Jan 15

Smallpox and North Korea

A patient being inoculated against smallpox in 1802, in a satirical cartoon. James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Biological weapons are both terrifying and elusive. On the one hand, the Soviet Union made long-term investments in bioweapons research during the Cold War, as Ken Alibek’s tell-all book Biohazard makes clear. On the other hand, these diseases have proved difficult to weaponize, and the problem of blowback has made them unlikely to be used by any state. Despite the allegations that Iraq was weaponizing diseases under Saddam Hussein, no large-scale biological weapons program was discovered after the U.S. and British invasion. Now there are new allegations being made about North Korea.

Given that North Korea’s leader had his own brother murdered, and is moving forward rapidly to expand the range of his nuclear weapons, it’s not difficult to imagine that he might be fascinated with biological weaponry. But is there any solid evidence for a North Korean program? Unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons development can take place on a constrained budget and without difficult procurement or testing issues. As such, these programs are hard to detect. Nonetheless, Joby Warrick has an article in the Washing Post that points out that in 2015 the North Korean leader had his photograph taken in a facility “jammed with expensive equipment, including industrial-scale fermenters used for growing bulk quantities of live microbes, and large dryers designed to turn billions of bacterial spores into a fine powder for easy dispersal.” Perhaps even more disturbing, North Korean soldiers who have defected have allegedly had antibodies to smallpox, although these defectors mostly escaped decades ago.

Warrick’s article is worth reading in depth. How do we judge such a threat? On the one hand, were a virus such as smallpox ever released it would be truly a global catastrophe. On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge no state has used biological weapons since World War Two. Since that time, however, many Cassandras have warned that enemies were developing biological weapons. The United States has a long history of allegations against enemies that lead to war, only to be discredited afterwards, The U.S. warship Maine was quite possibly sunk by a coal fire, not the Spanish, but its explosion was used to justify the Spanish-American war. It’s unlikely that any North Vietnamese forces were even present on August 4, 1964 for the alleged second Gulf of Tonkin incident. The first incident led to a single bullet hole in a U.S. vessel. Nonetheless, these “events” were manipulated to form the basis for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by the U.S. Congress. In turn, President Johnson then used Congress’s authorization to massively expand the U.S. war in Vietnam. As it turns out, the U.S. intelligence services had completely misread the situation in that nation. The Bush administration alleged that Saddam Hussein was creating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but none were found after the U.S.-British invasion. If we included smaller conflicts -such as the contra war, which was based on a myriad of allegations against Nicaragua in the 1980s- this list of false or questionable justifications for war would become lengthy. Given this background, how seriously should we fear this new potential threat?

Sadly, biological weapons programs are by their nature easy to conceal, and difficult to evaluate. As a result, this is one potential nightmare associated with North Korea that is profoundly difficult to place in a broader context. We simply don’t have sufficient information yet to know the true scale of the danger.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2018/01/smallpox-and-north-korea/

Jan 08

Universal Design in Global Studies

My colleagues Kim Brown, Rosa David and I have just published an open-access article titled Adopting the Principles of Universal Design into International and Global Studies’ Programs and Curriculum. Here is the paper’s abstract:

The ideals of universal design have profoundly impacted instruction, policy, and infrastructure in course architecture and design within elementary education and at some universities. Within international and global studies, however, these principles have not deeply affected either pedagogy or scholarship despite the fact that classes in international studies may include more international students and third culture kids than classes in other programs. Instead, in North America (as well as in much of Latin America and Europe), the current pedagogical model calls for students either to develop strategies on their own to succeed in class or to self-identify with documented disabilities if they need particular assistance or accommodation. This approach relies on a banking model for education, which does not focus upon learner agency. This paper argues that by adopting three principles—learner autonomy, the negotiated syllabus, and universal design—international and global studies programs can better meet the needs of diverse learners and reflect the field’s commitment to inclusion and social justice.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2018/01/universal-design-in-global-studies/

