As James Verini notes in his dispatch from Nairobi this weekend, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta are the frontrunners in Kenya's closely watched presidential election on Monday. But one other candidate has been garnering the lion's share of the laughs, if not actual votes. After the last election sparked ethnic violence that left more than 1,000 people dead -- and with one of the top two candidates facing a trial for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court -- Kenyans could use a smile or two. Cue Mohammed Abduba Dida. As one Twitter user exclaimed ahead of the country's second presidential debate last Monday:
A teacher by trade, Dida has three wives, stringent morals, and effervescent charm. He comes across as a political outsider who is truly interested in improving the lives of Kenyans, and the Internet adores him. Too bad nobody will ever vote for him.
At times Dida seems sensible enough. During the second debate, for instance, the candidate pointed out the futility of asking corrupt officials to comment on their underhanded dealings. Tweets during the event said it all:
But at other times things have gone a bit off-kilter. Dida's eccentricities have inspired memes and a parody Twitter account, and his name dominated live-tweeting of the first presidential debate. In promoting preventative health care during that debate, for instance, he argued that people should eat when they are hungry if they want to be healthy. "I do not know who brought these eating schedules with lunch and dinner," he observed. "When you are hungry you do not fill up your belly with food; you need a third of food, a third of water then the other third is breathing space." Check out this coverage of the sensation Dida created in the wake of the first debate:
Dida speaks to Kenyans who are dissatisfied with rampant corruption and inequality. Unlike Kenyan politicians, the candidate points out, "Jesus would not drive home with a convoy of six cars when it's raining on innocent Kenyans on the streets," so when he becomes president neither will he. Unfortunately, there's very little chance of that happening.
At a hearing yesterday, Pfc. Bradley Manning took full responsibility for leaking the documents that came to be known as the Afghan and Iraq war logs and the "Cablegate" archive of classified diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. Given the fate that likely awaits Manning, it's a bit hard not be struck and saddened by his statement that he leaked the documents in order to “spark a domestic debate of the role of the military and foreign policy in general” and “cause society to reevaluate the need and even desire to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore their effect on people who live in that environment every day.”
Whatever the impact of Wikileaks documents, it would be hard to argue they had a major impact on the foreign-policy attitudes of the American public, or even provided much new information that might cause readers to revise their attitudes.
But two years after the Cablegate leak, there is one legacy of Wikileaks that confronts us nearly every day: the cables have become one of the vital tools of international journalism. Nearly every day, newspaper, wire service, and magazine dispatches from around the world feature theremarkable but no longer unusual phrase, " according to classified State Department cables released by WikiLeaks."
Here are just a few examples from a quick Nexis search of recent coverage:
Often allegations made in Wikileaks cables are used by reporters as a kind of shorthand for situations where a foreign official is widely believed to be corrupt but there's little publicly available factual data to back up the claim.
Ironically, given the political goals of Wikileaks, the use of the cables by reporters often gives U.S. officials the final say on which foreign officials are bad guys.
But on the other hand, if the ultimate goal was to introduce a bit more transparency to international politics, Manning's actions have to be considered at least partially successful.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
In an upcoming documentary about the life and legacy of Dick Cheney previewed by Foreign Policy, the former vice president lashes out at former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Brooding over one issue specifically, Cheney criticizes his former colleague for overriding his recommendation to bomb a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.
thought [destroying the reactor] would reassert the kind of authority and
influence we had back in '03 when we took down Saddam Hussein and eliminated
Iraq as a potential source of WMD," Cheney says in the film, The World
According to Dick Cheney. "Condi was on the wrong side of all those issues so we had
Back in 2007, the Bush administration received intelligence that Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor with the help of North Korea. Ultimately, the White House declined to hit the facility to the dismay of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In the film, Cheney criticizes Rice for advocating against a unilateral strike.
"Condi recommended taking it to the United Nations. I strongly recommended that we ought to take [the reactor] out," he said.
When reached for comment, Rice told FP that refusing to bomb the reactor was the right decision at that point in time. "The situation turned out exactly how it should have," she said.
In an e-mail exchange, Rice's chief of staff, Georgia Godfrey, added that U.S. intelligence officials were not 100 percent certain the Syrians were housing a nuclear reactor, and that the Israeli government dealt with the threat anyway. (In 2011, a U.N. investigation found that Syria "very likely" was working on a nuclear reactor prior to the Israeli bombing of the facility as part of its so-called Operation Orchard in September 2007.)
Regardless, Cheney appears on camera saying the United States had an opportunity to communicate an important message, and Rice got in the way. "There are certain bright lines out there and you do not cross them and one of those bright lines is you do not provide nuclear technology to terror-sponsoring states," he says. "You don't want Syria to have that kind of capability that they might be able to pass on to Hamas or Hezbollah or al Qaeda."
This is the second time Cheney has singled out Rice, a rumored 2016 presidential candidate, for criticism since leaving office. In his 2011 memoir In My Times, Cheney called the former diplomat "naive" for her attempts to negotiate with North Korea and said she once "tearfully admitted" her mistakes to him in his office. At the time, Rice fired back, saying, "I would never - I don't remember coming to the vice president tearfully about anything in the entire eight years that I knew him."
The film, directed by R.J. Cutler of The War Room and The September Issue acclaim, debuts on Showtime March 15.
Dennis Rodman, the retired Chicago Bulls star, rabble-rouser, and all-around weird guy got the red-carpet treatment on his bizarre trip to North Korea, improbably becoming perhaps the highest-profile American to meet with new leader Kim Jong Un, apparently a big roundball fan.
Vice, the magazine that sponsored this fantastic voyage, has already written up a brief and possibly drunken account of an exhibition game played by a couple Harlem Globetrotters and some North Korean stars, noting, "Following the game, Rodman gave a stirring speech that extended an olive branch to the Hermit Kingdom. The VICE crew is currently having a reception at the Supreme Leader's house, and Duffy has invited Kim Jung-un to America for a tour of the VICE offices."
And now, the North Korean state press has weighed in. Here are some shots from Rodong Sinmun, better known for its grandiloquent denunciations of U.S. imperialism and threats to turn Seoul into a sea of fire. It seems a good time was had by all:
According to the Washington Post's Chico Harlan, the headline reads, "Roughly, the great KJU watched a basketball game of mixed teams and then met former NBA star(s)." And the account says, "Rodman went up to the auditorium to bow to Kim Jong Un. Warmly welcoming him, Kim Jong Un let him sit next to him. ... The players and audience broke into thunderous cheers, greatly excited to see the game together with Kim Jong Un."
At the reception, it looks like Rodman, ever the clothes horse, embraced the crowd's uniform attire of black with pink accents (and is that a Cosmo to match the Worm's scarf?).
Interestingly, North Korea watcher Adam Cathcart notes, seated two seats away from Rodman in the top photo is Kim Gye-gwan, North Korea's top nuclear negotiator. What that portends is anyone's guess.
Economic arguments have a particular resonance during periods of sluggish growth, and that logic even seems to extend these days to the hot-button issue of abortion. In Switzerland, a new, very literally named initiative --"Protect life to remedy the loss of billions" - is calling for a referendum to ban abortion in the country for economic reasons. The initiative committe is led by politician Heinz Hürzeler, a member of the country's Social Liberal Movement, and maintains that in Switzerland, where 12 percent of pregnancies end in abortion, the practice represents a huge blow to the economy (comparatively speaking, Switzerland has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, with only 6.4 abortions for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44). As AFP reports:
It calculates that if the more than 100,000 foetuses aborted in Switzerland over the past decade had been born, grown up and worked for 45 years, they would have contributed nearly 334 billion Swiss francs ($359 billion, 274 billion euros) to the country's GDP.
