Great Barrier Reef, we hardly knew ye

Before we begin, I must rise and give a standing ovation to all my Dutch friends.

You did it. You rejected populism! The Dutch did something that the British and Americans could not do.

In case you haven’t been following the Weinblog™, this burst of joy is in reference to Geert Widlers, the extremely radical, far-right “Dutch Trump” whose party fell significantly short of winning the most seats in the Netherlands parliamentary elections on Wednesday.

The country’s Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, whose party did win the most votes, said in his victory speech that the craziness in the U.S. under Donald Trump made people rethink choosing a populist leader.

It’s great we get to be the guinea pig so other countries don’t screw up like we did.

But anyway, let’s shift gears to something a little more demoralizing that’s happening on the other side of the globe: the deterioration of the Great Barrier Reef.

It’s a pretty sad thought that one day, if I ever have grand-kids, I’ll have to explain to them that it was during my generation when we learned that the Great Barrier Reef was dying … and we did nothing to stop it.

That’s the reality. A recent paper published by scientists informs us that one of our planet’s foremost natural phenomena is in mortal danger – 30 years quicker than we expected. While the reef requires warm underwater temperatures to survive, global warming has caused temperatures to rise too much, proving deadly.

Great Barrier Reef

But the researchers explain that not all is hope is lost, and that there is time to restore the necessary conditions to salvage the precious underwater ecosystem.

But we have to act now.

Spoiler alert: we won’t.

Barack Obama was the symbolic leader of the monumental Paris Agreement, at which nearly 200 countries agreed to take tangible action to combat climate change. Now Obama’s gone, and Trump has threatened to pull the U.S. out of the agreement.

As much as we will want to blame Trump, though, Australia is as guilty as anyone else, as their conservative government continues to support fossil fuel development, including the construction of a proposed coal mine – a pretty big shocker considering the barrier reef is responsible for bringing the country some 70,000 jobs and billions of dollars in tourism revenue.

One would think that would motivate them to act. Guess not.

The Barrier Reef is as astonishing as anything our natural world has to offer. So astonishing that it’s often considered one of the modern wonders of the world.

Think of the massive development of a city over time into a complex, vivacious metropolis. Now imagine that underwater, constructed entirely by living organisms. It’s almost impossible to fathom.

And we are letting it die.

But hey, at least we’ll always have coal, right?

Although, if the first two months of Trump’s presidency are any indication, perhaps the courts will find a way to step in and override his complete disregard for climate change, just like they did for a second time with his proposed travel ban.

Hawaii Travel Ban

As we all have the distinct displeasure of remembering, Trump was a man unleashed during his campaign. Initially, he had only tepid support, and he was just running his mouth saying whatever he felt like to appeal to his base. Many of those things were downright bigoted.

And now he is suffering the consequences.

Yes, the revised travel ban down cut out the most controversial parts of the first one. But the damage has already been done. No matter how stately the administration attempts to word this thing, we know what they want to do. And in America, we don’t discriminate based on religion.

It’s refreshing to finally see somebody hold Trump accountable for his recklessness.

And credit must be given where it is due: you did it, Hawaii! Yeah! High five!

From now on, you will be remembered for being a popular honeymoon destination, the movie Lilo and Stitch, and … putting a stop to Trump’s second travel ban.

Put that shit right on the license plate.

If you’re tired of hating Trump all the time, direct some towards this dude from the Netherlands

On March 15, the Netherlands will hold their parliamentary elections, where they essentially elect their local representatives in government, called Members of Parliament, our version of Congress.

Unlike the United States, countries with parliamentary systems almost always have several parties to choose from, which gives residents the opportunity to have a more diverse government that better represents the will of the people.

If one political party has enough of their MPs elected to form a majority (for example, 76 representatives in a parliament of 150 seats), then they essentially control the government and their party leader likely becomes prime minister. If there’s no majority, parties form coalitions until they have one, and the leader of the party that got the most votes still usually becomes prime minister.

Normally this is all trivial stuff and few people outside the Netherlands cares what happens in their elections.

