Tag Archives: Featured Dispatch

Humans: Not for Sale

Stop Traffick is among the newest human-rights organizations on the Middlebury campus and it’s also one of the most-focused, as it demonstrated with its fall symposium titled “Humans: Not For Sale” on November 4-8.

Dedicated to harnessing students’ passions for social change by raising awareness and generating funds to end human slavery, Stop Traffick’s symposium included lectures, discussions, a spoken-word performance by a survivor of sex trafficking, and a film screening of “Born into Brothels.” There was also a dinner of Indian food (where slavery is endemic), and an engaging anti-trafficking performance in the lobby of the Davis Library.

Skinner's book was published in 2008. Bill Clinton said it is "rigoroiusly investigated and fearlessly reported."

Skinner’s book was published in 2008. Bill Clinton said it is “rigoroiusly investigated and fearlessly reported.”

The keynote speaker, E. Benjamin Skinner, a freelance journalist and author of the book “A Crime So Monstrous: Face-To-Face With Modern-Day Slavery,” alerted a packed house of students in Dana Auditorium that euphemisms have the effect of minimizing the seriousness of the problem.

“In its prose the United Nations has this extraordinary capacity to sanitize crimes against humanity through language,” Skinner explained.

“So ‘genocide’ has become ‘ethnic cleansing.’ The ‘modern-day slave trade’ has become ‘human trafficking,’ and ‘slavery’ itself has become ‘generational, collaterialized debt bondage.’”

He defined slavery as the practice of forcing others to work for no pay while they are held fraudulently and under threat of gross violence. He estimated that there are approximately 29.8 million slaves in the world today, and said there are more slaves in South Asia than in the rest of the world combined. According to Skinner, those countries are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

The guest speaker, who has observed the sale of human beings on four continents, spoke for about 45 minutes about his personal experiences with slavery and then, during the question-and-answer session that followed, offered some advice to Middlebury students.

Skinner, 37, told of his friendship with “Ganu” — a man in India who, along with other members of his family, is held against his will to work. “Ganu’s slavery began well before he was born,” said Skinner. “It began three generations earlier when his grandfather took a debt the equivalent of sixty-two cents in rupees for the meager bride price of Ganu’s mother. Three generations and three slave masters later, Ganu and his entire family are being forced to work” for the same family.

Ganu and his kin blast rocks “using short-fuse explosives,” and then pound those rocks into gravel “using pikes and mortars” to go into the construction of India’s roads. They also pulverize the gravel into silica sand for use in the glass industry. “There is only one way in the modern world to turn a profit through the production of handmade sand,” Skinner said, “and that is through slavery.”

When Skinner would meet surreptitiously with Ganu at night and ask, “Why don’t you leave? Why don’t you run away?” the response was always, “Where would I go? How would I eat?” The master has ways to find runaway slaves and punish them, Ganu would tell Skinner, despite the fact that slavery is against the law.

“For men like Ganu, slavery was no mere mental construct. Slavery was his world and the master is god in that world.” The master is the taker of life but also the giver of sustenance, however meager, Skinner said, and any sustainable solution to end debt bondage such as that of Ganu and his family, has to end those relationships of dependency.

The journalist also discussed a case he reported on for Bloomberg Businessweek in which he interviewed a Javanese fisherman named “Yusril,” who had been recruited to work in international waters off the coast of New Zealand onboard a foreign charter vessel. Yusril was being held against his will to live and work in some of the harshest conditions imaginable.

Using bills of lading, intelligence sources, and shipping documents, Skinner was able to connect the fish caught by Yusril and other offshore slaves to major New Zealand fisheries that were selling the catch to U.S. companies.

“Eventually we were able to name 18 companies involved in the buying, selling, and processing of these fish. Something pretty remarkable happens when you name Wal-Mart, when you name Safeway, when you name Whole Foods, when you name P.F. Chang’s — all of a sudden action happens pretty quickly,” Skinner revealed. As a result of the investigation and subsequent news coverage, contracts were cancelled and companies’ earnings were affected. And Yusril went free.

