Everybody Hates United

- - Nelson Lewis

In the aftermath of the recent United Airlines debacle, the company has come under all sorts of fire: their stock has plummeted, and social media is filled with people describing their own unpleasant experiences with the airline.  Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unloaded on the airline, slamming their attitude as “awful” and calling on the Trump administration to do something about it.  

Videos of passenger David Dao being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight have sparked outrage and forced an apology out of United CEO Oscar Munoz, who had previously tried to defend the company.  However, United has a long history of less-than-favorable press.  One woman fell asleep on a United flight and the flight crew left her on the plane for 4 hours.  Another person was sued by the company for making a site that helps people find cheaper flight tickets.  In light of the issue with Dao, this represents a major attitude problem for the airline.  

70 percent of the flights out of Newark are united, so as governor of New Jersey, Christie a unique perspective on the issue.  Yesterday he sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, saying that his state is looking into action to prevent the “abusive practice” of overbooking and requesting that the Trump administration suspend the airline’s ability to do so.  Until that happens, Christie said that United can still capitalize on the fact that people have no choice but to fly United in certain places, such as Newark.  

If you’d like to learn more, you can click here!

Have We Heard the Last of Hillary?

- - Nelson Lewis

During one presidential debate last October, Trump and Hillary were asked to name “one positive thing” that they respected about their opponent.  Trump said this about Hillary: even if he disagreed with much of what she was fighting for, she was a fighter, and never quits.  And Trump was absolutely right.  Although Hillary has been laying low since her defeat in November, Politico has recently speculated that she could be gearing up for yet another run.  While the author of the article had no “inside information” to argue this point, he did point out some facts that make such a potential run seem that much more likely.  

Since her defeat in November, the Clinton Global Initiative has been laying low.  Plagued by scandal, it’s been labeled a slush fund for political operations, paid for by foreign governments and made it pretty easy to call Hillary “crooked”.  Despite pleas throughout the 2016 campaign, the Clintons refused to shut it down, so what advantage, apart from a political one, does it serve to do that now?  In a similar vein, why have the Clintons allowed rumors to circulate that Hillary could be considering a run for mayor of New York?

Earlier this month, Hillary signed a deal with Simon & Schuster for what would become her seventh book.  Does somebody who is out of politics for good really have that much more to say?  Maybe it would be a tell-all about the rigors of her campaigning, but who knows?  Then, after Trump’s Muslim ban was overturned in court, Clinton got onto Twitter to express her approval of the decision, using a voice that sounded like she was still on the campaign trail.  And during her November concession speech, Hillary made no indication that she was going to fade into the background, instead talking about the future and her role in that future and pointing out that “there is more work to do”.

Regardless of whether you agree with her politics or not, Hillary has certainly had a long political career, and is way too competitive to ever let that to end on a low note.  I’m still not 100% convinced that Hillary will run again, but I doubt that she’d quietly fade into the background; even after such a humiliating defeat, it would be completely uncharacteristic of her.  If she doesn’t run, then I wouldn’t be surprised if she reemerged as a potential “kingmaker” sort of role, throwing her support behind a younger Democratic politician like Cory Booker.  

The Baldwin-Trump Feud

- - Nelson Lewis

In the four to eight years of a future Trump presidency, without a doubt many comedians will take jabs at our commander in chief; even before he won the election, celebrities have been showing off their Trump impressions.  Earlier this year, Johnny Depp played him in a Funny Or Die parody clip.  In his recent Netflix standup special, the first thing Dana Carvey says is “let’s talk about Donald Trump”.  And, not surprising anybody, Saturday Night Live has been steadily mocking the President-elect.  In the past year, three different actors – Taran Killam, Darrell Hammond and Alec Baldwin – have impersonated him on the show.  Yet the latter’s performance has drawn the most attention by far, partially because Donald Trump hates it so much.  

In this past weekend’s episode, Baldwin plays a President-elect who is shooing away national security briefings because he’s too busy retweeting other people.  Barely an hour after the show had aired, Trump went on Twitter to call it “unwatchable”, “not funny” and “totally biased”.  This marks the third time in the past two months that Trump has turned to Twitter to attack SNL.  Considering how strongly Trump disapproves of the show’s portrayal of him, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alec Baldwin, a vocal liberal, is doing it simply to upset the President-elect.  Through his foundation’s Twitter account, Baldwin has been tweeting back, promising that he’ll stop if Trump releases his tax returns.

