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By David Michael Newstead.
With the upcoming release of Marvel’s Black Panther, I sought out the most avid comic book reader I know to discuss action, adventure, and diversity on the pages of pop culture’s most important industry. And while her identity has been kept secret, she is undoubtedly on the side of truth and justice.
David Newstead: So, did you always like comic books?
The Amazing Amy #1: I didn’t. In fact, when I was really young I went through a phase where I didn’t like reading at all. Because I started reading very young, my parents assumed passion for reading would follow. I read the books required in for my grade school classes, but wasn’t interested in expanding past that. My interest in reading was sparked and nurtured by my interest in comic books.
David Newstead: Do you remember the first comic books you bought? What was that experience like?
The Amazing Amy #1: My very first comic book was an Archie comic. I know many comic readers don’t consider it a true comic, but it’s in the name, so hold off on scoffing! The first superhero comic series I really fell in love with was Volume 2 of the Amazing Spider-Man. I identified a lot with Spider-Man and Peter Parker. He was just a kid like me; most of the problems he encountered were of his own making; and, he was a nerd who got to prove his bullies wrong! I still have a special place in my heart for Spider-Man. I even confess to liking all the film versions. Okay, not Spider-Man 3. I have some standards.
David Newstead: What are some of your favorite titles and characters right now?
The Amazing Amy #1: I’m gearing up for Black Panther, so I’m rereading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther stories and Roxane Gay’s Women of Wakanda, which were both sadly cancelled. I also really love the Saga series by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples.
David Newstead: Did you always feel welcomed in comic book stores or in the comic book community?
The Amazing Amy #1: I think there’s a general mistrust of women’s interest in comics. I’ve certainly experienced gatekeeping in comics and sci-fi fandom, where guys I’ve known have doubted my love for comics. When I somehow prove my fandom to them, there’s this gross line that I would hear – “Well, you really like comics. Other girls just fake it.” I don’t personally understand what faking an appreciation for comics would look like, why someone would do that, or why those guys care, but the mindset sadly persists. I do think the attitude towards women comic readers has improved in recent years, but I do not think that attitude has extended towards people of color or LGBTQ comic readers.
David Newstead: If I remember correctly, you frequent Fantom Comics in Washington DC, which seems to really lead the way in being welcoming and inclusive. What do you like about Fantom Comics? And what distinguishes them from other comic book stores in your experience?
The Amazing Amy #1: I do like Fantom Comics. I think they excel at giving personalized recommendations and they have a lot of really fun events. They’ve introduced me to some of my favorite comics including Saga. I will admit that I do get most of my comics from the DC Public Library though. If I didn’t, my reading and comic book reading habit wouldn’t be financially sustainable!
David Newstead: To kind of build off of your point about diversity in readership, I’m curious about your view on this. Should existing characters be adapted to reflect greater diversity and inclusion like Iron Man becoming Iron Heart? Or should we create brand new characters entirely?
The Amazing Amy #1: Both! Before Tom Holland was cast in the newest Spider-Man film franchise, I remember discussion about whether the film should center Peter Parker or Miles Morales. The main interest that I saw on the internet around choosing Miles Morales was so that Spider-Man could be played by a black actor in the film. But guess what, Peter Parker can be black! Obviously, a white guy was chosen for the reboot of Spider-Man, just like he was for the other two film series in the last couple decades. We should keep in mind though that it is possible for future reboots. And diversity is coming through in some other ways: open confirmation that Diana Prince is bisexual, diverse casting for secondary comic characters like in CW’s the Flash and Spider-Man: Homecoming. The cancellation of World of Wakanda after only two issues was very disappointing, and it doesn’t indicate that Marvel is committed to diversity in its creators or characters. Hopefully the success of on-screen formats like Black Panther and CW’s Black Lightning (with a black lesbian superhero!) contribute to more inclusion in the comics industry.
