The Weekly Wrap for Saturday, 11 September 2021

By Tom Wharton

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today is the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terror attack. It was a shocking, brazen attack that claimed thousands of innocent lives. The date ushered in an epoch of bloody interventions, curtailed rights, and racial and religious prejudice. Even today, the aftershocks continue: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed went on trial at Guantanamo Bay just this week. There has been plenty of good writing about this topic on inkl. Here is the best of it:

  • Bloomberg – Are We Safer Now?
  • The Atlantic – After 9/11, the U.S. Got Almost Everything Wrong
  • Miami Herald – 20 years later, questions linger about Saudi connection
  • The Independent – Forgotten victims of 9/11: The 363,000 civilians killed during the War on Terror
  • Dallas Morning News – For Muslims across Northern Texas, 9/11 set off a wave of Islamophobia that has endured to this day

Talking Points

Guineans cheer Lt Col Mamady Doumbouya's special forces. PHOTO: Cellou Binani / AFP
  1. Guinea's unpopular President Alpha Conde was deposed in a coup
  2. FIFA's plan for a biennial World Cup panned by just about everyone
  3. France gripped by the mammoth trial of the last Bataclan attacker
  4. Hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers protested new laws
  5. A prison fire in Jakarta claimed 44 lives
  6. Australian conservatives defiant on coal ahead of COP26
  7. Mexico's top court found criminalising abortion to be unconstitutional
  8. Bolsonaro took a leaf out of the Trump playbook at Brazil rallies
  9. Biden mandated vaccinations for 80m private sector employees
  10. Jamie Spears filed to end Britney's conservatorship

Dive deeper

The end of an era. PHOTO: AP

This month both Germany and Canada go to the polls. Let's dive into these votes; one a fateful farewell, the other a shocking miscalculation. Russia is also performing some election pantomime (more on that later).

Life after Angela

On the 26th of September Germans will elect members of the 20th Bundestag. When Angela Merkel steps down as German chancellor, she will have spent just shy of 16 years in power. Only Helmut Kohl, a towering figure in German politics, served longer. They were both products of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU). But while Kohl was the chancellor of Germany, Merkel has arguably served as the chancellor of Europe, steering the 28-state coalition past a global financial crisis, a disastrous divorce with Britain, a belligerent Russia, and a fractious United States under Trump.

As is always the case after an iconic leader exits, the subsequent election is largely fought in the minutiae of who better exemplifies their legacy. The union of Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian offshoot have put forward Armin Laschet as the anointed heir. But even with Merkel's blessing, Laschet has fallen behind Olaf Scholz.

Scholz, the deputy of the most-recent ruling coalition, is winning the argument that his centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD) has greater fidelity to centrist 'Merkelism' . He's been described as having zero charisma but total stability. If his SPD comes out ahead, it won't be reentering government with the CDU. Scholz has joined a coalition with the Greens and the hard-left Die Linke, a partnership that would undoubtedly accelerate Germany's renewable energy program. The former is a political force to be reckoned with (polling at 17% nationally). The latter is a political risk also worth reckoning - CDU talking heads have ridiculed Die Linke as a borderline Marxist party.

For all the love of Merkel – there is genuine feeling here – the time is ripe for change in Germany.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

It would not be hard to argue that Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has handled the Covid-19 pandemic better than most of his contemporaries. 74% of the country has received a shot, and although a third wave is spreading through the quarter of the population unvaccinated, Trudeau was not without reason in thinking his stocks were high . On the 15th of August he visited the governor general and an election was called. This was a chance for his Liberal party to move from minority government to majority. But in an astonishing turnaround (not least for Trudeau's inner circle) his party now faces the growing prospect of defeat at the hands of a resurgent opposition. How did it all go so wrong?

On the whole, the Liberal platform has been bland, and derived mostly from ideas that were bandied at the last election and then forgotten. For instance, conventional wisdom would hold that campaigning on health policy in a global pandemic might be worth a shot. But the biggest reform – universal prescription drug coverage – is given the barest of nods. The scheme known as Pharmacare is a missing link for Canadians, as theirs is the only country with universal healthcare coverage that does not extend to pharmaceuticals. This of course is just one policy area, but it speaks to a government that believes it will be returned with a majority simply because it wishes to. The electorate clearly does not share that purpose. Indeed, the Liberals have been panned for seeking political expediency in an outbreak that has killed 27,000 Canadians.

