Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy was required reading for intellectuals of the Middle Ages. In that book, written in the 6th century AD during a one year imprisonment, Boethius gives instructions for the life of the thinker.
At the moment of his greatest misfortune, betrayed and imprisoned, falling out of favor at the court of King Theodoric awaiting for his trial and execution (Socrates comes to mind here, although Socrates never wrote anything), Lady Philosophy appears to him to converse with him and console him by reminding him that as a philosopher he ought not to despair about the loss of worldly goods. She reminds him that he is a spiritual being destined for higher things; for the ultimate superiority of the things of the mind; that happiness comes from within and virtue is the one true good which is enduring and not imperiled by the vicissitudes of fortune and temporal power. Also, throughout the book Boethius reflects on how evil can exist in a universe governed by God.
It is worth mentioning here that the book is not strictly speaking religious. No references are made to Jesus Christ and Christianity or any other religion, for that matter. He merely engages questions such as the nature of predestination and free will, why evil men prosper and good men fall into ruin, human nature, virtue, justice; speaks about the nature of free will versus determinism, then he asks if God knows and sees all, or does man have free will. On human nature, Boethius says that humans are essentially good and only when they give in to “wickedness” do they “sink to the level of being an animal.” On justice, he says criminals are not to be abused, rather treated with sympathy and respect, using the analogy of doctor and patient to illustrate the ideal relationship between prosecutor and criminal. Although the questions appear to be religious, the reliance throughout the book is not so much or religious Christian doctrine but on natural philosophy and the classical Greek tradition. Like Aquinas later on, he saw a correspondence, even an harmony, between faith and reason. The book in fact contains nothing distinctly Christian, but neither does it contain anything distinctly pagan. It can be read by anyone, no matter his beliefs. The work, in fact, is that of a Platonist who just happens to be a Christian. As such, it can be profitably read by anybody with or without faith.
Keeping the above preface in mind as regards the consolations of philosophy, let us now ask this question: how would a modern practitioner of philosophy, say a college professor of philosophy, interpret such work nowadays? Would it literally be a consolation for her/him? A consolation for something that is missing? What is missing?
The picture above of a professor of philosophy teaching his class may be helpful in supplying an answer to the question. Notice his attire. It does not convey the image we might have had of a philosophy professor only a couple of generations ago (the 50s and the 60s), suit, shirt, and tie being a sine qua non. Things must have changed in materialistic Marxist terms, and indeed they have. But then again, universities have existed in post-Greco-Roman times since the 11th century. The word academy actually goes back to the school established by Plato in ancient Greece. What was Plato’s attire then? Did he receive a salary? How well did he pay his faculty? Were the salaries commensurate to that of middle-class worker, or was it much higher befitting the intelligentsia of the times? The questions as applied to Plato look impertinent and ludicrous and yet they need to be asked if we are to interpret correctly Boethius’ work.
Viewing both teachers and pupils’ attire in the above renditions one can safely state that at the very least the professor was enjoying middle class wages. But it would be a mistake to assume that this was always the case. If we take the long view, that has rarely been the case.
For example, in colonial America when colleges such as Harvard and Yale were established, most faculty members worked as adjuncts and more often than not held second jobs. Meaning that their salary was sub-standard, less than that of a worker. Teaching was considered a vocation or a noble calling of sort. Even in the 19th century, when the modern research university was born, things didn’t change much. The rewards of the profession were not materialistic but remained spiritual and intellectual. Now, one may consider such a state of affairs an ideal rarely attained, but in fact it was the reality for most of the history of academia since Plato. Being poor and being paid sub-standard wages has for the most part remained part of the spiritual-ethical tradition of academia. So one consoles oneself with the exalted title of “Professor,” and with Boethius’ consolations of philosophy, of course.
The only exception so far might have come about in the 50s and 60, now considered the golden age of the American academy, when newly minted Ph.D.s were practically guaranteed employment and tenure in a university and professors suddenly found themselves propelled to the top of the social hierarchy. Naturally good salaries also guaranteed increase prestige to the profession as a whole. But that did not last very long. By the late sixties the relationship between government grants generously dispersed and academia soured over the protests to the Vietnam war. Public funds for higher education were slashed and so we have slowly but surely returned to the previous normal conditions of almost forced poverty accruing to being a college professor. The teaching attire of the current college professor above is now more the norm than the exception.