In fact, unless you’re talking about planning a trip to Amsterdam with the bros, few Americans have any interest at all in discussing the Netherlands.

But on March 15, the stakes in the Netherlands have never been higher.

AMsterdam

And that’s because the election has basically become a referendum on far-right populist ideologies that are being increasingly espoused by radically conservative politicians across the world, most notably in the U.S. by Donald Trump.

With populist movements threatening to gain influence in countries like France and Germany, the Netherlands elections are being viewed as a global bellwether of the European political temperature – especially since Netherlands is historically one of the most socially liberal countries in the world.

Their version of Donald Trump? A man by the name of Geert Wilders (last name pronounced Vilders), a bleached-blonde, slimy looking, Islam-hating, refugee-loathing agitator who has stirred the pot within his country and has had a far-reaching influence worldwide.

He’s proposed closing all mosques, banning the Qu’ran, and has called the hijab a “useless piece of cloth.” He’s also being partly funded by American conservative groups.

And as recently as a couple of weeks ago, his populist “Party of Freedom” was predicted to take the most seats in parliament in the upcoming elections. Closer to the election, the outcome looks a little murkier, but Wilders’s goal of instilling far-right ideologies into the country has already been accomplished.

Because his party is so unpopular among his fellow politicians, it’s highly unlikely that Wilders would be able to form a coalition even if his party wins the most seats, meaning he will not likely become the country’s next government chief.

Geert Wilders

But this could set the stage for far-right politics to take hold across western Europe. If Wilders reins victorious, will Marine Le Pen follow in France? Will Frauke Petry shake up Germany?

We received a sort-of heartening precursor for what’s to come when Austrians rejected a far-right candidate during their most recent elections.

But Geert Wilders isn’t comparable to Trump just because of his views, but because of his celebrity and his mannerisms. For one, he tweets a lot. And he’s often followed in public by a gaggle of reporters.

Wilders has been the subject of death threats, and as a result has lived a very isolated life where he reportedly only sees his wife a couple times a week, sleeps in a different place every night, and is under 24-hour police surveillance.

And unlike Trump, he has actually been legally charged for inciting discrimination.

On March 15 we will have a clearer answer as to whether people like Trump are the new normal.

And if that happens, threatening to leave your country may no longer be a viable option to escape populism.

Those seven planets we discovered a couple of weeks ago…

Are they inhabitable yet?

Why Russia matters

Even those who’ve only had a casual interest in politics since the election have probably still heard about Trump’s ominous ties with Russia.

It’s Trump this and Putin that. White House this and Kremlin that. As we speak, the FBI is investigating the relationship between the two leaders, and stories highlighting the two nation’s shadowy dealings are breaking by the day, including a Washington Post exclusive on Wednesday reporting two pre-election conversations between now Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak — a direction contradiction of what he told Congress during his confirmation hearing.

Sessions has, as of tonight, announced he will recuse himself from any future Justice Department investigations into Russia.

But the overarching question from casual observers and even serious political junkies is likely to be: Why? What does it matter if Trump talks with Russia? How does it affect me and why should I care?

The answer to that is complex. But the bottom line is that it does matter. A lot.

All explanations must begin with the Cold War. Russia never wanted the Cold War to end. If they had it their way, they’d have pedaled their interests and influence all over the world, forming one giant Soviet Union. The United States was their direct adversary in preventing that from happening.

In the decades following World War II, there was no greater threat to America than the expansion of Soviet influence. It’s why we fought wars in North Korea and Vietnam. It’s why we performed a secret coup in Iran. It’s why we expedited our space and nuclear arms programs. Nearly all foreign policy from 1950 to 1990 revolved directly around the Cold War.

cold-war

Since it’s been about 27 years since the collapse of the USSR, most millennials probably don’t appreciate this history. But in reality, it has shaped the way these two countries exist and operate.

And even though the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia, in no way, shape or form, represents American interests. The country shares a deep mistrust of the U.S., and takes great pleasure in discrediting western values. Vladimir Putin grew up during the Cold War and is a former agent of the KGB, the Soviet secret police.

