Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

 To have been loved once by someone--surely 
There is a permanent good in that 
- John Ashbery

She saw among the stones lining the gutter the wisps of grass green as the most tender human hope.
 - Clarice Lispector, A hora da Estrela

 There must be something beyond slaughter and barbarism to support the existence of mankind and we must all help search for it.
- Carlos Fuentes

Late one evening after a recent snow, I was walking my dog through the streets of my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I unexpectedly found myself back again this past June after 25 years away, much of it abroad.

As we arrived in the center of the town, at a place called Penn Square (so-named for William Penn, the British-born founder of the state of Pennsylvania), a memorial dedicated to U.S. soldiers who had died fighting the forces of racism, fascism and totalitarianism greeted us, its taciturn combatants cast in stone and garlanded in white by the new snow.

Into the stone are etched words like Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Antietam, names of the  locations of some of the tremendous battles fought during the U.S. Civil War (the first of which still stands as the largest battle ever fought in North America). It was a war that saw Americans slaughtering one another on American soil, the assassination of a president and, at its end, the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished the infernal institution of slavery.   

It is a historic place, Lancaster. A few blocks away from the square, a plaque marks the spot where, on 27 December 1763, a group of Scotch-Irish frontiersmen known as the Paxton Boys broke into the old city jail and killed, scalped and dismembered the 16 remaining members of the Susquehannock tribe (known as Conestoga among English-speakers) who sheltered there, one of countless examples of the inhumanity of the nascent and extant nation to the land's original inhabitants. A few blocks beyond that, the grave of the great abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who represented the region in the U.S. Congress from 1849 to 1868, lies under the snow in a quiet corner of the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery.

More than 150 years on from the Civil War's end, elements of the United States stand with swords drawn within its borders yet again, usually metaphorically but sometimes - as we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia and Portland, Oregon - literally.

In many ways, 2017 was a year of loss. In my own country, Americans watched as their nation's standing in the world eroded, and its institutions came under unprecedented threat from within. In Haiti, there was the sudden death of former president René Préval and, for many, a final loss of faith in the political process and a realization that corruption and impunity have possessed the body politic so totally and across such a wide swathe of political actors that divisions between parties and stated ideologies have been rendered nearly irrelevant. In Puerto Rico, residents there lost their homes, their access to electricity and potable water and - in the hundreds - their lives as Hurricane Maria roared ashore. In the process, they also lost any illusions about how they were viewed by many in the larger United States. In Spain, lost was any delusion that the nation’s Francoist past was totally removed from its present day.  In Syria and Yemen, there was a loss of belief that anyone, anywhere cared about what was happening to the defenseless inhabitants of those places.

And for me, personally, there was some loss, too. My grandfather, James Breon, an admirable man in so many ways and the last surviving grandparent, finally succumbed to old age at 92. My beloved cat, Winston, the gentlest creature I've known, passed away at 20. A couple of close friendships frayed in ways that I don't think will ever be repaired. But I was able to see places that mean a lot to me again - Haiti, Paris, Puerto Rico, Havana, Barcelona, - and was even able to make some new friends along the way. 1 was able to publish one book and began work on another.

If 2017 represented the efforts of certain elements of modern-day America to get an illiberal and totalitarian project up and running, 2018 will almost certainly mark an escalation in the assault on the separation of powers, the rule of law and the integrity of our electoral process, all hallmarks of our democracy we must stand ready to defend. But there also seems to have, amid all the loss, been something of an awakening, a realization that, in the purest sense, democracy is not a spectator sport and those who want a voice in it must start that process by showing up in the voting booth, on the ballot and in the streets.

But amid all these struggles - some of which are chronicled in the articles below - I have been reminded that we must make time for - and room for - beauty, tenderness and love. I hope, as this difficult year draws to a close, that all of you find some of all three to greet you in 2018, and that, no matter how bleak things may look, you never give up or give into despair or apathy. 

And I wish you days, as  J.P. Donleavy wrote in The Ginger Man, "on which all things are born, like uncovered stars."

Puerto Rico tries to beat storms natural and man-made for fDi Magazine (19 December 2017)


Michael Deibert interviewed about Haiti by M24, the radio station of Monocle magazine (18 September 2017)
On the Ground: Michael Deibert interview with Sam Schindler for What We Will Abide (26 August 2017)

A Venezuelan retreat for fDi Magazine (17 August 2017)

Was the ‘Guatemalan Spring’ an illusion? for fDi Magazine (11 July 2017)

Before night falls: An American’s letter to France for Michael Deibert's Blog (3 May 2017)

Cuba looks towards renewables for fDi Magazine (7 March 2017)

After momentous year, Cuba faces uncertain 2017 for fDi Magazine (10 January 2017)

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