David Newstead: I guess I didn’t think about it much, but Marvel’s Nick Fury (portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson) was recast from a white guy with an eyepatch to a black guy with an eyepatch and no one seemed to care. That said, diversity in comic books typically attracts attention from people who have a problem with diversity in general. For example, last year one Marvel executive caused a controversy by blaming the company’s declining sales on their increasingly diverse line-up of heroes. Any thoughts on that sentiment?
The Amazing Amy #1: I think there is less concern for secondary characters being recast as a person of color. But, in both cases I mention above, there was a backlash from some fans. I think the difference we’re seeing is a reaction because a character is the hero’s love interest, as is the case for Iris West and MJ.
“Caused a controversy” is one way to put it. A corner (albeit small) of the internet practically exploded. I almost don’t want to address it because it’s such a ridiculous argument. But, sure, I’ll engage. I think people have lost interest in comics in the last several years, in part, because they didn’t feel welcomed or included in the comics world. I also think you need to give new characters, new authors, and new stories some time to breathe. People need time to discover and fall in love with characters and their worlds. One benefit of expanding the pool of voices in comic creation and on the page is that it brings new audiences, but it is a slow process. Change happens at a snail’s pace for DC and Marvel, so if you can’t wait indie comics have much more diversity!
David Newstead: The stereotype of comic book characters (and comic book fans for that matter) is that they are basically all white and male. That’s started to change for the better and I’m curious what you think the significance of these changes are for American culture as a whole?
The Amazing Amy #1: That stereotype exists around so much of pop culture and I think it has been harmful. Straight white male fandom can sometimes lead to gatekeeping and the growing awareness that the fandom doesn’t all think/look the same way is leading to great strides in pop culture. Whenever the stereotype gets particularly frustrating, I remember that the first sci-fi novel was written by a woman. Thanks, Mary Shelley!
David Newstead: So, why do comic books matter to you?
The Amazing Amy #1: Comic books helped me fall in love with books in general. I’m now a voracious reader, and comics opened my eyes to how reading could bring worlds to life and give me new perspectives. Who doesn’t want to imagine themselves as a member of the Dora Milaje or as Kal-El? Comics let you do that.
David Newstead: Final question… Are you going to see Black Panther on Friday? And if you could select the next superhero blockbuster, what would you pick?
The Amazing Amy #1: Of course I’m going to see Black Panther! And my choice would be—Ms. Marvel. There’s nothing quite as fun as a teen superhero.
In our next thrilling issue, the Amazing Amy battles against the diabolical villainy of the world’s most evil organization – The Patriarchy!
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By David Michael Newstead.
With digital technology becoming more a part of our daily lives, The Revenge of Analog stands out for drawing attention to the limits of that trend. Author David Sax highlights the resurgence of some analog industries that were close to disappearing as technology continues to disrupt our economy. Yet in recent years, things like vinyl records, board games, and film photography have enjoyed renewed popularity despite the fact that there are now cheaper, more widely available digital alternatives. What exactly is behind this phenomenon? To find out more, I spoke with David Sax about his book, about analog versus digital, and its impact on everything from retail to cybersecurity. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: So, I live in Washington D.C. and since I’ve read your book I realized two stores near me now sell vinyl records. There’s apparently a vinyl section in Best Buy. And there’s a cool cafe in Adams Morgan called Songbyrd that has a growing vinyl selection. Just because your chapter on vinyl was my favorite part of the book, I’m curious where you think the Vinyl Revival will go from here?
David Sax: I mean, I think it’s just going to keep growing. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be like it was in the 1970s or 1980s, but it’s shown no sign of slowing down. I think, in fact, more people are buying turntables. The only thing you can really do with a turntable is play records on it. And right now, demand is outstripping supply in the business. Obviously, it’ll level off at some point. It’s not as though the number of people who are listening to records is going to grow beyond a certain amount of the population. But right now, it’s still a relatively small part that’s been growing over the past ten years. So, I don’t foresee it contracting in any way for a while. But I think it’ll just reach a stable point where record stores are going to exist and there are going to be different record stores for different tastes. It will be a healthy part of the music business, which will still be dominated by streaming. But you know, it’ll exist in its own kind of way as its doing now. In fact, it’s still showing growth, which is to me really interesting.
