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.
After last week’s mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California was once again back in the news with another tragedy, this time in the form of Camp Fire, the deadliest blaze in state history. Elsewhere, there were weird scandals in Europe, violence in Australia, and somewhat unexpected good news for the Democratic Party. Let’s do this thing.
One of this column’s key takeaways from the 2018 midterms last week was that the predicted Democratic “Blue Wave” never materialized. Well, we’ve got an extra seven days’ hindsight now, and as late results keep trickling in, it looks like we may have to adjust our reaction. The wave may not have been a tsunami, but it was a wave nonetheless.
The big late result so far has been Arizona. On Monday, it was announced that Democrat candidate Kyrsten Sinema had beat Republican Martha McSally to take the open Senate seat. It was close, but Sinema’s centrist campaign eventually beat out McSally’s Trumpist approach. Sinema is now the first Democrat Arizona has sent to the Senate since 1988 and the first open bisexual to serve in Congress. Not that you should expect her to be particularly progressive. Sinema has already vowed to vote against her own party on a number of issues.
Elsewhere, Florida’s races for both governor and the Senate went to unexpected recounts that felt strangely reminiscent of the 2000 presidential election. It’s unlikely the Dems will pull a win out here now, but if they do, it will be a massive boost to their election narrative.
Finally, we saw yet more House seats swinging Democrat than projected in the immediate aftermath of the vote. Dems have now picked up 35 seats but may yet raise their total to 44. If that happens—and we won’t know for a while—2018 really might qualify as a wave year.
Spider-Man. The Avengers. The Incredible Hulk. The X-Men. Those are some serious pop culture big hitters, and there is a roughly 100-percent chance that you’ve sat through at least one movie featuring them. The other thing they have in common is that they were all created or co-created by Stan Lee, aka the old guy doing a goofy cameo in every Marvel film. This week, the brain behind these extraordinary stories died, aged 95. Superheroes will never be the same again.
Lee’s death would have been big news even back in 2007. Now, when we’re living in a world where the highest-grossing, most hyped movies each year largely come from the Marvel stable, it’s arguably gigantic. A huge tract of today’s pop culture landscape was shaped by Lee, a remarkable feat when you realize he was already middle-aged when he finally sat down to create his most iconic heroes.
Despite being an icon, Lee wasn’t always revered in his own industry. Legendary artist Jack Kirby famously thought he was a self-aggrandizing hack who took the credit for other people’s hard work (including Kirby’s). Whatever the truth, there’s no doubting the impact Lee had on global pop culture.
It was one of the strangest panics of recent years. In September, a number of strawberries were discovered in Australia with sewing needles inside them. Although only a handful of minor injuries were reported, the discovery triggered a mass panic that saw tons upon tons of strawberries destroyed and tales of contaminated fruit reaching neighboring New Zealand.
This weekend, we may have finally discovered who was responsible. Fifty-year-old strawberry farm supervisor My Ut Trinh was arrested on Sunday and charged with seven counts of tampering with food. She faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted.
The biggest result of Trinh’s alleged actions was the crippling of Australia’s $400 million strawberry industry, resulting in millions of dollars lost. It’s currently believed she was motivated by a desire for revenge against her employer.
Staying down south for a moment, a piece of violent news gripped Australia since our last column. Last Friday, 30-year-old Hassan Khalif Shire Ali set his car on fire on Bourke Street in Melbourne’s business district before stabbing three pedestrians, one fatally. The attacker was shot dead by police. ISIS later claimed responsibility.
The attack was the latest in a string of attempts by ISIS sympathizers to bring carnage to Australia, following two previous stabbing attacks and two sieges in Sydney and Melbourne. In each case, the death toll was thankfully low, although Friday’s attack could have been much deadlier. The flaming car had been filled with propane tanks clearly intended to function as a makeshift bomb. Luckily, they failed to detonate.
As often with these types of horrific stories, inspiring tales of civilian bravery later emerged, although this time with a twist. A homeless man who attacked Ali mid-rampage with a shopping cart and was originally hailed as a hero is now wanted by police for a string of burglaries.
From 2006 to 2016, Nikola Gruevski was most famous as prime minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). This week, he became even more famous as a fugitive from justice. On Monday, the ex-PM failed to turn up for a two-year prison sentence for corruption. Instead, he fled for asylum in the EU country of Hungary. An international arrest warrant has now been issued for the fugitive PM.
Gruevski’s time in power was marked by both corrupt, authoritarian rule and a bizarre construction spree that saw the capital Skopje buried beneath a swathe of ancient Greek-style statues. After his excesses came to light, he was removed from power, and his party subsequently received a drubbing in the 2017 election. Gruevski was eventually indicted for the corrupt purchase of a luxury limousine. Many of his former comrades in government are now awaiting trial.
Gruevski’s choice of Hungary as his place of asylum is likely to cause headaches in Brussels. The EU has been getting frustrated by Hungary’s consistent breaches of the rule of law, and harboring an international fugitive seems calculated to spark another fight.
