Saturday, the 8th of February

Talking Points

Did you know Kirk Douglas helped end the Hollywood 'blacklist'?. PHOTO: The Guardian
  1. The film world mourned the passing of a titan, Kirk Douglas
  2. Turkey and Syria had a deadly dust-up in Idlib province
  3. Violence worsened in Palestine over the Kushner Accords
  4. Britain and Brussels disagreed almost immediately
  5. As did Boris Johnson and Donald Trump
  6. While Johnson & Johnson were ordered to pay $750m
  7. Boeing was in the news again for all the wrong reasons
  8. This January was the hottest on record (no surprises here)
  9. The Australian Open was won by a champion. And a first-timer.
  10. And the Chiefs ended a 50-year drought at Super Bowl LIV

Deep Dive

The wheel of justice has a broken axle. PHOTO: Nicholas Kamm / AFP

The acquittal of Donald J. Trump by his Republican allies in the Senate was both expected and novel. Expected in that a Senate majority is a mighty cudgel. Novel in that the naked expediency of the trial cleaved the rhetoric of American exceptionalism.

Great expectations

Before we delve into the trial, let's get our bald eagles in a row. The United States of America is exceptional: it is not a typical nation. It boasts the largest economy in the history of our species, and a world-bestriding military. The architecture of the global monetary, technological and trade apparatus find their roots in Washington and New York, just as surely as the roads once led to Rome. Massive state investments in critical industries during the 20th century have spurned dazzling West Coast private sector innovation in the 21st. And, America's cultural imperium arguably touches every human on the planet.

But power is seldom exercised without the aid of a self-serving narrative, and it's this rhetorical function that spins out the doctrine of exceptionalism. In 1630, the leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, wrote of his outpost, "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us". Not much has disabused the American public of this notion in the interceding centuries. From generation to generation, Americans have been told by their politicians that they are the leaders of the free world (see: Trump's state of the union address ). That theirs is an incorruptible capital 'R' Republic. That America's goodness is not just the handmaiden to its power, but a quality imbued by both the pages of its constitution and the institutions empowered by it. This week the Republican party shattered that belief.

If the longevity of institutions were to be estimated by the quality of their work, we would not like the odds for the United States senate. The 100 senators representing (most of) America's territories were faced with a grave task this week: to conduct the impeachment trial of a sitting president. It was an epochal event in American history – the most severe punishment of a wayward executive branch. And the proceedings were overseen by the Chief Justice of America's Supreme Court, which ought to have imbued them with imprimatur and wisdom.

The death of a sales pitch

Evidence in favour of the prosecution was manifold. And damning. On the first article of impeachment (abuse of power) it was abundantly clear that President Trump had indeed meddled in the Ukraine aid affair. On the second article (obstructing congress) there was still room for a little doubt. Even early in the week, just days from the final vote, Republican senators were publicly and privately conceding that Trump had abused his power in the Ukraine affair. But then, they voted against impeachment (and along party lines) anyway, securing Trump's continued presidency. The Republicans had the numbers, leaving the Democrats well short of the two-thirds majority required, so they won. But in doing so they turned the entire event into a farce, a show trial, and they made a mockery of the oaths they swore at the outset of the proceedings.

The message to the layman is clear: if ever party politics and justice come into conflict, the unambiguous winner will be party politics. Just imagine, for a moment, what America's response would have been if this had happened in Venezuela! In Mitt Romney the terminal anti-Trump faction found their only standard bearer: a one-time presidential nominee who crossed the aisle and voted to impeach Trump on the first article. But it was an action of no consequence. How could it be anything other than inconsequential when principles and intentions have been dispensed in favour of naked political expediency? The Republicans have collapsed the distance between the rhetoric of exceptionalism and the grubbiness of realpolitik. Their actions may have served their ends in the short-term, but at some point they will be faced by an ultimatum for which they will have no answer: you can either have the soaring rhetoric, or the raw power, but not both.

Meanwhile America's President has been at his triumphal best: savaging his enemies and crowing about his victory. The impeachment has proven to be a fundraising boon like no other for Trump. Many of his supporters see him, rightly or wrongly, as vindicated. And why wouldn't they? The process and the institution that ostensibly delivers justice in America has ruled in his favour. In his State of the Union address Trump said that America's enemies are on the run: given the shambolic Democratic Iowa Caucus , his enemies certainly are. Elsewhere in the speech Trump warned an undefined group of terrorists that, "You will never escape American justice".

They mightn't, but he certainly has.


