Archive for April, 2020

helena cobbanThe webinar series called “Commonsense (sic) on Syria” organised by Just World Educational, a “non-profit” educational organisation affiliated to a book publishing enterprise run by Helena Cobban is for the most part, an exercise in cheap propaganda. The latest session was a textbook example of how to produce propaganda for a regime, meant to be consumed by educated and informed people in the west.

This is the recipe: present only one guest that represents your narrative; allow the moderator to frame the discourse to fit that bias and never question the narrative; go so off theme of the actual topic that the talk is supposed to cover (in this case “On Western Media and Syria”); “blind the audience” with an overwhelming assortment of random notions dressed up as facts; use the topic of terrorism as the key theme of the war and play down the humanitarian situation; name drop and accuse without presenting evidence or a right of reply to the accused; filter any discourse and dissent by allowing a question time that is limited to the moderator and guest responding only to questions posed by their friends and admirers; and to top it off, give the audience the idea that what they are hearing is correct, not by presenting any kind of scholarly analysis or evidence, but by framing what is being heard as being “common sense”, a belief so correct, sound and widely held as to be an anathema to doubt it for a moment.

Even the style of the moderator is instrumental in the recipe, as she liberally throws in “air quotes” to emphasise that any view aside from her own or any alternative narrative only deserves to be ridiculed, for this tic of derision is designed to function as a mechanism that seeks to convince the viewer that is it worthless to present any counter-position, and thus excuse her lack of having provided any. In doing so, the moderator pushes to dismiss that a dialectic approach could be worthwhile as a means of the discovery of what is true.

Truth here is not the point. An excess of random information is rattled out in what looks more like a hack job and hatchet job and screed against any and every news source but that of the guest and moderator, particularly the opening screed against the NYT and the internal one against Amnesty International, MSF and HRW, which are not Western Media, but are human rights organisations. But if one actually listens and attempts to sort through the whiny list of grievances, one finds a thoroughly weak grasp of reality. Max Blumenthal pulls the “stop the sanctions” rabbit out of his hat, saying that it does not weaken the “legitimate leader of Syria, who has won the war” (in what a normal human being might see at best as nothing more than a Phyrric victory) but at the same time claims that it is desirable to do so. He claims that sanctions against Iran have caused “hundreds of thousands of deaths from Coronavirus”. Fact checking isn’t even necessary with an absurd number like that, but it if it’s true, you realise that Blumenthal has sources the rest of the world doesn’t have any access to.

Helena Cobban’s screed continues against the think tanks, including the Brookings Institution (for which her husband must have earned quite a pretty penny as a senior fellow). It should be clear to anyone (shall we say it is “common sense”?) that political ideas are associated with money, that people make good money by promoting their formulas in western think tanks and that foreign policy, and to some extent journalism, are influenced by the policies that the think tanks promote. It is yet another thing to associate these western governmental policies as proof of the narrative that the opposition to the Syrian regime stopped being genuine and was merely an instrument to push forward the USA/Israeli policy of regime change. To do so is a denial first of all of the agency of the Syrian people, and secondly, it is a dangerous disconnect from the tangled realities of the war. There is even denial of the presence of western journalists in Syria, no mention whatsoever of the hundreds of citizen journalists who have documented on a daily basis what life in wartime is actually like. There is a black hole where the awareness of this source of verifiable information and archive of documentation of all kinds is beyond the access and comprehension of Blumenthal and Cobban, becoming quite absurd to the casual observer, and a great deal more to the journalists and eyewitnesses who have collected evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity within Syria for nine years.

maxresdefaultTo conflate, again and again, the White Helmets with a propaganda operation run by a western PR company is to miss the point of the (this time literally) hundreds of thousands of deaths by the air strikes, barrel bombs and missile attacks of the regime against areas where the regime itself has forced millions into internal displacement. Even RT, which Blumenthal mentions, has flown drones over Aleppo, showing the utter devastation of the city that had been “won” by the Russia-backed Syrian government. To claim to have “exposed” the White Helmets and to state that he, the journalist has been “attacked”, is to have a dubious connection to the meaning that flows behind words. A journalist should be criticised if the work produced is shoddy, since he or she is expected to present evidence and then to check that evidence and to even challenge it through due diligence, but in this case, even logic would suffice. Asserting that Syria was being destroyed by not allowing it to promote tourism is such an absurd claim when the reality of the destruction of Syrian homes, infrastructure and any semblance of civil functioning in all the parts the regime has (literally) attacked is before the eyes of everyone. To deny this visibile evidence denotes a detachment from reality that is frightening, but more so in the arrogance and determination with which it is presented.

It is a slap in the face to the oppressed to witness the vehemence with which Blumenthal asserts his position that everything would have been just fine if the protesters stopped in the early days, that the “legitimate government” was merely responding to the violence of the protesters and that they simply had to call Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in because these protesters were armed by the United States, with the assumption that the listener will not actually check that this arming was next to nothing and included orders to not fight against the Syrian regime in any way.