David Newstead: There seems to be this common thread in your work focusing on culturally significant spaces. In The Revenge of Analog, for instance, you really emphasize record stores. And in your last book, Save the Deli, you talk about your love of Jewish delicatessens and their decline in recent years. Why do you think it’s important to preserve cultural spaces like these? And what do you think those places have to offer to people today?
David Sax: At the heart of it, we have this simplified notion of progress, which is that we move forward and onward and we discard what’s old and pick up what’s new and that’s the best. And the reality is that progress has many different faces. And sometimes, progress means re-evaluating what we thought we moved beyond and ascribing a new value to it.
So, you know with the deli book and with food in general you see this great example of that with like artisan sour dough bread. There’s that place in D.C., that tremendous bakery up by American University – Bread Furst. You know a place like that wouldn’t have existed fifty years ago. Everyone would have focused on the progress that we’ve made in processed bread like Wonder Bread as the pinnacle of baking. And then suddenly, we’ve come back to it where there’s artisan bakeries and craft beers and these sorts of things proliferating again, because we realized that for all the progress we’ve made in highly-processed and inexpensive food we missed something. And that was an experience, the flavor, things that the older, more archaic way of doing something gave us. And I think that’s the same with various types of food and it’s the same with different types of culture, right? I think it was only by almost closing down the record industry and having vinyl record stores almost completely disappear and book stores as well that we were finally able to ascertain what their true value was. And then, realize it was something we actually wanted and were willing to pay for in order to keep alive.
It’s that same thing: the experience of it. Is it more efficient to get your music on Spotify or Apple Music? Of course! It’s cheaper. It’s just a few taps with your finger. You don’t have to physically store anything. You don’t have to go anywhere. But in doing that, you’re sacrificing a lot of the pleasure around physical music and vinyl. It’s that same thing – the quality of the experience – more even than the quality of the sound. It’s the place that these things have in our community. You know we could do all our shopping online, but then what kind of neighborhood do you live in if it doesn’t have any stores or anywhere to go? So, I think that’s what really links these things together.
David Newstead: Just to kind of riff on that. There was a NPR piece a year or so ago and it was about cooking during the Great Depression era. And the reason it was interesting to me is that there are some things that I don’t consider of any significance that were really innovative for their time. Like eating canned food was once considered super exciting to people and new and modern. And one thing that occurred to me from reading your book is once something stops being new, it takes on a different meaning in our culture.
David Sax: I think we ascribe them a different value, right, because they’re no longer competing. No one is comparing peas from the farmer’s market to frozen peas from the super market. No one is comparing those, because those are totally different experiences now. You know what one is. You have the option to have both. Sometimes, you have some in the freezer and some you buy fresh. And I think it’s the same thing with a lot of this analog culture. It’s not an either/or thing. It’s both. So, people will have a Kindle and they’ll download certain books, but other books they want to buy from a store. It’s the same with music. There’s a lot of music that I just listen to on my phone when I’m walking around, but other stuff that I would want to buy on a record. But I can’t buy everything on vinyl and I don’t necessarily want to. It is the same thing with analog culture, right? It’s not a question of one or the other. It’s a question of creating that balance and having both.
David Newstead: The vinyl stores I mentioned earlier, you know I looked over the selection and a lot of them weren’t new albums. A lot of them were socially significant albums from the history of music. Like stuff you would want to own! The Beatles’ White album and things like that. Whereas whatever the hit pop single right now is, would people really want to own that on vinyl? Probably not. Maybe.
David Newstead: Shifting gears to your chapter on retail, one thing I wanted to ask you about that’s been in the news over the last year is the Retail Apocalypse. I’ll just use my area as an example. All the chain bookstores around me have closed down. And not only have they closed down, it’s as if they were never there and no one gives a shit. Meanwhile, there are numerous independent bookstores around the city that have lots of events going on and people really like them. Plus, everyone I know orders off of Amazon. So, I want to get your perspective on this change that’s going on not just in terms of books. Over the last year, there has been this decline in retail, but it’s almost like a decline of a certain kind of retail.
