Reformist Dreams Fade for Anwar Ibrahim … and Southeast Asia

OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.

The feud between Anwar Ibrahim and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has defined Malaysian politics for most of the last two decades.

The former is the self-dubbed “reformasi” leader; the latter so resisted reform that he jailed Anwar on trumped-up sex and corruption charges for more than a decade. Even sharing the same stage and platform together, in October 2018, the pair were contrasts: Anwar, 72, in light blue and white; Mahathir, 94, in cherry red. Yet the unlikely alliance of former enemies, which together overthrew a corrupt majority party that had ruled since independence for more than a half-century, was seen as a bright light for all of Southeast Asia. After all, if even these two could make amends in the name of democracy and more transparent government, couldn’t anyone?

But barely two years later, that optimism has soured. Rumors had been swirling that Mahathir was plotting a plan to maintain power — despite having promised to hand the reins to Anwar in exchange for his help in 2018 to overthrow his old ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Mahathir resigned his prime minister post on Monday and key allies ditched the Hope for Change ruling coalition with him. Mahathir was then named interim prime minister by the country’s king … a move suggesting Mahathir may be trying to form a new coalition government without Anwar. Adding even more confusion, Anwar told the press that he believes Mahathir is not launching a coup; rather, the prime minister’s supporters were acting against his will.

[Anwar] was never the great saint, the wise leader or political savior that many people hoped from him.

Clive Kessler, Malaysia politics expert

If that seems like a wild sequence of events, well, welcome to Southeast Asia, where authoritarian rulers (the Philippines), military juntas (Thailand) and unstoppable one-party governments (Laos, Vietnam) reign supreme. Even stronger democracies, like Indonesia, have faced nationalistic pressure in recent years. And the story of two very different men struggling for power in Malaysia may as well be the story of a Southeast Asia navigating authoritarianism and revolution, controls and freedoms.

“The last two years have been a breath of fresh air,” says Brian Harding, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Malaysia has slowly worked toward a more open, democratic, pluralistic society. “My concern right now is that the personal and political intrigue stalls some of the useful things that were happening in Malaysian politics.”

The path toward this moment for Anwar has swung between extremes. As a student protesting rural poverty and hunger, he was imprisoned without trial for 20 months. Later, he served as a representative for the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. In 1982, he shocked his fellow activists by joining the UMNO government, led by the more conservative, and nativist, Mahathir. He quickly moved up from Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports to heading the Agriculture and Education ministries.

Despite his early liberalism, Anwar changed the national language to a dialect that favored the native Malay population at the expense of the nation’s minority Chinese and Indian populations. By 1991, he was minister of finance, and embraced globalism — Malaysia flourished as he encouraged free-market principles, earning him accolades such as Finance Minister of the Year by the outlet Asiamoney in 1996 and Asian of the Year by Newsweek in 1998.

Up until this point, Anwar had enjoyed a “son-father” relationship with Mahathir and appeared to be the hand-picked successor. In fact, Mahathir appointed Anwar to be acting prime minister while he took a holiday in 1997. But that was the beginning of the schism: In just two months of Mahathir being away, Anwar weakened his mentor’s protectionist financial and government programs. And it didn’t help that Anwar was deeply critical of the UMNO — often attacking “cronyism” and “nepotism” in their shared party.

“He was about the best Malaysia could produce,” although “he was never the great saint, the wise leader or political savior that many people hoped from him,” writes Clive Kessler, a Malaysia politics expert based in Australia, by email.

Upon Mahathir’s return, Anwar’s enemies aired graphic charges of homosexuality, which remains illegal in the conservative country. Anwar, who has a wife and five children, denied the claims but was banished from UNMO and sentenced to 17 years in prison for corruption and sodomy. At one point, a mattress supposedly stained with his semen was used as evidence (the DNA matched, although his defense suggested it was forcibly taken from him). International news outlets and human-rights organizations saw the charges as politically motivated: Anwar showed up to one of his trial hearings with a black eye, the result of a beating from the head of police.

His public trial and imprisonment led his supporters to start the multiracial reformasi movement, which crescendoed with mass protests against a system rigged for majority control. He was freed in 2004 after the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, only to be put behind bars again for sodomy in 2015 when he was once more a threat to the UMNO’s single-party rule. From a prison cell, he formed the Hope for Change coalition and watched it surprisingly win in 2018 — with the help of the now-nonagenarian Mahathir, who promised to get a royal pardon for Anwar and hand him the prime minister post. “I love him as a father and as a leader,” Anwar said at the October 2018 event, reiterating old affections when the two shared the stage for the first time in two decades.

And it seemed that, with Anwar in line, true reform could finally come to Malaysia … until Mahathir’s surprise maneuver this week: “The old fox is making one last attempt to set Malaysia on the foundations and in the direction he prefers,” Kessler writes. “Anwar will never become PM.” It may well be back to old ways indeed: for Southeast Asia, for Malaysia and for the brutal political saga these two men have waged for so long.

Could the Coronavirus Storm Sink the Cruise Industry?

Dream holidays have become a nightmare for cruise passengers caught in the middle of China’s coronavirus outbreak.

