The author is a prominent American social critic, blogger, and podcaster, and one of our all-time favorite pessimists. We carry his articles regularly on RI. His writing on Russia-gate has been highly entertaining.
He is one of the better-known thinkers The New Yorker has dubbed ‘The Dystopians’ in an excellent 2009 profile, along with the brilliant Dmitry Orlov, another regular contributor to RI (archive). These theorists believe that modern society is headed for a jarring and painful crack-up.
You can find his popular fiction and novels on this subject, here. To get a sense of how entertaining he is, watch this 2004 TED talk about the cruel misery of American urban design – it is one of the most-viewed on TED. Here is a recent audio interview with him which gives a good overview of his work.
If you like his work, please consider supporting him on Patreon.
Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic. — Tom McGuane
Can a people recover from an excursion into unreality? The USA’s sojourn into an alternative universe of the mind accelerated sharply after Wall Street nearly detonated the global financial system in 2008. That debacle was only one manifestation of an array of accumulating threats to the postmodern order, which include the burdens of empire, onerous debt, population overshoot, fracturing globalism, worries about energy, disruptive technologies, ecological havoc, and the specter of climate change.
A sense of gathering crisis, which I call the long emergency, persists. It is systemic and existential. It calls into question our ability to carry on “normal” life much farther into this century, and all the anxiety that attends it is hard for the public to process. It manifested itself first in finance because that was the most abstract and fragile of all the major activities we depend on for daily life, and therefore the one most easily tampered with and shoved into criticality by a cadre of irresponsible opportunists on Wall Street. Indeed, a lot of households were permanently wrecked after the so-called Great Financial Crisis of 2008, despite official trumpet blasts heralding “recovery” and the dishonestly engineered pump-up of capital markets since then.
With the election of 2016, symptoms of the long emergency seeped into the political system. Disinformation rules. There is no coherent consensus about what is happening and no coherent proposals to do anything about it. The two parties are mired in paralysis and dysfunction and the public’s trust in them is at epic lows. Donald Trump is viewed as a sort of pirate president, a freebooting freak elected by accident, “a disrupter” of the status quo at best and at worst a dangerous incompetent playing with nuclear fire. A state of war exists between the White House, the permanent D.C. bureaucracy, and the traditional news media. Authentic leadership is otherwise AWOL. Institutions falter. The FBI and the CIA behave like enemies of the people.
Bad ideas flourish in this nutrient medium of unresolved crisis. Lately, they actually dominate the scene on every side. A species of wishful thinking that resembles a primitive cargo cult grips the technocratic class, awaiting magical rescue remedies that promise to extend the regime of Happy Motoring, consumerism, and suburbia that makes up the armature of “normal” life in the USA. They chatter about electric driverless car fleets, home delivery drone services, and as-yet-undeveloped modes of energy production to replace problematic fossil fuels, while ignoring the self-evident resource and capital constraints now upon us and even the laws of physics—especially entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. Their main mental block is their belief in infinite industrial growth on a finite planet, an idea so powerfully foolish that it obviates their standing as technocrats.
The non-technocratic cohort of the thinking class squanders its waking hours on a quixotic campaign to destroy the remnant of an American common culture and, by extension, a reviled Western civilization they blame for the failure in our time to establish a utopia on earth. By the logic of the day, “inclusion” and “diversity” are achieved by forbidding the transmission of ideas, shutting down debate, and creating new racially segregated college dorms. Sexuality is declared to not be biologically determined, yet so-called cis-gendered persons (whose gender identitycorresponds with their sex as detected at birth) are vilified by dint of not being “other-gendered”—thereby thwarting the pursuit of happiness of persons self-identified as other-gendered. Casuistry anyone?
The universities beget a class of what Nassim Taleb prankishly called “intellectuals-yet-idiots,” hierophants trafficking in fads and falsehoods, conveyed in esoteric jargon larded with psychobabble in support of a therapeutic crypto-gnostic crusade bent on transforming human nature to fit the wished-for utopian template of a world where anything goes. In fact, they have only produced a new intellectual despotism worthy of Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot.
In case you haven’t been paying attention to the hijinks on campus—the attacks on reason, fairness, and common decency, the kangaroo courts, diversity tribunals, assaults on public speech and speakers themselves—here is the key take-away: it’s not about ideas or ideologies anymore; it’s purely about the pleasures of coercion, of pushing other people around. Coercion is fun and exciting! In fact, it’s intoxicating, and rewarded with brownie points and career advancement. It’s rather perverse that this passion for tyranny is suddenly so popular on the liberal left.
