If the last couple of years have been dominated by Covid, the world and its politics, its color, its chaos and its conspiracies came roaring back with a vengeance this year. Here are five themes we focused on at Coda that help to organize the chaos and provide perspective on global events.
The fallout from the war in Ukraine
This year, we have been tracking how propaganda around this war has been weaponized in Europe and around the world, particularly in Africa. In our weekly newsletter Disinfo Matters, we’ve stayed on the story of Russian wartime disinformation, such as the Kremlin’s use of social media to spread its narratives. We have also highlighted how Ukrainians have turned to photography and music, among other things, to mourn the Russian invasion, to express defiance and to point toward a brighter future. A major development has been the extensive, even unprecedented, use of technology like killer robots and drones in a war otherwise characterized by grinding, wearying ground battles in which heavily outnumbered Ukrainian forces have managed to force Russia to retreat from some occupied territories. While the story of the Russian invasion has been one of boots on the ground, including Russia calling up its reserves, an extraordinary and dystopic subplot is how this war, as one of our writers noted, is “serving as a testing ground for cutting edge, but unproven, technology.” Sign up here for the newsletter we are launching in 2023 that will be entirely dedicated to covering the global fallout from the war in Ukraine.
2022 has been marked by governments and regimes around the world seeking to influence, inflect and even entirely rewrite their national histories. Some of this has taken the form of quite literally rewriting school textbooks to reflect political trends and ideologies. One of our Big Ideas dove deep into revisionist agendas in Poland, Spain, the Channel Islands, Northern Ireland and Lithuania. In each of these places, uncomfortable questions are being asked about national identity.
How, for instance, should Poland reflect on its wartime history? A right-wing government is using the country’s National Institute of Remembrance to spin a nationalist narrative about Polish heroism in the face of Nazi atrocities. It embraces and promotes a vision of Polish resistance, of ethnic Poles helping the country’s Jewish community, while refusing to countenance a serious conversation on Polish collaboration in Nazi crimes. Collaboration is also a taboo topic of conversation in Alderney, one of the Channel Islands occupied by the Nazis where they built concentration camps. Nazi crimes on British soil have been buried far into the recesses of the national memory but, some historians argue, it’s time to revive those memories.
A simmering, resentful silence continues to hold in parts of Northern Ireland over the Troubles, decades after the Good Friday Agreement. Is it possible to simply draw a line under the violence without also finding a way for people to be told the truth, to grieve together and to move forward without burying the past? This is a question that echoes in Spain’s Valley of the Fallen, where a national pact of forgetting has failed to erase the cataclysmic violence of the Spanish Civil War. People still want answers, even as others claim answers are no longer possible or too politicized. Meanwhile, the politicization of medieval symbols has created rifts between Lithuanians and Belarusians, as each nation clings to versions of its distant history as guides to present-day national identities.
Governments reaching across borders to harass and persecute their own citizens, whether digitally or physically, is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon that scholars label transnational repression. Some of the worst offenders include China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. We have written about the few Uyghur journalists and translators who are able to tell their stories about the harassment they have suffered in Xinjiang. Surveillance tactics and censorship have made it difficult for members of the Uyghur diaspora to speak out against the atrocities of the Chinese authorities both within and outside China’s borders. Just months ago, the FBI indicted men it said had been helping Chinese authorities to execute a campaign to force political dissidents living in the United States to return to China. So alarmed are some members of Congress that they have introduced a new bill to jail those convicted of helping authoritarian regimes to attack dissidents based in the U.S. for up to 10 years. While this would be a significant deterrent and a recognition of the threat certain regimes pose to their own citizens abroad, questions remain about enforcement and sincerity when the United States’ close political relationships with countries such as Saudi Arabia come under pressure. This is a theme that Coda will devote much of its energy to reporting on as 2023 unfolds.
Climate denial and pseudohealth
The ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis are contributing hugely to climate anxieties, as European countries desperate for alternative energy relationships ignore their commitments to combating climate change by signing deals to exploit natural gas resources in Africa. Shifts to sustainable forms of transportation in the U.K. have stirred up virulent online debates over environmental policies. Shortages of medicines at the center of TikTok trends, such as diabetes pills touted as miracle weight loss aids, are affecting patients who are struggling to access their regular medication. Meanwhile in India, the government’s ideological priorities mean that it is pushing Ayurvedic medicines that have been insufficiently tested as a “natural” homegrown alternative to Western science. In the United States, radical anti-trans actions have been a focus of Coda’s coverage, including bomb threats to children’s hospitals. Legislation passed in states like Florida have underscored attempts to push harmful rhetoric on transgender issues, rather than paying attention to experts or, indeed, trans people.
The age of nostalgia
Our latest Big Idea series takes on our “infatuation with a mythologized history.” The series ranges widely. In Cambodia, the Vietnamese, rather than the Khmer Rouge who ruled Cambodia at the time, are blamed for the genocide of nearly two million people. In California, grieving the losses wrought by climate change revives the term “solastalgia” — the desolation felt by those who see their homes ripped away before their eyes. In Hungary, a right-wing government rejects the Europeanization of Hungary in favor of tracing its roots to a glorious, imperial Turkic past. And in Kuwait, the globalization of the 1990s was a way of life, rather than a trendy academic term, until the Iraqis invaded and forced Kuwaitis and expats alike to wrestle with questions of identity and home. Nostalgia for an imagined past, a somehow superior past, has contributed significantly to what we might also describe as an age of anger, a period in which countries around the world have become increasingly fractious and divided. Nostalgia has distorted the way in which we look at ourselves — our history and our present. It is a theme that threads through and connects many of the issues we cover at Coda and will continue to cover over the next year.