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.
This week was a mixed bag of news, with no one story standing out from the rest of the pack as particularly significant. While that’s great from a “not having to read about another mass shooting/terrorist attack/special election/Brexit implosion” perspective, it does mean that condensing the entire week down into a mere ten items involved a lot more random choosing than usual. For what it’s worth, here’s what we feel you probably need to know in this last week before Christmas.
So, that’s it then. After three years of an American troop presence in Syria, the end has finally arrived. On Wednesday, President Trump announced that the 2,000 US service members in the country would begin withdrawing very soon. As the president said, “We won.”
The “win” being referred to is in the fight against ISIS, who have seen nearly all their territory taken away from them and their caliphate completely collapse. While this sure does sound a lot like an American victory, US allies and Army commanders in the field are less sure, pointing to the tens of thousands of ISIS militants who remain under arms.
In fact, the whole withdrawal announcement seems clouded in unsureness. Kurdish groups (who did the bulk of the fighting against ISIS) have called it a betrayal that leaves them open to attack by Assad’s forces, while Israeli commentators have called the absence of American troops a gift to Iran.
How you responded to the title of this entry likely depends entirely on how you feel about Elon Musk. For some, the South African polymath is a real-life Tony Stark. For others, he’s a pompous blowhard.
Whatever your opinion, the news this week probably didn’t make you change your mind. For the first time since announcing it a couple of years ago, Musk unveiled his prototype for what he sees as the future of transportation: a subterranean network of tunnels beneath LA that will send commuters zipping through the city with no fuss and no congestion. A product of his whimsically named Boring Company, it was our first glimpse of a possible future.
Musk’s plan is that autonomous cars will be lowered into these tunnels, where side-pointing wheels attached to their regular ones will slot onto a concrete track, allowing them to zoom along at 240 kilometers per hour (150 mph). This is a marked departure from his initial plan of special pods whisking 16 humans through at a time, but it should still cater to up to 16,000 people an hour. Provided, of course, this test tunnel convinces LA to let Musk start building properly.
Hungary is a country that has been plunging headlong into authoritarianism for some time. Under leader Viktor Orban, the levers of civic society have been frozen out of the reach of anyone but his ruling Fidesz party. The media, judiciary, and universities have all been cowed. As such, it’s extremely rare for serious protests to take place. And, boy, were this week’s protests serious.
They started in response to a new overtime law. Dubbed the “slave labor” law, it would allow companies to make their employees take on 400 hours of overtime a year—and only have to pay them for it three years later. But, as with the yellow vest protests in France, what started out as a specific action against one unpopular policy quickly transformed into an angry, nationwide movement against the entire government.
Throughout this week, tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Budapest, demanding an end not just to the overtime law but to Orban’s authoritarian antics. Remarkably, the opposition has become united for the first time in years—no small feat when it includes ultra-right-wing nationalists alongside pro-EU student activists.
With the law now passed, it looks like the next step will be a nationwide strike. It will be interesting to see if this forces Orban into a Macron-style climbdown.
The move was announced way back in October, but it was still a momentous event. On Saturday, the Ukraine branch of Russia’s Orthodox Church officially split off from its bigger brother and became independent. Imaginatively called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, this brand-new branch effectively ends 300 years of Russian religious domination.
The move has been extremely controversial. When the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (sort of like the Vatican of the Orthodox world) gave the split the green light, it triggered a massive schism, with the Russian Church effectively cutting all ties with Constantinople. Ukraine’s church has argued that the breach was necessary, given the ongoing conflict between the two nations.
The new head of the church in Ukraine is Metropolitan Epiphanius, who used his first sermon to call for unity and peace in the country. We can only hope people heed his words.
It seems right now like Facebook is getting sucked into a brand-new scandal practically every other week. We’ve had tales of the digital monolith selling data to dodgy election fixers, using its clout to spread negative propaganda about its critics, and even helping to facilitate ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. This week, it’s back to data again. In an expose, The New York Times alleged Facebook has spent years sharing your data with selected companies, even if you didn’t consent to it.
At the annoying end of the scale, this latest data free-for-all allowed Microsoft’s Bing—of all things—to access your friends. At the creepier end, it allowed engineers at Spotify and Netflix access to your personal messages. Facebook insists it did nothing wrong.
This latest scandal caps off a spectacularly crappy year for Facebook in general and Mark Zuckerberg in particular. But will it make a difference? One study suggested that Facebook usage is falling sharply among teens. That still leaves well over a billion people hooked to the platform, though.
