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Syria’s Chemical Weapons Trace Back to Russia

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Chemical weapons expert Amy Smithson’s phone started ringing on the morning of August 21, 2013, right after rockets containing nerve gas rained down on a suburb of Damascus killing hundreds of civilians. Her telephone hasn’t stopped ringing, or as she told a gathering at Middlebury College on November 6 in the Robert A. Jones ’59 House: “Since August the 21st my life has been Syria, Syria, Syria.”

Smithson_0196_cropOver the past few weeks the senior fellow in the Washington office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) has been on National Public Radio and Fox News, and has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Slate, Yahoo! News, Time Magazine, and other print, Web, television, and radio outlets.

That’s because Smithson’s primary area of research is chemical and biological weapons proliferation and threat-reduction mechanisms, and she has more than 20 years’ experience in the field. Prior to her appointment in 2007 to the CNS, which is a division of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Smithson was an analyst for two public-policy institutes: the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Henry L. Stimson Center.

A political scientist with a Ph.D. from George Washington University, Smithson gave her audience of about 75 college students, faculty, staff, and townspeople a class in how chemical weapons are produced, which countries helped Syria obtain them, where they are stored, how they are deployed, and how inspectors are doing in locating the weapons and, ultimately, in destroying them.

Smithson spoke for 50 minutes, took questions for nearly half an hour, and met with students later over dinner. During her talk she cautioned that the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons program “is an adventure that’s just beginning,” and she pulled no punches in her indictment of Bashir al-Assad in the attack of August 21.

The video footage released hours after the attack (which indicated to Smithson the gas was most likely an organophosphate, or nerve gas), the timing of the attack (early morning, when most people were at home), and the weather conditions at that hour (cool temperatures and little wind, which are optimal for poison-gas saturation) pointed toward a well-planned event and debunked Assad’s claim that it was the rebels who had deployed the poison gas.

“The quantity of agent involved and the delivery systems used confirmed my initial suspicions,” she added, and then when the United Nations secretary general’s report of September 16 was released “it was the equivalent of the gun, the fingerprint, and the bullet that pointed completely at the Assad government.”

Smithson_0200“At that time the rebels didn’t have much rocket capability — maybe some do-it-yourself bombs — or this quantity of chemicals, and they certainly weren’t coordinated enough to pull off an orchestrated attack like this at so many different locations. [So] the idea that the rebels would attack their own people home in bed doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Other facts contained in the secretary general’s report — including the results of blood tests from the victims and the likely point of origin of the rockets — put the responsibility for the attack squarely in the lap of the Assad government, Smithson said. The report “also gave us a smoking gun leading back to Moscow,” as she displayed a photograph showing remnants of one of the rockets used in the August 21 attack. “That’s Cyrillic writing on one of the delivery systems, and I think we are going to see more of this in the days ahead.” (Earlier in the lecture the CNS senior fellow said the Syrian government in the 1970s and 1980s obtained poison gas from the Soviet Union and other countries.)

Finding Cyrillic on the rockets used in the attack “was one of the hallmark events in this series of very rapidly moving developments,” Smithson said, and she commended the chemical-weapons inspectors for moving so quickly. “I have been working on the prevention of chemical weapons since the early 1990s, and I have never seen anything move this fast. The Chemical Weapons Convention [of the OPCW, or Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] took 24 years to negotiate. This is a world where things move slowly, but not in this particular set of circumstances.”

The guest speaker gave her rapt audience a brief analysis of Syria’s chemical sites and facilities, including eight mobile mixing and filling units which, to Smithson, are a clear demonstration of Assad’s “seriousness to wage war.” She discussed the quantity of chemicals found, the number of production facilities that have been destroyed to date, the difficulty of neutralizing the chemicals, and the likelihood that Syria has declared only those sites and facilities that the West thinks it has — all of which served to buttress the title of her talk: “Chemical Weapons In Syria: The Bumpy Road to Elimination.”

The conventional wisdom is that Assad may end up as a defendant at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for waging chemical warfare on his own people, Smithson added. He is following the “bad-guy playbook” of Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gaddafi, and Hafez al-Assad, his father.

She concluded with a rationale for Vladimir Putin’s active role in coaxing Syria to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons. “Moscow has something pretty serious to be embarrassed about,” she said, for having handed over to Syria the means of producing and delivering chemical weapons in the first place. “Moscow’s hands are dirty here and I think that’s part of Russia’s motivation to push Syria” to destroy its chemical weapons.

Smithson’s lecture at Middlebury was sponsored by the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs, the Center for Careers and Internships, the M-Squared program committee, the political science department, and the Middle East studies program.