Until fairly recently, the Democratic Party did not roll that way. It was right-wing Republicans who tried to ban books, censor pop music, and stifle free expression. If anything, Democrats strenuously defended the First Amendment, including the principle that unpopular and discomforting ideas had to be tolerated in order to protect all speech. Back in in 1977 the ACLU defended the right of neo-Nazis to march for their cause (National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, 432 U.S. 43).
The new and false idea that something labeled “hate speech”—labeled by whom?—is equivalent to violence floated out of the graduate schools on a toxic cloud of intellectual hysteria concocted in the laboratory of so-called “post-structuralist” philosophy, where sundry body parts of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and Gilles Deleuze were sewn onto a brain comprised of one-third each Thomas Hobbes, Saul Alinsky, and Tupac Shakur to create a perfect Frankenstein monster of thought. It all boiled down to the proposition that the will to power negated all other human drives and values, in particular the search for truth. Under this scheme, all human relations were reduced to a dramatis personae of the oppressed and their oppressors, the former generally “people of color” and women, all subjugated by whites, mostly males. Tactical moves in politics among these self-described “oppressed” and “marginalized” are based on the credo that the ends justify the means (the Alinsky model).
This is the recipe for what we call identity politics, the main thrust of which these days, the quest for “social justice,” is to present a suit against white male privilege and, shall we say, the horse it rode in on: western civ. A peculiar feature of the social justice agenda is the wish to erect strict boundaries around racial identities while erasing behavioral boundaries, sexual boundaries, and ethical boundaries. Since so much of this thought-monster is actually promulgated by white college professors and administrators, and white political activists, against people like themselves, the motives in this concerted campaign might appear puzzling to the casual observer.
I would account for it as the psychological displacement among this political cohort of their shame, disappointment, and despair over the outcome of the civil rights campaign that started in the 1960s and formed the core of progressive ideology. It did not bring about the hoped-for utopia. The racial divide in America is starker now than ever, even after two terms of a black president. Today, there is more grievance and resentment, and less hope for a better future, than when Martin Luther King made the case for progress on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The recent flash points of racial conflict—Ferguson, the Dallas police ambush, the Charleston church massacre, et cetera—don’t have to be rehearsed in detail here to make the point that there is a great deal of ill feeling throughout the land, and quite a bit of acting out on both sides.
The black underclass is larger, more dysfunctional, and more alienated than it was in the 1960s. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that the civil rights legislation of 1964 and ’65, which removed legal barriers to full participation in national life, induced considerable anxiety among black citizens over the new disposition of things, for one reason or another. And that is exactly why a black separatism movement arose as an alternative at the time, led initially by such charismatic figures as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. Some of that was arguably a product of the same youthful energy that drove the rest of the Sixties counterculture: adolescent rebellion. But the residue of the “Black Power” movement is still present in the widespread ambivalence about making covenant with a common culture, and it has only been exacerbated by a now long-running “multiculturalism and diversity” crusade that effectively nullifies the concept of a national common culture.
What follows from these dynamics is the deflection of all ideas that don’t feed a narrative of power relations between oppressors and victims, with the self-identified victims ever more eager to exercise their power to coerce, punish, and humiliate their self-identified oppressors, the “privileged,” who condescend to be abused to a shockingly masochistic degree. Nobody stands up to this organized ceremonial nonsense. The punishments are too severe, including the loss of livelihood, status, and reputation, especially in the university. Once branded a “racist,” you’re done. And venturing to join the oft-called-for “honest conversation about race” is certain to invite that fate.
Globalization has acted, meanwhile, as a great leveler. It destroyed what was left of the working class—the lower-middle class—which included a great many white Americans who used to be able to support a family with simple labor. Hung out to dry economically, this class of whites fell into many of the same behaviors as the poor blacks before them: absent fathers, out-of-wedlock births, drug abuse. Then the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 wiped up the floor with the middle-middle class above them, foreclosing on their homes and futures, and in their desperation many of these people became Trump voters—though I doubt that Trump himself truly understood how this all worked exactly. However, he did see that the white middle class had come to identify as yet another victim group, allowing him to pose as their champion.