So what is one left with? Well, one may not be getting rich but one still expects that one engaged in imparting higher education ought to be getting wiser and nobler as one continues to instruct new generations of students of philosophy. The newly arrived capitalist entrepreneur professor in his fifties who has amassed in the bank his consolation millions and now plays at being “professor,” is not exactly the norm nor the most inspiring model of the classical college professor. Ordinarily, what prevails is that one is left with the consolations of philosophy and the consciousness of the nobility of one’s calling. One could do worse than that. One could be a veteran standing at a street corner with a poster hung on his neck which declares “imagine what it is to be homeless.” One could, on the other hand, be amassing capital and enriching oneself by exploitation of the workers and evasion of taxes within a savagely capitalistic materialistic world depositing the ill acquired wealth in the Caiman Islands banks created for that very purpose. Which is to say, Boethius’s book could be interpreted as an allegory for the current social status of professors: respected but not well remunerated, except for the consolations of philosophy. It’s a sort of cruel job, no doubt, but demanding more may mean jeopardizing the very nobility of the call. Playing professor may be fun and enhance one’s ego but it is not exactly what is needed nowadays as inspiration for the new millennial generations. Marx may not fully agree here, but I think Socrates would.
P.S. This essay, which has been slightly revised, has already recently appeared in Ovi magazine.
Strength lies in differences, not in similarities. Stephen Covey
I remember him sitting after work in his olive-green Air Force flight suit at a high-top stool at our kitchen counter in Beavercreek, Ohio. My dadlooked down at me as I sobbed, trying to find ways to console me. You know, he said, Burma has tigers.
After coming home to tell us that he was taking the Air Force Attaché position in Rangoon, I thought my comfortable little world was crumbling. But hold up, tigers? Perhaps Burma wouldn’t be that bad after all.
As it turns out, it was the watershed event in my life.
In a country ruled by a military junta, what we were allowed to do and see was highly curated. At the time, I thought the constant presence of military guards meant we were special. VIPs. In a country that strictly limited tourism in the 1980s, we were special, but in hindsight, I know they were there, in part, to dictate our experience.
And even so, what we saw and experienced, was mind-blowing. But it wasn’t just the men who walked on coals or hung suspended with hooks in their flesh at the Hindu festivals – although those memories will forever be seared in my brain – literally and figuratively, it was the people. The day-to-day lives.
We had a Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindu that intermingled in our house daily. The education I received in their presence was richer than any in the hallowed halls of academia.
In Burma (now called Myanmar), you quickly learn the squat. Even when stools and chairs were available most people would choose to squat. Gathered for an informal meal, you squat. Waiting for a bus, you squat. Taking a break to have a little conversation, you squat. I never really mastered the squat. Onebalmy day as our Hindu friendsquatted in the doorway trying to catch the elusive cool breeze, I went and playfully sat on his back. Given my awkwardness with the squat, I thought this arrangement preferable; I was just being a goofy kid.
That was the day I learned that in the East, and especially in Hinduism, body parts have a hierarchy. I cried all through the stern lecture on how I thoroughly disgraced my friend. Although I don’t remember the exact words, it pretty much came down to this – in what universe did you think it was ok to put your dirty bum anywhere near my heavenly head?
Ummm… I’m pretty sure that same fanny was dangerously close to my dad’snogginwhen he’d carry me on his shoulders. The idea of possible desecration was truly foreign.
These and many other similar lessons were my first real introduction to culture. It involved more tears (yes, I’m a big crier), but through all of these experiences, I became fascinated. Similar to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I quickly realized I wasn’t in Kansas (or Ohio) any more.
I returned to the United States with a new love of culture and diversity. And, a new respect for America, which I had previously taken for granted.
In comparison to many other countries we are a Multicultural Mecca. From my perspective, this is what makes us exceptional.
