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Arbitrary and capricious

Jue, 28/08/2014 - 05:20

OVER 1.3 billion people, nearly the population of China, are now active Facebook users. That means a whopping 18% of the world's population logs on to the site at least once a month. The social network is the largest community ever: a place where ideas, stories, images and perspectives are communicated instantly and widely across national, geographical and ideological boundaries.  

But whenever a public forum for dialogue is established, rules arise, and Facebook is no exception. The website maintains a list of community standards “[t]o balance the needs and interests of a global population.” Facebook prohibits threats of violence to oneself or others, bullying and harassment, hate speech, graphic content and nudity. You might argue with these categories—an interesting debate has recently sprung up over how social media sites should handle beheadings and other images of extreme violence—but because it is a private organisation, not a government, Facebook has no obligation to publish anything it does not want to broadcast. The First...Continue reading

The ice-cream man cometh

Mié, 27/08/2014 - 09:45

LAST night Doug Ducey, Arizona’s treasurer and a former head of Cold Stone Creamery, a chain of ice-cream parlours, emerged victorious in a six-way Republican primary with 37% of the vote to become the party's candidate for November's gubernatorial race. This put him more than 15 points ahead of the second-place finisher, Scott Smith, and more than 20 points in front of Christine Jones, a former executive at GoDaddy, a web-hosting firm based in Scottsdale.

Immigration was the most prominent issue of the race, and provided momentum to Mr Ducey’s once flagging campaign after national concern erupted over the number of children entering America illegally in June. He wants more fences, satellites and guards to keep immigrants from crossing the border, and more police and prosecutors to crack down on those who make it over. He decried the federal government’s “botched” handling of border security but kept quiet on thornier questions of immigration reform and paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to America as kids. While Mr Smith eventually won the backing of Arizona’s outgoing governor, Jan Brewer (pictured), Mr...Continue reading

Too accommodating

Lun, 25/08/2014 - 20:22

RELIGIOUS organisations are up in arms over the latest change to the Obamacare mandate that employers provide insurance with free birth control to their workers. What is odd is that the change is actually designed to exempt them from the mandate.

Religious groups never liked the health-care mandate. They were also quick to pounce on the administration's first solution, which exempted religious groups if they filled out a form that essentially outsourced the provision of birth control to a third party. Critics complained that filling out the form implicated them in the provision of (what they consider to be) abortifacient devices and pills. The Supreme Court has been sympathetic to these concerns. The justices offered their own provisional solution in Wheaton College v Burwell, which let religious non-profits secure an exemption from the mandate without filling out a form. Non-profits need only inform "the Secretary of Health and Human Services [HHS] in writing that it is a non-profit organization that...Continue reading

Napa shaken, Bay Area stirred

Dom, 24/08/2014 - 16:28

LIKE many other residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, your correspondent was jolted out of bed at around 3.30am today by an earthquake that made his house sway like a boat on water. The cause was an aftershock from a magnitude 6.1 quake which occurred near the town of Napa. This was the biggest seismic event to hit the Bay Area since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, which hit a magnitude of 6.9 and caused over 60 deaths.

So far, there have been no reports of fatalities this time around, though police reports suggest there have been numerous casualties, with two people seriously injured. Buildings in the town of Napa have suffered structural damage, stores have seen their wares scattered over the floor by the shaking, and some parts of highways have been closed as a precaution. (This post will be updated as more information becomes available.)

Given the epicentre of the quake was in the north of the Bay Area, Silicon Valley much further to the south is likely to have been unaffected by its aftershocks. But the quake is a salutary reminder that some of the world’s leading companies have head offices that sit in a part of the world that is riddled with earthquake faults. Expect plenty of questions to be raised in the coming days about the state of contingency plans. The quake should also reinforce the efforts of authorities in San Francisco and...Continue reading

Please shoot me

Vie, 22/08/2014 - 07:09

IN THE first part of VICE News's extraordinary five-part documentary on ISIS, released earlier this month, a bearded and strangely innocent-looking young press officer who goes by the name Abu Mosa invites America to attack his movement. "I say to America that the Islamic Caliphate has been established, and we will not stop," Abu Mosa says with a shy smile, a Kalashnikov leaning easily in his right hand. "Don't be cowards and attack us with drones. Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House."

America has since begun attacking ISIS with air and drone strikes, and on Wednesday, in response to the beheading of James Foley, a photojournalist, Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to the fight. But the president has not obliged Abu Mosa's wish for America to send in ground forces. For one thing, the airstrikes Continue reading

Are videos of Islamic violence propaganda?

Jue, 21/08/2014 - 13:17

SOCIAL MEDIA erupted this week with footage of James Foley, an American journalist, brutally beheaded at the hands of ISIS. YouTube removed one version of the video, citing a violation of their policy on violent content. On Tuesday, Twitter announced a new policy that it would remove images and video of the deceased at the request of family members. Accounts that featured the graphic imagery started disappearing from the site. Though Twitter can now remove certain images only at the request of family members, Twitter users started urging friends not to share the content anyway. In less than two hours, the hashtag #ISISMediaBlackout had more than 3,800 tweets.