A slide from Smithson's presentation showing the complexity of destroying chemical weapons

Smithson’s slide explaining the hydrolysis system of destroying chemical weapons. Click to enlarge.

Print Journalism in the Age of Twitter

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Peter Savodnik ’94 once vowed to be a print journalist to the end. He published a long piece about Azerbaijan in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. His work has appeared with some frequency in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, GQ, and Harper’s Magazine. And just this week Savodnik’s new book, The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, was released in hard cover and audiobook formats.

Yet despite his impressive résumé in print journalism, the freelance writer has launched a new website, statelessmedia.com, devoted to producing “entertaining, evocative mini-films that deliver news in a way that does not feel like news, in a way that feels like…movies.”

Peter Savodnik

Peter Savodnik, founder of Stateless Media

Operating out of studio apartments, cafés, basements, and bus stations around the world, Savodnik and his fellow Stateless Media journalists have produced “shortreals” about the aftereffects of violence in Sri Lanka and the failed mayoral campaign of Anthony Weiner. They have projects in the works in Berlin, Burma, and sub-Saharan Africa. They are stateless, and their tagline is “There is no where we will not go” in the quest for news.

On Oct. 24 Savodnik returned to his alma mater (in addition to his bachelor’s degree from Middlebury, he also has a master’s in political philosophy from University of Chicago) to speak about Stateless Media and the direction journalism is heading, as the guest for Middlebury’s Meet the Press lecture series.

More than 70 people, including aspiring student-journalists, townspeople, and a handful of Savodnik’s former professors, heard him say he is no longer certain that the problem with print journalism, and the reason why so many newspapers and magazines are folding, is the quality of the reporting. Rather, he said, the problem is the medium itself.

“There is a large audience of people out there who want to read articles, but sadly that audience is shrinking and we are moving toward a place where the very idea of print journalism is going to sound quaint and, I dare say, paradoxical. After all, if journalism is about speaking to everyone, if it’s about engaging with the public, then the medium within which you imagine and construct and disseminate that journalism must be accessible and palatable to that public.”

Words and pictures printed on paper are not as “accessible and palatable” today as short films viewed on computer screens, smart phones, and tablets. That is the reason why a highly sought-after journalist like Savodnik is now chasing page views, Likes, Tweets, and Re-tweets for his 11-minute films on statelessmedia.com.

Before taking questions from the audience, the 41-year-old Savodnik related a story about a fellow journalist who, after publishing a piece in the New Republic, noted with satisfaction that the article was getting considerable attention via Twitter and Facebook. Her satisfaction, however, faded when she realized that almost all of the reaction was coming from other journalists.

“Journalists today run the distinct risk of becoming more and more like academics,” Savodnik said. “That is [to say] instead of speaking to the whole world, they are speaking more and more to each other. A more meaningful and more powerful journalism is one that is going to engage more broadly. It’s one that’s not only going to reach a bigger audience, but also speak to that audience much more directly and completely and in a way that captures their attention.”

Middlebury students took Savodnik's message to heart.

Middlebury students took Savodnik’s message to heart.

The two constants for the media of the future, Savodnik said, will be stories that are both immersive and visual — which is exactly what Stateless Media is trying to accomplish.

During the Q and A, Savodnik was asked about the place of Aljazeera America among news media today and his reply may have surprised some in the audience: “Aljazeera doesn’t feel like journalism to me… It scares the bejesus out of anyone who owns stock in an American media company,” he exclaimed. “The problem is they hew to old media patterns – nothing radical – but they have much more money than everyone else” in the media business.

The Meet the Press series at Middlebury, now in its eighth year, will resume in February 2014 (date tba) with former Newsweek columnist and senior editor Jonathan Alter. On April 8, New York Times reporter Rachel Donadio will speak in conjunction with the van de Velde Lecture Series at Middlebury. For information about Meet the Press, go to http://www.middlebury.edu/academics/enam/meetthepress.

 

Homecoming ’13 Highlights

Categories: Midd Blogosphere
Slide Show from Homecoming:

Click on small photos to enlarge, then click through the slide show.

Watch President Liebowitz’s talk to alumni about recent developments at the College. 

Hundreds of alumni returned to campus during Homecoming 2013 to participate in events, enjoy a thrilling Middlebury football game, and reconnect with the College on a cool and breezy autumn weekend.