Let’s stick with our delightful new sub-topic “bizarre scandals involving European prime ministers” for a moment. Around the same time that Gruevski was fleeing Lady Justice, a very different scandal was engulfing controversial Czech PM Andrej Babis.
On Tuesday, Babis’s son from his first marriage (also, confusingly, called Andrej) appeared on online TV network Seznam for an interview, in which he accused his father of arranging his abduction. Andrej the younger claimed men working for his pop held him prisoner in Russian-controlled Crimea for months, until he managed to escape to the mainland and then into Slovakia before hightailing it to asylum in Switzerland. Six Czech parties, representing 92 seats in the 200-seat parliament, have now called for the PM’s resignation.
At the heart of this new scandal is an older one about Babis allegedly embezzling EU funds. In 2016, EU money was revealed to have gone to a farm called Stork’s Nest, which is supposedly owned by Babis. Babis claimed it was actually owned by his son and daughter. Andrej the younger says he was abducted on his father’s orders to stop him from revealing the truth. The PM’s office claims Andrej is mentally ill.
The last time violence between Israel and Gaza got this bad, it was 2014, and a full-scale war was on. Although things didn’t quite spiral out of control this time, they sure got close. On Sunday night, Israeli intelligence badly botched an operation in Gaza, leading to the deaths of seven militants and one Israeli commando.
On Monday, Hamas responded with an all-out rocket assault on Israel. Tel Aviv called in air strikes, and dozens were badly injured on both sides of the border. In a moment of grim irony, the only fatality caused by a Hamas rocket was a Palestinian emigrant in Israel.
Thankfully, a cease-fire was quickly called before the body count could skyrocket. However, the cease-fire itself posed huge problems. Right-wing Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman quit in protest. Unfortunately for Israeli PM Netanyahu, Lieberman took his five-seat Yisrael Beiteinu party with him. Israel’s ruling coalition now has a majority of just one seat in the Knesset.
It might soon have zero. Beit Hayehudi are also threatening to quit the coalition if they don’t get the now-vacant defense minister post. If they follow through on their threat, expect political chaos in Israel.
Over two years ago, the citizens of the United Kingdom voted by a narrow margin to quit the EU, a process known as “Brexit.” Since then, Theresa May’s government has been locked in negotiations with Brussels over what the heck that actually means. This week, May finally presented her exit plan to her cabinet. In other words, the poop finally went crashing straight into the fan.
The referendum didn’t specify whether Britain should remain close to the EU or break clean away, meaning absolutely everyone read into the result whatever the hell they felt like reading. As such, May’s Brexit plan is a compromise that has something in it to upset just about everyone. Brexiteers in her party think it will leave the UK as an EU vassal state. Remainers think it’ll irreparably damage both business and London’s voice on the continent.
On Thursday, the meltdown officially began. Three ministers, including the Brexit secretary, quit the government, triggering a fall in the pound. At time of writing, it looks like things could go either way. May might steady her sinking ship, or the entire government might collapse. We’ll find out soon enough.
Last Thursday, a fire ignited under power lines near Poe Dam, California. In no time at all, it grew into a raging inferno that swept across the county, leaving charred ruins in its wake. At time of writing, the fire is still burning away, but it has already crossed a gruesome milestone. The so-called Camp Fire is now the single deadliest wildfire in California history.
The death toll is currently placed at 56, with somewhere in the region of 300 people still missing. There’s significant concern that the death toll could rise sharply, as one of the communities engulfed by the fast-moving blaze was the town of Paradise, where the old and infirm make up a quarter of the population. There are worries that not all of them would have been capable of escaping the flames, given how quickly they engulfed the entire community. It may be that this tragedy will only grow in scale.
Suspicion for causing the fire has now fallen on Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), under whose power lines the blaze began and who may have been at fault for improperly carrying out safety maintenance. The company’s stock price has already plunged over 50 percent. PG&E denies the accusations.
At precisely 11:00 AM, November 11, 1918, guns all along the front lines of Europe’s Great War fell silent for the first time in four years. Since the summer of 1914, heavy artillery and machine guns had torn apart the continent’s battlefields, reducing swathes of land to mud and misery. Over 20 million people had been killed, with another 20 million wounded.
It was the worst war the planet had ever seen and still remains the deadliest for some of the countries involved. (Britain, for example, lost nearly twice as many citizens in World War I versus World War II). On Sunday, we finally marked the centenary of the Great War’s end. As leaders from across the world gathered in France, the bloodbath that destroyed the old European order finally slipped into history. There is likely now almost nobody left alive who even remembers the events of 1914 to 1918.
With such a massive milestone in modern history reached, Sunday gave a lot of opportunities for reflection. Many of those reflections were sadly quite pessimistic. It was a chilling experience to look back on a slaughter brought about by inter-nation rivalry and belligerent nationalism and realize that we may have forgotten the lessons of 100 years ago.
With hatred and anger spreading across the globe, it’s not too hard to imagine that we’re reliving the last calm years before 1914, before the slaughter started and the world exploded. We can only hope this somber centenary helps our leaders understand that such hatred and division can only ever end in human misery.