And, as consumers, the same 100,000 people would over 80 years pump more than 324 billion francs into the country's economy, it says.
Economic arguments abound in favor of abortion (and contraception more generally), and they tend to focus on the burden and welfare demands posed by unsupported children on both the individual and societal levels. Freakonomics has even weighed in on the debate, linking abortion to decreased crime rates in places like Romania, Canada, and Australia.
Perhaps less well known are the economic arguments for banning the practice. Like the Swiss initiative, these tend to rely on what pro-life author Larry Burkett has called "the George Bailey Affect" after the main character in It's a Wonderful Life: How the world would look, if, for each abortion, we substituted a consumer child who would grow up to become a productive member of society.
As for the campaign in Switzerland, the initiative has until August 2014 to garner 100,000 signatures, at which point the abortion ban will be put to a national referendum. Abortion was only decriminalized in Switzerland in 2002, also by national referendum.
This month, a two-year-long investigation into CIA records on Noam Chomsky concluded with a surprising result: Despite a half-century of brazen anti-war activism and countless overseas speaking engagements, the Central Intelligence Agency has no file on the legendary MIT professor.
"Our searches were thorough and diligent, and it is highly unlikely that repeating those searches would change the result," reads an agency reply to a Freedom of Information Act request for any and all CIA records on Chomsky. The request, obtained by Foreign Policy, was submitted by Portland-based writer Frederic Maxwell, who's writing a book about the renowned linguist.
At stake is not so much the CIA's reputation (the agency's forays into domestic spying in the 60s and 70s are well-documented), but Chomsky's: For what's a towering leftist dissident without a lengthy CIA file -- that ultimate rite of passage for 60s-era dissenters?
Was Chomsky maybe even a little disappointed by the lack of a CIA file? Last, week, I presented him with the CIA's findings, which he hadn't been privy to.
"I don't care," said Chomsky, refusing to take the bait during a phone interview. "I had nothing to do with the request." While not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of being seen as envious of CIA surveillance, he did insist that he was the focus of another federal entity's dragnet. "I'm sure the FBI has a big file," he said.
But hold on. No CIA file? And Chomsky's not suspicious? I reminded him of his impeccable qualifications for such surveillance.
Over the years, Chomsky's broad criticisms of the U.S. government (a "terrorist state") made him the only person on both Richard Nixon's Enemies List and the Unabomber's kill list. In the 60s and 70s, he undertook frequent overseas speaking engagements in countries that included Cambodia and Vietnam. He contributed to the leftist political magazine Ramparts, itself a target of CIA surveillance. Detailing the agency's obsession with the magazine's writers, former CIA director Stansfield Turner wrote in his 2006 book Burn Before Reading that "the CIA investigation of the staff of Ramparts was definitely illegal." He added: "It was also just a small part of a much larger [President Lyndon] Johnson-initiated project that went by the codeword CHAOS."
Indeed, that program, initiated in 1967 under Johnson and expanded under Nixon, targeted the anti-war movement on U.S. college campuses, in which Chomsky was a major player. In total, the CIA program collected files on at least 10,000 American citizens. But nothing on Chomsky?
Kel McClanahan, a seasoned national security lawyer who submitted the FOIA request on behalf of Maxwell, was surprised by the CIA's final findings. It was "not a Glomar response, not 'we can't tell you if we have records,' an actual 'no records' response," he told me. In fact, the CIA's first denial about a Chomsky file came back in September 2011. McClanahan then appealed the outcome and received another denial letter this month.
"The Agency Release Panel (ARP) considered Mr. Maxwell's appeal and determined that despite thorough and diligent searches of the appropriate records systems, we were unable to locate any records responsive to his requests," read the Feb. 1 CIA letter.
Interestingly, Chomsky, a man forever mistrustful of U.S. government statements, actually believes the CIA's denial. But it's not because he's warming to the agency as he grows older: It's because he's convinced of its incompetence.
"These agencies are good at killing people, targeted assassinations and overthrowing governments," he told me. "But if anyone were to honestly look at intelligence records, they'd find it all to be a very dubious affair as far as competence is concerned." That is to say, the agency may have had no ethical qualms about spying on Chomsky, but whether it did, and successfully organized that information into its databases, is another story. "We shouldn't be overwhelmed at their pretense of superhuman knowledge," he added. "That's mainly for spy novels."
I realize that as the author of a listicle titled "10 TED Talks They Should Have Censored," I may not be in the best position to tackle this subject, but it seems like the snark and mockery aimed at the annual TED talks -- currently being held in Long Beach and Palm Beach California, and their TEDx offshoots around the world, has reached a fever pitch, and there's something of a pro-TED backlash brewing.
Alternative to casual internet user picking up idea from TED talk is *not* casual internet user being fully educated on a topic.
Like, if Average Joe wasn't burdened with that glib, simplified TED talk, he'd probably go read the original literature, right?
This got me thinking about why it is that TED irritates so many people. The world "elitist" gets thrown around a lot to describe Chris Anderson's institution, which charges $6,000 for membership. But that's a hard label to pin on them given that they put all their talks online for free.
Some are also put off by the gee-whiz Silicon Valley buzzword culture surrounding TED. Take, for example, the names of of this year's sessions, which include "progress enigma," "beautiful imperfection," and "disrupt!" But let's be honest, anyone who's attended an academic or media conference has seen equally vague but more boring versions of these. Best not even to discuss the World Economic Forum, whose theme was "Dynamic Resilience" this year.
Some charge that TED has devolved into a glorified self-help seminar, a kind of Tony Robbins for geeks. (Sometimes featuring the actual Tony Robbins.) Yes, there's a certain amount of this, but you're just as likely to hear prominent scholars like Saskia Sassen, Jared Diamond, or Peter Singer sharing their latest work.
The biggest charge critics level at TED is that it glorifies "ideas" for their own sake, and rewards snappy presentation over rigorous thought or intellectual debate.
The New Statesman's Martin Robbins writes:
The genius of TED is that it takes capable-but-ordinary speakers, doing old talks they’ve performed many times elsewhere, and dresses them up in a production that makes you feel like you’re watching Kennedy announce the race to the moon.
Evgeny Morozov, who, by the way, once gave a really good TED talk, takes it further:
Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.
It's certainly fair to say that not every idea presented at TED is "worth spreading," but quite a few are. I could just as easily put together a list of the "10 dumbest magazine articles" of last year -- hell, of last week -- but I wouldn't condemn the entire form.
Ultimately, I suspect it's the style more than the content that annoys critics -- and often annoys me. There's a certain dorm-room "is the blue I see the same as the blue you see?" vibe to many TED talks that can be very grating. (The Onion Talks web series parodies this brilliantly with videos like "What is the biggest rock?" and "A future where all robots have penises.")
But again, the magazine comparison is useful. I wouldn't avoid reading an interesting-looking article in Vanity Fair because I'm not really interested in the Kennedy family, Marilyn Monroe, or Hamptons garden parties. Similarly, you don't really have to buy the TED ethos to be grateful for the fact that a slew of fascinating talks are available for free at the click of a mouse.
TED via Facebook
Think horse meat in your lasagna is unappealing? Try some water buffalo sausage.
Horse meat is what's making headlines at the moment, thanks to widespread discoveries of the unusual product lurking in so-called beef across Europe. But the past few weeks have been big in general for unexpected meats -- thanks in some cases to testing that took place as a result of the horse meat scandal.
In a study released on Monday, for example, South African researchers found mystery ingredients ranging from soy products to donkey to goat to water buffalo in up to 68 percent of the meat products they tested.
