State of the Union

Why Facebook Matters

I wanted to get off Facebook—to deactivate my account entirely. It seemed like such a waste of time, a distraction from real-life interactions and relationships. If Facebook no longer pulled at my attention, I thought, perhaps I would be a better friend, and invest in those people who are truly closest to me. I could invest time in the place I live, rather than in a virtual world full of acquaintances and people I barely know.

So I decided to take a break from Facebook to see whether my social relationships would improve or change at all. Before logging off, I let friends know that I’d be away, and gave them my email. It wasn’t really a full “unplugging” experiment, since I use the computer so much for work. But it meant that, in the evenings, I spent much less time online. I occasionally worked on writing projects or wrote emails—but not much else. I wrote long email letters or made phone calls to my closest friends and family members. I continued to use Instagram, but tried to send direct-message pictures to my family, rather than simply using the “public” feature. I marked friends’ birthdays on my personal calendar before deactivating my Facebook account, and tried to email or call them on their birthdays, rather than leaving the prosaic “Happy birthday!” wall post.

Leaving Facebook showed me how much time I do, in fact, rely on it to fill moments of pause. When I sat in the car, waited for the metro, or stood in line, social media was the first thing I turned to. Without Facebook, my fingers itched. What else could I browse—Instagram? Twitter? Anything to feel connected. Anything to pass the time. I realized how frenzied and information-obsessed my brain can become, and made an effort to cultivate quiet, and to appreciate the moments of stillness.

However, despite these advantages, my month away from Facebook wasn’t a time of great awakening, social revitalization, or spiritual growth. Though it did serve a few good purposes, there were also strong disadvantages to leaving Facebook—primarily, the sense of disconnection from family and friends. The world didn’t pause its social media usage when I did: friends would ask me why I hadn’t responded to messages or event invites, whether I had seen this picture or that link. I realized how much I relied on Facebook to get updates from more distant family members or old friends in my home state; though Instagram provided some information, I hadn’t thought about the fact that relationships, engagements, weddings, and graduations are primarily announced (and commented upon) via Facebook.

I began to evaluate my experiment. The thing I craved most about non-Facebook interactions was their closeness, their intimacy and depth. I was tired of the self-aggrandizing statuses, the public displays of affection between couples (or even friends) that would have been more meaningful, at least in my eyes, if shared privately.

But Facebook also does one thing very well—better, perhaps, than any other social media tool: it enables us to form and cultivate little platoons. And this, I realized, was what I had missed in the last month. Though I was able to invest in individual friendships, my lack of Facebook presence made it harder to host events, or to check up on the groups of people who meant so much in my life. I realized that not everyone checks email with the same rapidity I do—but everyone checks their Facebook notifications. I tried to coordinate a dinner with friends via email a few days ago—and only received one reply over the course of the next 48 hours. Then I created a Facebook event, and invited all the same people. They RSVP’d within 10-15 minutes. Read More…

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Hawks Call for Cuts to Israel Military Aid

As Israel ramps up its ground invasion and bombing campaign against Gaza, one might think that the Jewish state’s fiercest defenders here in the United States would be resolutely holding the line against any suggestion of reducing support to the IDF. Instead, Eli Lake reported this morning, many of Israel’s most prominent hawkish supporters are increasingly open to the idea of reducing or eliminating the billions of dollars in military aid that the United States provides Israel every year.

They have not changed their feathers, to be sure, but rather see a phase-out of aid to be in Israel’s best interests as they understand them. Noah Pollak, who runs the Emergency Committee on Israel, said, “The experience of the Obama years has sharpened the perception among pro-Israel Americans that aid can cut against Israel by giving presidents with bad ideas more leverage than they would otherwise have.”

Elliott Abrams, the former George W. Bush deputy national security adviser and “leading pro-Israel writer and policy analyst” told Lake, “My view is over time it would be healthy for the relationship if the aid diminished. Israel should be less dependent on American financial assistance and should become the kind of ally that we have in Australia, Canada or the United Kingdom, an intimate military relationship and alliance, but no military aid.”

