Books I read in 2018 (some of which you should go and read as well)

As 2018 comes to a tinsel-wrapped close, tis the season once again for lovers of the written word to share the contents of their year’s reading lists. I wouldn’t recommend all of the below books for my dear readers but I’m happy to report that I found something of value in each and every one of them.

Sometimes, I disagreed with the author’s conclusions. On occasion, I found the writing shit. Often though, I found myself nodding and acceding – awed by a particular turn of phrase and wishing I’d written it first.

I scribbled enough notes in side columns (connected with bedlamite arrows) to create a lengthy Word document – which I did, for scholarly purposes. The resulting annotated bibliography currently runs at 67 pages – which seems impressive but is not even enough words to passably analyse a Roman Quaedvlieg Tweet.

Some of these yellowing piles of paper were even re-reads, plucked and dusted from the bookshelf. The books that were “second-time-rounds” now bear the graffiti of two different pen nibs.

For better or worse, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut was the only novel I read this year (I confess I only did so upon learning that Vonnegut was a trained anthropologist).

That said, my better half informs me that we’re celebrating Christmas this year Icelandic-style with a tradition called Jólabókaflóð. Preliminary research indicates that it basically consists of drinking lots of hot cocoa and reading books. This I can live with. Perhaps the Jólasveinn will leave a novel or two in my stocking.

Here it is. The list of 2018.

Politics & Society:

  • We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Democratization in the Maghreb, JNC Hill
  • Bandits, Eric Hobsbawm
  • On Anarchy, Noam Chomsky
  • On Kings, David Graeber & Marshall Sahlins
  • The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan
  • Earning the Rockies, Robert Kaplan
  • Algerian Sketches, Pierre Bourdieu
  • The Line Becomes A River, Francisco Cantu
  • Tribe, Sebastian Junger

Conflict:

  • The War is in the Mountains, Judith Matloff
  • War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States & Indigenous Warfare, R. Brian Ferguson & Neil Whitehead
  • Why We Fight: The Cognitive Basis for War, Mike Martin
  • On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz
  • On Violence, Hannah Arendt
  • On Killing, Lt. Col. David Grossman
  • Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger
  • Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves

Biology & Evolution:

  • Unto Others: The Evolution & Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour, Elliott Sober & David Sloan Wilson
  • The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
  • The Theory of Island Biogeography, David McArthur & E.O Wilson
  • The Social System, Talcott Parsons
  • The Social Conquest of the Earth, E.O Wilson
  • Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, Peter Kropotkin

Novels & Sports Writing:

  • Barbarian Days, William Finnegan
  • True Story, Michael Finkel
  • The Art of Freedom, Bernadette McDonald
  • The Push, Tommy Caldwell
  • Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Lessons from North Sentinel Island

The Sentinelese are in the headlines again. As per the norm though, when a prefer-to-mind-their-own-business indigenous tribe is making headlines, the news is rarely positive – be it for the native people in question or their encroachers.

This time, in a remarkably naive example of proselyte adventurism, a young American Christian missionary figured it was a good idea to breach the Indian naval cordon around North Sentinel in order to spread the word of Jesus.

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Predictably, and in keeping with the history of North Sentinel – where trespassers are usually greeted with lethal violence – John Allen Chau, 26 years old, was tragically murdered by the Sentinelese.

Also predictably, some of the media commentary surrounding the murder is almost as awful as the murder itself.

News organizations, for one, seem to be unsure of how to describe the Sentinelese.

Are they a “Stone Age tribe” or a “pre-Neolithic tribe“? The ABC has gone with “pre-Neolithic” (the “last” one, apparently) – an adjectival monicker that is both inaccurate and insulting.

Why? The reasons are obvious. If we agree that the currently-news-breaking Sentinelese are our contemporaries, then it follows that Chau’s killers are members of a modern-day tribe. A hold-out of hunter-gatherers in a weird, whacky world.

Second, using the prefix “pre-” assumes that cultural change is a teleological process – a unilinear progression, from “savage” to “civilized” (as opposed to a process of adaptation and mutation in response to the specifics of an environment, as Darwin intended evolution – both biological and cultural – to be understood).