About 3,700 people were marooned off the coast of Japan in quarantine on the Diamond Princess, with more than 600 passengers showing signs of infection. Another ship, the Westerdam, was quarantined in Cambodia after being repeatedly rerouted across the South China Sea and denied entry to five other countries. Both sets of passengers have since been allowed to move freely again.

Though Coronavirus infections and scares have been limited to two ships so far, both owned by Carnival Corporation, the $45 billion cruise industry faces a battle to regain customer trust.

More than 50 cruises (and counting) have been canceled, seven ports closed and thousands of vacationers’ plans disrupted as authorities scramble to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“If it dies down now then it’s probably manageable,” says Alex Brignall, an analyst at Redburn covering the cruise industry. “If it gets outside Asia on a cruise ship, it will be very different.”

Shares in the three major cruise operators — Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line — have fallen between 10 and 16 percent since the beginning of the year as investors register their concern.

Companies themselves have warned that bookings for all regions have been “soft” since the outbreak. Royal Caribbean last week said that cancellations, alongside a moratorium on remaining sailings in Asia until the end of April, would lead to a roughly 12 percent fall in earnings this year. Carnival guided to a hit of roughly 14 percent a share should Asian itineraries be canceled until May.

Asia is a small but fast-growing market for cruises. The number of Asian passengers rose to about 4.2 million in 2018, up from 1.2 million five years earlier, according to the industry group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). More than half of those were Chinese.

We have already taken aggressive steps to minimize risk.

Richard Fain, Royal Caribbean

According to the U.N. World Tourism Organization, Chinese outbound travelers spent $277 billion in 2018 — more than any other nationality.

Costa, a Carnival brand and the first to offer cruises around China, launched a ship specifically for the Chinese market in May 2019, complete with seven karaoke rooms and bigger casinos. Royal Caribbean, the second-largest cruise company, has two liners scheduled to travel to China this year. No changes have been made to those plans.

“We have already taken aggressive steps to minimize risk through boarding restrictions and itinerary changes,” Richard Fain, chief executive of Royal Caribbean, said in a statement last week. The CLIA says that cruise companies have been “agile and responsive” to the situation.

The industry has faced crises before. The sinking of the Costa Concordia in 2012 off the coast of Italy led to 32 deaths. A year later, 4,200 passengers and crew were stranded on the Carnival Triumph for nearly a week without power after an engine room fire, while norovirus outbreaks frequently hit the headlines.

But “crashing a cruise ship is not contagious, nor is running out of electricity,” says Brignall, adding that with a high number of older passengers and enclosed conditions on board, “if something slips through the net, then the impact can be huge.”

David Handley, a maritime lawyer at Watson Farley & Williams in London, says that the most pressing issue was routing ships out of Asia. “How do cruise lines deal with some very expensive assets that were scheduled to be in Asia and which now there’s no point having in Asia because people just won’t travel,” he says.

As operators wait for Asian sailings to resume, the cruise industry has been quick to highlight the stringency of its regular sanitation procedures.

“We do checks during the voyage as well as checks at the beginning. Crew members are trained to look out for unwell passengers,” says one industry executive, who asked not to be named. “It is one of the things on which we place most value.”

All cruise ships have a hospital room and passengers are regularly encouraged to use hand sanitizer. Since the coronavirus outbreak, larger cruise companies have started operating mandatory temperature scans before boarding and passengers from China have been banned from sailing.

They have also paid out millions in compensation. Based on an average cabin price for next year, the cancellation of a full capacity 12-day cruise on Norwegian from Hong Kong would cost the company in the region of $3 million in refunds.

But while customers are compensated for canceled trips, most major cruise lines do not have commercial insurance to cover situations such as the coronavirus outbreak because premiums are punishingly high. Costs will have to be absorbed or paid out from a mutual liability insurance available through a group of shipowners’ clubs called the International Group of P&I Clubs.

Passengers Continue To Leave Diamond Princess

Masked passengers look out from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked last week at Yokohama Port, south of Tokyo, Japan.

Source Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto via Getty

Claims in excess of the $10 million retained by individual member clubs are pooled between the whole group.

Eric Chung, 68, who was aboard the Diamond Princess with his family, says that staff had been guarding passageways and passengers had only been allowed on deck if they were wearing masks and rubber gloves.

He brushes off the quarantine measures saying he would happily take another cruise, but next time would book a cabin with windows. As the executive points out: “The cost of a screw-up is huge. People have to be comfortable on board. Bad PR from cutting any corners could be a business killer.”

Inside Sanders’ Controversial National Rent Control Pitch

During Justin Tombolesi’s first stint in the Bay Area, he experienced his fair share of unexpected rent hikes. He once moved four times in two years.

Tombolesi had grown tired of how difficult it was to get by — so, in 2019, he moved in with relatives in Argentina for a year. Now back in the Bay Area, the 28-year-old tenants’ rights organizer shares a two-bedroom unit in a quadruplex with a married couple in their 50s. He’s helping them convince their landlord to fix up the building in exchange for renting their spare bedroom at a reduced rate.

Voters like Tombolesi are at the heart of a growing pitch from Democratic presidential contenders who insist they have a dramatic fix: national rent control. It’s a key plank of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Housing for All” plan, which seeks to regulate rent increases. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a housing plan that she says will reduce rents by 10 percent over a decade. Other candidates have their own plans. And nowhere is this call for rent control likelier to strike a chord than in California, where last year Gov. Gavin Newsom passed a law capping annual rent increases at 7 percent, plus inflation, until 2030. 