Later, when a student asked Skinner what citizens should do to combat slavery, the keynote speaker said, “Get involved in Stop Traffick. Help build the movement. A broad national awareness has to start with your generation because [modern-day slavery] is a relatively new issue. It may not catch your Congressman’s attention. It’s not who in D.C. says slavery is important; it’s how high up it is in their in-box… to get U.S. companies to realize, ‘Hey, this matters.’”

Skinner’s theory is that trafficking is both a moral crime and a crime of poverty, and that any effort to eradicate it must end dependency relationships (such as Ganu’s with his master) and the world hunger that tends to fuel them. The website freetheslaves.net, which receives 25 percent of the proceeds from the sale of Skinner’s book, offers ways to help liberate slaves around the world and change the systems that allow slavery to exist.

He also urged the students to consult websites like slaveryfootprint.org and knowthechain.org before buying products, although he cautioned that “categorical boycotts” can have the negative effect of “depressing the opportunities” of people who live in bondage.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Trace Back to Russia

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

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

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

Sunshine and Foliage Welcome Families


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.

Gandhi Now or Not?

Photo: pinkiwinkitinki / Foter / CC BY-SA

Photo: Foter / CC BY-SA

It’s hard to imagine how Adolf Hitler would have responded to the letter Mahatma Gandhi wrote to him from his jail cell in 1939, imploring him not to wage war—had he received it. “Dear friend,” Gandhi wrote. “Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request, because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence.” Ian Barrow, professor of history and Gandhi authority, shared this letter along with other examples of Gandhi’s life and work during a “dessert talk and discussion” about Gandhi and Civic Engagement last week. The talk, sponsored by the Office of Community Engagement, asked the audience to consider whether Gandhi’s ideas for combatting the scourges of poverty, discrimination, and violence would work today, or are they rooted in a certain time and place in history?

An audience of students, faculty, and staff filled an Axinn Center classroom to hear Barrow describe Gandhi’s evolution from the young middle-class man receiving his education in Britain, to the attorney working for Indian rights in South Africa, to the abstemious and charismatic individual who helped propel India to independence in the late 1940s.

Barrow explained that when Gandhi returned from South Africa at the age of 46, he had come to the realization that traditional techniques for changing the status quo were not going to work, and the alternative would be violence, which Gandhi abhorred. “Gandhi fought against violence his whole life,” Barrow said. “He had been schooled from a very young age that nonviolence was preferable to violence.” For Gandhi, agitating for change without violence was accomplished “through the idea of loving the person who is hurting you and engaging in activities that will force that person to rethink and withdraw power.”

Gandhi believed, said Barrow, that people gained salvation by gaining complete control over themselves—their appetites, passions, and desires—to achieve “non-attachment.” This meant not being attached to anything material, including the fruits of their labors; eating only for nourishment, not enjoyment (Gandhi, for example, only allowed himself seven grains of salt per meal); and avoiding sexual activity. Once individuals mastered non-attachment and self-control, Barrow said, they would have “perfect equanimity,” would not be swayed by emotions, and could focus on loving those who are hurting them. He believed that these principles had to be implemented on the individual level, then become established in communities, then in nations.

Gandhi set up two ashrams in India, “spiritual communities, designed to overcome problems of poverty, discrimination, and violence,” said Barrow. Joining was completely voluntary. And life there was regimented in such a way to help the members develop the high degree of non-attachment Gandhi advocated. For example, members rose at four in the morning, and began the day in prayer. The day’s activities were scripted till bedtime at nine.

But, in addition to non-attachment and self-control, how could Gandhi go up against the most  powerful empire in the world?  “He devised a technique that reversed traditional orders,” Barrow explained. “He chose every attribute that the British said was a weakness in Indians, and he made that a powerful attribute.” He lived a simple life and wore peasant attire. He adopted customs of women—spinning, serving tea, involving women in discussion (“he was a protofeminist”). He became a vegetarian, which, to the British, meant weakness. “It meant you couldn’t fight,” explained Barrow. He basically said to the least powerful in society, I am one of you. “It was an extraordinary reversal,” Barrow said. “He electrified Indian society.”