Neither is there any indication that Sentinelese culture is anything like it was during the pre-Neolithic period. No ethnographic or archaeological studies have been conducted on North Sentinel (in my view, a good thing). There is simply no available data to tell us anything about the history of cultural change. Or lack thereof.

Thus, the Sentinelese are not a “pre-Neolithic” tribe in the same way that they are not a “savage” tribe.

So how do we then describe the Sentinelese? Are they “uncontacted”, as Sky News – following Survival International’s lead – describes them?

Well, no. Apart from Chau’s own sorry contact with the Sentinelese, the islanders have a long history of less-than-fortuitous contact with outsiders. Starting with British naval officer Maurice Vidal Portman’s rape-and-kidnapping rampages during the Victorian period, the Sentinelese have rarely got along well with foreigners.

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A Sentinelese tribesman taking aim at an Indian Navy helicopter, during post-tsunami relief operations

So they’re not “pre-Neolithic” and they’re not “Stone Age” and they’re not “uncontacted”. So what are they? They are just a tribe of modern-day hunter-gatherers living in elective isolation.

In the commentary sphere, some awful person at The Spectator, in advocating for colonial settlement of North Sentinel (I thought we were past this stuff), has suggested it’s time we “civilized” the Sentinelese. Any other policy move – like, say, leaving them alone – would simply pander to “the eco-leftists and other luvvies”, apparently.

It’s an argument you’d be hard-pressed to come across these days (excluding fictional characters in The Poisonwood Bible or a Rudyard Kipling poetry recital), but there you go.

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MV Portman and captives

Even more surprising though, is the response from Pauline Hanson, notable non-friend to indigenous people. Rather than hoisting her sails behind The Spectator’s Kurtzian talking points, she’s taken to praising the Sentinelese for what she sees as their admirable “strict zero gross immigration policy”.

This brings us to the issue of what we can actually learn from this story and from the Sentinelese more generally, because as Jared Diamond and Wade Davis have argued, there is much we can learn from the simple, domestically-focussed modes of living common among hunter-gatherer peoples.

In some respects, Hanson is right about the Sentinelese’s right to isolation. The Sentinelese are vulnerable inhabitants of an island chain which for centuries was subject to the depredations of colonial immigration. They have a right to be left alone. Their palpable isolationism – which they enforce with bow and arrow – is justified when we take into account the longue durée of Andamanese colonial history.

Beyond the coral reef barriers of North Sentinel, the geostrategic maelstrom that is the Indian Ocean makes for a tumultuous neighbourhood – what with India and China competing for primacy and last year’s genocide of an indigenous minority in Myanmar. The Sentinelese are doing well to stay clear of developments in the outside world.

More yet, there is plenty we can learn from the Sentinelese about how to live and be in the world, as I opined for ABC News a few years ago.

A decade and a half of feckless interventionism in the Middle East, rather than improving the lot of those we avowed to help has, in many ways, prolonged and exacerbated the immiseration of local people.

Otherwhere, our patterns of consumption are leading us towards ecological collapse – in contrast to the Sentinelese’s sustainable relationship with their surroundings. In short, we need to be less militarily adventurous and more content with living simply. Less homo geopoliticus, more homeostasis.

Unlike North Sentinel Island and a few pockets of the Amazon rainforest however, the rest of the geopolitical world which we inhabit, as the geographer Halford Mackinder predicted, has become a “closed system” – a highly-networked, deeply-enmeshed mess which can no longer be pried into its separate parts.

This is where the Brexiteers, the wall-building nativists and the Hanson One Nationalists get it wrong. Unlike the Sentinelese, it is too late for the rest of us to disengage completely from the world system. We are now living on the “World-Island”, whether we like it or not.

The ticket therefore, is to embrace a new kind of isolationism – an outlook that sees the world as it is, not as we want it to be. An isolationism that is one part domestically-focussed (so as not to create more Iraqs and Afghanistans), one part selfish (to proffer from the common market), but still one part humanitarian – in order that we can live up to the Enlightenment values we claim to profess.