The biggest delegate prize in the race to the Democratic nomination (415 pledged delegates) is a state where housing affordability is a full-blown crisis: The majority of California’s 17 million renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Voters listed homelessness as the most important issue facing the state, according to 2019 research by the Public Policy Institute of California. 

Rent control is an appropriate tool nationally, to tell landlords that they cannot simply jack up their rents to any rate that they want.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

That’s a sentiment Sanders in particular will look to tap for the March 3 primary. The United States has never had a national rent control standard — rent control laws can, and do, vary from state to state and even within states. Under Sanders’ plan, annual rent hikes across the U.S. would be capped at 3 percent or 1.5 times the inflation rate — whichever is higher. A “just cause” requirement for evictions would bar landlords from evicting tenants without a reason as defined by the law. Tenants would also have guaranteed access to counsel.  

Woman Sitting in Moving Van

California enacted a landmark rent control law last year.

Source Getty

As he has stormed to the dominant front-runner position in the Democratic primary, Sanders hasn’t directed attention to his national rent control platform on the debate stage, and it’s not a regular feature of his stump speech. But he dove into the topic when asked about it during a Nevada town hall last week. “We believe rent control is an appropriate tool nationally, to tell landlords that they cannot simply jack up their rents to any rate that they want,” said Sanders, who grew up in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

Critics argue that rent control deters mobility and serves those who already have housing, leaving out those who need it. Some argue that it further discourages multifamily developers from building — amid a shortage of 7 million affordable rental homes nationwide for those at or below the poverty level, and a particularly thorny regulatory environment in California. “Typically, rent control is anathema to apartment construction,” says Keith Gurnee, a board member of Livable California, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing, slow growth and local control. Research by Stanford economists in 2019 found that landlords subject to local rent control laws in San Francisco had lowered rental housing stock by 15 percent, limiting the number of beneficiaries. Rent control can be one tool to address the affordability shortage, but Gurnee argues that it should allow local communities to fine-tune norms instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all approach.

Unlike Sanders, Warren isn’t proposing new regulations. Instead, she’s promising to invest $500 billion over a decade in building, preserving and renovating 3 million housing units for lower-income families. Her other proposals include opposing state laws that prevent local rent control ordinances, creating a Tenant Protection Bureau and enacting a federal “just cause” eviction standard. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has committed to affordable housing construction, former Vice President Joe Biden is pledging $100 billion for affordable housing construction and renovation while expanding rental vouchers, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s plan includes giving renters access to emergency funds.

While a national rent control proposal might sound extreme elsewhere, it’s a concept Californians are familiar with — though the cap under Sanders’ plan is far more restrictive. The state law passed last year has a just cause requirement similar to what Sanders is proposing. California’s move was preceded by that of Oregon, the first state to pass a statewide rent control measure, earlier in 2019. Other states, like New York, have moved in this direction: New York City effectively banned broker fees for rentals in February before a state judge temporarily blocked the ruling, while New York state passed what are considered historic tenant protections last year.

Logistical questions persist. Some California residents like Tombolesi argue that the state’s 7 percent cap is a short-term compromise — with loopholes — to appease developers and tenants’ rights groups without repealing a 1995 state law that exempts single-family homes, and all units built after that year, from rent control. This means Newsom’s 2019 law doesn’t apply to all renters — and it’s unclear how a federal rent control plan would address this restriction.

The federal government also has no authority over local land use and zoning rules apart from public parks and federally owned land, says Matthew Lewis, director of communications for California YIMBY, a pro-housing advocacy organization that supported Newsom’s bill. This is why the candidates’ push for rezoning could prove integral.

The challenge of building housing to keep pace with job growth will remain key: San Francisco added only one new unit of housing for eight jobs created between 2010 and 2015. And even advocates acknowledge rent control is just one arrow in the quiver to address the desperate need for production, preservation of housing and protection for existing renters. To that effect, Sanders’ plan includes boosting the low-income housing stock and changing zoning, among other measures.

Still, even if a national rent control proposal proves hard to enforce, there’s symbolic value in elevating these conversations onto the national stage, argues Lewis. And California and its voters offer the perfect test case.

The Unspeakably Brutal Life of Harry Haft

On July 18, 1949, boxer Harry Haft entered the ring against undefeated heavyweight Rocky Marciano. Things weren’t looking good for Haft before the fight even began. He’d lost five of his previous six bouts. Meanwhile, Marciano had notched 16 knockouts in 17 professional fights — though the general feeling among the boxing press was that he’d recently faced a string of subpar opponents to pad his record. 

Thus, the crowd at the Rhode Island Auditorium that night in Providence was sparse — fewer than 1,700 spectators in a venue that could hold 5,300. Though the fight progressed somewhat evenly for the first two rounds, Marciano beat Haft in the third. 

Harry Haft would never fight again. Marciano would go on to trounce the great Joe Louis and eventually become the heavyweight champ. To the punters that night in Providence, it might’ve seemed like the worst night of Haft’s life. But it wasn’t even close. 