Unlike other countries that are struggling with immigration and diversity, we have a unique advantage. We are, after all, a “settler nation”. As Peter Zeihan explained in a recent conversation, almost every other country in the world was a government created by a specific ethnicity. The United States, as a settler state, didn’t have a dominant clan. This is unique. Our identity is not rooted in a singular ethnicity.
However, between WWI and WWII our state became more centralized. It had to be. These wars shaped a national identity. National institutions proliferated and mediating institutions – family, religious organizations and labor unions – created cohesion, and homogeneity, despite our diverse histories. Solidarity became a national virtue.
The statism that existed during this time, while it provided more cohesion, dampened diversity and individuality. All of this began to unwind mid-century and really started to pick up steam in the 1970s, as the pendulum swung the opposite direction. In many ways the Cold War, and the fight against the communist collective, helped to progress the mantra of individualism.
Individualism also shaped our economy.There were waves of deregulation, labor unions declined, and big state corporations gave way to more flexible, smaller private companies.The mid-century labor unions and large state corporations lead to the growth of the middle class. Once these disappeared, income inequality emerged more predominately, even as basic social equalities and civil rights were energized.
Meanwhile, mediating institutions responsible for, in large part, social cohesion – family, community and religious organizations – were also on the decline as individualism gathered momentum. The internet age was introduced in this new environment, and ironically, with social connections and a national identity already in decay, it divided us into smaller more homogenous groups – what we today call echo chambers.
This increasing polarization has a grave impact on policy-making. As Yuval Levin notes,
administrative centralization often accompanies cultural and economic individualism. As the national government grows more centralized, and takes over the work preformed by mediating institutions – from families and communities to local governments and charities – individuals become increasingly atomized; and as individuals grow apart from one another, the need for centralized government provision seems to grow.
As all of this is happening, our immigration rates have been on the rise. Although illegal immigration has been in decline recently, despite the uptick in the past few months, we witnessed a new wave of immigration started in the 1970s, that mirrored pre-war immigration levels.
However, without the same national solidarity that defined mid-century America, these immigrants weren’t enveloped into a national identity. Individualism diminishedthe national identity of solidarity. Further, low-skilled immigrant labor has fallen into the growing income gap in a divide that has already affected American workers as income inequality becomes more pronounced.
While our current employment rate is strong, what is masked in these impressive numbers is the number of American men and women who are dropping out of the labor force at a surprising rate, most acutely among those without a college education.
If you’ve ever traveled to the beaches on the East Coast in the summer, you may have noted retail employees have a strange accent. Last year, I bought an ice-cream cone from a Russian student in Cape May, NJ. And,I’m currently working with Vietnamese students who want to come to the United States for hospitality internships. Foreign students are coming in on J-1 visas to provide relief to retailers and the hospitality industry that is often painfully understaffed, especially during peak times.
If you talk to anyone in the agriculture business, you know they are hurting. As I traveled around Texas and Colorado looking for a meat packing plant to export beef to China, the options were limited. Outside of the big players, many smaller packers have shut their doors. For the ones still in operation, the primary language is Spanish.
Add to all of this, our demographics are in decline.Americans aren’t having more babies, and the only reason that we aren’t suffering the same fate as the “graying” population in Japan, and even Russia and China, is immigration.
Economic growth needs a workforce. Both high and low skilled labor is in demand, but I’m only going to touch on low-skilled labor as this is what is fueling the current immigration debate in America.
Despite the need for immigration, there are several problems that our embattled Congress has yet to address.
First, it has been shown nationally that unauthorized immigration has had a small net positive impact on our economy, but this doesn’t always play out at the state and local levels.
As income inequality is already an existing phenomenon in the United States, with the disparity seen most clearly between those with an education and those without, low-skilled immigration causes concern.While the United States is in need of low-skilled labor, our current economic situation has bifurcated, with the lower echelons in more need of some sort of state or federal support just to hover at the poverty level.