It’s interesting to see that out of the various impersonations out there, Donald Trump dislikes this one so much more.  My more liberal acquaintances often repost Trump thinkpieces that clog up my newsfeed, some of which have discussed this.  Yet none of these Vox and Daily Kos articles can agree as to why Donald Trump hates Alec Baldwin’s impression most of all.  The one thing that is certain, however, is that Trump’s vocal displeasure is doing nothing but encourage Baldwin.

Why Travel Boycotts Don’t Work

- - Nelson Lewis

Mississippi and North Carolina both recently passed laws that many have considered anti-LGBT.  This has earned the displeasure of various tourists, bloggers and celebrities, who have decided to not visit those states.  This isn’t the first time that a “travel boycott” has been proposed; many foreigners refused to visit the USA during the Bush Administration, and many Americans refuse to visit Cuba as long as the Castro family are in power.  Yet regardless of your political opinions, it’s not fair to hurt somebody else’s business simply because they happen to in a place whose laws you don’t like.  I recently came across an article that discussed some of the reasons that travel boycotts waste time, and here is what they had to say:

They hit the wrong people: You might not agree with certain laws or leaders, but people aren’t always their governments, and lumping everybody together is narrow-minded and misguided.  Governments don’t always reflect the will of their people, and those people are often honest, hard-working business owners who need to put food on the table.  Though the shouts of travel boycotters sometimes add to the pressure of elected officials, it’s never going to be the main reason that somebody will change their minds.

They aren’t enough: South Africa didn’t end apartheid because of a drop in tourist numbers.  It was governmental, domestic and corporate sanctions.  Indiana softened its anti-LGBT law when corporations and conferences pulled out en masse, not because road trippers stopped visiting all the different roadside attractions there.  South Africa’s apartheid government collapsed after major banks and businesses stopped doing business with it, not because Kruger National Park had fewer visitors.

Travel brings change: Shutting people off from the world won’t do any good; you need to embrace them and show them a better way.  If you want to change things, travel and educate people about the wider world; staying at home will just hurt those who might not have control over their government.

The author of this article is fairly liberal, making a point that he doesn’t support the laws in Mississippi or North Carolina and wasn’t at all a supporter of Bush.  But he does make a good point that boycotting these places because you don’t agree with the laws there is misguided.  He argues that if you are going to take a stand against a law or government you don’t like, targeting a random business owner who happens to be from there is the wrong way to do it.  And whether you’re liberal or conservative, he’s got a point.

North Korea’s Threats

- - Nelson Lewis

As the US and South Korea begin their largest-ever military drills, North Korea has threatened “indiscriminate” nuclear strikes on the US and South Korea.  The drills in-question, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, are an annual event that frequently generate tension, which this year led to an order for a “pre-emptive nuclear strike of justice” out of Pyongyang.  This rhetoric is hardly new, although experts doubt the North’s ability to put nuclear warheads on their missiles.  North Korea views the joint US-South Korean exercises as a “rehearsal for invasion”, and last year threatened to turn DC into a “sea of fire”.

Around 17,000 American soldiers are participating in the exercise, as wNorth Koreaell as around 300,000 South Korean troops, both significant increases on last year’s numbers.  Despite starting on the same day, Key Resolve is more computer simulation-driven and ends on March 18th, while Foal Eagle is more focused on field exercises and runs until April 30th.  South Korea’s defense ministry has warned North Korea against any “rash act” that “brings destruction upon itself”, and that any form of provocation will meet a harsh response.  In addition to South Korea, the Japanese foreign minister demanded North Korea show restraint.

Although it hasn’t been confirmed yet, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency has reported that the exercises will include training for precision attacks on North Korean leadership and its nuclear and missile facilities.  These latest exercises are coming just days after the UN passed additional sanctions against North Korea.  This past weekend, the Philippines impounded a North Korean cargo vessel under these toughened measures, with a presidential spokesman saying the crew would be deported and the ship subject to a UN-mandated inspection.  In response, North Korea said it was readying its nuclear weapons for “pre-emptive” use.  Seoul is expected to announce additional sanctions later today, which will most likely draw an angry response from their northern neighbors.  The US and South Korea have recently begun formal talks on the deployment of a US missile defense system in the region, which has met serious opposition from not just North Korea, but China and Russia as well.