Where policy-making is concerned, this means honouring a sustainable refugee intake, promoting peace building efforts on the world stage and, where mass atrocity events do occur (as they did in Myanmar last year) doing more to stand up for the most egregious human rights violations.

The humanitarian isolationist must still be willing to be coaxed, tortoise-like, from the shell, supporting the legitimate application of military force where it exists.

Such expeditions though, before launch, should be carefully scrutinized – perhaps with the Powell Doctrine in mind. Fewer “coalitions of the willing”, more “coalitions of the reticent but able”. Canada’s offer of aeromedical airlift capability to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali is a good recent case study of this principle in practice.

To our shame though, last year’s Rohingya genocide was an example of where military force in the form of a peace-enforcement mission could have been positive for the stability of the World-Island. Instead however, we remain mired in our own culture wars (see Hanson talking points for more)… as well as the ongoing, unwinnable forever wars.

Let’s change the way we do stuff.

A Bunch of Incorrect Things Politicians Have Said This Week

So Alexander Downer, Australia’s foreign minister during the Howard years, has become a giant Twitter troll – and I mean this strictly in the pejorative sense of the term. I say this because while the entire world is mourning the death of Jamal Khashoggi and the corresponding implications for press freedom, Downer is spreading disinformation on the Internet masked as “questions”.

From the open source, the answer to both of these questions is “no” and “no” (or at least, “where’s the evidence before you start spouting this bullshit?”). This begs the question – what does Downer want to achieve with such trollery? For now it’s unclear – except that he appears to be going to bat for the Saudis.

Who knows if the stuff we put in our cars has anything to do with it (I don’t have any evidence to suggest it does) but to borrow from the former Foreign Minister’s conspiracy theory-mongering playbook for a moment: “is it true that Alexander Downer has close ties to the petroleum industry and is that also relevant?”

Downer’s ties to Woodside, after all, are currently being dredged up in the public discourse surrounding the Witness K sorry business.

Point is: without presenting actual evidence, asking such questions on the Twitter-machine is a pretty mean-spirited thing to do. Khashoggi, let’s remember, was just cut up into little bits and sent back to Saudi Arabia in diplomatic bags. Seems the era of #FakeNews is all-surrounding.

Elsewhere, Catherine McKenna, the Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change came up with this absolute ripper of an explanation for why the Stone Age came to a bronzy conclusion.

Let’s review the operative sentence again (then we can mock it): “the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. We got smarter”.

Well no, Cathy. Actually, this is extremely incorrect. Cognitively speaking, there is little difference between the mental faculties of today’s homo sapiens and the anatomically-modern humans who lived in the Stone Age. Of course, there’s a good argument to be made that groups as wholes have improved their capacity to store and transmit information (see, for example, the Internet) but this does not mean that “we” have become “smarter” – certainly not the “we” in terms of us as individuals.

One thing you come to appreciate when you spend a bit of time in the wilderness is just how smart and resourceful our ancestors were – expanding out of Africa; spreading through a multitude of inhospitable climates; using language as a tool for co-ordination during hunting.

Moreover, with all the rubbish that modern sedentary humans now put into their bodies you also have to wonder if there might be some link between the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup in America and, say, Trumpism.

No, the Stone Age did not end because we “got smarter”. It ended because of smelting. And since the collective detritus coughed up by industry is now having a good go at destroying the planet, one could reasonably argue that on a big enough time scale smelting was a bad idea.

There’s one important thing to reflect on when reading McKenna’s little quip about our supposed intellectual superiority over the peoples of the Neolithic. Scientists need to do a better job at out-communicating a few basic and persistent misconceptions about how evolution works. Making bronze did not make humans “smarter” or “better” in the sense of moving towards a utopian superlative. It was a specific adaptation to a niche – one which historically correlates with the development of year-round agriculture (which sedentarised us) and the rise of centralized government in the form of early proto-states (which, I’m sure we agree, has had varying effects on the human condition). A niche adaptation makes an organism “fitter” in the context of its immediate environmental surroundings but when that environment changes those same adaptations may actually reduce the organism’s fitness.