Second, while we’re trying to figure out solutions to growing inequality and immigration, we also need to keep in mind that our economyis, yet again, rapidly changing. With the introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI), a lot of jobs may soon become obsolete especially in low-skilled sectors such as retail. While we are not quite there yet, the trend is inevitable and will exacerbate income inequality as low-skilled labor is slowly pushed out of the market. This could have two related outcomes –the current demand for low-skilled labor diminishes, while those in these sectors are in increasing need for a social safety net.
Sadly, in this era of extreme polarization, hate and racism has taken the place of sane debate and policy-making. As David Brooks recently lamented in a New York Times piece, our administration is not populated with conservatives, but “anti-liberal trolls”.Similarly, the #resistance movement has become so entrenched as to make compromise or dialogue impossible. Just resist. It’s no longer about the people, it’s about winning at all costs.Too often, the pawns are innocent children – children inhumanely separated from their parents on the border, and children in the inner cities, on the brink of homelessness.
The Left is right to be concerned that part of the anti-immigration trend is a push-back from white America, as white America is soon to become a minority. A recent National Geographic issue on race illustrates, in less that two years, white children under 18 will no longer be the majority.
While it is right to resist racisttrends, we must not do so at the expense of understanding complex economic issues. The news cycle is constantly in search of the next topic we can use to beat each other over the heads. Meanwhile, as the mid-terms loom, our politicians are consumed with the next policy issue they can use to ensure re-election, at the expense of making a real difference.
The United States has the ability to harness its immigrant history and multiculturalism to a great global advantage, more so than perhaps any other country. However, in our individualistic society, we remain tigers locked in cages of our own construction, separated from competing realities that promote understanding and compromise.
While we need to address immediate emergency issues on the border, the discussion doesn’t stop there. We must agree on a flexible immigration policy that is constantly reviewed against our changing economic dynamics.A more robust guest-worker visa is perhaps a start – the number of visas evaluated each year depending on the economic climate, with adequate enforcement.Better education for both new immigrants and citizens in poverty-stricken areas that allows economic mobility and a growing middle-class. A new national identity that embraces diversity, but finds novel ways to generate social connection and cohesion amidst the reality of individualism.
Without these discussions, we fail to Make America Great (Again). While I think we should lock politicians in cages to fight it out until sanity and rationality is regained, it is incumbent on us ordinary citizens to join together in (diverse) community to model these necessary discussions in every day life. To #resist the insanity, and break the cages that have imprisoned our country and our lives.
The Unreal, the Real and the Vaccine Scare
In a few weeks time, school will resume in many countries, and quite a few parents now worry about the dangers of vaccination. Are they real or false? What are the facts?
First, a word on what we can believe to be real. Some might remember Ripley’s Believe It or Not? We are all fascinated by the odd, the unusual, even more so when science with its mundane explanations takes away the mysteries of life. So it is that reasonable people begin to believe in the incredible. We want to.
Take the case of chemtrails — a theory that trails left by jet airplanes high in the sky are chemical sprays. Why would anyone do that? The reasons vary. They want to change the climate, control our minds, lower life expectancy, reduce fertility or cause sterilization for population control, spread aluminum that causes Alzheimer’s but Monsanto profits from a GMO seed designed to grow with it, and so on.
The physics experts tell us it is relatively simple: Jet engines exhaust water vapor which condenses in the cold of higher altitudes. Called contrails (a contraction of condensation and trail), an acute observer will note they correspond to the number of engines on the airplane. Numerous scientists, scientific bodies, the Environmental Protection Agency and independent journalists have investigated and debunked chemtrails without eradicating the idea.
The results of a nationally representative 1000-person poll published last October finds that only 32 percent believe chemtrails are ‘false’. A good 25% percent are ‘unsure’ and 15 percent, think they are ‘somewhat false’. The rest consider them somewhat true’ (19 percent) or ‘true’ (9 percent). Note that just a one-third minority categorically rejects a complete hoax despite the efforts of scientists and government agencies. Perhaps a natural skepticism of officialdom doesn’t help. Of course, the blame rests squarely on some internet sites and social media (with its echo chambers) where chemtrail discussion, instead of debunking the idea, favors it and propagates conspiracy theory.