Born Hertzka Haft in 1925 in Belchatów, Poland, Harry was sent to the Nazi death camps one month shy of his 16th birthday. At Auschwitz, he’d been forced to fight other prisoners — fellow Jews — for the amusement of the Nazi officers. These brutal bare-knuckle bloodbaths continued until one fighter could no longer stand. Defeat in the ring typically resulted in execution. 

Haft faced three to four opponents every Sunday for several months. The Nazi officers nicknamed him “The Jew Animal.” And though Haft may not have technically killed anyone in the ring himself, he won all of his fights. Haft’s son, Alan, estimates that as many as 76 men were executed by the Nazis after losing to Harry. “I got that figure from a newspaper,” he says. “And out of the 76, he would’ve had to have known some of them, because when they rounded people up [to send to the camps], they rounded you up with people from your hometown.” 

To absolutely no one’s surprise, Harry Haft lived the rest of his long life riddled with guilt. “When he was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, he was asked if he had any regrets,” Alan recalls. “And he looked at his fists — these giant fists with broken knuckles — and he said his regrets were the lives that passed through his hands.”

Alan Haft wrote a book about his father. Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano was published in 2006. A few years later, his book was adapted into a graphic novel by German cartoonist Reinhard Kleist. Then Hollywood came calling, optioning Haft’s story for the big screen. In 2019, Rain Man director Barry Levinson finished shooting a movie about Haft, starring Ben Foster as the boxer-survivor. As of this writing, the film is in postproduction and expected to be released this year. 

Sending his fellow prisoners to their deaths was just one of the horrific experiences Haft had in the camps. When he wasn’t fighting, the guards had him shoveling corpses into the ovens for cremation. After being moved to a concentration camp in Flossenbürg, Germany, he and his brother Peretz spent a series of harrowing nights locked in a barracks while starving prisoners began murdering and cannibalizing each other to stay alive. 

“The filmmakers were toying with the idea of including the cannibalism in the movie, but they didn’t have the courage to do it,” Alan says of the upcoming film. “I thought it was important [to include] because only recently have Holocaust survivors come forward to speak about the cannibalism. That was such a taboo subject; you didn’t talk about it. But my father wanted to make it known that this is what people resort to when they’re starved and put into extreme circumstances. It’s a total breakdown of civilization at that point.” 

Harry escaped the Nazis during a death march in April of 1945, when the tide of the war was turning in favor of the Allies. “He killed a German officer to get his uniform, and then he killed many people at farmhouses he stopped at along the way. He described it all very casually,” Alan says. 

“At the time, you’re talking about a Holocaust survivor who’s got PTSD talking to a second-generation Holocaust survivor who’s got PTSD from having survived growing up with him,” Alan says of the interviews he conducted with his father in 2003 that provided the basis for the book. 

“I grew up in the United States in the 1950s with a father who couldn’t speak much English, couldn’t read and write, who you couldn’t really talk to because he might explode at any time,” he adds. “He had psychotic episodes that could end in violence. One time he broke every window in the house. And I couldn’t object to anything, otherwise I’d get beaten. So it was crazy.” 

Harry Haft died in 2007. “I wrote the book while my father was still alive, so I was a little bit gentler than I might have been had I wrote it when he was gone,” Alan explains. “I can tell you that I see the world a little differently now. My father’s life was almost hard to believe. He was difficult to live with, but I always ask myself if I had to live his experiences and grow up in the times he grew up in, what kind of person would I have become?” 

Are India’s Muslim Women Being Driven Out of Politics?

India’s 2019 elections saw a record number of women politicians in the lower house of parliament: 78 were elected, or 14 percent of the legislative body. But it wasn’t progress across the board. The lower house’s representation of Muslim women went way down, from four before the May contest to just one, Sadja Ahmed.

One reason for that may be the staggering amount of harassment visited on female Muslim politicians. A new report from Amnesty International documented online trolling of India’s female politicians, and the news is grim for everyone. But not all female politicians are trolled equally.

Female Muslim politicians in India face nearly double the ethnic and religious slurs that other female politicians do.

The Amnesty International survey encompassed some 7 million tweets, between March and May 2019, mentioning 95 female politicians across India’s political spectrum. The results were not promising: While female politicians in the U.S. and the U.K. face a huge amount of trolling — Amnesty International research in 2017 found that a woman in politics was sent an abusive tweet every 30 seconds — about 7 percent of tweets sent to them were labeled abusive, while for Indian female politicians it was about double that. Women representing parties across the political spectrum were targeted with slurs insulting their race and gender and threatened with rape and murder. Volunteers analyzed the tweets from nine languages, explains Amnesty spokesperson Nazia Erum, and then sent each to be further analyzed by at least three experts before it was labeled abusive.  

It was not just Muslim women who received significantly more abuse than their Hindu counterparts. Women from marginalized caste backgrounds and women from outside the ruling BJP saw far more abuse than the average.

“When it comes to trolling, they look at the vulnerabilities of the person,” says Aqsa Shaikh, a Muslim transgender activist. “If you are a woman, Muslim or from LGBTQ or marginalized castes, you are more vulnerable. They have more ammunition against you.” Islamophobia that has existed in the country over the years is just a part of this, Shaikh says, and its perpetuation via social media is no fluke. Political polarization in India has been widely promoted via social media in recent years, and disinformation spread via WhatsApp is estimated to have caused dozens of deaths in recent years. Before the 2019 election, the lower house of parliament had seen a slow but steady growth in the number of female MPs, with four Muslim women each in the two previous parliaments.

