Saturday, the 8th of September

Talking points

The new faces of an old, cold war. PHOTO: AFP
  1. Theresa May threatened to 'dismantle' Russia's military-intelligence network after charging two officers with the Salisbury novichok attack
  2. A 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck northern Japan just days after the powerful Typhoon Jebi wreaked havoc across the south and west
  3. Myanmar sentenced two Reuters reporters to seven years in jail on trumped-up national security charges
  4. Polling showed that in a second referendum a majority of Brits would vote to remain in the EU
  5. Billionaire founder of Liu Qiangdong was arrested in Minnesota on rape charges - only to be promptly released
  6. The UN negotiated a ceasefire in Libya; rival militias had turned the capital Tripoli into a war zone
  7. Mexican police unearthed the remains of at least 166 people from a mass grave in Veracruz
  8. US legislators raised the prospect of beefing up regulations for social media platforms during hearings with Twitter's Jack Dorsey and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg
  9. Argentina's government announced new belt-tightening measures as its central bank warned of a deepening recession
  10. North and South Korea agreed to high-level talks in Pyongyang in mid- September

Deep Dive

Kavanaugh pleads his case. PHOTO: Alex Brandon / AP
In America, Supreme Court justices rule for life: they serve for decades and their judgements shape the country long after they're gone. Even so, there was a time when senate confirmation hearings for nominees were a reasonably staid affair. Then in 2016 Merrick Garland’s nomination became a fiasco. Now Brett Kavanaugh's hearing has drained all civility from the process.

Kavanaugh is Trump's pick to replace the swing-voting Justice Anthony Kennedy. According to Beltway insiders he is a paragon of decency. So why has his confirmation been chaotic, bordering on farcical?

In part, this goes back to 2016. The Democrats were aggrieved when Republicans (who have held a majority in the Senate since 2015) refused to hold a vote to appoint Garland. As a result the appointment was delayed till after Trump took office and he was able to appoint Neil Gorsuch instead. Now, with a second appointment, Trump and the Republicans have an opportunity to tip the court 5-4 in their favour.

Then there’s the question of procedure (an important quality for the legislative and judicial wings of any government). The White House withheld a trove of documents (42,000 pages in fact) pertaining to Kavanaugh's time working for Bush - until half a day before his first hearing. This meant that Democrat senators (led by Kamala Harris and Cory Booker) had little time to absorb his official record. So they mounted an ad-hoc offensive instead.

And last but not least is Kavanaugh’s own record. Democrats are wary because he is a constitutional originalist (similar to someone who holds a fundamentalist view of religious texts). And so, unsurprisingly, he has endured a significantly more vigorous questioning than his predecessors. 

The at-times quarrelsome sessions also yielded some controversial tidbits about Kavanaugh's philosophy. For instance, he once described the cornerstone of American abortion law (Roe v. Wade) as "not settled". He made a factual error in describing all birth control as abortion-inducing. And on the issue of gun legislation he conflated semi-automatic hand guns with assault rifles (which have been used in several school shootings). 

Like any good legal mind, Kavanaugh swatted away the sharpest questions and stuck to safe ground. The issue du jour was whether he would support letting a sitting president pardon himself - but he refused to be drawn into what is (at least for now) a hypothetical question. As Trump’s legal entanglements worsen, it has been suggested that he has nominated a justice more likely to rule in his favour.

Dozens of protesters had to be removed from the public gallery for their regular outbursts. An increasingly grouchy Orrin Hatch (R) was interrupted every few minutes and mused whether they should all be thrown out. On the first day, the father of a school shooting victim tried to shake Kavanaugh's hand. But the future justice looked at the outstretched hand, spun on his heel, and walked away. Such behaviour is fodder for the liberal press.

But none of this will make a difference. With the Republicans holding the senate 51-49 Kavanaugh’s confirmation is a done deal.


Eyes on the prize. PHOTO: New Zealand Herald
Just the two of us
Amazon's shareprice rose by nearly 2% this week, pushing the company into the trillion dollar club. It's just the second American company to reach the milestone, behind Apple. AMZN is trading at just over $2000 per share.