Punished for trying to save lives. PHOTO: The Guardian

Hundreds more perish in China

The coronavirus death toll in mainland China is, at time of writing, 636. That figure has tripled in a week and has far surpassed the deadly SARS outbreak of 2002-03 which had, until now, been our high-water mark for pandemics in the modern age. Countries all around the world are rushing to put quarantine measures into place, though as we mentioned last week, the benefits of such efforts may be illusory . The United States, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam have all taken the extraordinary action of placing temporary bans on anyone arriving from China. Unfortunately, such drastic measures may be contributing to the xenophobia that has metastasized from fear. Keep a close eye on the developments aboard a quarantined cruise ship in Yokohama Bay – coronavirus is spreading through its occupants at a rate of knots.

Among the dead this week was a 34-year-old doctor from Wuhan. In early January, Dr Li Wenliang was one of the first people to pierce the veil of official silence and warn his colleagues that "SARS-like" flu-clusters were appearing. Instead of praise, he was hounded by the police for spreading disinformation. Li continued to practice and eventually contracted the virus from a pre-symptomatic patient at his hospital. His death sparked outrage on Chinese social media platforms.

It's nice to get out once in a while. PHOTO: Nasa

Astral week

Departing the atmosphere, let's catch up on a busy week of stellar news. On Sunday the European Space Agency will launch a probe that will eventually orbit our star (courtesy of a slingshot from Venus). It will study the behaviour of the sun as it emits flares and coronal ejections. These are worth studying because a mass-coronal ejections could fry the circuitry on our planet. Too little exposure to the sun makes one gloomy, too much might just send us hurtling back into the 19th century.

Elsewhere we discovered that Albert Einstein was right about yet another thing. His prescient theory that planets can warp space-time as they move is more than a century old – and had been observed on Earth – but has only now been verified. Researchers have spent two decades peering at PSR J1141-6545, a lively young pulsar that is trapped in the gravity well of a monstrously-sized and counter-intuitively-named white dwarf star. By studying the drift of the pulses, we know that Einstein's notion of 'frame-dragging' is spot on.

And, if you've ever wondered what it looks like when a binary star system decides to become a single star system – wonder no more .

The Best of Times

Which of these can you consume ethically? PHOTO: The Guardian

Before you start the Sunday roast...

Over the last several weeks we've noted that a number of the most-read stories on inkl pertain to living a more ecologically-conscious life. It is a great pleasure to know that you are seeking to improve your consumption and habits. So without further ado: here is an ethical guide to eating meat, poultry eggs and dairy.

And before you throw a load of washing on...

It's not just at the butcher or grocery store that we can all lighten our environmental footprints: we can do plenty more in the laundry . This piece takes you through step-by-step instructions on how to reduce wastage, water and wear. It starts – and this will be bad news for many younger generations – with eschewing fast-fashion labels like H&M, Zara, Forever 21 and Target. Doing the washing is a sad reality of modern life; there's no need to inflict more damage on the environment if we can help it.

The Worst of Times

Inflicting death is a soldier's job. What if they are too good at it? PHOTO: AFP

Natural born killers

All countries want soldiers who are ready to commit state-sanctioned murder. But what happens when those killers are a little too-well adapted to it? A new study has discovered that pre-existing antisocial personality disorder crops up again and again in the perpetrators of war crimes . The disorder makes its sufferer indifferent to the suffering of others, thus opening the door to horrific crimes. The study raises serious questions about whether or not a modern military ought to screen such killers out.

A twin tragedy

On Tuesday an avalanche buried a minibus in Turkey's mountainous Van province. As rescue workers dug through the snow the following day, a second avalanche swept down the slope, killing at least 33 people . Another rescue operation was underway late in the week to recover the injured and the dead amid a blizzard.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"I have spoken recently about winds of hope. But today a wind of madness is sweeping the globe."

– United Nationals Secretary-General Antonio Guterres laments the recommencement of hostilities in Syria, Yemen and Libya.

Headline of the week

''The climate case for childlessness"

Financial Times .

Special mention

The brave souls trying to quieten Mumbaikars. As anyone who has sat gridlocked in India's financial hub will attest; the plaintive fanfare of car, motorbike and rickshaw horns is constant. Now Mumbai's police department has embarked on a quixotic quest to silence the city's cacophonous commuters . Devices have been installed at major intersections to reset the red-light timer if the noise rises above 85 decibels; a sweeping piece of social engineering with a simple description - "honk more, wait more".

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton