. As a member of the Philippine House of Representatives from 2009 to 2015, he authored the resolution renaming the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea, a recommendation that was adopted by the national government.

How Literature Can Help Bridge the Empathy Gap

Thu, 11/07/2019 - 12:00pm

Shutterstock

Throughout his presidency, commentators ranging from professional politicos to clinical psychologists and psychiatrists have repeatedly noted Donald Trump’s staggering lack of empathy when handling various crises and national tragedies. 

Whether it was the president’s insistence that “very good people” attended the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville or his petty, self-centered attacks on political leaders in El Paso and Dayton following mass shootings there, Trump’s unparalleled narcissism and his enabling of white nationalism and division have poisoned contemporary political discourse to a level not seen in the United States for decades. 

Trump’s lack of empathy — and by extension, his government’s — manifests beyond purely domestic affairs. It’s also had negative consequences for how the administration attempts to manage its foreign policy. 

From the many horrors of U.S. immigration policy — including the separation of children from their parents and later attempts to revoke protected status for immigrants with severe medical conditions — to the way in which Trump dealt with the death of Otto Warmbier to his recent decision to abandon the Syrian Kurds, an “empathy deficit” is clearly detectable. 

Trump himself may be a lost cause, but we still have to do something about his effect on the public. That’s why conscientious people are looking for ways to bridge social divides and close the empathy gap. One strategy might be to look to the world of literary fiction.

In a recent article published on The Conversation, University of Melbourne psychology professor Nick Haslam writes that a “common argument for the value of the arts is the claim they cultivate empathy. Reading literature, viewing quality cinema, and listening to fine music refine our sensibilities and make us better and more humane — or so the argument goes.” 

After summarizing a few key studies on the relationship between consuming literature and developing empathy, Haslam cautions that “we should not expect lovers of art and literature to be nicer people.” But, he says, they can become “a little better at understanding the complexities of experience.”

A compelling example putting this theory into practice is underway in one of the world’s most combustible conflict zones. 

Writing for GobalPost, Victoria Milko and Clare Hammond describe a remarkable and potentially socially transformative event: “In June this year, a small group of Myanmar residents crowded around a projector screen in an apartment loft in downtown Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, to listen to poetry read via video call by Rohingya poet and refugee, Mayyu Ali, who was over 600 miles away in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.” 

This remarkable model of young artists reaching across ethno-religious boundaries shows the capacity of poetry to foster compassion and empathy among the participants — and to open up spaces for increased understanding between groups separated by state-sanctioned violence. 

The authors quote a young Rohingya poet who insists that “we will write poetry about peace, harmony, reconciliation, and togetherness — not shooting and bad things — for inspiration to move forward and to bring both communities to see each other in love and in kindness.”

This collaborative enterprise in Myanmar represents an important exercise in cultural exchange with the goal not only increasing cultural exchange and awareness, but also of facilitating mutual understanding and compassion. The demand for “peace, harmony, reconciliation, and togetherness” speaks to a much deeper desire to see the world through the eyes of others — in short, empathy.

Another group putting this idea into practice is Words Without Borders. Part of the mission statement of WWB reads

Our publications and programs open doors for readers of English around the world to the multiplicity of viewpoints, richness of experience, and literary perspective on world events offered by writers in other languages. We seek to connect international writers to the general public, to students and educators, and to the media and to serve as a primary online location for a global literary conversation.

In perhaps their most thought-provoking publication, Literature from the “Axis of Evil”: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations, WWB presents a sample of powerful short stories and poems from writers living and working in places where Western readers might never have access. 

The pieces included in this collection by writers from so-called “enemy nations” are meant to challenge prejudices and encourage a “global literary conversation” in the interest of promoting peace. Ideally, this strategy can subvert narratives pushed by governments and the media that perpetuate fear and suspicion in the interest of war and conquest. Through the work of translation and transmission, WWB works to cultivate empathy between people and to nurture revolutionary forms of cultural contact through literature and the arts.   

These projects, as well as others like the San Quentin Project traveling art installation and the Mogadishu Book Fair, seek to bring people together in productive and unconventional ways through the art of storytelling. In the divisive context of contemporary American politics, incorporating unconventional and revolutionary strategies to close the empathy deficit has the potential to inform how we approach the crises of white nationalism, discrimination against LGBTQ+ populations, and racist anti-immigrant policies. 

These noble ventures illuminate how different activists and organizations are using literature and literacy in novel ways to encourage empathy — and unity — in the face of those who seek to separate and marginalize.

The post How Literature Can Help Bridge the Empathy Gap appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Ryan Michael Kehoe has a Master’s degree in English Language and  Literature from Rice University. He has received awards for teaching and research from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Maryland, and Rice.