In Switzerland, the Swiss Central Islamic Council found traces of pork in supposedly halal kebabs. And in the U.K., firms submitted to tests as part of the horse meat probe were found to also be selling donkey meat as beef. The Daily Mail conducted its own investigation on that British takeaway favorite, the lamb kebab, and found that they were often being bulked up with cheaper beef and chicken meat.
While the horse meat discovery sparks soul-searching in Europe over the modern food supply chain and the unintended consequences of horse-cart bans, it appears to be fueling what looks like schadenfreude across the pond (the Washington Post: "According to folklore, Europeans have always treated their food with reverence, eating Grandma's slow-cooked stews concocted with farm-fresh ingredients while Americans wolfed down the genetically modified, chemically preserved junk that is symbolized by burgers and fries.").
And as food scandals continue to pile up, it seems more and more likely that horse meat -- or maybe even donkey or goat -- could end up in a burger on this side of the Atlantic. The safest bet? Go vegetarian.
Juergen Schwarz/Getty Images
On Tuesday, former NBA star and current madman Dennis Rodman announced that he was visiting North Korea to conduct "basketball diplomacy" and run a basketball camp for North Korean children. Rodman, known for his extravagant lifestyle and wild excess, is visiting North Korea, one of the world's drabbest, most isolated states -- but maybe they're not so different after all...
Can you tell Kim Il Sung, the country's now-deceased dictator who ruled from 1949-1994 (and who still holds the title of Eternal President), from Rodman, who led the NBA in rebounds per game for seven consecutive years?
1. "He frequently arranged parties for them, as well as opium-smoking for drug addicts."
2. "This life is like a swimming pool. You dive into the water, but you can't see how deep it is."
3. "Death has always had a prominent place in my mind. There are times when I think somebody might kill me."
4. "I always live with optimism."
5. "I just wanted to kill the individual, because I was too much of a follower."
6. "They say Elvis is dead. I say, no, you're looking at him. Elvis isn't dead; he just changed color."
7. "The basketball court of the school was being monopolized by the school's basketball team and other students were off-limit to the court. Sang Wol's proposal did not ride well with some of the basketball players and they schemed to assault Sang Wol on his way home...."Hmm, that athletics teacher, Mah, has trained his running-dogs well. Those worthless worms!"
Answers below the break:
We're excited to announce that Louie Palu's powerful photography from the U.S.-Mexico border, which appeared in FP's January/February issue, has won multiple awards from the White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA). The image above, which shows a 20-year-old from Chiapas, Mexico in a migrant shelter the night after she was deported from the United States, won first place in the WHNPA's Portrait category. The picture also finished in second place in the Pictures of the Year International's Portrait category.
The photo below, of a man shot multiple times in drug-related violence in the Mexican city of Culiacán, won first place in the WHNPA's International News Picture category.
You can see Palu's full photo essay for Foreign Policy here. And check out this video of Palu discussing why he embarked on the ambitious project, which was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. "I had been seeing a lot of news reports on the escalating violence, and I wanted to peel away the layers of what's really happening on the border," he explains.
Louie Palu/Zuma Press for FP
As some wise men once said, "You've got to fight for your right to party." Or, for that matter, to do the "Harlem Shake."
For the uninitiated, the Harlem Shake is an Internet meme in which a masked individual dances to Baauer's "Harlem Shake" while surrounded by people who appear to be oblivious -- when the bass drops, the video cuts to everyone in the room dancing everything but the actual Harlem Shake dance. Costumes and stripping to one's underwear are encouraged. It is weird, and, mercifully, appears to have jumped the shark in the United States. But it's gathering steam abroad (check out this "Freedom Shake" in Estonia, for example).
In fact, the phenomenon is causing problems in Egypt and Tunisia, where newly elected conservative parties have pushed back against the meme. In Cairo, four university students were arrested for indecent exposure while filming a Harlem Shake video in their underwear. And in Tunisia, a Harlem Shake video (which also features the horse dance popularized last year by Psy's "Gangnam Style") made at a high school has prompted an investigation by the minister of education, who said that proper permissions were not granted for the video and that, "What happened is an insult to the educational message and whoever contributed will be held responsible."
In the words of Twisted Sister, Egyptian and Tunisian students aren't gonna take it anymore. Students at the Tunisian high school refused to attend classes yesterday and hackers trolled the Education Ministry's website with another meme -- a grinning face with the caption, "U MAD?" Students in both Tunisia and Egypt have even organized protests: On Thursday, Egyptians will gather outside the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters in Cairo, and on Friday Tunisians will meet at the Ministry of Education in Tunis -- and then dance the Harlem Shake.
Here's the video that provoked the inquiry in Tunisia. It's what freedom of expression is all about. For those who are about to rock in Tunisia and Egypt this week, we salute you.
JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images
On Monday, Park Geun-hye, South Korea's first female president and the daughter of the dictator who ruled the country in the 1960s and 1970s, was sworn into office. "Consider her roles: daughter, first lady, mother" writes novelist Suki Kim in a recent New York Times op-ed. "This woman, widely lauded as her country's first female president, is no symbol of latent feminism but of something far more traditional -- a girl who grew up before the nation's eyes, only to lose both parents violently, and then become the mother for whom they had carried a torch since her own mother's martyrdom."
But she's not the only feminine leader on the Korean peninsula. "Despite his young years Kim Jong Un is already being praised for his motherly solicitude, just like his father was," BR Myers, author of The Cleanest Race, a book on North Korean propaganda, wrote in an email to me.
In his email to me, Myers explained that Kim Jong Un "is also equated with the 'Mother Party,' like with the phrases 'The Dear Marshal Kim Jong Un is our Mother Party,' or 'The Dear Marshal's breast is the Party's breast.' (This is not a purely Korean phenomenon. Goebbels compared Hitler to a mother: 'The whole nation loves him, because it feels secure in his hand like a child in the mother's arm.') It has always been striking in North Korea, however, because it runs so counter to the popular Pyongyang-watching myth of a Confucian-patriarchal state."
Myers has argued that North Korea's true ideology is not Communism, Juche, or Confucianism, but a race-based, paranoid nationalism, where its people are "too pure-blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a parental leader." Myers hones in on the word parental; explaining that "because the Korean race is born good, it has no need for an educating father figure like Stalin or Mao; instead, Kim Jong Il appears in the personality cult as more of a maternal figure."
Last night, Argo, Ben Affleck's account of the Iranian hostage situation, surprised few when it claimed the Academy Award for best picture. Also unsurprising was the reaction of Iranian media.
The film, which looks at Hollywood's role in helping smuggle six hostages out of Iran amidst the fraught 1979 revolution, has garnered intense criticism from the country for its negative portrayal of Iranians. The Iranian government even organized a conference to discuss the ideology behind films like Argo, and their use in promoting an anti-Iranian, Islamophobic agenda. And when Michelle Obama presented the Oscar via live feed from the White House, this seemed to confirm the worst fears for many in the Iranian media.
In a rare occasion in Oscar history, the First Lady announced the winner for Best Picture for the anti-Iran Film ‘Argo,' which is produced by the Zionist company Warner Bros.
Mehr News dubbed the award the "most political Oscar" saying, "the anti-Iranian movie ‘Argo', the 85th Academy Awards ceremony, unveiled the bare politicization in Hollywood."
Meanwhile Iran's state TV called the whole thing an "advertisement for the CIA."
In his acceptance speech, Affleck included a couple of shout outs to the frustrated nation:
I want to thank our friends in Iran living in terrible circumstances right now. I want to thank my wife who I don't usually associate with Iran.
Not the most diplomatic of speeches, this prompted Mehr to further lament: "Ben Affleck continues to show a bleak picture of Iran: Iranians live in terrible circumstances.”