The business founded and helmed by Jeff Bezos is soaring in value in a way that few ever have. As a yardstick, consider Facebook: this time last year both companies had comparable market capitalisations. Now Amazon is $500 billion larger, having doubled in 12 months. It will no doubt also overtake Apple in the near future.

The numbers are stark: 100m Prime members, half a million employees and $200 billion in online sales. Amazon Prime Day is one of the biggest shopping events in the world each year. Bezos has plenty to be pleased about: his own net worth has climbed to an estimated $166 billion.
India's LGBT+ community rejoices. PHOTO: The Independent
Section 377 overturned
In a landmark ruling India's Supreme Court has decriminalised homosexuality. Derived from a penal code written in 1860, Section 377 of the constitution was a hangover from British colonial rule. It outlawed gay sex in vague, religiously-loaded language. In the interceding 158 years authorities (religious and secular) of all stripes have used the law to punish any variation in sexual orientation. The unanimous decision now to scrap the antiquated law is a significant step in a country so religious that its politicians had refused to touch the issue for decades.

One justice offered a rousing opinion, “there is an unbridgeable divide between the moral values on which it (Section 377) is based and the values of the Constitution. What separates them is liberty and dignity.” The ruling brings to a close a turbulent decade during which the status of gay relationships was examined repeatedly by the courts and the media. 

The decision brings India in line with China (which decriminalised gay sex in 1997). Now a majority of Asians live in countries that have collapsed the legal scaffolding of homophobia. Thrown into sharp relief are the hardline positions on homosexuality held by many smaller South and Southeast Asian nations.

The Best Of Times...

Williams smashed her way in 6-3, 6-0. PHOTO: AFP 
Williams ascends, again
On Sunday Serena Williams will play in her 9th US Open final against Naomi Osaka. Of the previous eight finals she's played at Flushing Meadows, she has taken the chocolates home in six. She's chasing her 24th Grand Slam victory, a result which would tie her with Margaret Court's record. Many believe her to be the best tennis player in the history of the game. Others (like Nike's marketing department) say she's the greatest athlete full stop. Truly a champion of our time.

A modern Guernica
Few Western powers have raised their voice against the Saudi-Emirati air war in Yemen. Fewer still have done anything concrete. We can now count Spain amongst those few. The Spanish defence ministry has ripped up a 2015 deal with Riyadh to sell 400 laser-guided bombs to the Gulf monarchy. Madrid remains tight-lipped about its decision but those responsible must be congratulated. By contrast, their neighbours in Britain have increased arms sales to Saudi Arabia by 500% since the war began.

The Worst Of Times...

Bad times in Basra.
Basra erupts
The 2 million citizens of Basra have largely been ignored by successive Iraqi administrations. Administrators of the southern oil-hub have allowed the city's infrastructure to fail. The blazing heat of summer has been exacerbated by the dangerously-increasing salinity of Basra's main water source. This week anger spilled over and demonstrators torched the main government building in town. On the third day of protests the police opened fire - at least eight lost their lives. This crisis could not come at a worse time for the parties trying to form government in Baghdad.

Bonfire of the antiquities
The National Museum in Rio de Janeiro - the largest natural history museum on the continent - was incinerated this week. Artefacts that had survived for thousands of years were extinguished in a handful of hours. In a sadly poetic twist the inferno destroyed a frieze that had survived Pompeii. Years of neglect and budget cuts had taken their toll on the 200-year-old building. Astonishingly, it did not have even a working sprinkler system. Brazilians are rightly furious at the fact their government cannot be trusted with the present or the past.

Weekend Reading

Featured long-reads from inkl publishers:
Tom Wharton


Quote of the week... 
"Only the Obama WH can get away with attacking Bob Woodward" - Donald Trump tweeted these words back in 2013; this week he ripped into Woodward over the veteran journalist's new book. It's true: there is a tweet for everything. 

What to watch this weekeend
A Burt Reynolds film, of course. We recommend Boogie Nights.

One last thing
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