Should platforms like YouTube and Twitter really have the power to censor what content we can or cannot see? At least in America, the suppression of disturbing or offensive content, if it does not incite violence, is a direct violation of our principles of free speech. Especially in this instance, it seems deeply inappropriate to respond to authoritarianism with authoritarian action.

Censorship proponents are of the mind that the ISIS video constitutes propaganda and...Continue reading

What is Ferguson doing on Europe's front pages?

Mar, 19/08/2014 - 18:29

I WOKE up today to find my Dutch morning paper, the Volkskrant, dominated by a full-page spread on the results of the independent autopsy on Michael Brown, the shooting victim whose death has plunged the town of Ferguson, Missouri, into protests and riots. The situation in Ferguson also headlined today's editions of Spain's El Pais, Portugal's Publico, Denmark's Politiken, France's Liberation, and Germany's Der TagespiegelContinue reading

An awesome turn of events

Lun, 18/08/2014 - 18:26

AN INDICTMENT is a bit of a buzz-kill. On Friday, Rick Perry joined Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell in the brotherhood of highly ranked Republicans who can personally testify to this, among other things. In Mr Perry’s case, the charges are coercion and abuse of official capacity. Those are serious criminal matters; if convicted of the latter, a felony, he could face up to 99 years in prison.

At first the indictments seemed like a real blow. Mr Perry is planning to step down as governor of Texas next year, after 14 years on the job. He is widely thought to be considering another run at the Republican presidential nomination, and he had been riding high this summer, at least among Republicans, after a robust response to the influx of unaccompanied immigrant children into Texas’s Rio Grande Valley and a string of well-received appearances around the country. Just last week, in high spirits, Mr Perry offered a candid self-assessment in Iowa: Continue reading

Trigger happy

Vie, 15/08/2014 - 18:31

THE shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, is a reminder that civilians—innocent or guilty—are far more likely to be shot by police in America than in any other rich country. In 2012, according to data compiled by the FBI, 410 Americans were “justifiably” killed by police—409 with guns. That figure may well be an underestimate. Not only is it limited to the number of people who were shot while committing a crime, but also, amazingly, reporting the data is voluntary.

Last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero. In 2012 the figure was just one. Even after adjusting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans. Between 2010 and 2014 the police force of one small American city, Albuquerque in New Mexico, shot and killed 23 civilians; seven times more...Continue reading

Guns, police and the people

Vie, 15/08/2014 - 14:03

FOR the past week the people have been in the streets of the St Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Most have been waving placards, raising their arms in the air and shouting, "Hands up, don't shoot!" A few have tossed rocks or Molotov cocktails, and in at least one instance some seem to have fired guns. The police have been in the streets of Ferguson, too. They have been firing tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets, and pointing assault rifles at protestors from atop their armoured vehicles. (They have also manhandled and arrested reporters.)

The cause of the conflict is the latest in a...Continue reading

Mind the gap

Jue, 14/08/2014 - 16:02

NOT only are black people in America more likely to lack employment, be poor, get arrested and serve time in prison than their white counterparts, but they also have less time on earth to enjoy such mortal frustrations. A new study published in Health Affairs by Sam Harper and Jay Kaufman of McGill University and Richard MacLehose of the University of Minnesota has found that the gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites in America persists, despite policies aimed at closing it. (Other racial groups could not feature in the study because records concerning them were too scarce for the period scrutinised, according to Mr Harper.)

This is not to say there hasn’t been some progress over the years. Between 1990 and 2009 the difference in average life expectancy for black and white men narrowed from 8.1 to 5.4 years, and for women from 5.5 to 3.8 years. But some places made more headway than others. Washington, DC had the largest gap between blacks and whites of both sexes in 1990 (14.4 years for men and 10.4 for women) and saw the least improvement overall (reducing the spread by just...Continue reading

Hillary's jab

Mar, 12/08/2014 - 20:59

HILLARY CLINTON is positioning herself to run for president in 2016 (you heard it here first!), so she needs to put some distance between herself and whatever aspects of Barack Obama's presidency voters are currently unhappy with. She made a move in that direction in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg over the weekend, obliquely criticising Mr Obama's failure to give military support to moderate rebels in Syria early on, which she claimed was one reason for the rise of the radical movement that used to call itself ISIS and now calls itself simply the "Islamic State". (These guys really know how to troll the international media. Imagine the conundrums editors would face if the rebels in eastern Ukraine had called their quasi-state "Democracy". "The Ukrainian army continued its offensive against Democracy today...")

Mrs Clinton's critique of Obama administration policy was not as harsh as Mr Goldberg and some other newspapers portrayed it. As Continue reading

A front-row view

Mar, 12/08/2014 - 17:29

WRITING about politics means spending a lot of time looking up from the front row of the auditorium as speakers on stage talk over your head. This in turn means becoming familiar with a place that most politicians keep hidden—the undefined region where the chin becomes the neck. I don’t know of a good word in English for this place: Russian has podbaradok, which translates as “under the beard” and could be borrowed if beards were not so rare at the top level of American politics. In a whole day of speeches at the Family Leadership Summit, a gathering of conservative Christians in Ames, Iowa on August 9th, the only person with any facial hair was Iowa’s governor, Terry Branstad, who has a neat moustache.

