Saturday, the 18th of May

Talking points

Pei and his controversial entrance to the Louvre. PHOTO: Washington Post
  1. The architecture world mourned the passing of I. M. Pei
  2. China left a trillion dollar hole in global markets in a trade-war blow
  3. Cancer victims were awarded $2b in the Monsanto weed-killer case
  4. Scientists breathed life into the first entirely-synthetic organism
  5. WhatsApp revealed a highly-damaging Israeli spyware hack
  6. Theresa May offered to resign if her Brexit bill fails a fourth time
  7. Sweden reopened the rape case against Julian Assange
  8. Teva, Mylan were accused in a massive pharmaceutical price-fixing case
  9. Britain warned of approaching U.S. levels of inequality
  10. Eurovision drew unwanted attention to Israeli occupation

Deep Dive

At what point could one call Alabama a theocracy? PHOTO: Mickey Welsh / Montgomery Advertiser

A common assumption holds that power manifests at the peak of a hierarchy and cascades downwards. It's through this prism that people view the office of, say, the President of the United States of America. As the highest position in government it is assumed to also be the most powerful. But as the recent US abortion debate has shown us, a significant fulcrum of conservative American power in 2019 also lies in the statehouses and courts.

States of disbelief

On January 22 ,1973, the US Supreme Court ruled that a woman's right to abortion was protected by the 14th constitutional amendment. The Roe v Wade ruling stipulated that states cannot pass laws to impede terminations during the first trimester. It was, and is, perhaps the most divisive judgement in modern American jurisprudence. Ever since that ruling America has remained split into pro-life and pro-choice camps. And the fact that abortion is a woman's constitutional right has not deterred those who seek to outlaw it. For nearly half a century conservative opponents to the ruling have waged a war of attrition, often out of sight of the national imagination. Not anymore.

This week Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law the most restrictive abortion ban in the United States. In doing so she was guided by her faith, saying, "To the bill's many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God". It criminalises abortions at any stage of pregnancy with no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. Doctors who perform the procedure face a maximum 99-year prison sentence. 

This means that today in Alabama the rape of a 12-year-old girl (Class C felony: minimum one year) carries a lighter sentence than the provision of a medical or surgical abortion to the victim (Class A felony: minimum 10 years). The moral argument against this does not need to be made: it makes itself. 

The law is, in the clearest possible sense, unconstitutional. So why, you might wonder, would lawmakers bother to pass such a ruling? That's because Alabama's legislators know that constitutionality is what the Supreme Court says it is, as do similar lawmakers in other Republican states who have also been rushing to pass abortion bans. The day after Governor Ivey signed Alabama's abortion ban into law, Missouri's senate passed a total ban on abortions after eight-weeks. The week before, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp's signature saw the 'heartbeat bill' become enshrined in that state's statute book. Such a bill ostensibly protects the life of the foetus from 6-weeks, long before it would be viable outside the womb, and would in effect be a near-total abortion ban because most women are not even aware of their pregnancy at 6 weeks. Mississippi did the same in March. As did Ohio, in April

Courting danger

Taking a broader view, these new laws are not really about statewide rulings. They are launching pads to reach the US Supreme Court, and each state is counting on pro-life activists to challenge its new law in lower courts. Which of course the activists will – the constitution is on their side. But once they do, Alabama or Mississippi can seek recourse before the Supreme Court. That is both the ultimate challenge, and the prize - forcing the US Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v Wade. 

Control of the Supreme Court has been the raison d'être of the Republican Party for decades. And now they have it. In theory, the court's delicate balance of progressive (in the loosest sense of the word) and conservative justices is preserved by swing votes. But the design is faulty: justices are tenured for life and don't die or retire by any schedule, so there is always a modicum of politicking during confirmations. And with two picks in his first term, Donald Trump has tipped the balance of the court in favour of conservatism. Brett Kavanaugh replaced a retiring Justice Kennedy late last year under a cloud of controversy. But it was the appointee before Kavanaugh that was the more important one.

Neil Gorsuch was confirmed just three months into the Trump presidency, and his position on the court marked a watershed that will be studied by future historians. Gorsuch should not by any means be a Supreme Court justice. The seat he filled was Antonin Scalia's, a famed originalist who had died in February 2016. Back then the Republican-controlled Senate had refused to hold hearings for Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell saw a once-in-a-generation opportunity to stack the court in conservatives' favour and stalled for the entire last year of the Obama administration. McConnell ranks it among his proudest accomplishments. To Democrats it was a death knell for due process.

And so now despite the fact that a clear majority of American voters (including those in Alabama and Georgia) support unfettered abortions in the first two trimesters, and despite the fact that constitutional precedent demands otherwise, America is at a threshold. The volley from Republican statehouses may still fall short of the mark. But the pendulum of time has swung in their favour: the two new justices will be presiding over the law for decades after both Trump and McConnell have left office. And is likely that the issue will end up before the Supreme Court a number of times. The Republican establishment needs only to be lucky once; but Americans with uteruses will need to be lucky always.

An even bigger issue for the world at large is that as abortion rights erode at home, America risks losing its mantle as a global leader in health. U.S. representatives at an international women's forum have been instructed to eschew the term "sexual and reproductive health" because of a tenuous allusion to abortions. Those instructions came after heavy lobbying from the right-wing American think tank Centre for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM). Gallingly, they are lobbying internationally against abortion protections: at the same conference representatives from Yemen were also reading from C-FAM guidelines. And so the creep of U.S. politics continues, and fringe religious views from conservative parts of America are beginning to infect the agenda on women's health globally.