Among the festivities were receptions for alumni and guests; planning sessions for reunion classes; an open house at 118 South Main Street where creativity and innovation, community engagement, social entrepreneurship, and MiddCORE are at the fore; an arts discussion between Professor Jay Parini and PBS journalist Jeffrey Brown; and student and alumni panel discussions.

On Saturday morning President Ron Liebowitz updated alumni about how Middlebury is defining a liberal arts education for the 21st century. There were alumni leadership workshops, film screenings, a new storytelling event called “Cocoon,” and open houses at the Organic Farm and 2011 Solar Decathlon House. Also in abundance was music — jazz, a capella, and chamber music performances all weekend-long, capped off by dancing into the wee hours at the Black Pearl Ball in Coltrane Lounge.

At the opening reception for the new Squash Center, President Liebowitz said the spectacular, nine-court facility – and the new Field House under construction – are the first buildings in the history of the College to be fully funded by donors.  “We started this project and said it would not go forward until we had commitments in hand — $46 million for the field house and squash center combined — so thank you to all the donors. We did that without financing, without loans, and we’re very proud of that.”

With an audience of about 150 people on hand for Squash Center reception, the president also thanked the parents of current and former squash players for coming to the event. “It’s wonderful to see this building completed,” he said enthusiastically, “and it is exciting to conceive of how it will be used in the future.”

Homecoming would not be complete without a football game, and the 2013 contest against Trinity College did not disappoint. Under partly cloudy skies with nearly 2,000 fans in Alumni Stadium, the lead exchanged hands six times before Middlebury went out in front, 27-24, with a minute left to play. Trinity threated to score again, but the Panther “D” held firm, thus ending the visitors’ 14-game winning streak and giving Middlebury (5-1) a share of first place in the conference.

Sunday’s activities included brunch at Carr Hall, an open house at the Snow Bowl, and a Halloween family event at the Mahaney Center for the Arts, as Middlebury bid adieu to its alumni and friends.

With principal photography by Todd Balfour, photography at Bread Loaf by Jennifer Kiewit, and reporting by Robert Keren

Student Filmmakers Win Top Honors at 24-Hour Film Festival

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video
Team Middlebury won Best Film at the Sleepless in Burlington Film Festival.

Team Middlebury won “Best Film” and “Audience Choice” at the Sleepless in Burlington Film Festival Oct. 20. Photo: Sleepless in Burlington

A team of five Middlebury College students won “Best Film” and “Audience Choice” awards at this year’s Sleepless in Burlington festival on Oct. 20. The annual competition, tied to the Vermont International Film Festival, pits Vermont college teams against each other to produce finished short films in 24 hours. Befitting the Halloween season, Middlebury’s entry was a short creepy thriller titled “Room for Rent.” Students started casting their films with a pool of professional actors, provided by the film festival, on Saturday morning and submitted their films for screening by noon on Sunday. The teams were also given a couple of props that they were required to incorporate into their stories. In addition to Middlebury, teams from UVM, St. Michael’s, Champlain College, and Burlington College produced films for the competition. The Middlebury crew included Benjamin Kramer ’14, director; James Brown ’15, writer; Joanie Thompson ’14, audio; Ali Salem ’16, editor; and Benjamin Savard ’14, cinematographer.

 

Once-Controversial Sculpture Returns 30 Years Later

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video

“I’m a patient person,” said Middlebury Museum of Art Director Richard Saunders.

And that’s a good thing, as it’s taken nearly 30 years for the College, with Saunders’ guidance and perseverance, to take care of some unfinished business.

In May of 1985, on the eve of Commencement, a work of art on campus was set on fire and irreparably damaged. The vandals were never identified, and the debris was ultimately removed and placed into storage.

The work was a sculptural installation called “Way Station” that was created in 1983 by the Christian A. Johnson Visiting Artist Vito Acconci, along with a group of students, during a winter term course he taught about public art.  Situated on the northwest edge of campus along the walkway near what is now Bicentennial Hall, the work was meant to intrigue students who passed by between classes.

“The idea was to encourage contemplation. The work had a spectacular view of the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west, ” explained Saunders.

The mostly grey steel structure consisted of a door that opened to reveal on its inside a painted interior of flags, one over the next. The international array included the United States, Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, Cuba, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)—all entities that were very much in the news politically at the time. Two steps led down into a small room with a built-in seat and desk. Opposite the door, three rows of moveable panels spelled out the words “God,” “Man,” and “Dog,” and the panels could be moved to reveal the mountain view. On the other side of the panels, viewed from the outside, were painted playing cards. A mirrored front was one-way glass so you could see out that way as well.

vito_acconci_lecture_110713

The artist Acconci peers through the panels of playing cards that were damaged in the 1985 fire.