If you’d like to learn more, you can click here!

Kadyrov, Putin’s Warrior

- - Nelson Lewis

Chechen leader and former guerrilla commander Ramzan Kadyrov is a figure as flamboyant and polarizing as the man who sponsored him (Putin): fiercely loyal to Putin, Kadyrov has also proven problematic with his brutal tactics and threats to political opponents.  He considers himself “Putin’s warrior”, with the mantra that he can do anything so long as he has Putin’s support. While Kadyrov’s loyalty to the Kremlin has proven useful in combating the Chechen separatist movement, it’s possible that this fiery Chechen, branding himself as Putin’s “attack dog”, might be overdoing it.  His antics are coming at a time when Putin, in the aftermath of such issues as the Ukrainian crisis and the assassination of former KGB agent Andrei Litvinenko, is trying to court the favor of the international community.

Ramzan Kadyrov Steven Seagal

Not surprisingly, Ramzan Kadyrov is a fan of action star Steve Seagal. Here is the two of them posing for a photograph.

For the past decade, Kadyrov has lived a life of luxury and power as part of a deal whereby Putin granted more autonomy to Chechnya in exchange for loyalty to the Russian state.  Since then, Kadyrov has kept his word, allowing him to live a luxurious life with palaces, private gyms, a huge militia and no shortage of toys.  For their support of Russia, the Chechnya has been showered with plenty of rubles that have helped the autonomous republic recover from over a decade of war.  Yet after the murder of popular liberal politician Boris Nemtsov last year, relations between Kadyrov and Putin have deteriorated, and Kadyrov has been trying to regain the favor of the Kremlin the only way he knows how: by being a loud and outspoken supporter of Putin.

As Kadyrov started to threaten Russian public figures outside of Chechnya, it’s possible Putin has realized he’s created a monster.  Last week, Chechen officials handed out the portraits of Putin and Kadyrov to hundreds of thousands of government-sponsored demonstrators that had been bused into the capital city of Grozny.  The city was decorated with banners condemning various “enemies”, those Russians who have opposed Putin.  In the Chechen parliament, a supporter of Kadyrov listed all the targets next to a picture of Kadyrov and a lunging attack dog, saying that its fangs were “itching”.

Much like Putin, Kadyrov has been working to shut down opposition, often through less-than-savory methods.  Back in December, Chechen police detained an economics professor who published a post on social media critical of Kadyrov; his body was found on January 1st, and the official cause of death in the police paperwork said that he “fell off a cliff”.  While few Russians or Chechens cared about Kadyrov’s methods in the past, the number of his opponents has been growing.

Earlier this month, Kadyrov upset people with Stalin-era language in talking about punishment of “enemies of the people”, mostly those media outlets who have criticized him and/or Putin.  Although Stalin is credited with helping defeat the Nazis in World War II and saving Russia, he remains a controversial figure; millions of Russians and thousands of Chechens died during his purges, including Kadyrov’s own family.  There’s been a Russian backlash against Kadyrov, and the question has arisen as to whether or not Putin will suffer as well.  Polls indicate he’s been losing respect among Russians, and the media outlets Kadyrov has targeted continue to operate.

If you’d like to learn more about Putin’s “warrior”, you can click here!

North Korea’s Nuclear Testing

- - Nelson Lewis

Earlier today, North Korea bragged about the “spectacular success” of its first ever hydrogen bomb test.  However, it still isn’t entirely clear if it actually happened.  The US doesn’t think it did, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest saying that the initial analysis wasn’t “consistent” with what North Korea claimed.  Nonetheless, this analysis isn’t definitive, and some experts have said that North Korea detonated a different type of hydrogen bomb.

The Interview

While North Korea has frequently been the butt of jokes, its nuclear testing program could be no laughing matter.

Regardless of the veracity of their claim, it is clear that North Korea conducted a new significant nuclear test despite calls not to do so.  According to the US Geological Survey, the underground test corresponded with a magnitude-5.1 seismic event centered 12 miles east-southeast of Sungjibaegam, comparable to readings from North Korea’s 2013 plutonium test.  Norsar, a Norway-based group that monitors nuclear tests, estimated that a blast equivalent to less than 10,000 tons of TNT occurred.  This might seem like a lot, but it’s smaller than those of the atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and far less than other thermonuclear weapons, which are often as potent as millions of tons of TNT.