“Many women do not enter politics because of the price of constant online harassment,” Shazia Ilmi, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told Amnesty researchers. Though the BJP has promoted Hindu nationalist policies, Ilmi — who worked as a journalist before entering politics — is Muslim. “Only 25 percent of what I get is based on the content of my politics,” she says. “Seventy-five to 80 percent is about being a woman and a Muslim woman.”

While all women faced slurs and harassment online, what Muslim female politicians encountered was significantly worse. Overall, they faced 55 percent more abuse than politicians of other religions, and 94 percent more ethnic and religious hatred. Similar studies have not been conducted on tweets to India’s male politicians.

Former Aam Aadmi Party Leader Shazia Ilmi Joins BJP

BJP Delhi Pradesh President Satish Upadhyay with former AAP leader Shazia Ilmi. 

Source Getty Images

This is also playing out in real life: India was recently roiled by protests after the BJP passed a citizenship bill that marginalized Muslim asylum-seekers. As the climate of online abuse has grown and normalized, so too have legislative solutions that exclude Muslims.

For some women, the climate of hatred might not take them out of politics — just off social media. Sadja Ahmed, the only Muslim female MP left in the lower house of parliament, has only tweeted 84 times, compared to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 25.9 thousand times. Meanwhile, when Hasiba Amin, a social media campaigner for the Indian National Congress party, got into the profession, she “was told that ‘I have no right to speak as a Muslim woman,’” she told Amnesty. She routinely received rape threats and was subject to insinuations about her sexual relationships with older men. Her way out was simple: “In 2019, I have considerably reduced my activity on Twitter.”

Interpol Didn’t Save My Life

It’s only later, when faced with very real life and death issues, that you notice all of what you should have noticed on the first go-around. In this case, absent the zap of international travels and far-flung locales with even more far-flung locals, I’d probably have caught it all. But I got sloppy.

“My mother wants to know if she can have your email.”

I was in Austria. A friend from Hungary who I was staying with had suggested I come along and meet his mother. She lived alone. He was harried and busy, and I had not been doing much, other than sitting around, so I welcomed the diversion. He had to check to see if she was OK.

So we drove and chatted, finally pulling onto a nondescript side street. Kids were playing, dodging cars, chattering. His mother came to the door in a blue housecoat and slippers. They spoke Hungarian. She looked at me through her hair. He kissed her goodbye, I waved and we left.

“I will KILL you, Eugene Robinson. I will kill you.” I recognized her voice. I also recognized that I probably shouldn’t have passed along my phone number …

Uneventful in the extreme.

The next day we were eating. “My mother wants to stop by for a bit. Join us. OK with you?”

Why wouldn’t it be?

The mom who showed up though was not the mom I had met the day before. The mom who showed up was kitted out in a cowboy hat with cowboy boots and a fringe vest. She had done her hair and her makeup. These were signs for sure but only signs for people who notice signs.


Interpol couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do anything. Words … had never killed anyone yet.

Source ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty

And I’m notoriously sign-blind. Even if she was younger than me. And single. I wasn’t single and moreover was knee-deep in fathering three daughters. Plus I was in Austria on a book tour. So my focus? Books.

She spoke to him briefly before leaving. He rejoined me at the table, laughing.

“My mother wants to know if she can have your email.”


And then he said, “Stay away from my mother.” I laughed off the latter. The tour ended, I returned to the U.S. and my life. Until, an email arrived.

It was tentative and struggled with the language, but it was nice, like it’s always nice, to be remembered. I wrote back. I recalled, as a child, my mother had always tried to interest me in pen pals. “You could write people in other countries!”

It sounded snoozy to me as a kid, but the internet is all about that and fundamentally lets you broaden your vistas without ever leaving the couch. Or your phone. I don’t say this is good, or bad, it just is. And it is in a way that evolutionarily we’re still not used to.

“Angels sent you to me.”

She wrote that. I laughed and brushed it off. I’m always writing to people and this is not the strangest thing that’s ever been said to me.

Days later my phone rang. In a very modern way, a ringing phone always seems like an intrusion and so I let it go to voicemail. I checked the voicemail after someone left a voicemail.

“I will KILL you, Eugene Robinson. I will kill you.”

I recognized her voice. I also recognized that I probably shouldn’t have passed along my phone number either. But like Allen Ginsberg once said to me, “Dharma gates are endless,” and so I figured initially I might find some meaning here too.

But the voicemails started to pile up. The same dark growl of a threat against my life, a desire to stab my eyes out. They came at night, they came whenever. I had to nip it in the bud so one day I just answered.

“I will KILL you, Eugene … ”

“And that’s going to solve your problems?”

She paused. Never expecting a real voice but the pause was brief and she launched back into the killing. And calling me a peasant. I guess this must sting in Hungary. This was not the first time my life had been threatened though and it probably wouldn’t have been the last, and so I was to the battle joined.

I heaped vitriol on a voice that was maybe understanding nothing but tone, and she continued in Hungarian, in English. This lasted for … months.