To believe that he still doesn’t possess Soviet values – the ones that were instilled in him throughout his entire childhood and adult life — would simply be naïve. He does not like the U.S., and he hated the Obama regime for being particularly tough on Russian overreach, particularly in the Ukraine and Syria.

So there’s your context. There’s very little to gain by warming up to Russia.

The question, then, is why has Trump appeared to be so buddy-buddy with Putin? Why has he failed to say anything negative towards the Russian leader?

Therein lies the question, and the motivation for news outlets to continue digging.

trump-putin

The ties between the Trump team and Russia are vast. His first campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was dismissed because of his ties to Ukraine’s former president, who was basically a Russian shill who was later ousted after protests by the Ukrainian people.

Security advisor Michael Flynn was fired following his clandestine conversations with Russian officials.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has had numerous business dealings with Russia, and it’s well documented that his former employer, ExxonMobil, would benefit significantly if Obama-imposed sanctions against Russia were lifted.

Trump himself has admittedly tried to do business with Russia. And we still haven’t seen his tax returns. Thus, we do not know the extent of his involvement with the country. The fact that he is refusing to release them only adds to the speculation.

And this is all in the backdrop of what we already do know – that Russia purposefully interfered and aimed to influence our presidential election.

As in most cases, the cover-up is usually worse than the crime. Perhaps the alleged ties between Trump and Russia are harmless. But the more he denies them, and the more his administration officials deny them, the more he compromises himself.

Lying under oath is what could bite him in the end. Presidents have been kicked out of office for less.

Furthermore, coziness between the U.S. and Russia also serves to destabilize our relationships with eastern European countries who are not friendly with Russia. The more complicit our president is with Putin — even simply from conjecture and hearsay — the less trustworthy we become in their eyes.

tillerson

And finally, the elephant in the room is the leaks. There are tens of millions of employees in the United States government, all of whom are privy to more information about the U.S. and Russia than we are.

There are continuous reports of widespread disarray within government departments under this inexperienced regime. Trump has already shown an indifference towards heeding the advice of our leading intelligence officials.

If these employees feel concerned enough that our government is not functioning properly that they have no choice but to leak information to the press, then that is deeply troubling. They are in a unique position to evaluate the state of this current regime, and if their assessments lead them to believe that leaking is the best option to protect American interests, then that to me is as much of a warning sign as anything.

In the end, this growing scandal has the potential to compromise the motives of our leaders, weaken American sentiment worldwide, and as a result, threaten our standing as a global power and our sovereignty as an independent nation.

So yes, one administration official speaking with the Russians is not altogether that troubling.

Trump’s inability to repudiate Putin is alarming, but not overly scandalous.

The appointment of a secretary of state who, with his previous job, went against U.S. interests to forge a relationship with Russia may be controversial, but not necessarily disqualifying.

All of these things together, given the past and recent history between the United States and Russia … it’s not a red flag.

It’s a freaking five-alarm fire.

Amid calls for tolerance, let’s not forget the Jews

There’s a popular school of thought in America that anti-Semitism no longer exists.

People assume that because the Holocaust was so long ago, that because Jews have held prominent government positions, and because calls for religious tolerance are becoming more and more frequent, that the battle against anti-Semitism has long been won.

Unfortunately, that is far from the reality.

Not only do hate crimes against Jews still occur, they are on the rise. And that may come as a surprise to a lot of people.

In the last decade, we’ve expended so much energy pushing for income and gender equality, for equal treatment of African-Americans in our criminal justice system, gay and transgender rights, and presently, for greater acceptance of Muslims, immigrants and refugees — and all rightfully so.

But too often when we have a conversation about discrimination, we leave out anti-Semitism. Which is too bad. Because then more people would know that more than 50 percent of anti-religious hate crimes in the U.S. are motivated by anti-Jewish bias, according to the FBI.

