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What Happened: November 12, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Conflict between Belarus and Poland over migrants; flint water crisis reaches settlement; Starbucks unionization; Canada’s Green Party has a leadership shakeup

The Scroll
November 13, 2021
Guest-edited by Sean Cooper
Guest-edited by Sean Cooper

The Big Story

A potential humanitarian crisis looms at the border between Belarus and Poland, as several thousand migrants are stuck and unable to cross into Poland just as winter temperatures continue to drop to dangerous lows. Most of the migrants have arrived from Iraq, Syria, and other Middle Eastern nations, seeking to enter Europe through Poland in search of work, but Poland, for its part, is under rule by a far-right government hostile to immigrants crossing over. With journalists struggling to gain access, it’s unclear how many migrants have died, either at the border or en route, though several deaths have been confirmed. At the center of the crisis is Belarus’ autocrat Aleksandr Lukashenko, who was criticized in a statement made by several Western nations yesterday at the United Nations Security Council for his “instrumentalization of human beings whose lives and well-being have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus.”

The European Union similarly criticized Lukashenko for granting thousands of visas to migrants, who’ve flown into Minsk where Belarus agents then transport them to the border. Several airlines have ceased flights to Minsk to lessen the migrant influx, and the president of the EU said sanctions could be forthcoming for any airlines “active in human trafficking” to Minsk, though the threat is vague as migrants and tourists both are traveling with Belarus visas in hand. Complicating matters, Lukashenko threatened that if Western nations didn’t ease sanctions against Belarus, he would cut the flow of natural gas to Europe, where prices are already high and supplies low. The true root cause of the migrant crisis remains unclear; potential motives include Lukashenko retaliating against the EU by exacerbating its ongoing struggle to manage mass migrations, or his attempt to distract criticism of his slipping power in Minsk, or it’s both of those things. The crisis is also perhaps being driven by Vladimir Putin, who could be backing Belarus in the effort to sow discord with the EU whenever the opportunity arises.

No matter the cause, though, the situation for the migrants at the border grows more dire every day.

Read it here:

Today’s Back Pages: Your Weekend Reads

The Rest

→ A Michigan district court judge approved a $626 million settlement to the residents of Flint who’ve suffered because of the city’s water crisis. Dating back to 2014, when officials tried to save money with a change in how they supplied their public water, the subsequent seepage of lead from old pipes into the flow tainted the water used by the city’s predominantly Black residents. Complaints of body rashes and foul smells caused by the water were largely ignored by officials, despite the neurological danger posed to exposed children by lead poisoning. As one of the worst environmental disasters in American history, some are critical that the settlement is an inadequate payoff for the deaths that occurred and the suffering that some will still endure because of the lead poisoning. “Here we are, another sad chapter of the water crisis,” former Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said of the settlement.

→ In a reasonable turn of events in what has been the otherwise unusual tale of Ozy Media’s self-implosion, both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission are now investigating possible wrongdoing after The New York Times reported that one of the media company leaders allegedly impersonated a YouTube executive and made false claims about Ozy’s viewership performance on a call with Goldman Sachs, which was vetting Ozy ahead of a potential investment. The Times exposé, which also reported additional Ozy misrepresentations of its website traffic and business performance, prompted a viral scandal for Ozy and its charismatic chief, Carlos Watson, who subsequently admitted mistakes and announced the company would shut down, before changing course in a bid to revitalize the company and seek new investors.

Union workers seek to add more Starbucks stores to the three already set to vote in the coming days on unionization in Buffalo, New York. None of the Seattle-based company’s American stores are unionized currently, and executives, including Chairman Howard Schultz, have strengthened their opposition to the effort in Buffalo, with a robust local campaign to convince potential voters that their pay and benefits will be stronger without a union. Average hourly pay will increase to $17 by next summer, the company announced last month. 

→ Speaking of chief executives getting into the trenches of labor issues, Uber’s leader, Dara Khosrowshahi, was in London yesterday promising better rates and cash referral bonuses to drivers, as the company tries to recruit the additional 20,000 drivers it anticipates it will need for the upcoming holiday season.

→ Codifying the evolving organism that is American society, Merriam-Webster added a few hundred new words to its dictionary, including several that wouldn’t have made much sense a few years prior: vaccine passport, deplatform, and copy-pasta, the latter of which means a block of text that has been copied and spread widely online.

→ Van Gogh, or at least the investors and collectors who traffic his art, was the big winner last night at a Christie’s auction. Contributing to the grand sum total of $750 million in auction sales, Van Goghs were flying off the block for prices far above expectations. The painting “Jeune homme au bleuet,” was forecast to top out at around $7 million but went for almost $47 million, and the 1888 painting “Meules de blé” went for $36 million, which could be the highest yet for a Van Gogh watercolor. The watercolor was a late addition to the auction, after a settlement was reached with families of previous owners for the painting, which was one of many that German collectors had to sell hastily while fleeing the Nazis.

→ Annamie Paul, the leader of the Green Party of Canada and the first Black person and Jewish woman to be elected leader of a Canadian political party, gave notice this week of her formal resignation as party leader. Elected as leader last October, she spent much of this year sparring with her own party establishment after a majority of Green Party bigwigs disapproved of her response to ongoing violence in Israel as insufficiently critical of the Jewish state. Paul’s call for de-escalation and her unwillingness to criticize her adviser’s support for Israel led to further attacks on her by fellow party members, including MP Jenica Atwin, who decried Paul’s statements as “totally inadequate” for what Atwin said was Israel’s apartheid policies. In June, Atwin crossed the floor into the Liberal Party in protest of Paul’s leadership, although she has likely encountered much stronger Zionist sympathies there, in the party that continues to garner the pluraity of Canadian-Jewish support, than in the Green Party she left behind.