A consistent theme in these arguments is a desire for Israel to gain greater independence in recognition of its changed position from decades ago. David Wurmser, a former Cheney aide who helped author the 1996 “Clean Break” memo that also called for terminating U.S. aid, “said the idea at the time was for Israel to graduate from being a ‘tenuous project’ to a ‘real country.’” Naftali Bennett, the right-wing Israeli Minister of the Economy, said last year that “U.S. military aid is roughly 1 percent of Israel’s economy. I think, generally, we need to free ourselves from it. We have to do it responsibly … but our situation today is very different from what it was 20 and 30 years ago.’”

Abrams noted that Israel’s booming economy (its GDP has doubled since 2000) and recent discovery of significant natural gas reserves has led to talk of a sovereign wealth fund for the country to invest its surplus moneys in, “but I do not believe a country that has a sovereign wealth fund can be an aid recipient.”

In many ways, these pro-Israel hawks echo the sentiments of skeptics of U.S. policy towards Israel, including University of Chicago professor John J. Mearsheimer, who wrote in TAC in 2009 that “Both countries would be much better off if the Obama administration treated Israel the way it treats other democracies, such as Britain, France, Germany, and India.” There are obvious limits to that overlap, as Abrams worries that, “Were there a reduction now, it would be attributed to administration hostility to Israel and be seen as a weakening of U.S. support,” and so doesn’t want to see a reduction in aid until a more friendly administration is in place.

But the desire for Israel to take a more independent, self-sufficient place among the nations seems to be shared by hawks and doves alike, and is at the least worth keeping an eye on.


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The Boy Is the Father of Whatever: Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”

Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood" © 2014 - IFC Films
Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood" © 2014 - IFC Films

About an hour and a half into Richard Linklater’s memorable new film, my notes say, “This is RIVETING.” Exactly one hour later, as the movie finally ceased (“ended” is too strong, too decisive), I breathed a sigh of relief. What went wrong to turn the movie from startling, luminous journey into boring, platitudinous slog?

Linklater’s movie has gained a lot of press for one of those gimmicks which hide deep meaning under their showy surface, like the delays in Hamlet. Linklater shot the movie over the course of 12 years, so that as Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grows from age five to freshman year of college, Coltrane grows with him. So does sister Sam and her actress Lorelei Linklater. The device offers a fresh, striking way to show continuity and discontinuity in our lives: No matter how many homes, friends, even family members we shed, our faces are very hard to entirely leave behind.

Read More…

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America Is a Microcosm of a World on Fire

To observe the decades-long paralysis of America’s political elite in controlling her borders calls to mind the insight of James Burnham in 1964—”Liberalism is the ideology of Western suicide.” What the ex-Trotskyite turned Cold Warrior meant was that by faithfully following the tenets of liberalism, the West would embrace suicidal policies that would bring about the death of her civilization.

The crisis on our Southern border, where the left, and not only the left, is wailing that we cannot turn away desperate people fleeing wicked regimes and remain true to our liberal values, is a case in point. To assert that we cannot take all these people in, that we must send them back and seal out border for our survival, is to be called a variety of names—racist, xenophobe, nativist—all of which translate into “illiberal.” But as we continue our descent to Third World status, perhaps we should explore more deeply the “diversity” that has of late come to be regarded as America’s most treasured attribute.

In 1960, we were not nearly so diverse. Nine in 10 Americans professed a Christian faith. Nine in 10 Americans traced their ancestry back to Europe. E Pluribus Unum. We were one nation and one people. Since then, we have become the Brazil of North America, a multiracial, multilingual, multiethnic, multicultural “universal nation” unlike any that has existed in the history of the West. And if we look abroad at those Western nations traveling along this perilous path with us, we can see clearly now our future

Before the 1960s, Europe never knew mass immigration. And after the terrible ethnic cleansing of Germans after World War II, most of Europe’s nations were ethnically homogeneous. Several were not. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the USSR. At the end of the Cold War, with freedom, all three came apart. Where we had three nations, suddenly we had 24 and such sub-nations as South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transnistria.