As someone who grew up in a Jewish and Catholic household, living in a community with a large Jewish population, and who traveled to Israel three years ago to gain a greater appreciation of my Jewish heritage, it obviously peeves me a little that there isn’t a greater grassroots commitment towards protecting Jewish Americans.

And Trump isn’t helping.

Now, again, I always feel the need to clarify. I don’t believe Trump is anti-Semetic (I also don’t believe he’s the “least anti-Semetic person”), just like I don’t believe he is truly racist. I just think he’s ignorant and lacks any sense of empathy.

But he has unquestionably opened the door for mainstream acceptance of the “alt-right,” an ideology with a doctrine that includes white nationalism, homophobia and, yes, anti-Semitism.

jewish-cemetery

This year alone, 68 bomb threats have been made to Jewish community centers across the U.S. In most of these facilities, emergency evacuation drills have become standard operating procedure.

Given the simmering tension within the Jewish population, wouldn’t it be comforting to hear our nation’s top executive make a firm and declarative statement condemning anti-Semitism? He has to say, something, anything, right?

And then you hear what Trump did say on the topic … and you wish he never spoke at all.

In a span of three days last week, he responded to two questions from Jewish reporters regarding a rise in Jewish hate crimes by, first, bragging about his electoral college victory, and the second time, essentially telling the reporter to sit down and shut up.

I don’t care what your political ideology is. There’s no other acceptable reaction to have towards those responses than that of disbelief and disgust. (Though I will give Ivanka — a converted Jew — credit for speaking out.)

Shortly after, during a trip to the newly opened African-American museum, Trump delivered a clearly canned statement against discrimination, one that lacked any noticeable sincerity and that Jewish leaders were not yet ready to accept.

But that doesn’t mean that others haven’t stepped up to the plate to protect our Jewish brethren.

Remember earlier this year, when a mosque in Victoria, Texas burned to the ground? Not only did a subsequent fundraising campaign come about to help with the rebuilding efforts, but a nearby Jewish synagogue generously offered to share its space to accommodate the Muslim membership.

Well, we now have a new instance of religious camaraderie.

You all may have heard of the terrible vandalism that took place this week in a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, where hundreds of tombstones were broken and damaged.

This time, a fundraiser urging Muslims to raise money to repair the cemetery raised $20,000 in three hours. They’ve now far surpassed $100,000.

It’s now becoming a common theme.

When our president fails to inspire and properly lead, everyday common people are doing that job for him.

It took a while, but that “coexist” bumper sticker you always see on the back of cars, where each letter is formed by a different religious symbol, is finally starting to come to life.

Donald Trump and the practice of doublethink

Shortly after I graduated college in 2009, I decided to read a book that somehow eluded me during my high school and university studies: George Orwell’s “1984.”

But even when reading it, I lacked the proper context needed to fully appreciate the book. While I knew it depicted a dystopian version of society where everyone is under constant surveillance by an authoritarian government, it came off to me as pure science fiction.

What was lost on me was that Orwell wrote the book shortly after World War II, and at the beginning of the rise of the Soviet empire, where civil liberties were being increasingly threatened around the globe.

It was uncertain time in the world, and this novel painted a grim photo where totalitarianism prevailed.

In America, where we are freely able to insult our leaders on social media without consequence, a government like this is hard to imagine. But in other parts of the world, this is reality. And in 1949, when the world was realigning itself into multiple spheres of influence following a fascist regime’s unsuccessful attempt at global domination – you can’t blame Orwell for being paranoid.

1984 has once again become a bestseller in the United States, and it’s not difficult to understand why.

Add me to the list of people who are re-reading it. This time, I have context. And this time, reading it is not simply a leisure activity. It’s chilling.

1984

Now don’t get me wrong. Even with an incompetent leader at the helm who is trying to delegitimize the press and appears indifferent toward protecting civil liberties, America will not turn into a fully repressive and authoritarian state. We have too many protections in place to prevent that.

But that doesn’t mean that some of the things that Orwell warned us about aren’t coming to fruition.

