Keeping up with the news is hard. So hard, in fact, that we’ve decided to save you the hassle by rounding up the most significant, unusual, or just plain old mind-blowing stories each week.
And my, my, my, wasn’t our first full week of 2019 a busy one for news? After a short hiatus, the US Congress reconvened and immediately plunged into partisan rancor. Riots and protests rocked three major countries. China began sniffing around the dark side of the Moon. And all the while, news of coups and kings kept the rest of the world glued to their social media feeds. Time to kick off the new year in style!
December 16, 1995, to January 6, 1996. At time of writing, that is still the longest US government shutdown in history. However, that is almost certainly about to change. The current shutdown that started on December 22 appears to have no end in sight. Bar some unexpected breakthrough, the shutdown of 2018–2019 will soon become the record-holder.
The shutdown is the result of political grandstanding between President Trump and Congressional Democrats, with each side having painted themselves into a corner. Trump wants money to fund his border wall, while Democrats don’t want to give him a penny. The wall is too symbolic for either side to back down, which is unfortunate, as red state Democrats could probably be convinced to break ranks for literally any other form of border security.
The current shutdown is only a partial one. Far fewer workers have been furloughed than during the 16-day shutdown in 2013, which correspondingly received more coverage. Ironically, some of the workers most affected by the current standoff are border patrol agents.
Last Thursday, the world was treated to some unexpected news. While governments in the US and UK were bickering, China had gone and landed a probe on the dark side of the Moon, the first nation in history to do so. This week, that probe, Chang’e 4, finally began beaming back pictures.
The pictures looked as you’d probably expect: like a really dark quarry of the sort Doctor Who used to romp around in the 1970s. But what they symbolized was far more important. Aside from the awesomeness of scientific discovery, they also showed that the space race may be coming back, and it may have a new front-runner.
China’s plans for space exploration include visiting Mars, launching a new space station, and setting up a friggin’ lunar base. After a couple of decades with no competition from a rival state, this could potentially spur the US to start funding NASA properly again.
The yellow vest protests in France may be currently getting all the attention, but it’s the protests in Sudan that may be about to bring seismic change. Back in December, a series of protests against rising bread prices got out of hand when a government building was torched. When the government responded with force, the streets exploded. The situation is now eerily reminiscent of the Arab Spring, with many speculating that the end may be in sight for Omar al-Bashir’s three-decade reign.
Sudan has been crippled by rising inflation, government mismanagement of funds, and the secession of South Sudan in 2011, which took most of the oil revenue with it (and then collapsed into its own bitter civil war). Previous protests were halted by force, but the appearance of snipers on the streets of Khartoum this time has only inflamed tensions.
While the disappearance of the bloodthirsty Omar al-Bashir would be welcome, getting rid of him may not be that easy. The government has already indicated it would follow the Syrian regime’s lead in case of a revolution, digging in and potentially triggering a devastating civil war.
Could you point to Gabon on a map? Don’t be ashamed if the answer is no; the smallish state on the Republic of the Congo’s western flank almost never makes it into the Western press. This week was an exception. On Monday morning, tanks appeared on the streets of capital Libreville as renegade soldiers stormed government buildings. It seemed a coup was on the way.
We say “seemed” because it turned out that the plotters had overestimated their strength. As the rest of the security forces came out against them, most of the rebel units melted away into the sunshine. By mid-afternoon, the commander who had announced the coup was under arrest, and Libreville was back under government control.
While a coup is rarely welcome, the outcome of President Bongo retaining control isn’t exactly a good one, either. The Bongo family has kept a tight grip on power since 1967, enjoying a luxurious lifestyle while a third of their countrymen wallow in bitter poverty.
Late last year, the US was rocked by the posting of suspicious bomb-like packages to prominent Democrats. This week, it was Australia’s turn. Over a handful of days, dozens of foreign embassies in Melbourne received packages stuffed with a suspicious white powder. They triggered a bioterrorism scare that affected embassies from countries as diverse as the US, Britain, Greece, Pakistan, Taiwan, Turkey, and South Korea.
Although anthrax was initially high in everyone’s minds, it quickly turned out that the packages contained asbestos—a hazardous material, but not exactly on par with anthrax. By Thursday, police had arrested Savas Avan on suspicion of sending a dangerous substance by mail. If found guilty, he faces ten years in jail.
Currently, Avan’s motive for the alleged attacks remains unknown. It could be he was motivated by politics, or it could be that he simply wanted to cause a panic. Thankfully, a panic—rather than mass casualties—is all he caused.
In December 2017, Doug Jones did something no Democrat had managed in a quarter of a century. He pulled off a shock Senate win in notoriously Republican Alabama, narrowly beating Roy Moore.
At the time, the win seemed unexpected but self-explanatory. Jones was a moderate with a history of prosecuting Klansmen, while Moore was the closest any party recently has come to just sticking a rosette on a pig and calling it quits.
