Macalester professors share perspectives on some of the top news stories of 2013.

1. Typhoon in the Philippines

Karín Aguilar-San Juan, associate professor of American studies

Karin Aguilar San JuanI arrived in Manila on October 9 to make a documentary film about a Catholic priest who retires by taking up organic rice farming. Typhoon Santi had just hit the rice fields of Nueva Ecija, causing substantial losses of this staple crop. Then a severe earthquake crashed Bohol, killing hundreds of people and destroying several of the country’s most prominent heritage churches dating back to the early Spanish period. But on November 8, super typhoon Yolanda beat them all in terms of sheer speed and scale of destruction. For the next month all my interviews and conversations revolved around Yolanda: How can farmers reduce their vulnerability to natural disaster? Will genetically modified rice solve—or worsen—the problems caused by the storm? How will relief work transition to rebuilding? My film is still about rice and the earthly wisdom of the Filipino farmer, but now my viewers will have the storm as their main frame of reference.

2. Obamacare

Michael Zis, visiting instructor of political science

Michael ZisThe same labyrinthine legislative process that spoiled a century of efforts to enact national health reform has made the Republican crusade to repeal it a quixotic one.  Even if the Republicans retake control of the Senate and White House in 2016 and excise the filibuster in the process, they would need—but not have the support of—a politically powerful health care establishment that will have sunk billions of dollars into compliance and handsomely profited from its existence. Continued inequities and misaligned incentives mean the battle is far from over, but the Affordable Care Act is, nevertheless, here to stay.

3. Pope Francis

Jim Laine, professor and chair of religious studies

Jim LaineTwo months into 2013, hardly anyone had heard of the man who would become pope and Time magazine’s Person of the Year. As the conclave met in March, he was not on many short lists of papabili. Even in December, Time POY polls had Miley Cyrus in the lead. But like Miley, this new pope has a knack for capturing attention. Everyone now is aware of his striking words and gestures, intended to inspire the faithful and, dare one say it, rebrand the Catholic Church. Taking the name Francis from the humble Italian champion of the poor (whose spirituality was an embrace of Lady Poverty), he has sought to ditch the image of the Church as a bastion of social conservatism and reorient her to a mission of simplicity and charity. Though he has proposed no stunning doctrinal positions on women’s ordination or sexuality, he has sent signals to the progressive wing of the Church that a new sheriff is in town. We still don’t know what substantive changes he might institute, and many progressives doubt that his PR gestures will be matched by real action, but even the most radical of liberation theologians, Leonardo Boff  (a man silenced by Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict), has expressed hope for a new day in the Church.

4. Edward Snowden leak

Patrick SchmidtPatrick Schmidt, professor of political science

As the story broke, it was easy to paint Edward Snowden’s journey to asylum in Russia as the flight of a highly flawed character—at least myopic, perhaps delusional, almost certainly treasonous. But serious people are now debating whether he is a defining hero of our age or even, at its most loaded, a “true patriot.” His release of classified NSA documents hasn’t ignited a populist firestorm. Many Americans appeared to greet the new details about America’s data collection apparatus with a mix of confusion and nonchalance. But what he exposed, and what might have never come to light but for a whistleblower like him, appears to be leading Washington to a new dynamic in the politics of surveillance and security. With The Guardian editors saying that only 1 percent of Snowden’s files have been released, more revelations could help keep this issue alive in 2014.

5. Bangladesh Factory Fire:

Raymond RobertsonRaymond Robertson, professor of economics  

The blaze at the Tazreen factory in November 2012 that killed 112 workers and the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in April 2013 that killed more than 1,000 people raised the issue of working conditions in global value chains to international headlines.  In response, [mainly European] apparel retailers signed a pact in May 2013 designed to improve working conditions. The European Union threatened to limit Bangladesh’s duty-free trade access and the United States revoked its GSP preferences for Bangladesh in June 2013. The factory fire in Gazipur that killed 10 more in October 2013, however, suggests that policies to increase international pressure are likely to continue and possibly intensify. In November 2013 North American and European retailers announced an agreement on fire and safety inspection standards for up to 2,000 factories in Bangladesh that supply such retailers as the Gap, Wal-Mart, and H&M. Better Work is starting a program in Bangladesh that also should help improve working conditions. Bangladesh will be the focal point for working conditions in developing countries and global supply chains throughout 2014.

6. Syrian Civil War

Wendy Weber, visiting instructor of political science

Wendy WeberIn August 2013 the Syrian government crossed President Obama’s publicly declared “red line” with a poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians.  A debate began about how to respond to this attack, with the Obama administration arguing for military strikes against the Assad regime.  In the end, President Obama agreed to a Russian-sponsored plan to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.  But why was this the red line?  At the time, more than 100,000 Syrians had lost their lives in the civil war; fewer than 1 percent of these deaths had been caused by chemical weapons.  While President Obama’s red line arguably demonstrated the strength of the international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, it also exposed the challenges facing another, newer norm—the Responsibility to Protect. This emerging norm, endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005, states that when national authorities “manifestly fail” to protect their citizens from mass atrocity crimes, the international community, acting through the U.N. Security Council, must be prepared to protect populations. But implementing the Responsibility to Protect requires that the UNSC reach consensus on how to move forward—something that has not happened with Syria. So as 2013 ends, the civil war in Syria continues and the refugee crisis worsens. Some international humanitarian organizations are calling it “the most dire refugee crisis in a generation.”

7. Boston Marathon Terrorist Attack

Nadya Nedelsky, associate professor and chair of international studies

Nadya NedelskyAs it unfolded, the Boston bombing press coverage was raw: smoke and screams; grainy surveillance video of young men with a bag; live-action searching while Boston “sheltered in place.” Individual identifications then put collective identities into play: a National Public Radio interview described Bostonians as living for “the Red Sox and revenge.” More mysterious, the perpetrators: what to make of their Chechen origins? An ignorant reaction prompted the Czech Republic to clarify the distinction. Most fundamentally, where, as The New Republic asked, had the Tsarnaev brothers been “forged?” One boy seemed “typical American,” the other, not. Was the terrorism “home grown” and what does that mean? Where, from what sources, is hateful violence generated? No one answer is conclusive, but among the most memorable responses, the Tsarnaevs’ uncle’s furious, live broadcast admonishment: “They put a shame on the entire ethnicity.” Who is implicated? The media ask but don’t answer. 

January 9 2014

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