One of the most significant parts of 1984 that has become increasingly relevant today are the concepts of newspeak and doublethink: which, in Orwellian terms, are a way of controlling language and thought to fit the regime’s ideas of reality.

Newspeak, the official language of Oceania, one of three superstates in 1984, dictates how people speak. It limits freedom of thought and freewill.

Doublethink requires individuals to believe certain facts as truth, even if it contradicts reality. It means to tell lies while genuinely believing in them simultaneously. If our government says that 2+2 equals 5, it’s not enough to just believe it’s right, but you must believe that 2+2 always equaled 5.

Now think about what is happening today. Trump’s attacks on the press is minimizing independent thought.

His perpetual lying is presenting an alternative view of reality, and it’s an attempt to condition his followers to believe that everything he says is the truth, even when it clearly isn’t.

And in some cases, his most ardent followers oblige.

Trump says it wasn’t raining during his inauguration, so by virtue of this, it did not rain.

Trump says his electoral win was the biggest since Reagan, so it is now recorded as such by his followers.

Millions of people voted illegally, says Trump. They didn’t, but he said it, so it must be true.

Believing what Trump says and at the same time ignoring the truth is indeed the very essence of doublethink, and the same style of authoritarian rule that George Orwell feared 68 years ago.

This is why we record and preserve history.

Because one day we will need to know where we went wrong, and how we can avoid this shit happening again.

If you’re not scared yet, please read 1984.

It’s eye-opening.

Adele, Beyonce and … John Oliver?

North Korea launched a ballistic missile on Sunday in what some officials said was an attempt to challenge Donald Trump’s policy towards the nation. Iran demonstrated its might on Friday in a dramatic parade to celebrate the anniversary of the country’s revolution and diplomatic break from the United States.

But none of that matters because …

QUEEN BEY.

Last night’s 59th Grammy Awards exhibited its usual glitz and glam as the nation’s most recognizable pop stars joined together to celebrate all the music that dominated radio waves in 2016. Plus Sturgill Simpson.

And while I’m increasingly convinced that Grammy officials choose nominees by getting drunk and googling “Top Musicians 2016,” I will admit that the show did provide a nice distraction from the usual doom and gloom news surrounding our current administration and the world’s response to it (see: first paragraph).

chance-the-rapper

Because the Grammys are so largely watched and even serve as many people’s refresher course to today’s music scene, it does fortunately provide some deserving artists with the necessary platform into national, if not global consciousness.

Artists like Chance the Rapper.

I’m admittedly ignorant towards hip-hop because it simply just doesn’t appeal to me, but Chance the Rapper won me over during his ESPYs tribute to Muhammad Ali last summer. I learned that, despite his stage name, Chance the Rapper is as much a singer as he is a rapper. But most of all, he is a lyricist.

Chance won two major Grammy Awards and showcased his abilities in an energetic, soulful show-capping performance. The average music listener knew who he was, but now everyone witnessed his talent.

Other than that, we watched Adele boldly stop her live tribute to George Michael to start over after a dysfunctional start.

Beyonce

We saw the members of Twenty One Pilots remove their pants before walking on stage to accept an award, and then share an endearing story about how they pledged years ago while watching the Grammys to go pants-less if they ever ended up winning anything.

We saw CBS severely overestimate the universality of the lyrics of “Sweet Caroline” in a Carpool Karaoke sketch that fell flat.

And we saw Beyonce do … something. While I like to think of myself as verbally creative and imaginative, I’m severely lacking an artistic gene, and thus any symbolism behind 21-pilotsBeyonce’s performance completely went over my head. But it was visually stimulating, and she sounded great.

So, in conclusion, Beyonce’s the queen, we’re all inferior, she probably should’ve won Album of the Year over Adele, and I’ll leave it at that.

At this point, I think it’s safe to assume that Adele and Taylor Swift will spend the next 20 years alternating who wins the most Grammy Awards annually. Next year, it’s all T-Swizzle.

But the evening couldn’t be completely devoid of politics. Around the same time the Grammys neared its end, HBO saw the welcome return of John Oliver and his brilliant show Last Week Tonight.