But there is another belief worse than chemtrails germinated by fake science. It has led to actual harm. For one reason or another, people known as anti-vaxxers (Trump among them) are refusing vaccinations for their children; thus an alarming global increase in measles — an illness that can cause hearing loss and, in rare cases, even death.
Developing countries have their own unique problems with vaccination. Pakistan trying to eliminate polio has experienced deadly violence against vaccinators because Taliban leaders have proclaimed it a means of sterilizing Muslims.
But there are problems in developed countries also: A survey in Australia showed one in three parents having concerns with vaccination. In response, some health facilities are refusing to treat unvaccinated children. Australia is not alone; the U.S. too has a vaccine dilemma and Europe is not exempt.
As preparation for the school year often requires vaccination shots, here is a brief review of what we know about vaccines, the origins of the anti-vaxxer movement and the available facts.
The prophet of anti-vaxers is Andrew Wakefield, whose origins are in the U.K. He is a doctor, who was barred from practicing medicine there following his fake study connecting autism to the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella. Several later studies have proven Wakefield dead wrong.
A refusal to vaccinate has been a key driver of recent measles cases in the US. A disease once considered eliminated here has now returned, and in 2014, 667 cases were recorded, though numbers have declined since then. Often the cause is a holiday trip contact and transmission to someone who has not been vaccinated; appalling to think about when the two-dose vaccination regimen renders 97 percent immunity.
For anti-vaxxers, there are two other troubling reasons: Some believe the injection of attenuated, that is weakened, viruses can cause harm. Then also there is anxiety about thimerosal in some vaccines as it carries traces of mercury. But thimerosal has not been used in child vaccines for nearly two decades. And while the MMR vaccine uses a combination of attenuated viruses, it has been in use without causing harm since 1971. It has prevented an estimated 52 million cases of measles and over 5000 fatalities.
Belief and miracles have been a natural companion for humans. About 2000 years ago, there was a miraculous virgin birth. Now, some scholars contend it was all a translation error misinterpreting the word for ‘maiden’ as ‘virgin’. Others argue that ‘maiden’ in the culture of the time automatically implied virginity because unmarried young women were expected to be chaste. Who is correct? Heaven knows!
Analysis of Alon Confino’s “A World Without Jews: Interpreting The Holocaust”
Following the period of moderate engagement with the Holocaust between 1945 and 1975, Holocaust perception from the mid-1970s to the present has been characterized by two simultaneous trends. The first trend is prominent in miscellaneous fields such as history, philosophy, the arts, and the literature has involved a strenuous attempt to acknowledge as well as realize the Holocaust and to cope with the difficulty of representing it. The second tendency might appear to stand in opposition to the intense discussion of the limits of Holocaust representation, is manifest in the massive cultural production of the Holocaust in history books, novels, comics, plays, films and other artistic vehicles. In general, taking into consideration of Nazi policy towards Jewish, there are three overriding notions:
The Holocaust, according to Saul Friedlander, was determined by the centrality of ideological-cultural factors as the prime movers of Nazi policies in tandem with the Jewish issue, depending mainly on circumstances, institutional dynamics, and essentially… on the evolution of the war… The anti-Jewish drive became ever more extreme along with the radicalization of the regime’s goals and then with the extension of the war… The context of the war has been viewed as the breeding ground for the extermination and annihilation of Jews. Germans in occupied Eastern Europe… were living in a context in which the expulsion, even the extermination, of entire peoples was publicly discussed, a readiness to indulge in brutality and fanaticism was ubiquitously demanded, and the actions of individuals were legitimized by history and politics.
The war in general but especially the war on the Eastern Front, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, was fought as a racial ideological struggle for life or death, whose prime enemies were the Bolsheviks and Jews. The barbarization of war on the Eastern Front, a cumulative result of the scale of the fighting, geographical conditions, and ideological indoctrination, led to killing and extermination. The notion of the radicalization of racial ideology has been important for capturing the contingency that ran through the making of the Holocaust. The radicalization is no longer understood as a realization of long-term plans or as inherent in the system, but rather as the outcome of plans for the deportation of the Jews that were always being revised and extended. Holocaust is squarely placed within the context of the regime’s overall racial ideology. The ‘current scholarly consensus, writes Herbert, is that those who organized and carried out the extermination were committed ideologies who wanted to build a better world through genocide. Was there a master plan on the part of Adolf Hitler to launch the Holocaust? Intentionalists argue there was such a plan, while functionalists argue there was not.