Now Scots are seeking to break away from England, Catalans from Spain, Corsicans from France, Venetians from Italy, and Flemish from Belgium, though these peoples have lived together for centuries. Crimeans have gone back to Russia, while Chechens and other peoples of the Caucasus are fighting to break free of Russia. The roots of these secessionist movements may be traced to economics, ethnicity, history, religion, language, culture, and borders.

Then there are the rising millions of Muslims in Europe who are not assimilating, as Catholic Irish and Catholic Germans did in a Protestant USA, but are replicating within the West the countries and cultures whence they came.  They are separating themselves, by ethnicity, culture, and faith, from the Western societies into which they have migrated.

Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Somalis, and Arabs in America also build replicas of the countries and cultures whence they came. Thus, we take on the aspect of an empire. And empires fall apart. The melting pot, rejected by our elites as an instrument of nativist bigots, is history. Libya, Syria and Iraq are coming apart, as did Sudan and Ethiopia. The Kurds seek to carve a nation out of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. A Sunni-Shia sectarian war impends.

Christians are being persecuted, martyred, and expelled from Islamic nations. In Myanmar, Muslims are brutalized by Buddhists. In Western China, ethnic Uighurs resort to terrorism in a war of secession to establish a new East Turkestan. Disintegration, separatism, and secessionism, for racial, religious, and cultural causes, are a phenomenon common now to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Are we somehow immune? Read More…

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Congressional Quirkiness on Display @CongressEdits

Twitter has revolutionized the way constituents interact with their representatives in Congress. Will Wikipedia be the next interactive legislative platform?

If developer and Library of Congress employee Ed Summers’ ideas take off, maybe so. This week, Summers created a bot called @congressedits that tweets out anonymous Wikipedia edits from congressional IP addresses. The account has mainly uncovered the innocuous and the banal, from noting the availability of Choco Tacos in the Rayburn building to correcting grammar in the article for Step Up 3D. However, the account also enables the public to see when staffers vandalize or rewrite politicians’ biographical information, whether updating word choice (Justin Amash is an “attorney,” not a “corporate lawyer”) or casually defaming likely opposition (activist Kesha Rogers is a “Trotskyist”).


Rogue political Wikipedia edits have been controversial before. In 2006, staffers for politicians from Rep. Marty Meehan to Sen. Joe Biden were publicly called out for removing criticism from their bosses’ pages. Wikipedia’s usual crowd of vigilant editors reversed the few problematic edits they found after investigating other congressional activity on the site, but left most edits intact as intended “in good faith.”

But Summers’ project is not a series of overt agendas connected to individual staffers. Its real-time, eerily specific feed of edits streams activity from the entire congressional workforce in what Megan Garber has called a project of “ambient accountability.” Like the earlier controversies, Wikipedia can yet again serve as a proxy for political fights happening elsewhere, but it can also serve as a window into everyday life on the Hill at its most bizarre and inconsequential.

There is a significant online audience for Capitol Hill quirkiness. Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson more or less makes a living off it, while members of Congress have social media interns delving into the ever more surreal with legislative doge memes. The @congressedits project could appeal to both easily amused political junkies and to accountability advocates who see it as an opportunity to expand access to the people that they say should be the government’s most visible and engaged group. Read More…

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Parenting in an Age of Bad Samaritans

A mother lets her daughter play in the park unaccompanied. A mother leaves her son in the car for a few moments, while she runs into a store to buy headphones. Many parents would consider these actions to be unwise—but are they criminal? According to three recent stories in the news, yes.

In the first case, Debra Harrell, a resident of North Augusta, South Carolina, allowed her daughter to play at the park while she worked at a local McDonald’s. She gave her daughter a cell phone. Lenore Skenazy noted in Reason that the park is “so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking … there were swings, a ‘splash pad,’ and shade.” But on her second day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. When the little girl said she was working, the adult called the cops, who declared the girl “abandoned,” and arrested Harrell.