1984 was one hell of an awful year in India. In quick succession, the Indian Army stormed the Sikh holiest of holies—the Golden Temple—to kill militants. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in response. And then anti-Sikh riots exploded across the country, in which around 3,000 Sikhs were massacred. Jesus.
In the aftermath of the massacres, almost nobody was brought to justice. This was especially galling, as politicians and other powerful people were openly egging on the mobs, encouraging them to do dreadful things like hack up families with machetes and burn people alive. Thanks to India’s culture of impunity, though, they never faced any repercussions.
Until now. This week, former member of parliament Sajjan Kumar was convicted for his role in inciting rioters to murder a family of five. He is the first high-profile politician to receive justice for his role in the killings.
This is potentially big news, as more senior Indian politicians have been accused of inciting violence during the massacres. Among them is Kamal Nath, the current chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state.
Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) have done their absolute best to follow in the footsteps of Hungary’s authoritarian Viktor Orban. The media has been placed under party control, civil rights have been rolled back, and PiS have attempted to stuff the judiciary with loyal appointments.
We say “attempted” because, this week, PiS were finally forced to roll back reforms intended to stifle disloyal judges. Having lowered the mandatory retirement age on the Supreme Court from 70 to 65 earlier this year, PiS had hoped to kick out left-wing judges and replace them with loyal stooges. But an EU court ruling forced them to scrap the law and reinstate the retired justices on Tuesday. It was the first big win Brussels has scored against PiS in three years.
What’s interesting here is that PiS only retreated because the EU remains remarkably popular in Poland—despite Eurosceptic PiS also being popular. There are signs that the fights Warsaw keeps picking with Brussels contributed to PiS underperforming in recent local elections. As a result, the party seems to have decided to call a truce for now.
Well, that was embarrassing. This week, hackers possibly working for China passed over 1,000 EU diplomatic cables to news outlets. While the resulting coverage may not have exactly been a firestorm, it certainly wasn’t a damp squib. Alongside fears of nuclear weapons in Crimea and worries over Iran, the messages showed diplomats mouthing off about President Trump in a way that’s unlikely to improve bilateral ties.
The leaks were all low-level classified, so don’t expect any smoking guns. But they did include EU officials and Chinese officials discussing the US as a bully and joking that Trump was their common enemy. In one particularly damaging cable for Brussels’s foreign policy, an EU aide remarked that the Iran nuclear deal wouldn’t keep Tehran from reaching the nuclear threshold for more than 15 years at best.
In some ways, the most damaging aspect of the leaked cables may be that they were leaked at all. The US has been pressuring the EU to upgrade its information systems for years now, fearing a massive hack could happen. Now that it has, there will be red faces all around in Brussels.
Yeah, we know. Technically, this happened last Thursday. But it only did so after last week’s column was already written, so we’re covering it here regardless. In a rare bipartisan move, the US Senate voted 56–41 to end US involvement in the controversial Saudi coalition war in Yemen. The vote was a stunning rebuke from Republicans to a president they feel is too cozy with the Saudi regime.
The mechanism for all this was the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which put limits on the commander in chief’s ability to take the US careening into wars. Never before used, it was triggered during last Thursday’s vote, right before a separate vote condemning Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (known as MBS) for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The White House has a good relationship with MBS and was furious about the second vote.
Of course, the vote won’t actually lead anywhere. The House blocked an identical vote back in November, and there’s little chance they’ll allow it now. Maybe it’s something the 116th Congress can look into?
Over the last few election cycles, gerrymandering has become a major issue in American politics. In Wisconsin, gerrymandering has given Republicans a huge boost, while North Carolina’s map is so tilted toward the GOP that it’s been declared unconstitutional. But while gerrymandering cases involving Republicans have made headlines, the Democratic party hasn’t been covering itself in glory over the issue, either. Case in point: New Jersey.
As this year wound down, top Democrats in New Jersey scrambled to write gerrymandering into the state constitution, thereby giving the party a permanent edge. The power grab was so flagrant, so despicable, that even routinely pro-Democrat outlets like Vox and Slate called it shameless. For a while, it looked certain to be passed.
Thankfully, it didn’t. During the weekend, the plan was killed stone dead, in part thanks to an outcry among party activists and intervention from Governor Phil Murphy (himself a Democrat). One of the most cynical, hypocritical measures the party was pushing has been stopped.
The fact that the party’s own activists got involved is a sign that voters of all stripes are starting to get tired of the ridiculous games being played with politics. This follows ballots in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah that effectively outlawed partisan redistricting. Here’s hoping flagrant gerrymandering will soon be a thing of the past.