The evolving matrix of rackets that prompted the 2008 debacle has only grown more elaborate and craven as the old economy of stuff dies and is replaced by a financialized economy of swindles and frauds. Almost nothing in America’s financial life is on the level anymore, from the mendacious “guidance” statements of the Federal Reserve, to the official economic statistics of the federal agencies, to the manipulation of all markets, to the shenanigans on the fiscal side, to the pervasive accounting fraud that underlies it all. Ironically, the systematic chiseling of the foundering middle class is most visible in the rackets that medicine and education have become—two activities that were formerly dedicated to doing no harm and seeking the truth!
Life in this milieu of immersive dishonesty drives citizens beyond cynicism to an even more desperate state of mind. The suffering public ends up having no idea what is really going on, what is actually happening. The toolkit of the Enlightenment—reason, empiricism—doesn’t work very well in this socioeconomic hall of mirrors, so all that baggage is discarded for the idea that reality is just a social construct, just whatever story you feel like telling about it. On the right, Karl Rove expressed this point of view some years ago when he bragged, of the Bush II White House, that “we make our own reality.” The left says nearly the same thing in the post-structuralist malarkey of academia: “you make your own reality.” In the end, both sides are left with a lot of bad feelings and the belief that only raw power has meaning.
Erasing psychological boundaries is a dangerous thing. When the rackets finally come to grief—as they must because their operations don’t add up—and the reckoning with true price discovery commences at the macro scale, the American people will find themselves in even more distress than they’ve endured so far. This will be the moment when either nobody has any money, or there is plenty of worthless money for everyone. Either way, the functional bankruptcy of the nation will be complete, and nothing will work anymore, including getting enough to eat. That is exactly the moment when Americans on all sides will beg someone to step up and push them around to get their world working again. And even that may not avail.
James Howard Kunstler’s many books include The Geography of Nowhere, The Long Emergency, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, and the World Made by Hand novel series. He blogs on Mondays and Fridays at Kunstler.com.
Margot Robbie’s self-confessed ambition has made her the highest paid actress of the year | Culture
Self-doubt is Margot Robbie’s greatest motivator, and competes with ambition in the Australian actress’s psyche. She couldn’t believe her own eyes when she first saw herself on a giant ad for the Pan Am TV series in New York’s Times Square. “I still have the photo,” she told EL PAÍS a few years ago, somewhat wistful for the days when she was still a nobody. The script of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the Martin Scorsese film that put her on the map, touted her as “the most beautiful blonde in the world,” but she didn’t believe the hype. “I remember saying to a friend, ‘I haven’t worked in six weeks.’ I’m sure there’s nothing out there for me,” laughed Robbie. But Hollywood didn’t share her skepticism. In July, Variety magazine ranked Robbie as the highest paid actress of the year when her US$12.5 million salary for the upcoming Barbie movie was announced.
Margot Robbie may be this year’s highest paid actress, but 17 men made even more money, led by Tom Cruise who was paid US$100 million for Top Gun: Maverick. Her Barbie love interest, Ryan Gosling, was paid the same as Robbie, even though she has the titular role, more evidence that pay parity in Hollywood is far from being a reality. Robbie ranked ahead of Millie Bobby Brown (US$10 million for the Enola Holmes sequel); Emily Blunt (US$4 million for Oppenheimer); Jamie Lee Curtis (US$3.5 million for Halloween Ends); and Anya Taylor-Joy (US$1.8 million for Furiosa).
Robbie’s misgivings about her career aren’t shared by other industry giants. Martin Scorsese compared her to Carole Lombard for her comedic genius, Joan Crawford for her toughness, and Ida Lupino for her emotional range. He described Robbie as having a surprising audacity, and recalls how she clinched her role in The Wolf of Wall Street by stunning everyone with a tremendous, improvised slap of Leonardo DiCaprio during her audition.
Robbie showed the same boldness when she lobbied director Quentin Tarantino for another role opposite DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019). She sent the director a letter telling him how much she admired his films, especially her all-time favorite, True Romance (1993). The letter probably wasn’t necessary, as Tarantino already had the I, Tonya star in mind to play Sharon Tate in his new movie, describing her to EL PAÍS as an actress with a visual dynamism and personal qualities that you don’t see every day.
Robbie has wanted to work in movies ever since her start in Neighbours, the long-running Australian TV series that is coming to an end after 9,000 episodes and 37 years on the air. “Of course I’m ambitious. My career motivates me. I came to the United States with a plan, and I’m always looking ahead,” she told us. Even as a child growing up in Queensland (northeastern Australia), Margot Elise Robbie displayed her business smarts and drama queen chops when she decided to sell all her brother’s old toys from the sidewalk in front of the family home.