Part of the calculation for going early was the low profile of Conservative leader Erin O'Toole . But being off-Broadway isn't always a bad thing. While the glare of the media has been on Trudeau's handling of the pandemic, O'Toole has quietly fashioned a Tory platform that is palatable in modern (read, increasingly small 'l' liberal) Canada. She has passed over old bugbears like abortion and gun-control in favour of the economy, the economy, and nothing but the economy. And it's working: one poll late in the week showed the Conservatives pulling ahead with 33% to the Liberals' 30%. On the 20th, we'll know if O Canada becomes O'Toole's Canada.

What's the Russian for 'doppelgänger'?

As it happens, Russia is holding its own legislative election next weekend. All 450 seats in the State Duma are up for grabs. It goes without saying that whatever happens at the ballot box, the ruling United Russia party will win a three-quarter majority. President Vladimir Putin has already ensured that victory is a fait accompli . His 2012 reform saw to it that 50% of representatives are elected in congressional districts that are conveniently controlled by the Kremlin. There won't be a much of a sniff by the opposition parties, and Alexei Navalny's supporters are being hounded at every turn. Then there is the ingenious and undeniably Russian form of interference: running doppelgängers to split the vote. Don't expect any surprises here.


Worldlywise

The next people's car: ID.Life. PHOTO: AFP

From Dieselgate to Diess

Staying in Germany, Europe’s first major motor show of the pandemic era kicked off in Munich this week. Needless to say, there have been some changes – mention the words ‘diesel’ or ‘petrol’ and you will quietly be shown the door. Instead, ‘climate-neutral mobility’ was the catch-cry at the IAA Mobility conference : lots of bikes, buzzwords, and wheels, that no one can buy for years. And there at the centre of it all, presenting a vision of climate-neutral mobility, was Volkswagen.

In case you had forgotten, that's the very same VW that was busted in 2015 for deliberately installing ‘defeat device’ software in its diesel vehicles to cheat emissions tests. The ‘Dieselgate’ saga cost the company €30 billion in fines and payouts to owners of its vehicles. More crucially perhaps, VW’s reputation took a felling blow almost at the exact moment Tesla was streaking ahead in the electric vehicle game. Sure, it may have been inevitable that ‘the pack’ would catch up with Tesla’s EV technology. But for six years Tesla was the carmaker that made electric vehicles cool. VW was the company that sold you cars that performed so poorly on emissions levels that it had to lie.

Fast-forward to Munich 2021 and VW is leaning into the pomp and positioning customary for these kinds of events. CEO Herbert Diess , raising the sustainability standard, blamed Angela Merkel’s government for holding its EV transition back with generous diesel subsidies. He may be accused of having a short memory since VW was one of the companies that spent decades lobbying for diesel’s environmental credentials. Nevertheless, ancient and modern history aside, On Monday VW launched the €20,000 ID LIFE, signalling the carmaker’s mid-term plans to dethrone Tesla as the world’s top EV seller by 2025. VW also has one eye on autonomous vehicles, showing off the bells and whistles of its self-driving van prototype. Unfortunately, the tech behemoths Apple, Uber, and Google, who are all vying for a cut of the self-driving revolution, were not in attendance.

Bitcoin over banks. PHOTO: AFP

El Salvador and the sketchy SEC

Who had El Salvador on their 2021 cryptocurrency bingo card? This week the Central American country launched the most audacious experiment in cryptocurrency adoption to date: it will accept Bitcoin as legal tender . Salvadorans were prompted to sign up to the government-built crypto wallet Chivo with $30 worth of Bitcoin, though the rollout was hampered by technical issues. El Salvador is desperately reliant on money sent home by expatriates in wealthier countries – an astonishing 25% of the GDP comes from remittances – and Bitcoin is seen as a way to avoid an international banking system that takes a nibble out of every one of those transactions. Now to weigh old against the new: predation by banks or the fluctuation of an untethered asset ( Bitcoin plunged 18% on the day of the El Salvador launch).

Elsewhere on Planet Cryptocurrency (it's not quite Earth, is it?) the publicly-traded exchange Coinbase has had a run in with the law. Its proposed financial product Lend would give cryptocurrency holders the ability to accrue interest on their coin wallets at a far more attractive rate than a cash account at a bank. The Securities and Exchange Commission considers that a security, something right in their wheelhouse. Luckily for Coinbase, for all the flattering 'watchdog' and 'sheriff' titles the media foists upon financial regulators, they are authoritie s who derive their power from negotiation. To avoid punitive action most of the time all you've got to do is talk the talk; a fairly low bar but one that CEO Brian Armstrong nevertheless failed to clear. He took to Twitter this week to accuse the SEC of "sketchy behaviour". It's a bold strategy – let's see if it pays off for him.