And then one day: “I will kill your children.”

Bibi Netanyahu once said something along the lines of “given the history of my people on this planet, if I have the choice between underreacting and overreacting, I’m going to choose the latter.” And I concur.

I called her son. “Hey, fuck you. I told you not to do this,” he said.

“You’re right. I wasn’t listening. I’m sorry. In all fairness though I also didn’t know she was mentally ill.”

I contacted Interpol, the organization, not the band. But the refrain was eerily familiar: they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do anything. Words, it was reasoned, had never killed anyone yet. So, suck it up, buttercup.

Then, a thought: with all of the talk about immigration, how easy was it for a Hungarian national to establish residency in Austria? Something the folks at Austrian immigration cleared up for me quite nicely. Nicely enough so that next time she called I was ready.

“I will KILL … ”

“Your son is working very hard with immigration to keep you there, isn’t he?” She stopped talking. I stopped talking. And like someone sliding back underneath the water, the phone just went dead. Years have passed and I have, thankfully, not heard from her again.

“She said angels sent you to her?” A friend of mine trying to make sense of it had just walked through it. “She never really said which angels though.” Which was true enough, and just another sign I had missed.

Bernie Sanders Meets His Final Nomination Hurdle: Black Voters

When Charles Wright thinks about Sen. Bernie Sanders as the Democratic presidential nominee, he starts to get worried. “It’s going to be easy for them to paint him as a socialist, where anything you say, you’re giving away free stuff,” Wright says. As the race turns to places like the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Conway, South Carolina, where about 100 people turned up on Sunday for an African American History Month lesson combined with political speeches from key surrogates to presidential hopefuls, people like the 64-year-old Wright are eyeing Sanders’ rise with suspicion. “He needs to be vetted a lot more,” says Wright, who is backing former Vice President Joe Biden though adds that he would vote for Sanders in the general election if need be.

Sanders continues to clear every bar set before him, gaining strength with each contest. He squeaked through the Iowa caucuses in an effective tie with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, won by a solid but not overwhelming margin in New Hampshire and dusted the field in Nevada. By outperforming expectations there, the odds of Sanders winning the nomination surged in our exclusive Forecast projections: He’s now up to a 50 percent chance of winning a majority of delegates, up from just 21 percent before Nevada.


The latest projections from the OZY Forecast show the percentage chance top Democrats have of winning a majority of delegates.

But if Sanders is going to salt away the nomination here in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday — the 14-state bonanza when one-third of all the available convention delegates are at stake — he has to close the deal with voters like Wright: African Americans who form the base of the Democratic Party.


Councilwoman Nikita L. Jackson cheers during a rally for Bernie Sanders, inside the gymnasium at Clinton College, a historically Black college, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, last summer.

Source LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty

In the lengthy fight for the nomination in 2016, the biggest factor in Hillary Clinton’s triumph over Sanders was her strength with Black voters. Sanders has shown signs of improvement this cycle, earning 27 percent of the Black vote in Nevada according to entrance polls, to Biden’s 39 percent. In a splintered field, that will be enough for Sanders to continue to pick up victories in most places.

But as the Forecast by OZY, 0ptimus and Decision Desk HQ — a sophisticated prediction model that takes in polls, demographics, past results, media coverage and other data — shows, Biden continues to hold a decent lead in South Carolina.

This state is widely seen as a do-or-die moment for the former vice president’s cash-strapped campaign. He’s drawing on familiarity going back decades, and the power of being vice president for eight years to Barack Obama. “I think he’ll do good in the state of South Carolina,” says Biden backer Jimmy Washington, 61, of Myrtle Beach, adding a chuckle. “Well, he’s going to have to if he’s going to survive.”

Biden is spending the week camped out here seeking the win, while Sanders is spending more of his time in Super Tuesday states — which vote only three days later. Sanders was in Texas over the weekend, and after Tuesday night’s debate and a scheduled Wednesday appearance at a ministers’ breakfast in Charleston, Sanders is off to North Carolina. Notably, he will travel to Rev. William Barber’s church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Barber is the president emeritus of the North Carolina NAACP and has become a major national civil rights figure in recent years.

Sanders has made civil rights and discussion of “a multiracial coalition” more of a backbone of his stump speech than four years ago. In South Carolina, he has the support of a clutch of younger Black legislators — while most veterans are with Biden — and the gap often appears generational rather than racial.

Sanders is “more geared toward the younger group, that’s what I feel like, not so much to us,” says Christine Williams, 68, of Conway, who remains undecided ahead of Saturday’s primary. (In 2016, 65 percent of the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate was 45 or older, and 61 percent was Black, according to exit polls. Clinton won handily.)

But Alex Alduncin, data scientist for 0ptimus, points out that Sanders’ support is growing among all races as he continues to rack up wins, and polls show him closing the gap on Biden in South Carolina among Black and non-Black voters. “He’s expanding,” Alduncin says of Sanders. “Usually when you get to this point in the campaign and you’re going up that drastically — 10 percent in a matter of a week or two — then that sort of inertia typically carries you forward.”