Only, it turned out that things may have not been quite so simple. Late last year, The New York Times reported that Russian bots that appeared to follow Moore during the campaign had actually been part of Democrat false flag operation. This week, the Times followed that up by revealing that Dem operatives had also created fake Facebook pages that appeared to be from Moore supporters, advocating prohibition. In such a tight race, it’s conceivable that these dirty tricks cost Moore the election.
Jones has now called for an inquiry into Democrat use of Russia-style propaganda tactics in the race. While there’s no suggestion that he knew about or condoned these tricks, their existence still represents a stain on American democracy.
As a collection of states working together, Malaysia has an unusual system of monarchy. Rather than a hereditary life position, the monarch is chosen from among the states’ nine rulers on a five-year, often rotational basis. As a result, Malaysia has had 15 kings since coming into being in 1963.
Yet none of the 14 preceding monarchs managed to do anything as mad as Sultan Muhammed V did over the weekend. On Sunday, the ruler suddenly abdicated a mere two years into his five-year term. His resignation is unprecedented in Malaysian history.
Rumors had long been swirling about Muhammed V’s fitness for office. His two-month break from ruling before Christmas, and subsequent marriage to a Russian model half his age, had prompted angry responses from Malaysia’s elite. Still, the abdication came as a shock. Malaysia will now have to choose a new supreme ruler to see them through the next three years. No doubt the 16th king (whoever he is) will be less controversial.
When the 116th Congress took their seats last Thursday, there was one conspicuous absence. Mark Harris, the Republican winner of North Carolina’s 9th District, was nowhere to be seen. That’s because his campaign is currently under suspicion of engaging in massive voter fraud, massive enough to have cast the entire election into doubt. A hearing was scheduled for today (Friday, January 11) but has since been cancelled, throwing the future of the seat into doubt.
The allegations stretch all the way back to the 2016 House race and also cover the Republican primary Harris won prior to the midterms. In brief, Harris campaign consultant Leslie Dowless is accused of organizing a sustained campaign to collect absentee ballots from voters by hand. This is already illegal under North Carolina law, but Dowless is further accused of having his operatives fill out the ballots of vulnerable adults to make them vote Harris and even potentially destroying ballots that voted for his opponents. Since Harris won by only 900 votes, this could have swayed the election.
There’s an irony here in that the GOP have been beating the drum about voter fraud for years, but now a case has finally reared its ugly head, and it centers on a Republican candidate. With the newly Democrat-controlled House able to order another election, it’s conceivable that NC-9 won’t have a representative until November 2019.
When you look back over French history, it’s remarkable how many mass protests in Paris spiraled into outright revolution. There’s the actual French Revolution in 1789, the Insurrection of 1792 (which led to the Reign of Terror), the July Revolution of 1830, the February Revolution of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871, and the May 1968 riots that briefly forced the president to flee the country.
Basically, what we’re saying is that sustained unrest in Paris historically has a chance of leading to seismic change, which is what makes the yellow vest protests so interesting. Started in November as a protest against a fuel hike, they ballooned into a general movement that forced the Macron government to issue a crazy number of concessions. Now reaching their eighth week, they continue to attract tens of thousands of demonstrators . . . while also allowing an environment in which the right and left are tussling for control.
While the overall number of protestors has fallen (from a high of nearly 300,000 to around 50,000), the protests are still big enough to both badly disrupt France and occasionally spiral into wanton violence. At the same time, there are fears that hard-right and hard-left factions are hijacking the discontent for their own ends.
In its entire history, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has never seen a peaceful transfer of power. There have been assassinations, coups, wars, and insurrections, but never a stable change. The elections on December 30 were meant to change all that. Instead, the release of the official results on Thursday threatened to set off a chain reaction that could lead to unimaginable violence.
2018’s elections were already controversial, as they were constitutionally mandated to be held two years earlier. President Joseph Kabila managed to keep delaying them, leading to fears that he would install himself as dictator. When he finally allowed the vote to go ahead, it was widely assumed that the results would be rigged for his handpicked successor. In the event, opposition veteran Felix Tshisekedi was declared the winner.
So why the unrest? Because Tshisekedi (pictured above on right) is a political insider and is suspected to have done a backroom deal with Kabila and his party. The Catholic Church—just about the only respected organization left in the DRC—conducted its own exit poll and concluded that outsider candidate businessman Martin Fayulu had won by a gigantic margin. Fayulu has rejected the official results and called them an “electoral coup.”
The issue here is that when the DRC spirals into violence, it spirals hard. There are so many competing religious, ethnic, and political factions in this poor, under-policed country that the slightest trigger can set off unbelievable bloodshed. The Second Congo War at the start of the century caused up to five million deaths, while thousands more have died in political violence since. In other words, things could deteriorate quickly if something isn’t done. Here’s praying that doesn’t happen.