If a nuclear Holocaust does occur in my lifetime, the first thing I will do is log off this blog and set to the task of learning how to be a hunter-gatherer.

Key point to note: that famous “March of Progress” image you still see posted up on the walls of high school biology labs is fundamentally wrong. Evolution is not a process of linear advance.

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Elsewhere, Australia’s former Defence minister turned head of the Australian War Memorial is making a fool of himself again. Header for this video could read: “Dr Nelson: head of historical museum insists on putting himself on the wrong side of history”

Having said that, they are pretty tricky these “he said-17 others said” legal cases – so we’d all be well-advised to wait for the allegations to fully have their day in court.

But in the spirit of Downerism, I’ve just got one question for Dr Nelson: “Is it true that Kerry Stokes, owner of Channel Seven, is Chairman of the Australian War Memorial and is that also relevant? I’d like to know.

A More Serene Democracy

When walking the cobblestoned vias of the “Città”– the capital of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino  – you might think you were wandering through an experimental miniature of the perfect society.

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The streets are clean, the food is reasonably priced, the mountain air is fresh and the mood at the Palazzo Publico – the centre of national public life – is one of calm and quiet.

From the walkways of time-preserved castle ramparts to the leafy streets outside the citadel’s main walls, it is difficult to ignore the profound sense of tranquility that irradiates the world’s smallest land-based democracy and oldest extant republic.

Even the Guardia di Rocca – the Guards of the Rock who safekeep the seat of San Marino’s government in red-and-green double-breasted jackets – are all smiles as they act the part of props in the holiday snaps of visiting tourists. Freedom without fear. Security with cheer. All this in a country that has not been to war since the Lords of Urbino laid siege to it in the 15th century.

310px-Guardia_di_Rocca_al_Palazzo_Pubblico_San_Marino

The obvious question then to ask is why this is – and how can such “serenità” be imported into Australia’s increasingly toxic political climate?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that San Marino’s calm is simply an accident of history and geography – enclaved as it is as a happy little pebble inside the boot of the Italian peninsula.

All the same, a visit to this tiny country also offers a teachable moment in what makes a political system successful.

Founded by a saint as a communitarian geopolitically-neutral colony during the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Christian persecutions, San Marino is today a “city on the hill” in the truest sense – a white-walled castle republic spilling down the sides of the picturesque Mount Titano.

Marino_als_steinhauer

Aside from its defendable location, shrewd neutrality and ancient egalitarianism, San Marino also tends to a system of government called “diarchy” whereby the country’s main legislative body elects two Captains-Regent to serve as dual heads of state. Modeled off the consuls of Rome who co-ruled as a duumvirate, the Captains-Regent are rotated through every six months – the most recent being just a few weeks ago.

To Australians frustrated with the constant changes of leadership that have undermined recent Parliaments, it may seem anathema that stability can exist amidst such kinglessness.

Indeed, conventional wisdom has long had it that a recognizable face in office is tantamount to a steady hand. Australia’s perennial leadership changes have made it “the coup capital of the democratic world”, declared the BBC’s Nick Bryant. Who are we to label our neighbourhood the “arc of instability” – opined the Lowy Institute’s Shane McLeod – when Papua New Guinea’s Prime Ministerial persistence is 40% longer than Australia?

And yet, as the Sammarinese example shows, perhaps the regularity of leadership changes isn’t really the problem.

Instead of being an exercise in political blood-letting – a kind of ritualized kill-Caesar side-show as it is in Australia – this month’s transition of the Captains-Regent was orderly, mandated and polite – little more than a customary occasion that shied far away from international headlines.

By contrast, Australian changes of leadership are often discussed using violent imagery – the “spilling” of blood; incumbents as suicide bombers; “cycles of violence”; ruminations about who is Cassius and who is Brutus in the latest political subplot; cartoons depicting the sitting Parliament as a Game of Thrones-style “Red Wedding”.