The state-owned, Press TV, went in a different direction. In a snub worthy of the Academy, they chose not to acknowledge the film at all in their coverage of the evening, making it seem, for those who wouldn't know better, that Life of Pi and Amour were the big winners of the night.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Last week, the Iranian government organized a conference on "Hollywoodism" in Tehran, at which an international group of activists, religious figures, filmmakers, and politicians discussed the ideology of Hollywood films. In particular, many of the participants argued that films like Argo promote an anti-Iranian, anti-Islamic agenda.
One of the more suprising participants in the event was Mike Gravel, the former two-term Alaska senator, best known for reading the Pentagon Papers into the public record, who ran in the Democratic and Libertarian presidential primaries in 2008. During the campaign, Gravel attracted attention for his anti-establishment views as well as his unconventional advertising. Since leaving electoral politics, he has spoken in support of WikiLeaks and called for a new investigation of the 9/11 attacks.
According to the New York Times, Gravel argued at the conference that it was "'fundamental' to discuss the American movie industry’s ways of portraying Iran in order to prevent 'an insane war.'"
I spoke with the 83-year-old Gravel Thursday on the phone from his home in California about his impressions from the trip.
Foreign Policy: So who invited you, how did this come about?
Mike Gravel: I've been angling to go to Tehran for some time. I'd been there 40 years ago when I was in the Senate, for a few days, and so I was hoping I'd get a speaking gig where they could pay my way. I can't afford myself to take these kind of trips if they're not funded. So what happened, unbeknownst to me, this was the third Hollywoodism conference.
A fellow by the name of Kevin Barrett [the former University of Wisconsin professor and 9/11 truth activist] who I know, I had spoken on his television show, or radio show, frequently. He suggested to them that they invite me and it took off from there. I've been interviewed on average about once a week on PressTV and so my views are very well known over there and obviously quite safe for an invitation because I wasn't going to rock any boat.
FP: So as I understood it, many people at the conference were arguing that Hollywood movies like Argo are motivated by some kind of pro-Israel, anti-Iranian agenda. What did you think about that?
MG: There was various elements of extremes. I am very much a movie buff, and there's good stuff that comes out of Hollywood and there's bad stuff that comes out of Hollywood. You can take your pick. They take a different viewpoint. [The Iranians] operate from a religious viewpoint and they feel that some of the extremes of Hollywood has deteriorated human culture worldwide and so that's what they're trying to have this conference. They want to try and see if they can't develop an alternative to Hollywoodism and I don't think they can, I think that they will have an influence in their area of movies. Part of the deal was they gave us two, or I'd say 20, maybe more, movies to watch that were part of the conference so I'll be doing that for part of the time here to try to get a feel for how realistic they are.
FP: What were your general impressions of Iran?
MG: I can't tell you how warm the people were. How giving, considerate. And, the thing that was very surprising to me. If you follow American media, you think they're on the ropes. I gotta tell you, there's no question the sanctions are a discomfiture, but in the long run it is the best thing that's ever happened to Iran. It's made them totally independent, and forcing them to internalize their economic activity, to build machines. We rode for about 10 miles right through the heart of Iran where they're building an elevated highway. Boy, I'll tell you, that was an impressive work area. So the city is just like a normal thriving city. It has prosperity. You could tell by the traffic jams. The architecture's extremely attractive and imposing, and so what's happened to the country is it's being forced into independence. But that's exactly what a developing country does. You force domestic wares to be produced and then you turn around and you can export your product very competitively because your money is depressed, and so that's what's going on in Iran. And I don't think the United States has any inkling that what it's doing is counterproductive to arriving at a solution in that part of the world.
FP: Do you think war between the U.S. and Iran is inevitable?
MG: First off, I think it'll happen by accident. I equate what's going on today as to what was going on in February and March of 1914. Everybody's psyched up to the hilt, armed to the hilt. All you need is an accident, all you need is an accident to just blow the whole thing wide open. And that's my fear. When you see a poll, and the polls I've seen vary, but from 40 to 55 percent of the Americans would tolerate an invasion of Iran. Now, I don't think that toleration would last beyond 30 days, but when you see a situation like that and politicians read the tea leaves, they think they can do what they want in this regard.
Let me back up. The sanctions are illegal. There's nothing that I see that Iran ahs done that warrants the sanctions against them. If you want to sanction somebody, do it to Saudi Arabia who has funded the madrasas with Wahhabism, hatred of the gentiles. That's not the approach of the Shia. The Shia is the more benign wing of the Islamic world, and the Ayatollah Khamenei, the imam, is the, literally the pope of all the Shiitex in the world.
FP: The Obama administration publicly says it's trying to avoid war. Do you believe that?
MG: No, I think there's a great insincerity on part of the Obama administration unfortunately. Probably the best approach to this, the Imam has stated very clearly they are not going to pursue the acquisition of the bomb because the Koran dictates that they cannot do that. Now at face value, when you recognize that this is the spiritual leader of the country and the spiritual leader of the world of Shiites and he's making a statement that the Koran does not tolerate an atomic bomb. Now, if you took that at face value, then a lot of things become a little ridiculous, like when the President says ‘well we've got a red line here you can't cross.' They're not going to cross it, they've already said this repeatedly. And there's no intelligence estimates that indicate they're pursuing a bomb. None at all.
Of course, there's a lot of conflict with the IAEA and I don't know if you remember the memo, from the um, Amamo, the Japanese guy, the head of other IAEA to the ambassador in Austria, telling the ambassador that, oh, he's very grateful for the United States in getting the job and that he guarantees that American interests will be protected. Now, I don't particularly view that as an independent kind of a situation, not even fair, but by the same token, Iran has not violated anything of the IAEA. It has had investigators all over the place, and they're going to continue to do that.
FP: So who else did you have a chance to meet with? Did you talk to any officials?
MG: Oh yes, some, but I didn't' recognize who they were. I didn't meet Ahmadinejad. They were trying to put something together, and it sort of fell through. Obviously I didn't meet the Imam. But met other officials who were party to the conference because the whole conference is funded by the government, and so they were at various levels, cultural levels, and maybe not so cultural were monitoring the conference and I was interviewed extensively by the various networks. And I gave the same opinions that I have right now giving to you.
FP: Were you able to talk to any opponents of the regime?
MG: Nope. I know Trita Parsi here in the States but no, I didn't get any feel for any opposition. You know, we were staying at the hotel and then we would just go out to forays. My wife was with me and so she likes to see things. I would just rest in the hotel. You know, I'm 83 at this point, I don't need a whole lot of gallivanting around.
But, we were talking about meeting people from about 35 people from all over the world, motion picture people, writers, activists, and some were off the charts.
FP: What do you mean "off the charts"?
MG: Oh, their attitude toward Zionism. But that wasn't so much. They don't talk about the Jewish lobby, they talk about the Zionist lobby, in their terminology, which is interesting. I doubt there's any change that they'll be able to bring forth. But what they will bring forth is an independent, powerful nation able to defend itself, and will certainly be a leader of the non-aligned, and that's not always in the United States' best interests. And I resent a lot of our imperial attitude that we have to, we're the self-appointed policemen of the world. We police when it's our interests and if not, we don't police very well.
FP: Did it seem like the officials you met with were open to opposing views? Were they tolerant of dissent?
MG: Oh yeah. Yeah. They're very open. Because they know, from their public pinion, that they're operating in the blind. And, oh, there's one other thing I came away with that fascinates me. I, the last 25 or 30 years, I've focused my attention on structure of government, you know, how human beings in society attempt to govern themselves. I look for models. Like Switzerland for direct democracy. They have an interesting model. They have married a theocracy and a political system, and it appears to work. Now, all I can say is that's nothing to cause fear. What we should do is encourage models like this to see how they operate and see what contributions they can make to human governments.
FP: So you think we can learn from the Iranian political model?