Processions of politicians giving stump speeches can prompt the mind to wander, partly because what is said is rarely original or changes anything very much. The exception to this norm is generally when a speaker challenges the assumptions of the audience and yet manages to win them over. Rick Santorum got closer to this than anyone else speaking inside the brutalist Stephens auditorium, which held the summit....Continue reading

The threat to the rule of law

Vie, 08/08/2014 - 19:12

ROSS DOUTHAT has been arguing for the past week that Barack Obama's unilateral immigration-policy changes pose a threat of "presidential caesarism". The power grab Mr Douthat is most vexed about involves the so-called DACA ("Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals") policy, whereby the president has directed authorities to postpone action against undocumented immigrants who arrived as children. 

Opinions as to whether this oversteps the president’s authority mainly break down along political lines. Defending Mr Obama's actions, Ezra...Continue reading

A time to act

Vie, 08/08/2014 - 16:07

OVERCOMING his deep wariness of overseas entanglements, President Barack Obama has authorised American generals to launch air strikes in Iraq against the fanatical jihadists of the Islamic State (IS). The first strike was carried out on August 8th within 12 hours of the president’s announcement, and involved the bombing of a mobile IS artillery piece near Erbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in the country’s north.

Seeking to reassure a war-weary public, the president described two tightly defined missions that would trigger air attacks. First, the president told his public in a late-night address from the White House, warplanes would strike convoys of IS fighters if they threaten either American diplomats and troops stationed in Erbil or Baghdad.

Second, air strikes might be used to break an IS siege of thousands of civilians from the minority Yazidi sect, who have been trapped in mountains near the city of Sinjar without food and water, facing threats of mass slaughter from IS forces waiting below.

American transport planes dropped bundles of food and water onto the Sinjar mountains, with Kurdish...Continue reading

Girl trouble

Vie, 08/08/2014 - 02:37

JUSTICE Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Katie Couric last week that the Supreme Court has a “blind spot” when it comes to women’s issues. In contrast to the strides it has made in protecting the rights of gays and lesbians—overturning anti-sodomy laws a decade ago and gutting the Defence of Marriage Act last year, with more same-sex marriage litigation on the horizon—the Court has made little progress in protecting equality for women. Adam Liptak of the New York Times reports that in a recent talk, Justice Ginsburg said the court fails to recognise...Continue reading

Finishing the job

Jue, 07/08/2014 - 16:35

IN MARCH 1981, desperate to prove himself worthy of Jody Foster's love, John Hinckley junior tried to kill President Ronald Reagan with a handgun outside a hotel in Washington, DC. Reagan survived, but Mr Hinckley managed to shoot James Brady, then the White House press secretary, in the head, leaving him partially paralysed—and politically radicalised.

Thanks to Mr Hinckley, Mr Brady and his wife, Sarah, became staunch gun-control advocates. They founded Handgun Control Inc—an advocacy organisation now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence—and spearheaded the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which established a system of federal background checks for Americans wishing to purchase firearms, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993. This system of background checks is the principal legacy of Mr Hinckley's irrepressible victim, James Brady, who died Monday at the age of 73.

Mr Brady's passing provides a natural occasion to examine the effects of his tireless efforts on behalf of...Continue reading

High times in Amsterdam and Boulder

Mar, 05/08/2014 - 14:07

IN MY personal experience, smoking pot in Boulder, Colorado, is more enjoyable than doing so in Amsterdam. It is an extraordinary pleasure to be able to write that sentence in a respectable mainstream publication without any suggestion of having done anything criminal, and for this I thank the Colorado referendum voters who legalised marijuana in their state as of this year.

To judge by the boomlet of reports from pundits, the novelty value of toking up legally (in Colorado at least) seems to have replaced the frisson once associated with doing so illegally. This is no doubt a temporary effect that will wear off as it becomes more familiar. In the Netherlands, where a policy of official tolerance towards smoking weed was established in the 1980s, puffing now feels about as subversive as shopping for lingerie.

In fact, smoking pot in the Netherlands feels so old-hat that despite living there for the past three...Continue reading

So sue me

Lun, 04/08/2014 - 08:25

BARACK OBAMA is taking a somewhat irreverent approach to the lawsuit House Republicans voted to wage against him for exceeding the constitutional bounds of the presidency. “We could do so much more if Congress would just come on and help a little bit,” he said on Wednesday, scolding GOP lawmakers during a speech in Kansas City. “Stop just hatin’ all the time.” Chuckling, Mr Obama betrayed no anxiety about being sued. “I know they’re not that happy I’m president, but that’s OK,” he said. “I’ve only got a couple years left. Come on! Let’s get some work done.”

The irony of the lawsuit is lost on no one. Republicans cite a number of unilateral executive actions in their criticism of Mr Obama’s "imperialism", but the lawsuit concentrates on delays he has ordered in the implementation of several provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Yes, that Affordable Care Act: the one that House...Continue reading