Comparing this untidiness with what the Sammarinese do right, one logical conclusion is that Australia’s unstable politics is less the consequence of frequency of changes and more the correlation of two unfortunate variables – the lack of fixed terms for prime ministers and the obsessive cult of personality this engenders.

Until two weeks ago, San Marino’s Matteo Ciacci, aged 28, was the youngest serving state leader in the world. To most Sammarinese however, this factoid wasn’t remotely interesting because surely enough – as happens every six months – this particular Captain-Regent would soon be gone.

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Compare this with the amount of time Australians spend obsessing over the polling effects of Malcolm Turnbull’s wealth, Kevin Rudd’s managerial style, Julia Gillard’s gender and the religious preferences of Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott. In Australia, the personal oddities and ideological quirks of the incumbent prime minister do matter because – well – technically he or she could stay in office for life. So the media, either feeding or responding to popular interest, deifies the personalities.

Even so, because of cabinet collective responsibility, the real power of a Westminster system’s prime minister is technically denuded – more now today where a toxic combo of salacious media reporting and actual palace intrigue has any Australian Prime Minister constantly looking over his or her shoulder.

But if there is any instability in the system it is not because the office of the Prime Minister is too weak or that leadership changes occur too often, it is because, in the absence of fixed terms, the public and the party are utterly obsessed with the question of who is occupying the seat at the head of the table (and who is ready-set to unseat them).

If the polls are anything to go by (and of course, recent history shows that they perhaps aren’t to be trusted) then Scott Morrison’s Liberals have scored enough own goals to all but guarantee their own immolation at this coming election.

In all likelihood, Australia will shortly experience another change in government – a new occupant in The Lodge. Inevitably, when (and if) Mr Shorten does take office, new rumours will begin to surface about the next intrigue – all of it to the detriment of the smooth efficiency of government.

This state of affairs being what it is then, perhaps the best course of action is to permanently enshrine regular changes of leadership into Australia’s system of government, just as San Marino has.

The Sammarinese model shows that timely and constitutionally-mandated changes of leadership do two things: 1.) ensure that power cannot be concentrated into the hands of any single individual and 2.) redirects the limelight away from the eccentricities of the incumbent and onto the order of the day.

Those are both healthy outcomes.

In peace-loving San Marino, the good life flows as the sun sets in tangerine tints over the Apennines.

Why not have the same in Australia?

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License plate #: “RSM01” and “RSM02”

Procrastination = Meme Creation

I made a meme (am also reading about them again).

Would also maintain that this is the best meme format on the Interwebs. Why?

Because it’s a perfect demonstration of the Socratic method and the importance of dialectical critical thinking. Has good applications for discussions about ethics – including ethical debates outside the silo of working anthropologists.

Maybe now I’ll actually make headway on that paper and that book review and those two half-finished op-eds, not to mention that 100,000 word dissertation.

#PhDLife

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Footnote: replace “then” with “than” in the second pane. Still haven’t mastered that one…

A Final Word on Chelsea Manning

The Australian government’s rejection of Chelsea Manning’s visa application on a character grounds basis has triggered a furious public debate over the rightness of the decision.

Framed by some as a test of Australia’s democratic ideals – namely, the right of whistleblowers to be heard without fear of retaliation – it appears that many of her local supporters, including Greens leader Richard di Natale, are unphased by the former intelligence analyst’s previous criminal convictions. On this however, Manning’s defenders would do well to reconsider their position.

Indeed, far from a courageous and discriminating act of whistleblowing, Manning’s decision to illegally transmit hundreds of thousands of sensitive files which contained among other things, the identities of local Afghan informants and the social security numbers of American troops – was, plainly, simply, an act of espionage.

This is not to say, of course, that none of the material leaked by Manning and subsequently published by Wikileaks between April 5, 2010 and April 25, 2011 was in the public interest. A selection of it certainly was.

To argue, for example, that the infamous “Collateral Murder” video – which showed the air-to-ground obliteration of Reuters journalists by a pair of US Apache helicopters – was not a right-to-know news item requires absurd levels of devotion to government secrecy.