David Sax: I think that’s it, right? In the age of Amazon when you can buy anything you want with a click generally at a lower price than you could find at a brick-and-mortar, what justifies a retailer existing? What allows them to be competitive? Well, it’s no longer price and selection. The internet has infinite selection and you can always find the best price. Amazon, the dominant retailer, is willing to sacrifice price for anything. They don’t care, because they have so much more money and stock options. They’ve subsidized their prices. So, what allows a place like East City Bookshop in Capital Hill or Kramer Books or Politics and Prose to compete and actually make money and grow in a market that Amazon really owns? It’s not price. It’s not infinite selection. It’s a sense of place. It’s a reason to be there. It’s events and community. It’s a limited selection that’s been chosen by people that have knowledge and taste. It’s not a mathematical formula.
I think you see that there are lots of retailers that are doing poorly and closing down. But are we really saying that K-Mart and Sears and JC Penney are the pinnacle examples of intelligent and forward thinking retailers out there? No! I mean, we’re talking about the worst examples of what retail can be. And there are plenty of bright spots in retail that are actually doing well, because they are doing something that the internet cannot. And I think that’s going to continue. There are many things that people will buy and many reasons people will buy only for price and selection. If you’re competing in the realm, then you need to offer something else, because it’s going to be increasingly difficult to beat the internet on that. And I think those that do will survive and thrive. Look at Kramer Books. It’s such a great store, that place. It is packed. It is chaotic. It is everything you want in a bookstore, because it’s so visceral. So real.
David Newstead: You mentioned some good ones earlier. I would say Busboys and Poets is another great example. But like, all the most successful bookstores I know about in D.C. are all more than just bookstores. Meaning that they’re also probably bars and restaurants at the same time as well as venues for different kinds of events, etc. So, they’ve cobbled together all these cool aspects of having a physical location, which I assume strengthens and diversifies their business.
David Sax: Have you been to East City Bookshop in Capital Hill? That’s a great one. That’s one of the newer ones in town too. It’s this new, beautiful, independently run place. It’s really great.
David Newstead: I haven’t been to that one yet, but I’ll definitely check it out! Aside from books though, one thing that’s been interesting to me is watching stores like Dollar General and similar chains rapidly expanding nationwide. Meanwhile, stores like Sears and Macy’s are suffering.
David Sax: A lot of stuff that’s closing is stuff that’s in malls that were developed in areas that were assumed to be much bigger than they are. And post-recession, those areas are highly underpopulated. The Retail Apocalypse is the convenient scapegoat for a lot of different things, but the reality is that brick-and-mortar is still where it’s at. It’s like when some restaurants are closing down, they could blame it on the prices, the wages, and the labor. But that doesn’t seem to stop their competitors from doing well.
Again, it’s the type of thing where people assume an extreme example. They believe it’s going to be either/or, because that’s the kind of choice that digital makes us think of. Like it’s an A or B choice. It’s Apple or Samsung. It’s Windows or iOS. The reality is, the world isn’t that simple. It’s not a question of if it’s only going to be stores or only going to be online retail. It’s going to be a mixture. You know, the reason that Amazon is opening physical locations is that as much of the consumer dollar as they’re getting they’re still only getting a fraction of it, because there’s only so much shopping people can and will do online. There’s all sorts of other reasons that people like to go to stores and why they buy things in stores. And no matter how good the technology gets it can’t compensate for that.
David Newstead: To that point, do you think part of the reason people have gravitated towards digital is just because of advertising essentially? When I was reading your chapter on education technology, for instance, that was something that stuck out to me. Because something is new and “the best”, does that sales pitch pretty much account for the hype around it?