It’s not just a two-person race here: Billionaire Tom Steyer has been flooding the state with ads and is projected at third place in OZY’s Forecast for South Carolina. Steyer also will return to the debate stage on Tuesday, after failing to qualify for the Las Vegas debate. In an interview Sunday with CBS, Biden blamed Steyer’s spending for his drop in the polls here.

Buttigieg is out with his own South Carolina ad attacking Sanders, and is spending time campaigning in the state. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is bringing singer John Legend with her as she hits the trail here on Wednesday.

Sanders is well-positioned to control the most delegates of any Democratic contender. But according to our Forecast, there’s about a one-in-three chance that no one has the 1,991 delegates they need for a majority before July’s Democratic National Convention. In last week’s debate in Las Vegas, all of Sanders’ rivals said they’d let a contested convention play out rather than simply hand the nomination to the candidate with a delegate plurality. All of them know they won’t be that plurality leader and likely have visions of a convention backroom triumph dancing in their heads.

For Sanders to squelch such Milwaukee uncertainty, he needs to close the deal with the Democrats’ most important constituency. The next week will tell us a lot about whether he can.

Foreign Policy Gurus Talk Shop, Hold Breath for November US Vote

I recently returned from the annual Munich Security Conference, which for 50 years has been a gathering spot and debating forum for national security specialists, including senior government officials, from around the world. Every issue on the international agenda makes an appearance. All of this is crammed into a medium-sized, overheated, historic hotel in the old quarter of Munich. Crowds of people stream back and forth in the corridors, glancing left and right at name tags with “I must know you” expressions.  Often enough you bump into a former foreign minister, a current diplomatic negotiator and yes, even old intelligence friends and foes. It’s these chance conversations that yield the greatest insights — along with what you can glean from myriad formal seminars large and small.

Here are some takeaways:

U.S.-Europe Relations

These remain somewhere between strained and muddled. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in which he was unrelentingly upbeat, repeatedly insisting that “we [the West] are winning,” a phrase that seemed to hit most people as reminiscent of Cold War talk. His insistence that the United States is “leading” and is committed to its allies fell pretty flat with an audience that broadly disagrees with the Trump approach to Iran and laments his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and his hectoring of NATO (though most Europeans acknowledge that NATO functions mainly as a deterrent).

Europeans add to the muddle with growing strain among and within countries. While Germany remains Europe’s most powerful country, and despite heroic words about playing a leadership role, most Germans I spoke with confessed to being unprepared or simply having no stomach for actually doing it given what Europe looks like these days. Britain is on its way out of the European Union, and Germany is stumbling through a wrenching political transition, moving from the era of long-serving Chancellor Angela Merkel into one of uncertainty thanks to electoral gains by the a right-wing party some regard as neofascist and faltering, off-balance leftist parties. This leaves Merkel’s centrists with coalition choices so unpalatable as to induce a kind of political paralysis — and a stalled transition.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke eloquently of a more self-sufficient Europe that he argues should be, must be, less reliant on U.S. support — but he meets skepticism elsewhere on the Continent and is weakened by protests at home. My conversations have convinced me that Europe, for at least the next year, will be preoccupied with internal issues, perhaps not unlike the U.S. We are united mainly in the sense that we both seem to be moving fitfully along what the Italians call a “bridge to the unknown.”

World Leaders At Munich Security Conference

Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, left, speaks on stage beside Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, during the Munich Security Conference at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, Germany, on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. The Libyan conflict is set to be one of the main themes at the annual security conference that runs Feb. 14 – 16. Photographer: Michaela Handrek-Rehle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Source Michaela Handrek-Rehle/Bloomberg via Getty

Struggles in the Middle East and South Asia

These showed little signs of resolution except for a thin ray of hope on Afghanistan. Sometimes optics tell you everything and that was the case at a forum involving various Persian Gulf foreign ministers in which the strains between Iran and Saudi Arabia were glaringly evident in the staging. Animosity between the two sides is such that they could not appear together and wanted their individual appearances separated by a panel of other Gulf foreign ministers and an American discussing attempts to mediate their dispute.

The American, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., did his best but was in the awkward position of being unable to defend the U.S. role, which in his view (and mine) has only contributed to tensions in the area by withdrawing last year from the Iran nuclear agreement. He argued that the accord had at least taken the nuclear issue off the table and created some space for attempts to resolve other disputes. But with the lid off the nuclear agreement, and Iran in a retaliatory posture, things have only gotten worse. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed that Saudi Arabia had sent a message to Iran after the U.S. killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani and that Iran responded — but never heard back because Washington had pressured Saudi Arabia to drop it. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud denied the interaction. The foreign ministers of Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Turkey, meanwhile, professed to have little success with bridging efforts. I suspect there are channels working they do not talk about — but the Omani said nothing is possible until after the U.S. election.

Boil all this down and you are left with a tense and volatile stalemate. It reminds us that the distance between two points in the Middle East is never a straight line.

Talking to part of the U.S. negotiating team about Afghanistan gave me the sense that the administration’s attitude is neither optimistic nor pessimistic but, very realistically, more of a “let’s see” approach. Hope only begins if the Taliban delivers on its pledge to lower violence over a seven-day period. Then negotiations can start between the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani’s administration. U.S. withdrawals would then be “conditions based” — the pace and magnitude tied to progress toward political agreement. No one is overselling this yet.