Jan 08

Influenza Humans Commons

Colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses. By Photo Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith Content Providers: CDC/ Courtesy of Cynthia Goldsmith; Jacqueline Katz; Sherif R. Zaki [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Influenza Humans Commons is a collection of open-access articles on influenza, which is a great resource both for research and for course materials. You can find my own article, “Whom Do You Trust? Doubt And Conspiracy Theories In The 2009 Influenza Pandemic,” at this site, where it was recently among the top ten downloads. This is the paper’s abstract:

The 2009 pandemic of H1N1 influenza led people around the globe to create narratives about the epidemic defined by the question of trust; these narratives ranged from true conspiracy theories to simply accounts in which mistrust and betrayal formed a motif. In particular, most of these narratives reflected a fear of capitalism and globalization, although in specific regions, other issues—such as religion—played a more central role. These stories were not unique to the H1N1 pandemic but rather have appeared with every contemporary outbreak of infectious disease. This paper will examine conspiracy theories and moral panics related to the H1N1 pandemic in different world regions to explore how the disease became associated with economic and social systems in these accounts.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2018/01/influenza-humans-commons/

Jan 03

Transnational Social Movements

My colleague Dr. Christine Boyle is teaching a fantastic new online class on “Transnational Social Movements.” Dr. Boyle has extensive experience teaching in an online environment, and is a popular instructor. The class will look at a wide array of social movements and protests from the student movements to the Arab Spring. Given recent events in Iran, this is a timely class. If you are interested, you can see how to register for the class as a non-degree student here. There are no prerequisites for the course. Questions? You can contact Dr. Boyle at her email on the flyer below. The class will start on January 8, 2018.

Shawn Smallman, January 2018

Course flyer for winter 2018 online class

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2018/01/transnational-social-movements/

Jan 01

Flu, Protest and Iran

While many factors are driving the current protests in Iran, Michael Coston has pointed out that a significant outbreak of avian influenza in that country has driven up the cost of poultry and eggs, which has likely contributed to peoples’ food insecurity. His blog post is an interesting attempt to tie influenza to economic factors, which in turn may be connected to politics.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2018/01/flu-protest-and-iran/

Jan 01

Shadow Government

Tom Englehardt. Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. Preface. Glenn Greenwald. Chicago: Haymarket books, 2014.

“Yes we scan – Demo am Checkpoint Charlie.” By Digitale Gesellschaft (DSC_0121 Uploaded by NoCultureIcons) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tom Engelhardt’s book Shadow Government is an engagingly written and interesting critique of the U.S. National Security state, which he compares to a religion (p. 6). He begins his work with a colorful description of U.S. military power, which he contrasts with the nation’s military failures. In his eyes, U.S. citizens have abandoned fundamental rights to an unaccountable elite, without any real threat to justify these choices: “Had you been able to time-travel back to the Cold War era to inform Americans that, in the future, our major enemies would be Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya, and so on, they would surely have thought you mad” (p. 39).

A key focus of the book is the vast scale of the U.S. security state, and the virtual autonomy that security agencies have acquired. These organizations no longer conceal their activities behind a veil of “plausible deniability.” Instead, they publicize drone strikes (p. 26-27). His ultimate argument is that the U.S. is a rogue superpower, which has vast powers even though it is ultimately ineffective. Chapter four is titled “Mistaking Omniscience for Omnipotence.” Read the rest of this entry »

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2018/01/shadow-government/

Dec 27

The Nisman Conspiracy Theories

In Argentina a judge has just ruled that the death of Alberto Nisman was a murder, not a suicide. One of Nisman’s old employees was also charged as an accessory to murder. Nisman’s death has been an ongoing mystery, after he was found dead with a bullet wound in his head, the day that he was supposed to testify to Congress regarding a potential government coverup in the 1994 AMIA bombing.

My colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez and I wrote an article on this topic, which was published at an open-source journal. The focus of our work was the competing conspiracy theories regarding the Nisman case, and how they reflected not only the nation’s political divisions but also its history. If you are interested in this topic, please read our article, which is freely available.