MG: Oh yes I think we can. Not so much for ourselves. We say we've got separation of church and state. Well I've gotta tell you Joshua, when you pay your taxes, you are supporting all the churches in the United States. That's the nature of the beast. Since Islam is such a devotional kind of religion -- I mean I was in a couple of meetings where I had to sit there and meditate while they were praying -- this has something to tell us. They have a successful country, and make no mistake about it, they are a very successful country and are suffering as a result of our injustice.
When the government of the Philippines announced last month it was taking China to court over territorial claims in the South China Sea, it was seen by some as a surprising but savvy move -- a first step toward establishing some sort of law and order in East Asia's waters, which, up until now have been a sort of aquatic Wild West, with nations planting flags on rocks, roping off shoals, and building up tiny reefs to stake their claims.
The hearing was to determine the validity of China's claims to a wide swath of ocean that encompasses waters near the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, among other countries. Manila even generated some buzz by hiring D.C. lawyer Paul Reichler to argue its case, a man who's made his name as a "giant-slayer" in the world of international law for his often-successful track record of suing the U.S. Russia, and Britain on behalf of countries like Nicaragua, Georgia and Mauritius.
Then, on Tuesday, China made clear it had no plans to participate in any international court arbitration. Though the hearing will go on without China's participation, the decision, some may think, doesn't bode well for hopes that China might abide by a ruling that doesn't go its way.
Still, Reichler, who was hired by the Philippines last year, thinks the rising power could come around.
"They're very smart people," he said in an interview last week. "And I think they might come to understand that in the long run their best interests are served by being a responsible member of the international community."
Reichler's faith in the power of international law to wrangle even the largest of powers comes from his success suing the United States. He took America to The Hague on behalf of the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, over U.S. support of the Contras, and won -- an effort that earned him the ire of figures like John McCain. As a result of the victory - and the international pressure that accompanied it -- he says, Congress cut off funding for Contra support.
"It's a very high cost to prestige to be branded as an international wrongdoer and then not comply," he said.
The decision not to take part in the arbitration is "unfortunate," Reichler said in an email (China has long said it doesn't want to its territorial conflicts "internationalized"). "They had an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the international legal order, to show respect for its procedures, and to agree to be bound by its rules. Had they seized this chance, they would have proven that they are not only a great power, but a responsible one."
But the pressure on Beijing to comply with an unfavorable ruling - even if it doesn't participate - will still be there, Reichler said.
"To me, China has always denounced imperialism, denounced unilateralism, has denounced violations of the U.N. Charter," he said. "This is an opportunity for China to really show its true colors."
We hear plenty about drugs and conflict diamonds; but the international black market for timber -- a global trade that has been plaguing the forests of South America, Central America, and Asia for years, and one that is estimated to be worth anywhere from 30 to 100 billion dollars a year -- gets a lot less attention.
Illegal wood had a rare moment in the spotlight on Feb. 19, when Interpol reported the results of its first international operation to target timber trafficking. "Operation Lead," which brought together law enforcement agencies from twelve Latin American countries, was carried out over a month late last year and resulted in the seizure of the equivalent of 2,000 truckloads of timber (worth millions of dollars) and the arrests of more than 200 people.
While individual countries in the region, such as Columbia and Brazil, have cracked down on the illegal trade in the past, the transnational nature of the crime makes it difficult for domestic law enforcement agencies, which are limited in their jurisdiction, to be very effective. An international approach has the potential to be more successful. According to the head of Interpol's Environmental Crime Program, Operation Lead has laid the foundations for future efforts to combat the global trade.
So why timber? It is not as lucrative as the drug trade, but it still brings in a fair amount of cash. According to a recent Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report, in Laos, rare rosewood logs can fetch $18,000 per cubic meter. The EIA also notes that traffickers can earn $1,700 for a high-quality mahogany tree on the Peruvian black market, and about $1,000 for a cedar tree. In 2006, illegal logging in Peru was bringing up to $72 million in profits per year. Some estimates put the yearly profits in Columbia as high as $200 million.
In Latin America, the drug and timber trades aren't mutually exclusive. Though the extent of the connection is not yet clear, timber trafficking overlaps with organized crime and the drug trade in interesting ways in countries like Colombia and Peru.
For one, it has been suggested that timber offers drug traffickers an opportunity to invest in a new illegal market -- to "diversify their portfolios" -- as some governments become more successful (however slightly) in cracking down on the drug trade.
In Peru, where an estimated 80 percent of total timber exports are illegal, the wood trafficking network has become so sophisticated that drug traffickers are now piggybacking on the timber trade -- literally. In 2006, a U.S. State Department cable (later released by WikiLeaks) reported that drug traffickers in the Andes moving coca paste and opium "appear to be getting involved in transport of illegal timber, for both its profitability and its utility as concealment." In 2010, Peruvian police seized nearly 400 kilos of cocaine and coca base hidden in a single shipment of Sinaloa cedar.
Logging may also be viewed as a profitable way to open land for the farming of coca. According to a 2011 UN report, since 1981, more than 3,000 square miles of Columbia's forests have been cut down illegally to make way for coca crops. In 2008, then Columbian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon announced, "If you snort a gram of cocaine, you are destroying 4 square meters of rainforest."
All considered, it isn't surprising that the illegal logging trade has taken a violent turn in some countries. Last year in Cambodia, an anti-logging activist and a reporter covering the illegal trade were both murdered. Three Brazilian activists were killed in 2011 -- just three out of dozens that have been murdered over the past several years.
It should be noted that illegal logging is not entirely run by timber kingpins and "wood mafias." Local communities also cut down wood illegally (to use, not to sell), and have probably been doing so for generations.
The countries affected are going to have to take strong action if they want to save their forests, because the problem is not going to fix itself. The world's appetite for high-value wood is high and is only getting higher. In its report entitled "Appetite for Destruction: China's Trade in Illegal Timber," the EIA states that between 2000 and 2011, the quantity of global log imports tripled, with a value that increased fivefold. China -- with wood product exports that have increased almost sevenfold in the past decade, with new construction projects beginning every day, and with a new bourgeoisie that covets fancy rosewood lounge sets (which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars), cars with wood-embellished interiors, and yachts -- comprises a large part of that demand. According to the EIA, China is the world's top importer of illegal timber. "More than half of China's current supplies of raw timber material are sourced from countries with a high risk of illegal logging and poor forest governance," including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Madagascar, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea.
Nicaragua in particular has seen enormous growth in its illegal timber market thanks to Chinese demand. In 2008, Nicaraguan exports of granadillo totalled about $127,000. In 2011, after other Central American countries enacted stricter wood export regulations, that number grew fifty fold, to $6 million.
China Photos/Getty Images
When French Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg wrote to Maurice Taylor, asking him to invest in a failing Goodyear tire plant in Northern France, the Titan Tire CEO could have just said, "no." But that's not really his style:
"I have visited that factory a couple of times. The French workforce gets paid high wages but only works three hours," Taylor said in the letter, dated February 8 and obtained by French business daily Les Echos.
"They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three. I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me that's the French way!"[...]
"Titan is going to buy a Chinese tyre company or an Indian one, pay less than one euro per hour wage and ship all the tyres France needs. You can keep the so-called workers."
Taylor followed up in an interview with the AFP:
"I just came back from Australia and I met there young Frenchmen and women and young Spanish men and women who have moved there because they can get jobs down there and they're excited to build something," he said.
"That's why in France pretty soon everybody will be sitting down in cafes sipping a glass of wine but they won't be making any money."
After it was obtained by the media, the letter provoked outrage in France and Montenbourg responded with an angry letter promising to "inspect your tyre imports with a redoubled zeal."