His segment, focusing on Donald Trump’s clear disconnect from reality, is a must-watch for any American. It’s been extremely evident to see how much Trump lies, but John Oliver has a way of condensing a topic to make it so bright-as-day that you can’t possibly deny it. It’s the 30-minute release that Trump opponents have been waiting for, and it’s objectively insightful.

I guess that means if Beyonce is the queen for music lovers, than John Oliver is the king for us political nerds?

My life clearly needs more excitement.

Perhaps I’ll go to work tomorrow pantsless, Twenty One Pilots style.

That’s it. I’ve decided. I’m doing it.

And by pantsless, I mean wearing corduroy pants and an argyle sweater.

Bad Boy 4 Life.

From refugee drama to legal drama

From 1981 to 1983, Anne Gorsuch Burford served as the director of the Environmental Protection Agency. During her tenure, she drastically cut the agency’s budget by 22 percent, reduced clean water regulations, cut funding for environmental research and enforcement, and relaxed anti-pollution laws.

In other words, she led the EPA the same way environmentalists fear that Trump nominee Scott Pruitt will run the agency.

Burford did not last very long. Less than two years into the job, she resigned under fire during a scandal over mismanagement of a program involving hazardous waste clean-up.

On Tuesday, her son, Federal Appeals Court Judge Neil Gorsuch was nominated to a seat on the United States Supreme Court, our highest court in the land.

Now his mother’s ideologies and how it influenced the way she led the EPA is not, nor should it be, an indictment on how Neil Gorsuch will act as a Supreme Court justice, but given his steady record of conservative decisions in the mold of the late justice Antonin Scalia, it’s fair to assume there will not be much separation.

By all accounts, Gorsuch is a very accomplished and thoughtful justice, and having been educated at Columbia University, the University of Oxford and Harvard University – where he was allegedly a classmate of Barack Obama – he is obviously very intelligent.

neil-gorsuch

But no matter how qualified or competent he is, it was never going to make liberals happy when you consider his seat was first stolen from Obama appointee Merrick Garland.

Remember that? When, a year ago, Senate President Mitch McConnell vowed that the Senate would not schedule a hearing for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, even though he had 11 months left in his term?

And then Republicans actually went through with the unprecedented level of obstructionism?

And then Trump won?

And then when Senate Democrats threatened to filibuster the nominee so he never gets confirmed, Republicans blasted them for their partisan noncooperation?

It makes it very difficult to have a vested interest in politics when the people who are in charge of making our country’s most important decisions are so morally dubious, and without even trying to hide it.

But this is the day and age of hyper-vigilance, even over seemingly tedious issues. When other time did we care so much about emoluments clauses, or whether the education secretary gets enough votes to be confirmed?

Or who the deputy attorney general of the United States is?

The reason we know that now is because the woman who most recently held that position, Sally Yates, was subsequently elevated to Acting D.A. following Trump’s inauguration while Jeff Sessions’s nomination continues to be debated.

sally-yates

And on Monday, Yates became a hero and martyr to the left when she publicly stated that as long as she served as acting D.A., Trump’s immigration ban would not be defended in courts. She was fired shortly after.

The incident rekindled memories of the Sunday Night Massacre on October 20, 1973, When the two top attorney generals resigned in protest after refusing Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor who was investigating him for Watergate.

Though Yates’s decision to go public with her stance was described by many legal experts as unnecessary – especially since she was likely on her way out of the door within days, once Sessions is confirmed — it was clearly a moral stand, and one that she will likely be long remembered for.

Shortly after, videos surfaced of her confirmation for Deputy D.A. under the Obama administration, when, in the ultimate twist of irony, Senator Jeff Sessions asked her if she would be willing to stand up to the president, to which she replied that she would.

In short, between the newly coined ‘Monday Night Massacre’ and the Supreme Court nominee, this is the most interesting time in America for legal drama since Boston Legal was on the air.

But credit Sally Yates for being the first person in power to stand up to Trump.

Hopefully more will follow.