Similar caveats also apply to the documents which specifically detailed the March 2007 Shinwar shooting (in which US Marines killed more than nineteen innocent motorists during a “frenzied” highway rampage); the August 2007 Nangar Khel incident (when Polish troops mortared a woman, her baby and others as part of a revenge attack); and the March 2007 shooting of a deaf, mute Afghan man by a band of CIA paramilitaries in the remote mountainous hamlet of Malekshay.

The above stories were indisputably newsworthy and as such, they were picked up and selectively re-reported by serious journalists at The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel.

What Manning’s unilateral, unexpurgated data-dump of 734,119 US embassy cables and military patrol reports did however was deprive the public of a human frame of referent with which to digest unfiltered information. In other words, by drowning the truly pressing news items in assorted bytes of procedural government bureaucracy she all but ensured that the story of the mother and her child at Nangar Khel would be buried by The Pentagon’s legitimate complaints that rightfully “sensitive items” had been revealed in the documents.

Of course, the security of the US military’s Afghan and Iraqi sources was never a subject of importance for either Manning or Julian Assange. And given what we now know about Wikileaks’ alleged ties to Russia, it may even be fair to characterize the leaks as an act of information warfare against the United States and its allies.

According to David Leigh, an investigative journalist at The Guardian, during a heated internal debate over whether the names of Afghan civilians would be redacted upon publication, Assange reportedly said “well, they’re informants. So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” An effective acknowledgement of a premeditated intent to harm the American mission.

Manning on the other hand – as the prosecution would successfully demonstrate in court – had become essentially (or at least functionally) indifferent to the value of classification even if her motives were not so palpably nefarious. Source protection, it’s fair to say, was never a priority.

Manning and Assange’s general apathy to the real-life repercussions of unredacted reportage is what distinguishes their leaks from, say, the reporting done by journalists at Fairfax and the ABC during the recent coverage of allegations related to Australian special forces in Afghanistan.

While Manning’s actions were, as the judge presiding over her trial described it “wanton and reckless”, the manner by which the alleged criminal malfeasance of Australian troops was most recently brought into the public eye was measured, cerebral and noteworthy.

No “raw data” – just careful fact-checking. No unredacted patrol reports – just document briefs, key passages quoted and highlighted, without carbon-copy facsimiles. No names attached where identities and reputations might be unjustly and gratuitously at risk – just the testimony of tried-and-true whistleblowers reporting what they saw. By comparison, and at a fundamental ethical level, Manning’s decision-making failed to pass muster.

Having said that, there is still some merit to having this debate.

Some, such as the Lowy Institute’s Lieutenant Colonel Greg Colton have persuasively argued that Manning’s attempted entry to Australia is a free speech issue – a test of the government’s willingness to hear things it doesn’t like from someone who has already served a commuted sentence.

Certainly, most would probably agree that ruthless fealty to the principle of free speech – including the right to speak truth to power – is a sign of a well-functioning democracy. So it’s a point worth considering.

But speaking freely, as we have surely come to realize in an age where violence and vitriol is begat upon the political pulpit, also comes with certain responsibilities. And even from a free speech perspective, Manning has historically demonstrated that she is not a responsible citizen of the world.

In purporting to exercise what her defence tried and failed to frame as “her First Amendment rights” at trial, Manning transmitted troves of protected information which compromised the security of many unwitting people – from Zimbabwe to China. Speaking freely yes, but also speaking in an utterly irresponsible manner, with catastrophic consequences.

Some of these consequences – such as, for example, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid’s pledge to investigate and “punish” the Afghan informants named in leaked US intelligence reports – may have been unintended. But these consequences should also have been anticipated.

Why would Australians award somebody who evinces such criminal lack of judgement the privilege of entering their country?

A Recent Tweet from the International Committee of the Red Cross

… with which I have a particular affinity.

It is, indeed, quite simple.

 

Update: Make that two awesomely-put Tweets by the ICRC.

Also, this guy Chad (well-named) on CBC News said some pretty awesome things about the ongoing spat between Chrystia Freeland’s social media team and the Kingdom currently run by the House of Saud. Listen from 28:44. Amazing!