Obviously Taylor, a one-time longshot candidate for the GOP nomination for president and author of Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix the Government, was being hyperbolic. But is there any truth to the critique?
Kind of. French workers work the fourth fewest hours per year in the OECD, according to the organization's statistics. Only the Norwegians, Germans and Dutch work less. On the other hand, if working long hours was all it took to drive the economy, Greece -- and no. 4 in the OECD -- would be an industrial dynamo.
On the OECD's labor productivity rankings, France comes in a respectable 7th after Norway, Luxembourg, Ireland, the U.S., Netherlands, and Belgium. So it seems they are getting something done in between those bottles of bourdeaux. Australia comes in 13th.
If you are an American living abroad in an unstable country, it's not unusual for the local U.S. embassy to send you updates about the security situation. The advice is pretty basic, and largely useless -- be aware of your surroundings, avoid large protests, consider delaying travel. Yesterday, however, the State Department took a different tack: It warned Americans that terrorists could be lurking behind any corner. At any time. Across the globe.
"Current information suggests that al-Qaida...continue[s] to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions, including Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East," the State Department wrote yesterday in a "Worldwide Caution" alert.
So, be careful when traveling -- well, anywhere, basically. But perhaps the U.S. government could at least tell its citizens where they will be most at risk? Here's what the State Department says about that: Targets could include "high-profile sporting events, residential areas, business offices, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, public areas, and other tourist destinations both in the United States and abroad where U.S. citizens gather in large numbers, including during holidays."
Now, you probably shouldn't be traveling anywhere if this sort of advice is news to you. But let's assume there's a novice explorer out there who stumbles across this State Department warning and takes it to heart. What will he see as the primary threats that he will face as he embarks on his journey?
In Europe, the first thing he reads is: "Current information suggests that al-Qaida...continue[s] to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western interests." In Africa, al Qaeda is also the first threat -- after that, pirates. In South and Central Asia, al Qaeda again. And in the Middle East, you guessed it, al Qaeda.
This isn't just overly broad to the point of being useless, it's actually a wildly distorted account of the threats Americans face abroad. Take Egypt, the country I call home. There is no shortage of radicalism here: The head of al Qaeda, a product of Cairo's most virulent strain of Islamist extremism, grew up a few neighborhoods over. And yet, a foreigner is far more likely to be hurt or killed in the city's insane traffic, mugged by a thief, or caught up in the running clashes between protesters and police. Fear of roving al Qaeda terrorists doesn't enter the picture.
So be careful out there, travelers. Just not for the reasons they tell you.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Chinese government officials considered using an armed unmanned aerial vehicle to target a drug trafficker hiding in Myanmar, according to an interview with Liu Yuejin, the director of China's Public Security Ministry's anti-drug bureau that appeared in Global Times on Monday. The target, Naw Kham, wanted for a drug-trafficking related attack that killed 13 Chinese sailors, was eventually captured last April in a joint Chinese-Laotian operation in Laos and is now appealing a death sentence in China. Yuejin's comments are an unusual glimpse into China's considerations for the use of drone strikes, a tactic that is no longer used exclusively by the United States.
The proposed Chinese strike would have occurred in Myanmar's restive north, where the Naypyidaw government has struggled to control ethnic conflicts and a thriving drug trade. Much like the U.S. official rationale as for strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, China could have either sought Naypyidaw's support or credibly claimed that the government was "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual being targeted," in the words of the Obama administration's white paper on its own targeted killing program. Similarly, as a violent drug trafficker tied to the deaths of Chinese sailors, China could have justified the potential drone strike under the white paper's loose definition of the "imminent threat of violent attack" against the homeland -- much as the United States justified targeting al Qaeda militants tied to the bombing of the USS Cole with drone strikes, beginning Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2002 (well before the white paper was authored).
The admission that the Chinese government considered a drone strike comes as its relationship with Myanmar has become increasingly strained amid stalled economic projects and new competition for influence with the West. China also appears to have placed special emphasis on their UAV programs in recent months, unveiling new models (that look suspiciously like U.S.-made Predator and Reaper drones) and retrofitting old Shenyang J-6 jets to fly by remote control.
Yuejin told Global Times that the drone strike option was passed over because of instructions to capture Naw Kham alive, but his comments demonstrate that China is weighing targeted killings seriously. When -- almost certainly not "if" -- China conducts its first drone strike, it will join just three other nations -- the United States, Britain, and Israel -- and place itself among the drone powers in the ongoing international assessment of the legality of these operations and whether they abridge international law and the established concept of sovereignty.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Israelis are in an uproar over the recent news that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spends a whopping $2,700 per year of public funds on ice cream. The story dominated Israeli headlines over the weekend, causing outrage in a country that has faced large-scale unrest over soaring food prices and cuts in government spending. Particularly controversial was the lack of transparency surrounding the ice cream dealings:
Originally this expenditure wasn't included in the Netanyahu family's maintenance budget, but his aides managed to bypass the bureaucratic procedures - transferring one budget item to another normally requires a tender - and get the go-ahead to buy his favorite ice cream flavors from a neighborhood ice cream parlor.
Netanyahu tried to spin his penchant for ice cream -- pistachio in particular-- as being for official entertainment purposes, but the Israeli press isn't buying it. Uzi Benziman, in an editorial for Haaretz, offers a few pointed questions against the prime minister. If the ice cream really serves diplomatic purposes, why should Bibi backtrack now? Also, how could the PM possibly know his guests would prefer pistachio?
...if Netanyahu not only knows who'll be visiting him in the coming year, but also that their favorite flavors also happen to be vanilla sorbet and pistachio, then what do we need the Shin Bet and the Mossad for?
So what does the prime minister's love of pistachio say about him? One not-so-scientific look at ice cream flavor as personality test, describes pistachio people:
You are a highly individualistic and straight-to-the-point person. No one should mess with you. ...You seek to distinguish yourself from everyone else and take pride in being distinctive and exclusive. You are usually both smart and good-looking and are loved by many, even if you don't know it. However, you can be quite intolerant of certain things in life and you do not like change. You are a diligent planner and seek comfort in the routine things. Perhaps you should loosen up a little and do something spontaneous and totally unplanned - you might surprise yourself!
Ideal Partner: You get along well with banana and vanilla fans
URIEL SINAI/AFP/Getty Images
It didn't take long for Friday's Chelyabinsk meteor explosion to turn into a meme. Russians pounced on the opportunity, and jokes about the event began appearing on the Internet nearly as soon as the news broke this morning. Of course, there's nothing funny about an exploding meteor injuring more than 1,000 people. Still, one has to admire the Russian sense of humor.
Never fear, Putin is here.
The caption below reads, "The inhabitants of the meteorite wached the approach of the Chelyabinsk in horror."
The caption, roughly translated, reads, "Chelyabinsk before and after the meteor strike."
Today's weather report for Chelyabinsk:
This morning, Russians in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city 950 miles east of Moscow, were jolted awake when a meteor exploded in the sky, producing shockwaves that shattered windows, set off car alarms, and injured at least 500 people. The meteor was traveling at 19 miles per second, according to Russian authorities, before exploding mid-air, likely as a result of the immense heat generated as a large object speeds through the atmosphere.
On the ground in Chelyabinsk, Russians witnessed a scene that must have seemed ripped out of an apocalyptic film, as a bright, flaming object suddenly appeared in the sky, streaked across the horizon, and unleashed a bone-rattling shockwave. The extraordinary developments were captured on video, in part through the automobile dash-cams that are nearly ubiquitous in Russia.
Below, we've compiled a selection of some of the best videos of the meteor shower, along with translations of the reactions of the stunned Russians on the ground.
