Archive

July 21st, 2016

Free speech in peril both far and near

    Has there been a more troubling time for free expression worldwide than right now?

    I can't remember one. Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, has the numbers to back that up. The number of journalists, worldwide, in prison or killed while doing their jobs is at its highest since his organization began keeping records in 1992.

    "This is the worst moment for journalists in recent history - and perhaps ever," Simon told me this weekend. The most dangerous places are conflict zones, like Syria, and countries with repressive regimes, like Turkey.

    When journalists are endangered, you can be sure that free expression is under siege.

    The attempted coup in Turkey put a bright light on the perils: One Turkish photojournalist was killed. Other media people were forced, at gunpoint, to read a statement over the air.

    And then there's what's happening in the United States, which sees itself as a stronghold of free expression.

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France has had more than its share of terrorist attacks

    On Bastille Day 2015, my family and I walked over to the banks of the Saône river in Lyon to watch the fireworks with thousands of the city's residents. I only briefly noticed the metal barricades blocking the street set up next to the French fry stands.

    France was still recovering from the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher massacres. The Lyon region had just been the site of a decapitation and a truck-based attack on a gas factory. In previous years, there had been attacks in cities such as Toulouse, Tours, Dijon, and Nantes. But most were aimed at Jews or members of the police or military. Most people in France still felt safe from direct violence.

    The events in Nice are a horrific reminder that, in reality, everyone in France is a target. While it is not the only country in the region to have experienced terrorist acts in recent years, France has suffered more frequently than neighbors like Britain, Germany, Italy, or Spain. Why has France been the focus of so much jihadist violence within Europe?

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Failed Turkish coup holds lessons for Putin

    The failed coup d'etat against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was avidly watched in Russia -- not just because Erdogan and his authoritarian twin, President Vladimir Putin, have recently restored relations after the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey in November, but because many wondered if Putin himself could become the target of a coup attempt and if he could survive it.

    "Watch how it can be, with Erdogan as an example," Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian TV personality and one-time anti-Putin opposition figure, tweeted in the early hours of Saturday as the Turkish coup unfolded.

    The projection of the Turkish events onto Russia is only natural. Like Erdogan, Putin has appealed to Russians' conservative, non-European values. Like Erdogan, he has consolidated personal power over a long rule unconstrained by constitutional term limits. Like Erdogan, he has moved to suppress the freedoms of speech and assembly and initiated tough "anti-terrorism" laws that make it hard to oppose him. And like Erdogan, he has struck at nonprofit organizations as "foreign agents" working against his regime.

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Evangelical support for Trump was preordained

    Will Mike Pence help Donald Trump win over Christian conservatives?

    White evangelical voters who are put off by Trump's misogyny, racism or astonishing business ethics won't be swayed by the addition to the ticket of a conservative Midwesterner fleeing from his own political problems.

    And the millions of Christian conservatives who aren't put off? Trump has already won their devotion: He had them at "Hell, no."

    As the Pew Research Center reported last week, white evangelicals are "even more strongly supportive of Trump than they were of Mitt Romney at a similar point in the 2012 campaign." More than three quarters -- 78 percent -- of white evangelical voters say they would vote for Trump, and about one third back his campaign "strongly."

    As a model of Christian virtue, Trump is less than ideal. But most Christian conservatives aren't looking for a virtuous lamb. They want a street fighter -- the more aggressive the better.

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Declaring "war" on terror misses the real problem

    Last week, another deranged young man went on a rampage, killing 84 people in the French city of Nice. A French lawyer who had earlier defended Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel in an assault case described his wife-beating, French-Tunisian client as "a classic delinquent." Intelligence officials say that if Bouhlel was radicalized by Islamist propaganda, the process took place only very recently and very rapidly.

    Nevertheless, the leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, quickly called for a war against Islamic fundamentalism. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy asserted that "nothing can be as it was" in the war against "Islamist terrorism." French President Francois Hollande, who has already declared a "pitiless war," declared that France would "reinforce our action in Syria and Iraq." French Prime Minister Manuel Valls claimed that the killer was "a terrorist probably linked to radical Islam one way or another."