David Sax: Oh yeah, I think so. Everybody likes things that are new and novel. That’s what sells. And over the past decade plus, these companies (Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google) have seen such tremendous financial success that it’s inevitable that people envy that and want to get a bit of that glitter. I think there is also conversely then a fear of missing out. It’s not just a cultural fear about missing out on what’s going on social media today. It’s a very real economic one. For example: “If our school doesn’t get these students computer literate then they’re going to miss out, because the Chinese are coming and they’re going to be so much better.” And that’s often to the exclusion of the real evidence that’s showing that that may not be the truth or maybe it’s more complicated. Again, it’s subscribing to a very simplistic notion of the role technology has and what exactly the benefit is. So again, often to the ignorance of what the evidence may show or what the reality is.
David Newstead: I talked to a couple friends about this and they’ve had similar experiences. The only time I’ve only seen a LaserDisc player was one that was sold to elementary school years ago. I just remember this giant CD and we maybe only used it twice, but all these school districts around the country got convinced to buy them. And that trend continues, I guess.
David Sax: It’s an easy sell: the new thing. It’s a much simpler sales pitch especially because something is maybe an unknown. So, you are selling someone on the promise of something fantastical and wonderful. And easy too! You just pop in that disc and this will take care of all your problems. And again, it ignores the complexity of what the real world is. But it’s no different than a company being sold some sort of new software and saying this is going to cure the ills of what they’re trying to achieve. You know the real problems are more complicated. They can’t just be solved with software with the snap of a finger. But we like simple answers and we often delude ourselves.
David Newstead: So, I hope this question isn’t overly speculative. But society is entering uncharted territory now in terms of the Internet of Things, virtual reality, and debates about voting online, etc. All of those have tons of implications. And in your view, what do you think should strictly be kept analog?
David Sax: Oh, good question. We’re talking about issues of cybersecurity. Let’s just acknowledge the fact that the term is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as cybersecurity, right? If it is built and digitized, it can be broken into. And yes, of course, even Fort Knox can be broken into, but no one has actually broken into it before. It requires a greater degree of resources and daring and manpower to do it. So, I think we’re often readily sacrificing the security of what we’re doing strictly because of the promise of ease and making things better or greater. With elections, whether it’s our fears of seeing an election stolen at the ballot box or whether it’s something more subtle like what happened with the Russian meddling in the U.S. election, these things have consequences. To me, it’s not whether one should or shouldn’t.
I think this is the same thing with debate on education, right? It’s not a question of whether all education must relocate to digital technology in schools or whatever. I don’t think anyone is arguing that view. But I think before you adopt something and digitize some process whether you’re talking about elections or the power grid, there needs to be an actual discussion and a very objective evaluation of what the cost and benefit is. And I think for too long we’ve just seen digitization as a pure benefit. “Oh, this is great. It’s going to be easier and better and cheaper. Blah blah blah. Let’s do it. You don’t want to be a luddite. Don’t stand in the way.” But the reality isn’t that simple. I think there’s a process that actually needs to happen so we learn from our mistakes, I hope.
David Newstead: At least with the Internet of Things, I say this half-joking, but I’m waiting for the day when Russian hackers have taken control of my refrigerator and Chinese hackers are holding my garage door hostage. And I can’t watch Netflix right now, because of the North Koreans.
David Sax: Well, remember what happened with that stupid North Korean movie that James Franco made? Sony was hacked and the movie was brought down. It is happening. The Russians hacked the power grid of the Ukraine. So, these things are very real possibilities. Again, they are being downplayed or in many ways ignored, because of the supposed benefits of automating things. But yeah, I think it will take some sort of catastrophic event just like what’s happened with social media in the election to have a reckoning of sorts and start really having that discussion in a concerted way.
David Newstead: With the Sony hack, I remember wondering at the time what level of effort a dictator would have to go to years earlier to do that? Like sending secret agents across oceans to steal film reels and breaking into file cabinets. It would’ve been a ton of work!
David Sax: I mean if you saw the movie, they did the world a favor, because it’s such a terrible film. Haha.
David Newstead: At the time, I wasn’t going to see it and then the whole news story got wrapped up with other stuff and it was like “Well because I value a free society, I guess I have to watch this…”
David Sax: Oh yeah, you’re a patriot! You’re a true patriot for watching that. Haha.