At 1:40, the speaker says that there was an extremely bright flash going across the sky. Once the blast can be heard he says, "What the hell? ... Something fell. Do you hear? You know what that was? It was supersonic. It must have been an asteroid, and that's the blast wave." At 2:38, the speaker exclaims, "What the fuck?" They look at the broken windows and say it's like something out of the war. Then, another speaker says, "It must have been a rocket or something." While they're cursing up a storm, one of his friends says, "It must have been the Chinese!"
The video below gives a sense of the magnitude of the blast's shockwave.
This video, shot across the border from Kazakhstan about 200 miles from Chelyabinsk, shows how far from the city the meteoroid could be seen.
The blast blew out windows in Chelyabinsk. The closed-circuit video below gives a sense of how many Chelyabinsk residents likely experienced the meteoroid.
This video of a street in Chelyabinsk, which doesn't capture the direct path of the meteoroid, shows how the meteoroid lit up the street, casting a veritable klieg light on an entire city block.
This video compilation shows how residents experienced the meteroid across the city, and includes footage from a Chelyabinsk school right after the explosion was felt on the ground.
Just hours after the shocking announcement that Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee, Paralympic champion, and Olympic competitor, had been charged with fatally shooting his girlfriend in the head and arm at his house, the press is beginning to place the incident in the context of South Africa's gun culture -- in an echo of the gun control debate currently raging in the United States. So, how does gun violence in the two countries compare?
The United States has the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world (88.8 guns for every 100 people), while South Africa ranks 50th, with a rate of 12.7 guns per 100 people. But gun ownership does not necessarily correlate with gun-related homicide: According to U.N. data, South Africa trumps the United States in that category, with a rate of 17 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people, as compared to the U.S. rate of 3.2. The United States, however, does lead the developed world in the category.
Interestingly, a homicide is more likely to involve a gun in the United States (where more guns are available) than in South Africa. Just over 67 percent of homicides in the United States are committed by firearm, while in South Africa the rate of homicides by gun is 45 percent.
Here's a list of the most gun violence-plagued countries in the world, according to U.N. data. (Note: Some of these numbers are more recent than others.) For more on this subject, check out FP's slide show of the world's 10 deadliest cities.
1. Honduras: 68.4
gun-related homicides/100,000 people
2. El Salvador: 39.9
3. Jamaica: 39.4
4. Venezuela: 39
5. Guatemala: 34.8
6. Saint Kitts and Nevis: 32.4
7. Trinidad and Tobago: 27.3
8. Colombia: 27.1
9. Belize: 21.8
10. Puerto Rico: 18.3
11. Brazil: 18.1
12. South Africa: 17
In his State of the Union address last night, President Barack Obama announced that he would seek to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, a measure that would form the centerpiece of an agenda aimed at reducing incoming inequality in the United States.
That announcement got us wondering: How does the U.S. minimum wage stack up against the minimum wage in other countries? The answer depends somewhat on how one chooses to measure the minimum wage and the standard against which it is measured.
One handy way of comparing the minimum wage across borders is to measure it relative to median full-time wages, which indicates the gap between the lowest wage earners and the mid-point of the income spectrum. On that measurement, the U.S. minimum wage is about 38 percent of the median, which is indicative of high levels of income inequality in the United States. Countries like Australia, Belgium, France, Ireland, and New Zealand have both higher absolute minimum wages and minimum wages that fall closer to median wages. In other words, living on the minimum wage in one of those countries puts an individual much closer to achieving a median income than it would in the United States. Unstated in all of this, of course, is that the United States is significantly wealthier than all of these countries. The graph below, courtesy of the International Labor Organization, illustrates the distribution.
Minimum wage levels in selected developed economies, in PPP$ and as a share of median full-time wage, 2010
If one looks at minimum wage from an hourly perspective, the picture is much the same. Of the 23 countries for which the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has data, the United States ranks 10th in hourly income in PPP dollars, a measurement of purchasing power that indicates how much stuff an employee can buy with an hour of work.
All this is to say that, relative to its wealth, the United States underpays its least-skilled workers.
Whether Obama's minimum wage initiative has the votes to pass a Republican-controlled House remains a fairly dubious proposition, but his advocacy on the issue might at the very least bring attention to the U.S. wage gap.
It's one of the unenumerated rules of the Internet that if you can think of it, you can bet on it online. Apparently, people have been betting on Pope Benedict XVI's successor for months via the gambling clearinghouse sites Paddy Power and William Hill Plc (sure, the pope's resignation may have shocked the world, but the good people at Paddy Power were kicking around the idea as early as August). While there's no odds-on favorite in the field, the oddsmakers are partial toward the African Cardinals Peter Turkson of Ghana and Francis Arinze of Nigeria (the latter a contender at the last papal conclave in 2005), as well as Marc Ouellet of Canada and Angelo Scola of Italy. Betters looking for a dark horse might consider Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri (10 to 1) or Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga (12 to 1). Or, if you're interested in throwing money away, you can bet on noted atheist Richard Dawkins, whose odds Paddy Power has cheekily pinned at 666 to 1.
There's no Nate Silver for papal elections, and no way to unskew the polls when there is none -- aside from a closed session of cardinals that doesn't end until the pope has been chosen. (In a Silver-esque bid to do the "cardinal math," NPR's Sylvia Poggioli crunched the numbers today on conclave attendees and concluded, contrary to what the oddsmakers are predicting, that the next pope will be European.) The logic behind the odds on sites like Paddy Power seems to be drawn from the discussion around the previous conclave, along with policy and demographic trends in the Catholic Church. In a way, then, the church has set the bar for betting here. But what does the church have to say about actually putting money down on the pope's successor?
The interesting wrinkle here is that usually the pope has to die for a successor to be selected -- and betting on someone dying seems pretty unethical, not to mention just plain tacky. But Benedict is stepping down. Does that make it okay?
There's discord among Catholic dioceses over whether gambling is sinful or morally wrong. Aside from an ambiguous pronouncement about how "the passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement," practice varies by diocese -- it is prohibited by some, generally discouraged by others, and endorsed for small-scale charitable purposes by still others (personally, I remember church raffles growing up in California). In his 1995 book, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, J. Robertson McQuilkin takes the hard-line approach, citing the connections between gambling and criminal elements and the hazards of addiction:
In light of the way gambling has worked out in the life of the nation, it seems the most responsible position for the Christian is total abstinence, opposition to any form of church-sponsored gambling, and cooperation with all people of good sense in opposing state-operated lotteries and pari-mutuel betting.
Kathy Coffey, author of The Best of Being Catholic, struck a more moderate tone. "Seems like a fun riff on a serious process," she said when reached for comment about the papal betting. "Maybe it's a good reminder that the future rests in much larger, steadier hands than ours."
So Catholics, if you want to put money down on your local cardinal, maybe just ask your priest first if he'll want you to confess later.
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
Just days after R. Jeffrey Smith reported at Foreign Policy that Barack Obama and his advisors were set to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by at least a third (from the 1,550 warheads allowed under an existing arms treaty to closer to 1,000), the New York Times is suggesting that the president could endorse such cuts in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. White House spokesman Jay Carney insists that Obama won't be unveiling any new, specific proposals in his speech, but that doesn't mean the president won't touch on nuclear disarmament more broadly.
"The big question is how to accomplish a reduction that Mr. Obama views as long overdue, considering that Republicans in the Senate opposed even the modest cuts in the new arms reduction treaty, called Start," the Times notes.
But here's another Big Question: What actually happens to those warheads if they're cut? After all, as Jeffrey Lewis and Meri Lugo pointed out at FP back in 2009, "you can't just leave the warheads out on the curb on Tuesday morning for the garbage collector to pick up." Fortunately, Lewis and Lugo went on to outline what nuclear arms reduction looks like in practice. The warheads suffer a slow death, equal parts mundane and perilous:
Retiring a weapon is accomplished through paperwork. If the weapon is in storage, it continues to sit there. Eventually, small steps begin to indicate its fate on the nuclear weapons equivalent of death row. Workers come along to remove the batteries and other so-called "limited-life components" that have to be regularly changed in active nuclear weapons.