The second story was shared by Kim Brooks in Salon back in June: her four-year-old son insisted on accompanying her to the grocery store for a quick errand, but then refused to go inside the store. After noting that it was a “mild, overcast, 50-degree day,” and that there were several cars nearby, Brooks agreed and quickly ran into the store. Unbeknownst to her, an adult nearby saw her leave her son, and proceeded to record the whole incident on his phone, watched Brooks return and drive away, and then called the police. The police issued a warrant for her arrest.

These are only a few recent stories in which parents have faced arrest after leaving their children unsupervised. As Radley Balko notes at the Washington Post, these incidents seem to signal the “increasing criminalization of just about everything and the use of the criminal justice system to address problems that were once (and better) handled by families, friends, communities and other institutions.”

This latter point hearkens back to Robert Nisbet’s excellent book The Quest for Community: Nisbet predicted that, in a society without strong private associations, the State would take their place—assuming the role of the church, the schoolroom, and the family, asserting a “primacy of claim” upon our children. “It is hard to overlook the fact,” he wrote, “that the State and politics have become suffused by qualities formerly inherent only in the family or the church.” In this world, the term “nanny state” takes on a very literal meaning. Read More…

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Will Global Wilsonians Take Us to War?

While the neocons have rendered themselves ridiculous by either acting like petulant children when called out on their record (see Kristol, William) or dabbling in what amounts to overlong exercises in historical fiction (see Kagan, Robert), the liberal interventionist crowd deserves more scrutiny than they have heretofore been subjected to, because these Wilsonians, unlike their right-wing counterparts, are a not a specifically American phenomenon: the Wilsonians have gone global.

The Canadian scholar-turned-politician Michael Ignateiff channeled his inner Kagan and brought forth a wondrous account of what he sees as a “rising authoritarian archipelago” in last week’s issue of the venerable New York Review of Books. Ignatieff, acting in the role of Cassandra, warns us that much like the 1930s when “travelers returned from Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany praising the sense of common purpose they saw there …. democracies today are in the middle of a similar period of envy and despondency.”

There is, I think it fair to say, aside from the horrendous shape of the American economy, very little with which to compare the world of 2014 with that of the 1930s, which brought us the demonic Nazi regime, a lunatic Communist one, and the untold misery of millions of people even prior to the opening shots of the World War II. Yet for the Global Wilsonians it’s always 1938.

And so, we are darkly warned, that Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to China was about far, far more than a mere gas deal, rather, “it heralded the emergence of an alliance off authoritarian states with a combined population of 1.6 billion in the vast Eurasian space.” Well, perhaps. But any discussion of why Mr Putin has turned East was, it seems, beyond the scope of Ignatieff’s piece.

Over the weekend on a CNN roundtable, another Canadian thinker-turned-MP, Chrystia Freeland, struck back hard at the Council on Foreign Relations chair Richard Haas for having the audacity to suggest the U.S. and the EU are at least partially responsible for the turmoil rollicking the Near East in their eagerness to topple autocratic regimes like Qaddafi’s and Mubarak’s, without giving sufficient thought to what may replace them. Freeland seems to think that this kind of second-guessing is really most unhelpful to the Global Wilsonian project of worldwide democratization. Message: don’t look back.

Moving on from our Canadian Globalists, the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt was in town last week at the invitation of the Atlantic Council. Bildt, as is by now widely known, was one of the principal architects—along with fellow Global Wilsonian and Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski—of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership project which aims to incorporate six of the former Soviet states into the EU. Bildt, much like Ignateiff, looks at the world and sees nothing but trouble, trouble, trouble. (Maybe we should call them the Taylor Swift caucus?)

Bildt noted, “new dangers and challenges seem to be rising wherever we look … these are not easy times, and they call for clear headed strategic assessment of the challenges we are facing.” No doubt, but if the audience was expecting such an assessment to follow, they were mistaken. Read More…

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Israel Runs Up the Score

At this writing, one Israeli has been killed by Hamas fire; hundreds of Hamas rockets have either fallen harmlessly or been destroyed by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense. The toll among Palestinians in Gaza is roughly 200 dead, and about 1,500 wounded. This then is not so much a war as a high-tech slaughter. Israel could kill Palestinians more rapidly of course, but seems to have judged it can go on at this pace, killing 15 to 2o a day, without provoking an international reaction. For some Israelis it is pure entertainment: yesterday The Independent reported that Israelis had set up couches and were serving popcorn to watch their air force’s destruction of Gaza’s homes from the nearby hills.

