The world’s media is in love with both anniversaries and lists. When the first arrives, the temptation to reach for the second is irresistible. But how to do it? There are in principle many ways to “list-slice” openDemocracy’s decade, including its archive of over 6,000 articles (to name only these among our voluminous content).
What follows is one: a selection of ten favourite pieces since the inaugural article was published on 13 May 2001, with the additional self-limiting criterion that each comes from a different year across the decade.
Any such list is personal, and a few lines underneath the individual item suggest the reason for the choice. There is also an inevitable sense of regret at omitting many articles of intrinsic value and endearing place. But this too is in the nature of lists.
The nature of an anniversary for its part is that it provides an opportunity to recall the events that have occurred in the interim period - including its losses. Even in its brief life, openDemocracy has experienced its share of the sadness that comes with the death of contributors and friends: Paul Hirst, Arthur Helton, Reinhard Hesse, Anthony Sampson, Hrant Dink, Mai Ghoussoub, Fred Halliday, Edwin Morgan.
This first decade of the 21st century has seen many more deaths as a result of wars, conflicts and terrorist acts. Indeed, Arthur Helton, a distinguished scholar on issues of human refuge and displacement, was killed in the Baghdad bomb that targeted the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003; and Hrant Dink, a brave Armenian-Turkish journalist, was shot dead by an ultra-nationalist in Istanbul in January 2007.
If then I may invoke the right often claimed by list-maniacs and choose one additional item, it relates to another such moment when worlds “outside” and “inside” touched: a beautiful London summer morning in 2005 when a dull thud in the middle-distance, audible from the open balcony of our Clerkenwell office, turned out to be the Tavistock Square bus-bomb.
Global history was never so local, the wounds never so near, the human bonds - among us as colleagues, and in the messages from afar that began to pour in - so felt and palpable, as on that day. Isabel Hilton’s response, “Letter from wounded London” (7 July 2005), is as wise and true as on the day openDemocray’s then editor wrote it.
A path travelled is of its nature easier to trace than that of a path ahead. There is less room than ever in the media world for projects that live in the past or rest on their laurels. But that past, in all its complexity and contention, is also a resource and a foundation. If this small selection is a reminder of that, it likewise hints at the fact that - at least where openDemocracy is concerned - the dead poet is dead wrong. What will survive of us is work.
Malise Ruthven, "Born-again" Muslims: cultural schizophrenia (27 September 2001)
An early extended reflection on the deep background of the 9/11 attacks, in which the author employs profound learning to argue that this spectacular expression of “divine rage” was inspired by the collision between a particular interpretation of Islamic faith and disabling social experience. A subtle, detailed, calm, insightful survey of a topic so often treated (and occluded) by a partisan lens - in this sense a model, and chosen partly for that reason.
Paul Rogers, The coming war with Iraq (20 February 2002)
This is chosen as emblematic of Paul Rogers’s acute and informed judgment - and in this case prescience - that has to date been sustained over 500 columns since September 2001: an extraordinary achievement. A useful intellectual exercise is to consider: what would have happened if the world, and especially those with the power to make a difference, had listened to Paul Rogers? The question this article asks (“Is it too late?”) has many resonances today in relation to (for example) militarism and climate change, and Paul Rogers continues to pose it week by week. A true prophet - if he’ll forgive me for saying so...
Ann Pettifor, The coming first world debt crisis (31 August 2003)
“The reckless financial policies of leading western powers make it likely that the next seismic debt crisis will be in the United States”. Ann Pettifor, writing in 2003 - years before what she was to call the “debtonation” of 2007-08 - calls for serious efforts to regulate and balance the international economy. What would have happened if - but you know the rest...
Wei Jingsheng & Anne-Marie Slaughter, China's past, America's future? (26 July 2004)
This is chosen less for its content (absorbing though that is) or for its form (part of a project that during a United States election year sought to encourage dialogue between America and the world) than because Wei Jingsheng has since I first read about the Beijing “democracy wall” and the “fifth modernisation” in 1978 been my hero. Perhaps because he can be spiky, because he has “the courage to stand alone” in relation to his own side too - and because he is Chinese - Wei is routinely excluded from the honourable (if familiar) pantheon of international human-rights icons. None of that matters. The man who had the moral strength and mental will to write sardonic, didactic letters to Deng Xiaoping from a Chinese prison remains a great democratic figure.
Var Hong Ashe, Cambodia: surviving the Khmer Rouge (15 April 2005)
It is now thirty-six years since the Khmer Rouge’s terrible political experiment in Cambodia reached the capital, Phnom Penh. The four years that followed were one of the century’s largest and most gruesome episodes of genocide. Var Hong Ashe’s story of how she held on to her and her children’s life all the way through it is a moving example of the impressive body of Khmer “survivor literature”.
Fred Halliday, In time of war: reason amid rockets (10 August 2006)
Fred Halliday’s commitment to principles of universalism, solidarity, and rigorous independence of mind were tested by and exemplified during violent conflicts such as the Israel-Hizbollah war. In reaffirming them he draws on the moral example of two kindred spirits: Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt.
Mai Ghoussoub, Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award (13 February 2007)
A photo of four stylish young women in an open-topped car amid the rubble of war-torn Beirut provokes Mai Ghoussoub to reflect on the encounter of art, beauty and tragedy. A good essay on a visual image is always a delight, for it enhances the latter, attests to the gift of words, and reveals something of the writer’s heart as well as eye. Mai Ghoussoub’s meditation on a prizewinning photo takes the reader on a small journey through Beirut, war, photography, voyeurism, and herself. The essay has a special poignancy, for four days later Mai died with cruel suddenness; this is her last article.
Neal Ascherson, The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968 (1 February 2008)
Poland is the furnace of so much of Europe’s history. The spark of the student revolts of 1968 too was first ignited in Warsaw, and the big events that followed are a neglected episode in the political history of that tumultuous year. This brilliant article reminds me of a lovely review by Noel Malcolm of Neal Ascherson’s Black Sea, which begins by observing that anything by this writer on whatever subject - Basque archaeology, Javanese politics - would at some point find a Polish connection. He likened it to the menu in Monty Python’s “spam” sketch. I once recalled this to Isabel Hilton and she immediately trumped it with an even better story. Neal Ascherson and Poland - niech żyje!
Delwar Hussain, Life and death in the Bangladesh-India margins (13 January 2009)
A young boy is killed in the shadow of a security-fence separating his Bangladeshi village from neighbouring India. In visiting the area and quietly uncovering the story, Delwar Hussain reveals more about the border region, its people and the wider politics than many an official report or angry polemic. A beautiful piece of work, one of several from this fine young writer.
Khaled Hroub, The Palestinian vuvuzela (25 June 2010)
Palestinians’ vicarious yet passionate identification with the national teams in South Africa’s football world cup is witnessed by Khaled Hroub, who sees in it both local concerns and global longings. I love this article for the way it conveys the complex truths of reality and of people’s experience, which more political writers so often flatten in their effort to advance a cause. The paradox - which is not really one - is that such a “true” depiction, when achieved (and it is not easy, which is why we still need good writers, journalists and editors) can also be more genuinely radical, persuasive and potentially change-making than many activists’ formulae.
But neither an anniversary nor a list should end on an ungenerous note, so in conclusion:
To all my beloved authors, thank you for these ten years!