At some point -- perhaps years later -- the Energy Department ships the weapon to Pantex, the central U.S. nuclear weapons factory near Amarillo, Texas. It is a homecoming of sorts because the weapon was most likely built there. Disassembly is the assembly sequence in reverse, with each step occurring in a precise order over a few days to a few weeks, depending on the type of bomb or warhead.
The work is time-consuming and dangerous. The warheads now undergoing dismantlement were not designed to come apart -- other than very rapidly, over the Soviet Union. Because nuclear weapons contain explosives and other hazardous materials, workers must take care to minimize health risks, for example berylliosis -- a lung disease caused by inhalation of the toxic metal beryllium.
Pantex has about 40 operational bays and cells in which teams of workers can take apart nuclear weapons. The most sensitive operations occur in so-called "Gravel Gerties" -- concrete buildings covered with gravel. In the event of an explosion, the building would collapse in on itself, burying the hazardous materials -- and the workers, who would not have survived the blast. Once the nuclear weapon is disassembled, the remains can be stored for future use in different weapons (as in the case of plutonium pits) or disposed of (the explosives are incinerated).
Obama might very well reiterate his vision for a world without nuclear weapons on Tuesday night. Just don't expect him to mention the part about paperwork, batteries, and years of painstaking disassembly.
Joe Lambe/AFP/Getty Images
It may be the biggest news to break in Latin since Julius Caesar's death.
Pope Benedict XVI provided vindication for Latin teachers everywhere on Monday by breaking the news of his upcoming resignation via a speech in the oft-dismissed ancient language:
More satisfying still for those who maintain Latin is not dead, the Huffington Post Italy reports that the news was first broken by a reporter for Italy's ANSA news agency, who apparently beat out journalists from France, Mexico, and Japan thanks to her superior language skills. Giovanna Chirri initially could not reach a Vatican spokesman to confirm the news, AFP reports:
In a heated debate with her editor, the journalist insisted her Latin knowledge was sound and they could alert the news.
The difficult part was "understanding the Latin," he said. "At a certain point, for example, I caught the word 'incapability' in the pope's speech. I turned around and spoke with my Mexican colleague. We noticed that Pope Benedict had a sad look on his face, not his usual look. Something wasn't right. Then, when cardinal Sodano mentioned the 'sadness,' we finally understood."
The choice of Latin for a major announcement was likely no accident: Benedict has long indicated that he considers a Latin revival important for the future of the Church. In November of last year, he established a Pontifical Academy of Latinity with the goal of promoting the language, saying in a letter at the time that even among priests and seminarians, the study of Latin has become "more and more superficial." He further demonstrated his determination to take Latin into the modern world in January when he began tweeting in the language. Still, Benedictus PP. XVI has just 17,816 followers so far -- the fewest of any of the pope's nine Twitter accounts.
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
The marching chant by Chilean sailors in the video above is the kind of thing that probably worked better in the pre-YouTube era. CNN translates:
"Argentineans I will kill; Bolivians I will shoot; Peruvians I'll behead."
The government has opened an investigation into the incident after the video surfaced, prompting complaints from the Argentinian, Bolivian, and Peruvian governments. The chant is likely to be particularly offensive to Bolivians, who are locked in a long-running dispute with Chile over the coastline they say was taken from them during a war in the late 19th century.
Veterans say the chant has been around for decades.
The most dramatic legacy of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency may have been his impact on Russia's clocks. In addition to dropping 2 of the country's 11 time zones, Medvedev also eliminated daylight savings time.
The move was never popular and current President Vladimir Putin has suggested changing it, but Medvedev is apparently digging in his heels. Bloomberg reports:
“There is no clear conclusion about this issue, and this is proved by surveys,” Medvedev told a televised Cabinet meeting today. “That’s why the government believes that changing the system at the current time is not a good idea.”
Izvestia, a newspaper owned by Putin ally Yury Kovalchuk, reported earlier that an announcement would be made soon to switch permanently to winter time by turning the clocks back an hour. Putin said in December that Medvedev’s time switch bothered him and had been criticized by international sporting bodies for increasing the time difference in winter with London to four hours and with major European cities to three hours. Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
Medvedev's decision was meant to benefit farmers, but as Masha Gessen explained a few months ago, the rollout didn't go so smoothly:
The problem is, Medvedev stopped the clock in early autumn, while the country was still on summer time, or daylight saving time. That froze it one hour ahead of Russia’s standard time, which, in turn, in much of the country was an hour ahead of its astronomical time. So last winter the sun began rising after 9 a.m.; adults were already at work and children at school by the time daylight established itself. And it was dark when they left their respective buildings, not having seen the light all day.
Then there was the issue of electronics. Apple’s operating systems, for one, never recognized Russia’s new time. The publishing house where I worked kept all its Apple computers set back an hour otherwise they could not be synchronized with the server. To reflect Medvedev time, Muscovites had to set their smartphones to Baku or Yerevan time zones — a politically uncomfortable gesture for some.
When antigovernment protests broke out in December, some of the participants carried signs demanding that winter time be brought back. As the dark winter dragged on, doctors and medical writers increasingly sounded the alarm on the risks of doing violence to the body’s quotidian clock. Medvedev’s decision came to symbolize Russian government work in general: ill-considered, dismissive of people’s needs and, ultimately, both pointless and dangerous.
Government imposed time changes can be politically fraught. As I wrote recently for Smithsonian, when the U.S. adopted a national in the late 19th century -- under pressure from railroads, who had been the first to adopt nationwide time -- local governments objected to be forced to change their clocks. “Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars,” one newspaper wrote.
More recently, Hugo Chavez moved Venezuela half an hour off the rest of the world's time zones in 2007, but initially provoked widespread confusion as to whether he was moving the clocks forward or backward.
In Medvedev's case, an analyst quoted by Bloomberg says the keeping the time change in place is could be "psychologically crucial" for him as its one of the few tangible legacies of his presidency.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
While the debate over the use of drones overseas plays out in Washington, some groups in the U.S. are pushing for action on the local level. On Monday, the city of Charlotteville, VA became the first municipality in the country to pass legislation restricting the use of drones:
The resolution means that Charlottesville will be a no-drone zone and the use of drones for surveillance and other uses will not be allowed.
The law is based on model legislation prepared by the Rutherford Institute, a libertarian group based in the city. According to the Institute's website, the law places a 2-year moratorium on the use of drones in the city limits and "urges the Virginia General Assembly to prevent police agencies from utilizing drones outfitted with anti-personnel devices such as tasers and tear gas and prohibit the government from using data recorded via police spy drones in criminal prosecutions."
They didn't have long to wait. On Tuesday, the Virginia legislature passed a bill that would bar state and local agencies from using drones for two years. Governor and rising GOP star Bob McDonell, who has supported the use of drones by law enforcement in the past, has not yet decided whether he will sign the bill.
The obvious comparison here is to the "nuclear-free zone" ordinances passed by many left-leaning cities, including my old town of Oberlin, Ohio during the 1980s. The success of these was pretty mixed -- Berkeley's law, for instance, has done nothing to stop the nuclear research going on at the university in the city but has been criticized by some for putting onerous restrictions the city government's purchasing decisions.
Unlike nukes, of course, it's not hard to imagine applications for drones at a local level. The Virgina laws may be a prelude of political disputes to come. And in a state with stark political divisions, drone concerns also appear to be remarkably bipartisan.
Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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