One of the many idiosyncrasies of the sector is that many of its adherents are in it to build world-changing technological solutions that dissolve overbearing government oversight, ossified banking structures, and fiat currencies in toto. (And not, you know, making squillions). But even if you take them at their word, utopias aren't built in a day, and in the meantime they need to do the dance with the powers that be.


The best of times

The bounty of coastal seas mapped. PHOTO: Greg Asner / Allen Coral Atlas

Paul Allen's parting gift

The most detailed map of the world’s coral was completed this week using two million satellite images . Hundreds of field contributors provided local information to guide satellites and software onto the right areas. The high-resolution map can be used as a reference for reef conservation, marine planning, and coral science. It will also allow for decisions about reef conservation to be made on a wider scale, rather than relying on hyper-localised policies.

Helping hands

Getting by is much easier with a little help from friends. 14-year-old New Jersey resident Ewan Kirby is missing most of his fingers on his left hand, preventing him from performing basic tasks. Noticing the struggle Ewan faces, friend Sam Salvano spent an entire summer constructing a prosthetic hand capable of opening and closing. All of its parts were 3D-printed, meaning the hand fit Ewan perfectly. As a result, Ewan is now able to use his left hand in the same way that he uses his right.


The worst of times

Delhi wreathed in smog. PHOTO: Rajat Gupta / EPA

Profit and pollution

Fossil fuel projects received 20% more funding than programmes to tackle air pollution in 2019 and 2020. Dirty air is the world’s biggest environmental killer, causing 4m early deaths every year. The funding itself is heavily skewed towards middle-income Asian countries. This means that other places with heavily polluted cities are missing out.

Beijing wipes the record

Beijing is continuing to remove evidence of its Tiananmen Square crackdown as a means of quashing dissent. This week a museum commemorating the event was raided by authorities before five staff members were arrested. Hong Kong police accuse the pro-democracy organisation that runs the museum of operating as a ‘foreign agent’. As part of the raid, dozens of boxes of documents, photos of vigils, and parts of exhibits were seized.


Weekend Reading

The image

The crowd at Flushing Meadow and her fans back home in Britain are thrilled by Emma Raducanu's improbable victories at the US Open. The 18-year-old can't quite believe it either. Image supplied by The Independent.

The quote

"Theranos failed in part because it made mistakes, but mistakes are not crimes. A failed business does not make a CEO a criminal."

Attorney Lance Wade , representing Elizabeth Holmes, makes his opening statement in the highly anticipated trial of a disgraced Silicon Valley icon. Mistakes are not crimes, but fraud is.

The numbers

29 metres of hand-excavated tunnel

- This week six Palestinian prisoners escaped from a high-security Israeli military prison with the greatest of all tools: the humble spoon . A manhunt is underway in the Occupied Territories, and the IDF have arrested relatives of the escapees. They remain on the lam.

29,000km of unused pipes

- There are tens of thousands of kilometres of deprecated oil pipelines snaking their way along the Gulf Coast. Some of them, still carrying oil despite being decommissioned, ruptured under the barrage of Hurricane Ida, spilling their contents around Louisiana. As a species we are much better at building things than removing them.

The headline

"Jeff Bezos is too rich for one lifetime, so he's trying to live forever" Mic .

The special mention

A time-honoured special mention goes to Venice's tourist control authorities! This story revealed that tourists are tracked with phone-tracing and surveillance cameras the moment they arrive at La Serenissima. In the process, they are participating in the long and proud history of Venetian spies which dates back to the late-Medieval era Consiglio dei Diece who kept the entire city fearful of who might listening around the corner.

A few choice long-reads

  • We don't drink contaminated water, so why do we breathe contaminated air? A superb read from The Atlantic. We don't play favourites at inkl but this one is undoubtedly worth your time.
  • "Come back tomorrow – with money". Corruption is endemic in Afghanistan. And, like so much of the country's recent history, it has its roots in the United States. A fine read from Foreign Affairs.
  • The one thing we overlook again and again in the news industry is the lives of ordinary people. This is brilliant journalism from the Texas Observer: the testimonies of people whose lives have been shaped – destroyed – by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting


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