    In recent years, all too many psychotic delinquents around the world have been linked to radical Islam "one way or another." But should such tenuous connections determine something as grave and unpredictable as war?

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Catch some Pokemon and glimpse the future

    One of the interesting debates over Pokemon Go, the addictive smartphone game that 9.5 million Americans play -- and probably a lot more than that now -- is whether it's truly augmented reality (AR), an up-and-coming companion technology to virtual reality (VR).

    The question may seem largely philosophical, but the philosophy of how we use electronic devices is important: The post-smartphone era is just beginning.

    Though many publications, both technical and general interest, have labeled Pokemon Go an AR game, it's probably incorrect in the strictly technical sense. A 1997 Massachusetts Institute of Technology review of AR (yes, it existed back then) described it as a technology "in which 3D virtual objects are integrated into a 3D real environment in real time." Here's an example from that 19-year-old paper -- a real desk with a virtual lamp and two virtual chairs:

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Donald Trump turns up the racially charged rhetoric with 3 simple words

    Ahead of the Republican national convention in Cleveland this week, Donald Trump is doubling down on a phrase burdened by the country's history of racial strife.

    "We have to bring law and order back to this country," the presumptive nominee said on Fox & Friends Monday morning.

    The words "law and order" recall the racially charged politics of the tumultuous civil-rights era. The phrase was frequently used by politicians in the 1960s who opposed the civil rights demonstrations, and seemed to imply that African Americans were inherently unruly and dangerous.

    Some law-and-order policies, such as the the crime legislation President Clinton signed in 1994, have had support from black voters who hoped that policing and strict punishments for criminals would control violent crime in their neighborhoods.

    Yet Trump's resurrection of the phrase, with all its connotations, could prove especially divisive at a time when crime rates are historically low and when many in both parties are calling for a less punitive criminal justice system.

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Justice Ginsburg's damage to the Supreme Court

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's admittedly "ill-advised" remarks about Donald Trump weren't only bad for the justice and her reputation. They were bad for the Supreme Court and, consequently, for the country.

    Ginsburg was correct in her scathing assessment of Trump -- and correct to express her "regret" for voicing it publicly. But the damage to the court's image and reputation is already done.

    The good news for the justices is that their institution is held in higher regard, for what that's worth, than the other two branches of government.

    The bad news is that this support is at an all-time low. According to polling last September by the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of the court, while 50 percent viewed it favorably. By contrast, in January 1988, just 13 percent had an unfavorable view of the court, and 79 percent saw it favorably.

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Both Sides Now?

    When Donald Trump began his run for the White House, many people treated it as a joke. Nothing he has done or said since makes him look better. On the contrary, his policy ignorance has become even more striking, his positions more extreme, the flaws in his character more obvious, and he has repeatedly demonstrated a level of contempt for the truth that is unprecedented in American politics.

    Yet while most polls suggest that he’s running behind in the general election, the margin isn’t overwhelming, and there’s still a real chance that he might win. How is that possible? Part of the answer, I’d argue, is that voters don’t fully appreciate his awfulness. And the reason is that too much of the news media still can’t break with bothsidesism — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.

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Black Republican tackles police 'trust gap'

    Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina was still learning the ways of Washington, he says, when he saw a police officer following his car near Capitol Hill.

    "I took a left...," he recalled in a speech Wednesday on the Senate floor, "and as soon as I took a left, a police officer pulled in right behind me."

    That was his first left turn. His second came at a traffic signal. The patrol car was still following him. Scott took a third left onto the street that led to his apartment complex.

    It was his fourth left, turning into his apartment complex, that brought the blue lights on. "The officer approached the car," Scott recalled, "and said that I did not use my turn signal on the fourth turn. Keep in mind, as you might imagine, I was paying very close attention to the law enforcement officer who followed me on four turns. Do you really think that somehow I forget to use my turn signal on that fourth turn? Well, according to him, I did."

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