After analyzing the atmosphere for traces of radiation, experts in the US or South Korea could have an answer as to what happened.  Nonetheless, many remain skeptical, as North Korea has had trouble with even the basics of a fission weapon, so the thought of them creating an even more complicated hydrogen bomb seems unreasonable.  Regardless, the test did get the world’s attention, which might have been exactly what the small Communist dictatorship was going for in the first place.

The UN has previously tried various measures to curb the country’s nuclear efforts, such as a travel ban, a freeze on overseas financial assets and embargoes on arms, nonproliferation and luxury goods.  Yet none of this seemed effective, so the question remains: what can be done?  The UN Security Council held a closed-door meeting today, where the members condemned the test.  Even China, who has typically spoken out against strong sanctions against North Korea, have condemned their neighbors for not giving any advanced notice.  Such a unanimous condemnation, where NATO, Russia and China are all on the same side, is rare.

Despite the fact that it’s such a small and poor country, North Korea’s secrecy, seclusion, hostility and unwillingness to play by traditional rules makes it an unpredictable and dangerous foe.  While North Korea hasn’t done much to develop its economy, it’s put a major focus on the military, and has a standing army of 1.2 million active soldiers and 7.7 million reservists out of a country of 25 million.  Nonetheless, North Korea’s conventional weaponry is dated, one reason that experts believe the country has been looking towards nuclear weapons.  But how close they are to using effective is unclear.

If you’d like to find out more, you can click here!

Star Wars and Its Influence

- - Nelson Lewis
Star Wars

An array of characters from the past six Star Wars films

In the current age, fantasy and sci-fi has a major presence and influence in modern pop-culture.  Yet it can be easy for the millennial generation to forget that in their parents’ time, such a canon was hardly in the mainstream, with fantasy, sci-fi and comic books viewed worthy only for children and socially awkward teenagers.  While it seems like everybody and their brother now proclaims themselves “nerds”, that term had extremely negative connotations 30 years ago, and people who indulged in “nerd culture” were social outcasts with targets painted on their backs.

Because of this, when Lucas tried to get funding for Star Wars, he was off to a rocky start.  Getting a studio to agree to the film was extremely difficult, and his ultimate budget of 10 million, while no paltry sum, was very low by Hollywood standards at the time.  When it was finally finished, few theaters across the country wanted to order the film, not thinking it would make any money and would be beaten out by other summer flicks.  The studio was only able to get the film shown by demanding that theaters order Star Wars if they wanted the eagerly anticipated film The Other Side of Midnight.  Yet when it was released in the summer of 1977, Star Wars proved to be a surprise smash hit, grossing over $775 million (compared to The Other Side of Midnight’s $25 million).  It’s been followed by five films, which between them have grossed over $3 billion.  It launched a major sci-fi boom in the 70s and 80s, making what used to be an extremely niche and low-budget genre a major blockbuster.

Nowadays, the sci-fi and fantasy genres have become saturated with no shortage of TV shows, movies and novels.  While Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have had a major influence on modern popular culture, it’s nearly impossible for anything to be heard above the white noise and have the lasting, universal influence and recognition of the Star Wars franchise.  Phrases like the “death star”, “evil empire”, and “may the force be with you” have entered the modern vernacular and don’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon.  Its impact on filmmaking is immediately recognizable, not only starting the tradition of the summer blockbuster but also revolutionizing the special effects industry and even the power of merchandising.  The number of celebrity fans is numerous, and includes filmmaker Kevin Smith, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, musician/comedian Weird Al Yankovic and South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, all of whom have incorporated their love of Star Wars into their work.  One ISIS militant even cited the franchise as a favorite of his.

Blue Harvest

A poster for “Blue Harvest”, the Family Guy-themed parody of Star Wars

Regardless of how good The Force Awakens turns out to be, there’s no doubt that it will have a lasting impact on pop culture.  Even the prequel films of the late 90s and early 00s, while widely criticized for being of much lower quality than the originals, were able to have a lasting influence, albeit for different reasons.  Without a doubt, the next generation of filmmakers, comedians and musicians shall incorporate The Force Awakens and its upcoming sequels, along with the six pre-existing films, into their work.