Rodriguez, L. and Smallman, S. (2016). Political Polarization and Nisman’s Death: Competing Conspiracy Theories in Argentina. Journal of International and Global Studies Volume 8, Number 1, p. 20-39.

The article ended with these sentences: “The best path forward would likely be for the Argentine state to ask for a panel of international experts to investigate both the AMIA bombing and Nisman’s death. This step is unlikely, given the interests of different political actors and the power of nationalism in Argentine political discourse. Nonetheless, only this step is likely to restore public trust and thereby weaken the power of conspiracy theories in Argentina.”

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Protest march in Buenos Aires 1 year death anniversary of Alberto Nisman. By Jaluj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2017/12/argentine-mystery-and-conspiracy/

Dec 15

CWD, Fear and Food

“Chronic Wasting Disease in North America.” By USGS, National Wildlife Health Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1980s a new disease, Bovine Spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) appeared in Britain. Better known as mad-cow disease, this disorder attacked the brain of first cattle, and later a small number of people who had consumed their meat. The most likely manner in which the disease was introduced into the food chain was through processing cattle into feed for other cattle. Only by converting cattle into unwitting cannibals -in order to  to take advantage of waste products from abbatoirs- was the prion that caused the disease introduced into humans. In Britain the images of quivering, drooling, staggering cattle on television unleashed a public panic. (1)

BSE was a classic example of an iatrogenic disease, which is an illness created by humanity itself. The disease is caused by a prion, which is not a living thing. Prions are strange. It’s believed that they are malformed proteins, which can trigger other proteins to similarly mis-form. This creates a terrible cascade that impacts the brain, thereby causing neurodegeneration. They are also incredibly resistant to heat, so they do not readily break down during cooking, which would eliminate the risk of most pathogens and helminths. Once a living organism such as a person is infected, there is no known treatment for the disease. Read the rest of this entry »

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2017/12/chronic-wasting-disease-in-canada/

Dec 01

Hope, Fusion and the Future

“This image shows the Sun as viewed by the Soft X-Ray Telescope (SXT) onboard the orbiting Yohkoh satellite.” By NASA Goddard Laboratory for Atmospheres and Yohkoh Legacy data Archive [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As a kid growing up in Southern Ontario in the early 80s, I enjoyed listening to a science program called “Quirks and Quarks,” on CBC radio. Imagine my surprise to find that -thanks to the wonders of podcasts- I could still listen to this program, which is as good as it ever was. One recent episode, “Let there be Light,” compares two different approaches to fusion. In France, ITER is a $20 billion project which has entailed 35 years of cooperation amongst multiple nations. The reason why this investment makes sense is that fusion would create a virtually limitless supply of energy, without the danger of either nuclear meltdowns or the long-term storage of nuclear waste. In contrast, a Canadian start-up has a radically different and smaller plan. What’s most interesting to me about this brief podcast (14:08 minutes) is the scientists discussion of the level of resources required to develop fusion. They contrast this amount with the $200 billion that Qatar may spend to host the World Cup. There is hope for a radically different energy system, if we as a civilization are prepared to make the required investments.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2017/12/hope-fusion-and-the-future/

Nov 24

The secret deal in Raqqa

Destroyed neighborhood in Raqqa. By Mahmoud Bali (VOA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

By the summer of 2017, the city of Raqqa in eastern Syria was the last remaining stronghold of ISIL in the Middle East. The U.S. backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) launched a major attack on the city beginning in June. On October 17, 2017, these forces announced the fall of the city and the utter defeat of ISIL. The BBC, however, had reporters on the ground, who reported a shocking twist to the story of the city’s fall. Members of the attacking forces had cut a deal to allow hundreds -perhaps thousands- of fighters to escape from the city. In a video titled, “Fall of Raqqa: The secret deal,” the BBC reporters traced the convoy’s path as far as Turkey, where they interviewed smugglers who took ISIL members across the border. Amongst the people who escaped were many foreign fighters, who threaten their own country’s security when they return. France, in particular, seems to be a target. Read the rest of this entry »

Permanent link to this article: https://www.introtoglobalstudies.com/2017/11/the-secret-of-raqqa/

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