China also loomed large, with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper arguing that Europeans would damage NATO and their relationship with the U.S. — jeopardizing their access to American intelligence — if they yielded to China’s efforts to create and equip their 5G communication networks with technology from Chinese telecom giant Huawei. It seems the case was not made, if Britain is any indication: London is letting Huawei into a portion of its networks, asserting that it can insulate its most sensitive data. Germany appears set to follow.

Many other issues were on the agenda, ranging from Russia and Ukraine to nuclear arms control, but there was no evidence of forward movement on these. The elephant in the room throughout was President Donald Trump, but he was hardly ever mentioned — including by senior officials such as Pompeo and Esper. But everyone in attendance understood that next year’s discussions would be shaped entirely by the results of November’s election.

And for global leaders worried that the U.S. may be losing its overseas focus, they will not have been reassured by this week’s Democratic presidential debate … which featured not a single question on foreign affairs.

Can Coronavirus Crisis Bring Traditional and Modern Medicine Together?

When India’s traditional medicine ministry, the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH), issued an advisory in late January listing several ayurvedic, homeopathic and unani treatments for the new coronavirus, it rightly caused an uproar. There is no scientific evidence that the prescribed medicines — such as Shadanga Paniya, an ayurvedic concoction of six herbs — work.

Indeed, at the time all classical medical texts were collated, people didn’t have an understanding of a virus. What guides treatment in these medical systems is a holistic plant-based approach to managing symptoms; in the case of the advisory, for respiratory conditions. So why did the ministry publish unscientific statements? And what drives the almost instantaneously binary reaction to claims from traditional knowledge practices?

To answer this, it’s necessary to understand the history of medical education in India. Like all education before colonial times, ayurveda was taught in the guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition), a system in which the student was immersed in the guru’s household and practice, with a strong hands-on training component. Modern medicine came with the colonialists. In 1822, instruction in Western and Indian medicine (unani and ayurveda) commenced in Calcutta, but the British then withdrew support for instruction in native languages as well as for native medical practices.

From then on, the colonial and, later, Indian governments undertook investments to increase the number of medical colleges offering education in Western medicine in the country. The Indian Medical Council Act of 1956 institutionalized this process. Meanwhile, it was predominantly endowments from royal families that helped the Indian state set up institutions to train students in traditional medicine. The maharaja of Travancore had established one of the oldest, in 1889, in Thiruvananthapuram, today known as the Government Ayurveda Medical College. However, it was not until 1970, with the passing of the Indian Medicine Central Council Act, that ayurveda and unani training became institutionalized.

It’s almost certain that AYUSH did not run its new advisory by any virologist in the country, not because there aren’t any but because they aren’t in the ministry’s Rolodex of experts.

This regulatory divide at the top ensured that from the very start of professional training, modern and traditional medical practitioners are kept separated. To this day, a degree in allopathy includes no courses in traditional medicine and vice versa, although ayurvedic doctors do study modern anatomy and physiology. While modern biological sciences like biochemistry, genetics and microbiology are part of an allopathic education, they find no mention in a traditional medicine degree. Even on campuses that have a cluster of excellent science research departments, there is no exchange of staff and students between the ayurveda college and the rest of the sciences. Structural bifurcation doesn’t stop at medical education: It also extends to biomedical research.

Cropped Hands Of Woman Holding Herbs In Plate

A favorite refrain of traditional medical practitioners is that it’s difficult to perform clinical trials in the strict reductionist approach of modern science because, by philosophy, traditional medicine is personalized.

Source Jola Retelska / EyeEm

It’s almost certain that AYUSH did not run its new advisory by any virologist in the country, not because there aren’t any but because they aren’t in the ministry’s Rolodex of experts.

Thus we have a treasure trove of information on medical practices that have not been examined in a system that we know as the scientific method. The practice of testing hypotheses and rigorously demonstrating cause and effect has not permeated AYUSH. A favorite refrain of traditional medical practitioners is that it’s difficult to perform clinical trials in the strict reductionist approach of modern science because, by philosophy, traditional medicine is personalized.

This is only the start of differences in vocabulary that then precipitate a binary situation: “Either believe in traditional medicine or don’t.” But what if we removed belief from this conversation? We must embrace openness and look for commonalities, the most important being that both streams are about saving lives and improving the quality of life. Modern medicine needs to acknowledge that it doesn’t have a treatment for all diseases just as much as traditional medicine needs to acknowledge the same thing. We need more conversations between practitioners and researchers of both medical streams to start unpacking the potential of integrative treatments: the success of traditional medicine for chronic illnesses plus the superior surgical skills and lifesaving technologies of modern medicine.

Further, we need to reimagine clinical trials to assess personalized approaches to healing by including metrics that test formulations — common in traditional medicine — as well as single chemical entities. We need the participation of the research fraternity, from biologists to statisticians and engineers, to describe new metrics to measure the efficacy of traditional medicine.

A lack of cohesive policymaking that aims to rigorously evaluate and integrate knowledge streams for human well-being is preventing us from reaping the full potential of the two. Remarkably, the Charaka Samhita, a historic ayurvedic textbook, describes a good physician as one who is dynamic and constantly evolving. It’s time to take this classical advice seriously.