It is useful to try to construct a timeline, to understand how we got from Point A, the failure of the Kerry peace mission, to the present. My sympathies are more with the Palestinians subject to bombardment than with the Israelis who are bombarding them, but the timeline to be as objective as possible, so I would welcome reader suggestions of alterations, additions, or changes of emphasis.

1) March: Israel announces settlement expansion while negotiations are going on.

2) April 1, Negotiations break down. Israel refuses to comply with a scheduled and previously agreed-to release of prisoners. PA president Abbas announces PA will apply for membership in 15 UN organizations.

3) Abbas forms a “technocratic” unity goverment with Hamas.

4) May 2, American negotiators both on and off the record blame Israeli settlement construction as the main reason for the talks failure.

5) Both Western European countries and the U.S. ignore Netanyahu’s demands to sever their relations with the Fatah-Hamas “unity” government.

6) May 15, Israeli snipers kill two Palestinian boys in Beitunia, on the West Bank during Nakba day demonstrations. The killing was caught on video.

7) June 1, Netanyahu announces plans for 3,300 new housing units on the West Bank.

8) June 12, three Jewish Israeli teens are kidnapped and murdered on the West Bank. Netanyahu immediately claims Hamas is responsible, but gives no evidence. Hamas denies responsibility for the kidnappings. The Israeli government names two suspects, Hamas members from a Hebron clan which has previously been in disputes with Hamas leadership. It is soon reported that the government has known from the beginning the kidnapped teens have been shot. Israel goes on a campaign against Hamas on the West Bank, arresting 500 and raiding 1,500 schools and businesses.

9) June 30, Bodies of murdered Israeli teens found on the West Bank near Hebron.

10) July 2, Three Israelis kidnap and burn alive a Palestinian boy in Jerusalem. They are arrested within days.

11) July 3, Israeli police are caught on video beating up a Palestinian-American boy, the cousin of the murdered Palestinian. The photograph of his battered face are shown world-wide, and the U.S. State Department protested. Meanwhile several stories are published in Israel and the United States lamenting the violent and deeply racist currents running through Israeli culture, particularly its youth.

12) July 6, Israeli air force bombs a tunnel in Gaza, killing six Hamas men. The bombing ended a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that had prevailed since 2011. Hamas responded with a barrage of rockets, and Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. Read More…

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Slenderman and the “Mythos” of Modernism

On May 31, a bicyclist found a young girl, stabbed 19 times with a five inch blade, after she crawled out of the Wisconsin woods and dragged herself toward the nearest road.

The perpetrators Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 12 and classmates of the victim, are being charged as adults with attempted murder. The stabbing was an attempt to pay tribute to Slenderman, a faceless, betentacled, and besuited character from Internet lore. The two girls were caught along the road after they had committed the crime, apparently walking to an imaginary rendezvous point with Slenderman.

They first discovered Slenderman on the Creepypasta Wiki, which is where most of the current fan fiction resides. They reportedly planned the attack for months, finally luring the victim into the woods with a game of hide-and-seek.

The Slenderman myth is one of the first pieces of popular lore truly borne of the Internet, beginning online and accruing momentum and backstory as people photoshopped and blogged Slenderman into existence. The rapid spread of his legend surprised even Eric Knudsen, Slenderman’s creator. He said in an interview that he didn’t expect it to move beyond the Somethingawful forum where he posted the first Slenderman image:

It was amazing to see people create their own little part of Slender Man in order to perpetuate his existance [sic]. … I found it interesting to watch as sort of an accelerated version of an urban legend.

When he created Slenderman, he said that he wanted something “whose motivations can barely be comprehended,” and that caused “general unease and terror in a general population.” He here pinpoints the power of Slenderman: the omnipotence of the unknown. The Internet has, after all, given us the ability to know every imaginable aspect of our world; but not to belong to it.