And his protests embodied issues of symbolic significance. Gandhi’s trek to the sea to make salt, which was illegal, is a well-known example. “He’d wanted to plead guilty, because he wanted to show the bankruptcy of British law,” said Barrow. The British decided not to prosecute, knowing how it would look. “But Gandhi made his point.”

When Gandhi was assassinated, he was viewed as nearly a god and a martyr by many in India. “Today, he’s become a tourist curiosity,” said Barrow. And the results of some of his efforts have clearly failed the test of time. For example, he went to the Noakhali district of Bangladesh in 1946 to help quell violence between Hindus and Muslims,  Hindus comprised about 36 percent of the population at the time. Today they are down to about 10 percent, having been killed or moved.

Barrow concluded his talk by asking, “Would these principles work in today’s world?” Despite the discussion that ensued, this answer remains a tantalizing unknown.

The letter to Hitler, only 134 words long, was still projected on the screen. “You are the one person in the world  who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. . . . Any way [sic] I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.” It is signed, “I remain your sincere friend. M. K. Gandhi.” The letter was never mailed. His British jailors would not send it. And so Barrow’s question, would Gandhi’s principles be effective in today’s world, begs another, would they have been effective in Hitler’s?

Student Urges Action on Nuclear Sub Proliferation

nate_sans_r-lNate Sans ’14 thinks the U.S. Navy should redesign its nuclear submarines. And his opinion earned an impressive audience last month when an essay he wrote was published in the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.” While interning this summer at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Sans won the Bulletin’s monthly contest for young people called “Voices of Tomorrow.”

“I think what they’re trying to do is figure out what people my age are thinking about,” said Sans. ”I can’t tell you how many times I heard at CNS that the perspective of younger people is particularly important to them. They came into the business in the cold war, and the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up during the cold war is valuable to them.”

A political science major with a minor in Russian, Sans argued in his essay that the kind of technology used in American nuclear submarines, which use highly enriched uranium, could offer countries like Iran a “back door” route to building nuclear weapons. He notes that a loophole in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allows military nuclear reactors like those on submarines to bypass guidelines that civilian reactors must follow.

“What I was pushing at was, let’s reconsider this: maybe the priority of nonproliferation could supersede the priority of having the best submarines. Maybe we can still have a satisfactory submarine and also do work on this nonproliferation priority.”

Sans, who has a strong interest in national security and international studies, happened on the topic while doing research for CNS. ”They were really good about offering us free rein on what we wanted to work on,” he said. “They had a bunch of projects and we could pick and choose based on what we thought was interesting.”

Sans landed the CNS internship as a result of his semester at the Monterey Institute of International Studies last spring. He happened to ask his Russian politics professor for suggestions about internships the day before the CNS deadline. She suggested he hurry up and apply.

He says the Monterey experience was an ideal complement to his Middlebury studies, in part because of the diversity of his classmates, many of whom had worked in fields he cares about. He also says he left Monterey with a better understanding of how foreign policy happens in the massive U.S. government bureaucracy. “You get a good understanding of who the players are and what they do, which helped me figure out what interested me and narrowed my focus.

Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of CNS, says an experience like this can really pay off for students. “The summer fellowship provided Nate a chance to shine and to share his passion and expertise with his peers, many from other top schools,” said Wolfsthal. “His writing and participation were terrific and we’d welcome more Middlebury students for the fellowship and course work in the future.”

As far as submarines are concerned, Sans says he’s always been fascinated with them, but he’s not about to become a submariner. He’s more interested in the nonproliferation policy implications and how they’ll play out politically. ”Any sort of contribution I made to the debate was that the administration could do more.”