David Newstead: As a closing question, do you feel like you’ve struck a good balance in your own life in terms of balancing the digital and the analog and just your relationship to technology in general? Where do you come down on that?
David Sax: I do my best. I think there are times when I’m really good at it. I’m very good on a weekend with just turning my phone off. I was on vacation the past couple weeks and turned my phone off for days at a time. Or if I had it on, I would check it like once a day just to make sure nothing was there. And that’s good. But then when it’s on, I was checking it every few minutes when my kids were home sick yesterday, because I had to see whether something was happening. And you know, I was ignoring them when they needed me and it’s a shitty feeling to have and we’re all susceptible to it. So, I think it’s the type of thing that takes a concerted effort. You really have to kind of retrain yourself. It just doesn’t happen naturally. And it’s something that I strive to do more. And also still keep an open mind about the potential benefits of digital technology, because it’s not all bad. It’s not all evil. I have a tendency to see it that way just because of the view I’ve taken. So, it’s a hard thing, but it’s that idea of not seeing it as binary.
By David Michael Newstead.
Ernest Harsch’s latest book is a political history of Burkina Faso from the colonial era up to the present. It’s marked by dramatic events and missed opportunities that could serve as a microcosm for a story replicated across Africa. Indeed, the book follows a country born from arbitrary borders, exploited by foreign powers, and upon independence left to deal with the legacy and political scaffolding of a repressive, unaccountable government. But in vivid detail, Harsch describes the tradition of rebellion that has changed the course of this landlocked country’s history again and again. In the introduction, he writes:
For more than a quarter-century Burkina Faso’s legislature sat prominently at the heart of the capital, Ouagadougou, a representation of dominance by the country’s ruling elites. But now the walls of the former National Assembly are soot-blackened, its window shattered, and the skeleton of a fire-gutted vehicle sits just inside the main gate. The charred ruins were left by angry demonstrators who sacked and burned the building in a popular insurrection that ousted an autocratic president, Blaise Compaoré, during the last two days of October 2014. Although elections were held a year later, the new legislators met elsewhere in temporary quarters, with no plans to restore the former seat of parliament. Rather, they chose to transform it into a museum and monument, a lasting reminder to future generations that the insurgent action of ordinary citizens – their “transformative violence,” as the official museum agreement termed it – can oblige rulers to respect “the sovereign people’s will, democracy, and freedom.”
Like many others, the people of Burkina Faso embrace their historical symbols. Almost a century before the October 2014 insurrection, in 1915-16, there was an anti-colonial uprising by the peoples of the west, bloodily suppressed by French forces. There was also a January 1966 outpouring in Ouagadougou that brought down the nation’s first president, followed by an August 1983 takeover by a revolutionary alliance led by Thomas Sankara. The contemporary name of the country, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), and its people, Burkinabé, date from that revolutionary era. Many local political thinkers and activists cite this heritage of revolt in explaining the Burkinabé people’s readiness to challenge oppressive authority.
Today, Ernest Harsch joins me to discuss his book and African politics past and present as other countries on the continent continue to grapple with entrenched rulers of their own. In light of that fact, Burkina Faso provides a notable success story worth examining.
David Newstead: First, do former leaders like President Yameogo or General Lamizana have any contemporary significance in Burkina Faso? Or are the days of “Upper Volta” now considered ancient history?
Ernest Harsch: Neither have much contemporary significance, except perhaps among an older generation. That said, Burkinabè tend to recall Lamizana somewhat more fondly than any of the other presidents before Sankara, in part because he lived a modest life, did not engage in wholesale corruption and his regime was only moderately repressive. By contrast, many revile Yaméogo for his authoritarianism and corruption. The anniversary of the popular uprising that brought his downfall is in fact still celebrated as a national holiday.
As for the days of Upper Volta, most Burkinabè who think about their history would probably see elements of both continuity and rupture. The changes brought about by Sankara’s revolution were profound, but some were undone during the Compaoré era, including a reversion to some of the practices of the 1960s and 1970s, including patronage politics and reliance on rural chiefs to keep villagers in line.