Winter Is Coming For Refugees

- - Nelson Lewis

With the refugee crisis in Europe deepening, there are thousands of refugees across Europe that are currently homeless.  Since this influx is a fairly recent phenomenon, the elements have yet to pose a problem.  However, that could change soon; I recently came across an article that discusses the problem the upcoming winter could pose for refugees.  UN figures reveal that a record-breaking 218,000 refugees made the crossing into Europe last month, confirming that the end of summer has had no adverse effect on the flow of refugees.

The numbers of people arriving at the same time that winter is coming is Refugee camp in winterraising fears of a new humanitarian crisis within Europe’s borders.  Last week, a summit of EU and Balkan states agreed to some measures of extra policing and shelter for 100,000 people.  Yet still an estimated 700,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe this year from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq and North Africa, among other places.  Countless numbers are still homeless, and accompanying cold spells and shortening nights are a bad sign of things to come.  While refugees have escaped war and famine, many of them are currently at risk of hypothermia, pneumonia and other diseases.  Fights have been breaking out over blankets, occasionally between different national groups.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR is distributing outdoor survival packages, including sleeping bags, blankets, raincoats, socks, clothes and shoes, although the number of people they can reach is limited by funding, which has proven scarce.  Europe is currently dealing with the largest refugee influx since World War II, and is ill-prepared.  The EU is hurriedly improvising new mechanisms to respond as a continent, although whether or not they can do it in a timely fashion remains to be seen.

While many guessed that the number of refugees crossing into Europe would slow with the start of winter, as it had in previous years, but it doesn’t show any signs of stopping this year.  Most migrants arrive via Lesbos, a Greek island near the coast of Turkey, and from there cross into continental Europe.  According to Kate O’Sullivan of Save the Children, colder weather will not only make crossing into Europe more dangerous, but also make conditions inside the camps more dangerous.  Many of the refugees are from warmer-weather countries, and have never experienced a winter before, so how they will be able to handle a European winter remains to be seen.

Missiles Going Off Over Iran

- - Nelson Lewis
Russian missiles

Russian soldiers carry along some missiles

As the world becomes more and more concerned about Russia’s intervention in Syria, two US military officials have said that four Russian cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea fell short of their Syrian targets and landed in rural Iran.  These errant strikes were part of a volley of 26 long-range cruise missiles that Russia had fired on Wednesday.  The flight path for these cruise missiles took them over Iran and Iraq.  Since one of the officials said the US couldn’t detect any casualties or damage from the errant strikes, it’s possible that the missiles fell harmlessly in Iran.

After recently starting to conduct airstrikes and expand its military presence in Syria, Russia has denied that any striked have missed their Syrian targets, claims that Iran’s defense ministry dismissed as “psychological warfare”.  Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has characterized Russia’s behavior as “unprofessional” after Russian aircraft violated Turkish airspace and came within miles of a US drone.  Russian ships have also fired cruise missiles without warning, and their armies have been backing the Syrian government in a “joint ground offensive”.  According to the US, Russia’s cruise missiles and airstrikes appear aimed at supporting the ground offensive and attacking the more secular forces opposing Assad.

Russia has insisted they’re targeting the ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria, while the US has said they’re more focused on combating ISIS while also pushing for a political transition to remove Assad from power.  Russia’s assistance has energized the Syrian army, which had earlier been on the ropes.  Syrian chief of staff Gen. Ali Ayoub claims that the new offensive, centered on the central and northwestern parts of the country, is aimed on “liberating” the area from terrorist groups.  While Ayoub didn’t specify the target areas for the new offensive, he said that Syria had created new fighting units, augmented by Russian strikes against ISIS.

I once heard that the situation in Syria right now isn’t a matter of “good guys vs. bad guys”, but rather an instance of “bad guys vs. worse guys”.  Seeing what ISIS is doing, it’s easy to just write them off as the “bad guys”, and whoever is fighting them as “good guys”.  Yet anybody saying something like that about Assad, even if he does bring an end to ISIS, would be sorely mistaken, and thinking that Putin didn’t have some ulterior motives for helping him would be naïve.  If you’d like to learn more, you can click here!