“The intention was for people to sit in the structure and reflect on the politics of the time, and their place in relationship to others,” added Saunders, referring to the overlaid flags and the panels of words. “And the playing cards might represent the idea of chance and unpredictability in our lives.”

What should have been a curious conversation piece for a college community turned instead into the center of an acrid debate. For a variety of reasons, people on campus did not take kindly to the placement of the work, or its stark industrial look.

“When it appeared, with no explanation or context, in the middle of winter, on a central pathway, people were surprised and confused,” said Saunders. “There was very little tolerance then for things you didn’t understand. And there was also no history of art on campus back then. Nothing like what we have today. ”

And what we have today is largely due to the issues that were raised by the Acconci piece and its subsequent removal. The creation in 1994 of the Committee for Art in Public Places at Middlebury, known more commonly as CAPP, was a direct result of that time, and has since introduced numerous works of art, mostly sculpture, throughout the campus. “We wanted people to understand that there is a place for art on campus outside of the Johnson Gallery, which was then the main location for the college’s art collections.”

Throughout the 1990s, Saunders and others took up the cause for reinstalling the Acconci work but found little support.

“As a college, aren’t we supposed to teach our students tolerance for other points of view? Expand your horizons and open your mind up to all sorts of things you may not instantly like or understand? So why would we ignore this work?”

Eventually Saunders found growing support over time, and now, 30 years after it was commissioned, Acconci’s “Way Station” is restored on the Middlebury campus, this time near the pond behind the Mahaney Center for the Arts. An ongoing exhibition in the Museum of Art gives context to the artist and his work—both today and from the time of the vandalism.

“It’s an opportunity to get something positive out of this phoenix-like experience,” noted Saunders, recalling the way it had been torched so many years ago. “It’s a teachable moment, which college is all about.”

The official opening of “Way Station” will take place Friday, October 18, at 2 p.m., behind the MCFA, where the work is located. The exhibition, “Vito Acconci: Thinking Space,” is open through December 8. And the artist, who has since become an accomplished architect as well, will be on campus to deliver an illustrated lecture on Thursday, November 7, at 7 p.m. in Dana Auditorium.

Sunshine and Foliage Welcome Families

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video

 

Slide Show from Fall Family Weekend:

Watch Debora Spar’s talk on her book, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection”

As sunlight glowed on the reds, yellows, and oranges of Vermont’s fall foliage season, an estimated 1500 family members enjoyed activities, both indoors and out, during Middlebury College’s 2013 Fall Family Weekend, Oct. 10-13. It was a glorious autumn weekend in the Champlain Valley and just about everything went as planned.

A standing-room-only audience came to hear Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College and parent of a current Middlebury student, speak about her new book “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” Parents had a lively give-and-take with President Liebowitz in the McCullough Student Center, and attended panel discussions on study abroad, putting passion into action, and careers in finance for liberal arts graduates. There was a breathtaking contemporary dance performance by faculty member Catherine Cabeen and her company, Hyphen, and a leadership workshop for families conducted by MiddCORE faculty members Jessica Holmes and Mike Kiernan.

There was a host of outdoor activity all weekend including tours and treats at the college’s Organic Farm, the marathon reading of “The Iliad” on the steps of Davis Family Library, and home athletic events in men’s and women’s soccer, football, rugby, volleyball, and field hockey. Also this year there was an open house at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl, which included live music, a barbeque, and chairlift rides to the summit of Worth Mountain where, as expected on this near-perfect weekend, the views in every direction were spectacular.

Angelique Kidjo Dazzling and Thought Provoking in Concert, Lecture

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video
Singer and songwriter Angelique Kidjo performs at Middlebury College's Nelson Arena
Angelique Kidjo performs at Nelson Recreation Center Oct. 3.
Highlights from Angelique Kidjo’s talk for the John Hamilton Fulton Lecture in the Liberal Arts. The full talk can be seen here 
Concert photos by Brett Simison:

Concert Video Clips from MiddBeat

When she was a young girl, West African singer, songwriter, and social activist Angelique Kidjo wanted to be James Brown. This was probably not the only factor distinguishing Kidjo from other accomplished people invited to give the John Hamilton Lecture in the Liberal Arts at Middlebury.

Kidjo has long been the most recognizable face of contemporary African music, creating from such influences as traditional African sounds, Latin, jazz, rhythm and blues, Ravel, Beethoven, souk, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, and yes, James Brown. She has eleven albums, international accolades—“The Undisputed Queen of African Music,” “Africa’s premier diva”—and a Grammy Award to show for it. But she also uses her voice to call for justice, to promote action, and to encourage her audiences worldwide to find strength in who they are, no matter who they are.