Blumenthal and Cobban constantly trip up on the trope of the proxy war as cause of the uprising in their continual denial of the maxim that correlation is not causation. They fall into the questionable cause logical fallacy in nearly every statement they make, and do not allow space for it to be challenged, because they already accept it as a truth. They put the US involvement before the involvement of any other players, including that of the Syrian intelligence/torture machine and decades of oppression and the absence of free speech within Syria due to the dynasty that refused to do anything but consolidate its power and destroy all opposition. The history of the war is rewritten with some “scare quotes” and lazy journalism.

However, the evidence they sought to produce in this webinar, that Western journalism was not presenting an accurate or a complete picture of the war was never touched upon. Because that was not really the point of the webinar. It was simply yet another exercise in propaganda for the Syrian regime, because evidently, despite their claims to the contrary, it is impossible for the Assad Regime (a name they throw in air quotes, but don’t define what it is instead of being a regime, aside from stating that it is legitimate) to celebrate a victory, when half of the country is in ruins and half of the citizens, only those that opposed the regime in power, are displaced, many of them permanently.


In 2019, from the left, Chinese president Xi Jinping, Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi, Italian Vice president Luigi Di Maio and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (afp)

The economic crisis that opened the door to coronavirus in Italy

Mary Rizzo

There have been many theories about why Coronavirus has struck Italy so violently. At first, it was approached as if it were a logistics problem to resolve, and the solution to it would be to trace and track down “Patient Zero” and quarantine travellers from Wuhan within the Spallanzani Infectious Diseases Hospital of Rome. It was simply understood that it could be contained with precisely these careful measures, because there was an awareness that it involved direct contact with regions in China affected by the virus. It was considered as likely, at least by the financial and political sectors of the country, that cases would be concentrated here, given the extensive business and economic ties of Italy with China that led to intense international travel between the two countries. However, almost a year to the date of Prime Minister Conte signing on to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative Infrastructure project, in Italy poetically called “Silk Road”, the number of deaths from Covid-19 surpassed the 10,000 mark in Italy, and the primitive containment effort of those early days is nothing more than a blip on the radar of our Coronavirus crisis. It was believed by the Italian government that the economic agreement so dear to the heart of China, to expand its already saturated trade with Italy beyond imagination, with the injection of cash and investments, would be the remedy to lift Italy out of its recession. It’s stated aim was to provide some oxygen to the faltering and struggling Italian economy, but what hadn’t been taken into account was that this oxygen might be drawn, literally, from the lungs of Italian citizens.

The Italian economy, based on some unique sectors such as cultural and naturalistic tourism, agri-food and high quality manufacturing, as well as a circuit of micro-businesses and a widespread submerged economy, 12% of the country’s GDP, for quite a while has resembled a haemorrhage whose blood flow is relentless, as more and more entrepreneurs find themselves forced out of business or forced to lay off their employees, and skilled workers enter into the underground and consequently, untaxed economy or they emigrate. Arable terrains are abandoned as Italian grain prices plummet, yet still can’t overcome the Canadian and Ukrainian competition, that have even become the primary suppliers of our renowned pasta companies. The small factories that produce high fashion and top line ready-to-wear or quality furnishings and building materials such as marble and ceramics are with growing frequency keeping the design offices in Italy, but outsourcing labour due to the incredibly high costs that no government seems to be able to relieve. The outsourcing is primarily to Turkey and Poland for cars, China for clothing, shoes and sheet metal.

It is true that “Made in Italy” is a concept that carries with it a bit of a deception. With every passing year, the focus has been in promoting under the banner of Made in Italy primarily the idea of the Italian lifestyle and Italian taste, concepts such as design and the style that are considered by the world as uniquely Italian. The focus is moving away from the actual production stages happening in Italy with increasingly less Italian-produced materials and workmanship. China had the appetite and the market and the workers and the industrial philosophy to produce our products, products that demand a high price tag, leading to many of our companies transferring their factories to China in order to maintain profits, as well as Chinese investors taking command of uniquely Italian companies and institutions. Even the quintessence of Italian national spirit, Serie A football, has a Chinese stamp on it, particularly in the region so hard hit by Coronavirus. The two major teams of Milan have recently or still have Chinese ownership.

chamber of commerce china

Photo: Camera di Commercio Italo-Cinese

There came to be a growing realisation, with the unfolding of the scientific information about this virus, that contagion would not necessarily involve direct contact with the original Wuhan hotspot, but was bound to happen with more frequency where Italian and Chinese business relations were a consolidated fact. After this information of the virus that originated in Wuhan spreading beyond China was made public, the Italians reacted in two dramatically different ways, but ways that are very much within the cultural and social psyche and very much from “the gut”, and it took only seconds for the deeply conflictual political parties to draw their lots with one or the other of these sides as they encouraged a specific public conduct, not from a scientific point of view, but from the polarised gut whose main concern is the vox populi that can ensure that these parties either remain in power or obtain power if they are in the opposition.