→ After investing more than $300 million to strengthen Haiti’s law enforcement agencies over the past several years, the U.S. State Department is now urging any American citizens who remain in the country to leave or else risk their own personal safety. The Caribbean nation continues to spiral into chaos and violence at the hands of street gangs, which have gained control of the primary fuel terminal in Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital, and 17 American and Canadian missionaries remain as hostages there while negotiations to free them drag on. “Kidnapping is widespread and victims regularly include U.S. citizens,” the State Department said in its statement, adding that Americans should leave immediately, before commercial airlines cease their Haiti operations.

→ The release yesterday of new employment numbers by the U.S. Labor Department showed that a record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September, the highest total of workplace “I’m Out of Heres” since 2000. Higher pay rates and better conditions elsewhere are driving the departures, particularly in the retail, service, and arts sectors, which like Uber and Starbucks, and speaking of workplace conditions, even Ozy, puts intense pressure on businesses to provide incentives to stay. UPS needs 100,000 additional workers to cover its upcoming holiday surge, Amazon is offering $3,000 sign-up bonuses, and public schools nationwide, which have hemorrhaged teachers throughout the pandemic, are lowering hiring standards to entice substitutes to help cover the gap. To the chagrin of many parents in Oregon, their schools have removed the long-standing prerequisite of a college degree for their substitutes, in the hope that more applicants will consider teaching their children.

→ Baby boomers the world over are dealing with a bad case of the blues as they try to wrap their heads around what’s happening to their beloved soft-rock idol Eric Clapton, who’s been promoting new recordings and a slew of political opinions that’s catching them by surprise. In Austin, Clapton was photographed with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on the heels of his signature of a restrictive abortion law. In a new song with Van Morrison, Clapton compared pandemic restrictions to being a slave in chains—which prompted Robert Cray, a celebrated blues guitarist and decadeslong friend of Clapton, to pull out of joining him on an upcoming tour to support his new album. Although vaccinated himself, and mostly an apolitical star for much of his career, Clapton has become a vocal, outspoken critic of government lockdowns, which some say was what drove the churn of previous racial comments Clapton made about immigrants in the U.K. in the 1970s. Some friends of Clapton aren’t defending his words but describe him as a person who has long supported scores of musicians from all backgrounds. They attribute Clapton’s new political activity to his frustration with not being able to perform during lockdowns. “You can’t take [his] gigs away. It’s like breathing for him,” said session drummer Jim Keltner.

The Back Pages

backpagesArmin Rosen on The Indisputable Coolness of Alleged Yacht Rockers Steely Dan

→ Blending memoir and literary criticism, the critic Ruth Franklin writes about the vagueness that clung to her maternal grandparents and their experience as Polish Jews who escaped the Nazis but endured their own trials surviving the war in the Soviet Union. “That uncertainty about where my family history fit into the larger history of the Holocaust stayed with me into adulthood,” she writes. “Why were my grandparents deported in the first place? And what happened to them in the camp, and afterward, that left such a deep mark?” Some answers came to light for Franklin thanks to newly published scholarship about what happened during the war to Polish Jews like her grandparents.

It is startling to discover in a book written by a stranger answers you have always been seeking, even unconsciously, to the most fundamental personal questions. I experienced this repeatedly over the past year as I pored over several groundbreaking new books chronicling the fate of the quarter-million or so Polish Jews who evaded Hitler only to wind up in the hands of Stalin.

→ The late anthropologist David Graeber finished a massive 700-page book, The Dawn of Everything, co-written with the archaeologist David Wengrow, shortly before Graeber passed away suddenly last September at the age of 59. That book is out now, and in New York, Molly Fischer uses the occasion of the publication to pen a long posthumous profile of Graeber, threading a vivid portrait of his life through his political activism and the several unusual and outstanding books he published on topics as varied as the 5,000-year history of debt (which is to say a history of the idea of money), a tract against the proliferation of bullshit jobs across all sectors of the economy (but especially in corporate administration and bureaucracies), and now The Dawn of Everything—which I haven’t read yet but sounds just about right for Graeber, a rigorously researched “challenge [to] received wisdom on civilization’s course.” Meaning, a rewriting of human history. Always provocative if not correct, Graeber was nonetheless consistently an ally to the common experience.

Graeber had been working on a short essay about COVID that was published after his death. The pandemic was “a confrontation with the actual reality of human life,” he wrote. “Which is that we are a collection of fragile beings taking care of one another, and that those who do the lion’s share of this care work that keeps us alive are overtaxed, underpaid, and daily humiliated.” Surely it was the moment to stop taking such a state of affairs for granted, he wrote. “Why don’t we stop treating it as entirely normal that the more obviously one’s work benefits others, the less one is likely to be paid for it; or insisting that financial markets are the best way to direct long-term investment even as they are propelling us to destroy most life on Earth?”

→ If all the news of the day has you a little down, you might as well click one last link before leaving the rest of that behind this weekend. In 1965, Dizzy Gillespie appeared with his quintet for the first time on the Jazz 625 program for the BBC. With deft camerawork and an excellent recording, the YouTube video of the performance is a audiovisual pleasure bomb, at least for those who enjoy the improvisational pyrotechnics of Dizzy and bassist Chris White on their rendition of “Tin Tin Deo,” or the work on the keys from bebop great Kenny Barron. At 35 minutes, the only problem with the recording is that it doesn’t last longer. 

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