Did the initiative for the Holocaust come from above with orders from Adolf Hitler or from below within the ranks of the German bureaucracy? Although neither side disputes the reality of the Holocaust, nor is there a serious dispute over the premise that Hitler (as Führer) was personally responsible for encouraging the anti-Semitism that allowed the Holocaust to take place, intentionalists argue the initiative came from above, while functionalists contend it came from lower ranks within the bureaucracy. Christopher Browning coined the term ‘moderate functionalism’, in which the centrality of Hitler’s belief and the role was recognized, but without an original grand design to kill the Jews. Philippe Burrin’s notion of ‘conditional intentionalism’ recognized the centrality of evolving circumstance during the war but continued to emphasize Hitler’s intention to exterminate the Jews.
“Heimat” idea as a Nazi formula
The Nazis took the Heimat idea, radicalizing and using it for their ideological purposes. It can be argued that here is another example of the hegemony of race. It was perceived as essential to Germanness. The main point rather is that the Nazis identified their sentiment of nationhood, localness, and political legitimacy with the Heimat idea: the revolutionary idea of race was thus built on tradition, and the racialized Heimat idea fitted within the boundaries of the Heimat genre that existed before and after the Third Reich, as the Nazis articulated their Heimat in familiar, traditional rhetoric and images. It is not so much race that made sense of Heimat in the Third Reich, as the Heimat idea that gave meaning to racial sentiments, making them amenable, legitimate, and familiar. There are two main directions towards the Holocaust perception: local and central approach.
The local history of the Holocaust in the hamlets of Eastern Europe is possible once we rethink the interpretative framework of racial ideology, the radicalization of Nazi policy, and the context of war. The former one rearranges these categories in significant ways: it shifts the focus from the war conditions of the Wehrmacht soldiers to the communal relationships between Jews and eastern Europeans; from Nazi racial ideology to In Bartov’s words, ‘the obvious though long-underestimated fact that the Holocaust cannot be understood without tracing its imagery, fantasies, passions, and phobias, as well as practices and legislation, to medieval Europe and centuries of Christian anti-Jewish theology, incitement, and demagogy, from the radicalization of Nazi policies to the dynamic of social, political, economic, and cultural relationship on the local level.
According to the central approach, Germans, in the years following 1933, constructed a moral community based on anti-Semitic fantasies that made the persecution and extermination of the Jews possible by making them conceivable. At this historiographical juncture, we view the Holocaust as a problem of culture: the making of and believing in a moral community of fantasies. Third Reich was revolutionary but not as revolutionary as was argued by contemporaries and current historiography: it was a revolution based on continuities. It was a world made by a fusion of German and Nazi identities in a way that linked Germans in the Third Reich to pre-1933 traditions and forms of belief, and where the extermination of 1941 to 1945 was part of the symbolic universe of Germany between 1933 and 1941.
To sum up, ideology, in particular, racial ideology was a crucial point for Hitler’s Germany. In the case of radicalization of racial ideology, the main step was led to extermination and annihilation of Jews community within the context of war and the Nazi policy in order to reconstruct European society without Jews. Of course, the Holocaust is still a contemporary history. Survivors are still alive and their nightmare will never be over as long as they live. The attempt to exterminate the Jews is and will remain a moral signifier of Judeo-Christian civilization. In this way, we try to consider views of the Holocaust as a European occurrence, as part of a larger Nazi attempt to reorder European civilization, as linked to other Nazi persecutions and genocides, to colonial imagination and dreams of empire. Moreover, ‘cultural history, memories, methods, in particular ideologies in its contemporary sense’ has been a highly important component of Holocaust research from its earliest beginnings.
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