The instantly-recognisable Raoni before Brazil's congress. PHOTO: AFP

Indigenous voices rise 

This week the famed Kayapo chief Raoni Metuktire left the Amazonian reserve of Xingu and began a three-week tour of Europe. In the past the veteran campaigner has achieved what few others have; making indigenous and environmental rights a cause célèbre in the West. On this tour he'll meet a variety of European leaders and Pope Francis in order to raise money to protect his corner of the Amazon from illegal loggers and farmers.

The advocacy tour coincides with a group of Torres Strait Islanders travelling to Geneva to file a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee against the Australian government. Their home islands, off the north coast of the Australian mainland, are uniquely vulnerable to rising sea levels. Their complaint takes a novel approach; they argue that if the government fails to undertake meaningful efforts to decarbonise the economy then it will be be in breach of its human rights obligations. One Warraber Island community leader said, "Our culture starts here on the land. It is how we are connected with the land and the sea. You wash away the land and it is like a piece of us you are taking away."

And lastly, U.N. chief Antonito Guterres has hailed the "moral authority" of Pacific Islanders to speak on climate change. These are the nations that will be bear the brunt of rising sea levels despite having contributed the least to global carbon emissions. Even if the international community achieves the transformation needed to lessen climate change, Countries like Tuvalu will soon slip below the waves, leaving behind nothing but memories.
Don't believe the hype. PHOTO: AFP

Jus ad bellum?

A carrier battle group steaming towards the Persian Gulf. Mysterious incidents of sabotage. Embassy staff in nearby countries evacuated. The coverage would have us believe that its 2019 going on 2003. So let's pick through what is, and isn't happening between America and Iran. First off, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its attendant strike group is indeed en route to the Persian Gulf – but because of a routine deployment that was planned months ago. Many news organisations have elided this fact, instead playing up the angle of an impending clash. Ignore this. 

Then there was the sabotage: four oil tankers were damaged at the Emirati port of Fujairah. The mysterious attack did not sink any of the ships, cause the spillage of oil, or kill anyone onboard. Officials (unnamed, of course) in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Washington all pinned Iran for the attack, but provided no evidence whatsoever. There is a deep inconsistency in this narrative. On the one hand, Iran is alleged to be an infinitely dangerous foe with tendrils all over the region, capable of untold mischief. On the other, it can't even sink an unarmed ship barely 100km off its own coastline. Question this.

But what, you ask, of the embassy staff evacuated from Iraq? Well, the U.S. claimed that shadowy Iranian threats are emerging against coalition forces in the country. A claim that was flatly contradicted by the ranking British commander in Iraq, who reported, "no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria". This entire escalation began when the White House received intelligence that the Iranian Republican Guard Corp were loading anti-ship missiles onto small attack boats. Boats that are moored at Iranian docks, floating on Iranian waters, in a gulf named after their ancient antecedents. Call us when they get to the mid-Atlantic. 

The events of the last two decades should give us all pause when fringe war-hawks advocate for war but can provide no case for one. 

The Best of Times

One of the all-time great shots. PHOTO: Washington Post

A buzzer-beater for the ages

Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard knocked the Philadelphia 76ers out of the NBA Eastern Conference finals with a three-pointer that needs to be seen to be believed. A gift for basketball lovers everywhere. Incredibly, it might not have even been the best last-gasp victory of the week. 

The ultimate run-chase

Last weekend the Mumbai Indians pulled off their fourth consecutive Indian Premier League cricket title in extraordinary style. The Chennai Super Kings chased down the target set for them and needed just two runs off the final ball to win. But in a roaring stadium Mumbai bowler Lasith Malinga shook off what had till then been a shocking game for him, and trapped Chennai's Shardul Thakur for LBW. Incredible scenes.

The Worst of Times

A sad cycle in Sri Lanka. PHOTO: Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

Riots, curfews and mobs

In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings inter-communal violence has erupted in Sri Lanka. Roving mobs of Buddhists have targeted Muslims with violence and torched their mosques, homes and businesses. At least one Muslim man died in the riots. This is exactly the response that the National Thowheeth Jama'ath (who claimed responsibility for the bombings) were hoping to provoke. 

Competing idelogies

Burkina Faso is in the grips of an insurgency fought by not one but three competing jihadi groups. Late last week French special forces rescued several foreign hostages from one militia in a deadly raid. Just two days after that a priest and five of his flock were shot in their church in the city of Dablo. In Burkina Faso it is not just Christians being targeted; Muslim clerics are often murdered for not being radical enough.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"It's the end of sculpture. It's the anti-David as I call it. You can't go any further away from David still being figurative and a traditional sculpture."

– Alexander Rotter of Christie's was breathlessly complimentary of the Jeff Koons sculpture "Rabbit". As well you might have expected him to be, given his auction house had just flogged it for $91.1m – a record for a living artist. And if anyone is wondering: Christie's is pocketing $10m of that in commission and fees.

Headline of the week

He went where no human had gone before. Our trash had already beaten him there.

Washington Post

Special mention

Some seriously good climate modelling. This week the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 415ppm; believe us when we say that's a lot. Amazingly, a group of savvy climate scientists predicted this eventuality back in 1982. Unfortunately for all of humanity they were in the employ of the American oil and gas giant Exxon which promptly buried their findings. Forearmed with knowledge of a climate apocalypse Exxon went on a years-long campaign to lobby against action on climate change and even funded climate deniers. 

Some choice long-reads

EDITOR'S NOTE: The nation of Australia bids farewell to perhaps its greatest post-war prime minister, Bob Hawke. He was many things to many people: larrikin, statesman, alcoholic, sports-lover, womaniser, intellectual, gambler, icon. 

Whatever your view of politics, its a damn fine thing for a country to ask you to lead it in four consecutive elections. We'll remember the breadth of his vision, the shock of his hair and, of course, his proficiency with a cold glass of beer. In the local parlance, "onya Hawkey".

Tom Wharton