David Newstead: Revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara is often labelled Africa’s Che Guevara. I understand the comparison because both of them are Marxist revolutionaries who wore berets. But just to scrutinize this characterization a little, wasn’t Sankara much less controversial than Che?
Ernest Harsch: Both had some controversial aspects, but admirers tend to focus on their positive legacies. In Burkina Faso, for obvious reasons, people know a lot more about Sankara, while Che is largely a distant image seen on T-shirts. In Latin America, Che is clearly much more of a hero, and Sankara little known.
David Newstead: Related to that, I’ve heard mention of a supportive relationship between Thomas Sankara and Cuban President Fidel Castro who was involved in Africa in a number of ways. Can you expand on what that connection was like?
Ernest Harsch: The close relations between Sankara and Castro were a matter of public record. When Sankara was briefly prime minister in an earlier government, he specifically sought out Castro during a Non-Aligned Movement summit in New Delhi. Then after he became president he visited Cuba twice and again met with Castro. Sankara repeatedly praised the Cuban revolution, and in discussions with me made a point of the Cuban government’s efforts to ensure that services reached the most remote rural residents, not just people in the cities. Castro in turn admired Sankara’s role in Burkina Faso and in Africa more widely, and sent assistance to Burkina Faso in a variety of fields, including health, agriculture, education, and stock raising.
David Newstead: So, how did Sankara’s Marxism actually influence his policies?
Ernest Harsch: Sankara was a Marxist, and proudly so. Few of the policies of his government could be considered specifically Marxist, however. Sankara pointed out that Burkina Faso was such a poor and underdeveloped country, with little industry and a tiny working class, that the process there could not be compared with the Russian Revolution, for example. In Marxist terms, the tasks facing Sankara and his fellow revolutionaries were essentially democratic, in the sense of expanding opportunities for everyone, especially among the poor, combating the dominance of the old political and social elites, building a somewhat unified nation-state and achieving genuine national independence (from France and other Western powers). Some of those policies had a lasting impact, while others have since been eroded.
David Newstead: Is nation-building really the enduring success of this revolutionary era? In the book, you talk about how Burkina Faso’s national identity really came together during the Sankara years even among his critics.
Ernest Harsch: The revolutionary era under Sankara marked a major surge in efforts to build a stronger, more cohesive national identity. There was the symbolism of renaming the country from Upper Volta—the French colonial designation—to Burkina Faso, which means “Land of the Upright People” from words in two different African languages. Almost no one, even among politically conservative critics of Sankara, has suggested going back to “Upper Volta.” They are too proud of their identity as Burkinabè. In social terms, that identity also acknowledges all the country’s language, ethnic and religious groups. In the past, the Mossi, whose chiefs were favored by the colonial authorities and who comprise nearly half the population, were generally seen as dominant. Now there is great inclusiveness, with careful attention to ensuring that members of all ethnic groups are represented in government, politics, business and the professions. It is not perfect, of course, and some strains do exist, but the progress in forging a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-confessional identity has served to help minimize the kind of conflicts that plague a number of Burkina Faso’s neighbors.
David Newstead: Thomas Sankara’s assassination in 1987 is now being investigated along with other human rights abuses in the aftermath of Blaise Compaoré’s fall from power in 2014. How do you think this trial is progressing? And what do you think the verdict will be?
Ernest Harsch: The formal judicial procedures only began in 2015, long after Sankara’s death. About a dozen individuals have been charged, including Compaoré, who is in exile in Côte d’Ivoire, and General Diendéré, who has been in custody since his failed coup attempt in September 2015. It is hard to know how long the process will take. There is considerable public impatience to finally see justice—in the cases of Sankara, journalist Norbert Zongo, and others—but the investigators and prosecutors seem to be treading carefully. It is likely that there will be a number of guilty verdicts, although the lead suspect (Compaoré) may not actually serve his sentence, since the Ivorian government will not likely accede to Burkina Faso’s request for extradition.