At her Fulton Lecture on October 2 in McCullough Social Space, Kidjo spoke about her life, her art, the wisdom of her parents, politics, African history, and humanitarian service with Assistant Professor of Music Damascus Kafumbe, a Ugandan ethnomusicologist and musician. Kafumbe wisely prompted Kidjo with selected questions from faculty members and then let the guest be her feisty, hilarious, inspiring self in delivering the answers. Several times during the conversation, recordings of Kidjo’s music filled the McCullough Social Space, giving the audience a chance to hear her distinctive work. As one of those recordings played the classic love song “Malaika,” Kafumbe was heard saying softly, “I first heard that song when I was nine years old.”

Kidjo has been performing professionally since she was a school girl—her father made sure she stayed in school—and had enough of a public profile that when her native Benin was taken over by a Marxist coup in 1972, and the new leaders wanted prominent artists to promote the regime, she exiled herself to Paris. Fourteen years later, she moved to New York City, where she and her family have lived since.

Kidjo detailed her artistic process—sometimes she wakes in the middle of the night with a song that she records on her iPhone, which she doesn’t remember in the morning. “You don’t know when inspiration comes; you have to grab it.  I’m at the service of my inspiration,” she said.  Artists can’t stay comfortable: “You got to put yourself in question all the time. It’s about learning. If you’re too sure of what you’re doing, you learn nothing anymore.” She finds inspiration everywhere. Her song, “Agolo,” a wake-up call to protect the Earth, was inspired by the frequency and capacity of the garbage truck that came to her house in France. (“Without Mother Earth, there is no humanity. Period.”) She has written songs to bring the stories of refugees and AIDS orphans to public attention. (One of her songs, “You Can Count On Me,” provides a tetanus shot for an African mother every time it’s downloaded.)

Kidjo’s nickname in her village was “When Why How” —no surprise after hearing her forceful opinions of male control over women and of Western control over Africa. Asked by Kafumbe how she felt being one of the most well known people from a continent usually characterized by war, poverty, and corruption, she responded, “Well, people are stupid enough to think that Africa as a continent only has one story to tell. The danger of the single story defines all of us.” She continued, explaining how biblical stories of male dominion still keeps men in power, able to persist in forced marriage and female genital mutilation; how the Western colonizers’ stories of African inferiority allowed them to commit the crimes of slavery. Later she added, “We Africans have to learn to tell our story. We can’t keep blaming other people for telling our story because we don’t do it ourselves.”

As for outsiders’ views of Africa, Kidjo was blunt: “I say every time I’m in front of any leader, ‘I don’t care who you are, if you tell me ever that the leaders of Africa are corrupt, I say “who’s sleeping in the same bed with them?”’  She continued,

“The interest today for the rich countries is to keep Africa the way it is because if we start really developing, they have a problem.”  She invoked several of the African nationalist leaders assassinated in the 1960s by western-led coups. “Kwame Nkrumah [Ghana] was killed for that; Lamumba [Congo] was killed for that.

Many Africans have died because they said ‘We need our money to resist, we need to fix the price of raw materials, we need to be independent…’all those who stood up that way have been killed. And they would do it again.” Widespread rape in the Congo, she said, is ignored because industrialized countries want Congo’s minerals such as coltan for cell phones and other electronics.

Linking her social advocacy to her music comes naturally, she told Kafumbe and the crowd, in part because African history is traditionally oral. And although she has seen terrible suffering since starting her travels as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador a decade ago, what keeps her going is her music and how it connects with others. “Always I feel the resilience and the power of the people,” she said.

When asked her final question, “What should we walk away with,” Kidjo was emphatic. “Be proud of who you are. And whatever you do, do it with your heart. We are capable of moving mountains. Only fear is holding us back from achieving more. Don’t be afraid to be yourself.”

At the concert in Nelson Recreation Center the following night, the Middlebury community got another chance to see what being Angelique Kidjo means. Dynamic and dazzling, perfectly synched with her fellow musicians drawn from New York, Senegal, and Paris, she created a spectrum of vocals while dancing on the stage and through the crowd. In her songs and in between them, this small and powerful woman brought her message to the hundreds dancing and listening: Look for ways to overcome your differences—it’s hard, and it’s worth it. Be yourself. Life is joyful. And when she brought students onstage to dance, and to take solo dance breaks to the drumming of the djembe, you knew she was right.