Vice chalks the violence up to poorly-managed hormones and small-town boredom. An Mytheos Holt at R Street asks whether their violence could have been prevented by addressing mental illness openly. Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times makes Slenderman’s faceless horror emblematic of the “selfie” age—an attempt to use fear to push against compulsive, narcissistic self-documentation.

Collin Barnes, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hillsdale College, mentioned in an e-mail that the need to find meaning and community, to craft an identity, could have driven the crime, “Killing in the name of Slenderman and investing oneself in religious rituals are not entirely different and may reflect latent fears we have about being utterly alone in the universe.”

In the mythos, Slenderman’s victims are always alone, and radically estranged from help or support. There is no intelligible pattern or motive to the victimization. In contrast to the bogeymen of “organic” folklore, he has no distinct vendetta against transgressors of social or moral norms.

The two girls were not driven to violence by their encounter with Slenderman. He was emblematic of faceless, nameless dread: of complete alienation. As Kathleen Hale pointed out at Vice, girls of their age are experiencing radical emotional isolation, and possible mental health issues and public school social dynamics only exacerbate the problem. In a way, the killing was a gesture of solidarity, an attempt to connect with someone or something when faced with being “utterly alone.” Slenderman is the demon of a suburban age.


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Will the U.S. Become Balkanized?

Speaking to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Albuquerque in 2001, George W. Bush declared that, as Mexico was a friend and neighbor, “It’s so important for us to tear down our barriers and walls that might separate Mexico from the United States.” Bush succeeded. And during his tenure, millions from Mexico exploited his magnanimity to violate our laws, trample upon our sovereignty, walk into our country, and remain here. In 2007, backed by John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Teddy Kennedy, and Barack Obama, Bush backed amnesty for the 12 million people who had entered America illegally. The nation thundered no. And Congress sustained the nation.

The latest mass border crossing by scores of thousands of tots, teenagers, and toughs from Central America has killed amnesty in 2014, and probably for the duration of the Obama presidency. Indeed, with the massive media coverage of the crisis on the border, immigration, legal and illegal, and what it portends for our future, could become the decisive issue of 2014 and 2016.

But it needs to be put in a larger context. For this issue is about more than whether the Chamber of Commerce gets amnesty for its members who have been exploiting cheap illegal labor. The real issue: Will America remain one nation, or are we are on the road to Balkanization and the breakup of America into ethnic enclaves? For, as Ronald Reagan said, a nation that cannot control its borders isn’t really a nation anymore.

In Federalist No. 2, John Jay wrote,

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs …

He called Americans a “band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties.” The republic of the founders for whom Jay spoke did not give a fig for diversity. They cherished our unity, commonality, and sameness of ancestry, culture, faith, and traditions. We were not a nation of immigrants in 1789.

They came later. From 1845-1849, the Irish fleeing the famine. From 1890-1920, the Germans. Then the Italians, Poles, Jews, and other Eastern Europeans. Then, immigration was suspended in 1924.

From 1925 to 1965, the children and grandchildren of those immigrants were assimilated, Americanized. In strong public schools, they were taught our language, literature, and history, and celebrated our holidays and heroes. We endured together through the Depression and sacrificed together in World War II and the Cold War. By 1960, we had become truly one nation and one people.

America was not perfect. No country is. But no country ever rivaled what America had become. She was proud, united, free, the first nation on earth. And though the civil rights movement had just begun, nowhere did black peoples enjoy the freedom and prosperity of African-Americans.

Attorney General Eric Holder said Sunday that America is today in “a fundamentally better place than we were 50 years ago.” In some ways that is so. Equality of rights has been realized. Miraculous cures in medicine have kept alive many of us who would not have survived the same maladies half a century ago.

But we are no longer that “band of brethren.” We are no longer one unique people “descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion.” We are from every continent and country. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans trace their ancestry to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We are a multiracial, multilingual, multicultural society in a world where countless countries are being torn apart over race, religion, and roots. Read More…

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