David Newstead: Do you think the killings of political figures like Major Lingani and Captain Henri Zongo warrant investigation as well? And is there much interest in these men nowadays?
Ernest Harsch: Lingani and Zongo played important historic roles in Sankara’s revolution. Although they sided with Compaoré during his rift with Sankara, they do not appear to have played any direct role in Compaoré’s 1987 coup. Compaoré clearly didn’t trust them, and his security chief, Gilbert Diendéré, fabricated a coup plot in 1989 to justify their summary execution. Although their names later came up from time to time in discussions of the Compaoré regime’s political crimes, they didn’t elicit the same kind of passions as the cases of Sankara or Norbert Zongo, for example. Since Compaoré’s overthrow, a High Council for Reconciliation and National Unity has been set up to look into more than 5,000 cases of unresolved economic and “blood” crimes—including the killings of Lingani and Zongo.
David Newstead: What do you think is behind Thomas Sankara’s enduring appeal to young people thirty years after his death?
Ernest Harsch: Sankara’s appeal rests above all on his revolutionary and pan-African ideas, which resonate with young people in Burkina Faso and across Africa. And because he actively tried to put them into practice during his brief time in power—and provided a personal example of honesty and modesty—it became obvious that Sankara was a strikingly different kind of leader than so many corrupt despots in Africa and the rest of the world. Most immediately within Burkina Faso, he provided such a stark contrast with Compaoré that many people across the political spectrum have now come to accept Sankara as a genuine national hero.
David Newstead: You mention that activists from Burkina Faso’s 2014 revolution are now training democratic activists in other African countries. Do you see the effects of that in what’s currently going on in Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo or what just took place in Zimbabwe for instance?
Ernest Harsch: I would not say that Burkinabè activists are “training” their counterparts elsewhere. It’s not a question of imparting specific skills. Rather they are extending solidarity, sharing their experiences, explaining how they had some success at home, and leaving it to activists from other countries to decide what lessons, if any, may be of use in their own struggles. Overall, it seems obvious that the ouster of Compaoré has been an inspiration to democratic activists across Africa.
David Newstead: Turning to overthrown leaders like Blaise Compaoré, Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia, and Robert Mugabe, it seems like former African dictators are now able to successfully leverage their decades in power into lucrative exit packages and near immunity from prosecution if they just agree to leave office. Is that really progress or a dangerous precedent?
Ernest Harsch: Despite the broad shift toward multi-party electoral systems in Africa in the 1990s, far too many presidents were able to build dominant political parties and patronage systems that left little room for genuine opposition and dissent. More recently, as shown by the downfalls of Compaoré and several others, such rulers are not omnipotent and can be ousted, whether by popular revolt, electoral defeat or rifts within the ruling elites themselves. In part, that may reflect the growing power of ordinary citizens, who are getting better organized and more apt to express themselves in the streets. To that extent, the trend represents some progress. But insofar as entrenched political elites are still able to hang on—perhaps by pushing aside an aging president to defuse popular anger—then clearly much more work needs to be done at the grassroots, to build citizens’ confidence and capacities.
David Newstead: In your view, did Burkina Faso start an African Spring? And are we entering a new era for governing in Africa?
Ernest Harsch: Burkina Faso did not start anything. Struggles for freedom and rights have been ongoing across Africa for decades, with ups and downs over time and in both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. The popular uprisings of 2010-11 that brought down the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt inspired people across the continent, and many activists in sub-Saharan Africa hoped that revolts similar to the Arab Spring might arise in their own countries. There were popular movements in many African countries, but so far only in Burkina Faso did they succeed in directly overthrowing a sitting president. Whether or not other countries eventually follow a similar pattern, the important development is that ordinary African citizens are less and less willing to accept corrupt, repressive or incompetent leaders who do little but line their own pockets while carrying out the dictates of Africa’s former colonial masters. Sooner or later, those movements from below will usher in a “new era” of governing. Burkinabè are proud of their contribution to that overall process.