One view encouraged avoiding Chinese businesses. While part of this call to action could be quite logically seen as a health recommendation, it rang out as a discriminatory and xenophobic approach, given that those promoting it are parties that have incitement of xenophobia as their driving factors in the electorate. However, there was some justification of this approach also within the Chinese community itself. Every spokesperson of the Chinese communities in Milan and Prato had been claiming that they had already been self-isolating for at least a month before the first case in Italy had been announced, as well as encouraging their co-nationals in China to put off trips to Italy until after the emergency, offering this as the explanation for having no cases of contagion in their expatriate community, and deeming themselves as not being carriers of the virus, but rather, unfairly affected by a wave of discriminatory populist politics.

sweatshop in naples

Image of a Chinese sweatshop in Naples where workers earned €2.50 per hour and had 15 hour workdays 

Apparently, the leaders of the Chinese community and representatives of it in the Chamber of Commerce were aware of the severity of the situation before Italians were, and took the necessary precautions, or it is likely that some things have not yet come to light, since the Chinese community in Italy, which has a crucial part of its economy in the “underground”, with sweatshops violating every health and safety code being located in every manufacturing region, has been suspiciously absent from any health effects of this virus, which has instead stormed through the general population with alarming speed and severity.


Mayor of Turin Chiara Appendino meets with 14 Chinese Associations to condemn “fear and racism”

The other view, to counter the restrictive approach, likewise with an appeal to the gut and sensitivities of the Italians, went overboard the other way. It was not only encouraged to frequent, in particular, Chinese business establishments and support their economy, but it was communicated by the more progressive wings as possibly being racist to distance oneself from Chinese people, and the typically Italian physicality of embracing and touching was encouraged toward this community that for the most part considers itself and is considered as outsiders and separate. The concept of “Milano da bere”, the socialising of the aperitif, the adoption of the Movida a few months before its natural lifecycle in the spring, was encouraged also by these political parties and progressive movements. The leader of the Partito Democratico, in late February, posed in photos engaging in these very social activities, only to announce in early March that he tested positive to the virus and was putting himself in self-quarantine.
In a matter of days, the situation of contagion skyrocketed in the productive regions of the north. Efforts to lock down these towns in “red zones” were rapid, and united the two vastly different political sides in their recognition of the need to isolate and quarantine for the common good. However, in spite of efforts that currently look mild, but at the time were quite radical, day after day, it became clear that the virus was spreading rapidly beyond the red zones, so efforts were stepped up to lock down the north in order to slow down the growth of the contagion, and particularly, to prevent it from spreading to the south, where it would create an unprecedented crisis within the crisis, since it does not have the health structures to handle the demand for intensive care that this virus, in many cases, requires.

There have been some good analyses that take into consideration the reasons for the particular virulence of the virus in Italy, many of them based on cultural factors such as human vicinity and the very reduced physical distance Italians use in their daily lives. Others cite geographical factors such as population density. There are logical assumptions about the quantity and frequency of social contact as well. There is much commuting in daily life in Italy, with most children using public transportation to get to school in lieu of the school buses so common in other countries. Most schools do not provide extra-curricular activities, so many children also attend oratories for after-school activities if their parents work, or frequent sport structures. But, most of the smaller children spend a great deal of time with their grandparents, who take care of them in their own homes or in the homes of their own children. The amount of time that different generations spend together, relatively high in comparison to most other countries, is determined not only by a sense of family and affection, but also out of economic requirements when parents have no other alternative. Children are “notoriously” very effective carriers of viruses and the elderly are “notoriously” very susceptible to complications from a virus turning into something extremely severe and also fatal.

foto ansa

Naples Photo ANSA

Another cultural factor is that Italians have a habit of going out each day for the required ingredients for their meals. You don’t need to have a Spritz in Milan to be in the firing line for the virus, it’s enough to get your bread, milk and meat fresh daily together with hundreds of others in your neighbourhood. You might grasp their arm, give them a kiss, take hold of their hand as you do it. Italians, for the most part, live in small flats within densely populated cities and towns, and the public space is used not only as a social space, but also as an extension of the living space. It has been a hard blow to lose all of it, suddenly and completely, but given the particular configuration of this country, it was inevitable to require national lockdown as soon as possible and for it to be as thorough as possible.

All of these factors cited above, and many more, contributed to such a virus spreading and searing its way through Italy in the first months of 2020. Italians are aware that their own social, economic and cultural situation can be considered as related to the cause, and, with incredible sense of responsibility, they have been sacrificing so much of their affections, freedoms, spaces and habits.