She jokes about her childhood, but part of that little girl always comes out in the wide variety of characters she plays. She has had all kinds of roles in little-known films like Suite Française and Z for Zachariah, and also in box-office hits like Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. She won Oscar nominations for playing driven women in I, Tonya (2018) and Bombshell (2020). “Yes, many of the women I’ve played share my ambition – this is a tough industry. But I’m full of doubt like anyone else. You never know how things will turn out,” she said.
Seeking more control over her films, Robbie founded production company LuckyChap Entertainment in 2014 with her husband, British filmmaker Tom Ackerley, and some friends. She hopes to use LuckyChap as a vehicle for herself and other actresses, as she did with Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan, a black comedy thriller film that won writer/director Emerald Fennell an Oscar for best original screenplay. “Margot is an extraordinary person,” said Fennell. “That’s why she’s doing so well as a producer who is determined to try different things and give women a voice.”
Robbie met British assistant director Tom Ackerley on the set of Suite Française in 2013. They began a romantic relationship the next year and moved in together right after attending their first Golden Globes gala for The Wolf of Wall Street. Married since 2016, the couple and co-workers in LuckyChap have a bright future ahead, judging by all the work that is piling up for Robbie. In addition to Barbie, she will appear in Amsterdam, directed by David O. Russell; as silent film star Clara Bow in Babylon, directed by Damien Chazelle; and has a role in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City. As if that wasn’t enough to keep Robbie busy, a remake of Ocean’s Eleven awaits her; she will play opposite Matthew Schoenaerts in the post WWII drama, Ruin; produce a remake of Tank Girl; and play a female Jack Sparrow in another installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Surely Margot Robbie doesn’t have any more doubts about her career.
Salem’s last witch regains her honor | Culture
As statues of slave owners and slave traders continue to fall in the United States, the embers of the bonfires that burned women accused of committing spells and witchcraft are also being extinguished. In the umpteenth revision of history to try to exonerate the victims, the most recent episode concerns the last official Salem witch, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., from the massive 1692 and 1693 trials in the English colony of Massachusetts. Thanks to the initiative of a middle school teacher and her students in Andover, located in the same county as Salem, her spirit can now roam free. The enthusiastic students began the vindication process in 2020 and persuaded Massachusetts state senator Diana DiZoglio (D), who took up the cause and pushed for Johnson’s pardon, which was announced last week.
It has taken 329 years for Elizabeth Johnson Jr.’s name to be cleared definitively. She was the last of the Salem witches to be exonerated. While Johnson was spared a death by hanging, she was stigmatized until she died at 77, an uncommonly long life for the time. Historians say that Johnson showed signs of mental instability and was single and childless, all of which were signs of witchcraft during that period. She pled guilty before the court of inquisitors. Almost 30 members of her extended family were also implicated, as if witchcraft were contagious, hereditary, or both. Johnson, her mother, several aunts and her grandfather, a church pastor, were tried as well. According to historian Emerson Baker, the author of a book about the Salem witch trials, her grandfather described Johnson to the judges as a “simplish person at best.” Most likely, the judges would have equated “simplish” with different during that superstitious and pre-scientific period.
The fact that Johnson didn’t have any descendants deprived her of anyone to vindicate her good name, as relatives of the other defendants did. The first attempt to do so happened at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Then, in the 1950s, Massachusetts passed a law exonerating those found guilty, but it failed to gather all the names. A 2001 attempt at justice excluded Johnson because, after her conviction in 1693, she was formally presumed to be dead (executed).
The social hysteria against everything that deviated from the norm, against the minimal exercise of free will, was implacable against women, as Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (the playwright adapted it for the big screen in 1996) and recent variations remind us. The theme lends itself very well to artistic creation, but in real life it amounted to opprobrium for those who suffered it and represented a cause for scorn among puritans.
Salem was more than a witch trial. According to historians, it was a collective exorcism fueled by a puritanical inquisition based on paranoia and xenophobia, a gratuitous auto de fe that unleashed people’s worst instincts: fear and the human tendency to blame others for one’s own misfortunes. At least 172 people were indicted in the 1692 trial. About 35% confessed their guilt and were spared the gallows; according to sources, around twenty insisted on claiming their innocence and did not escape that fate. The rest of the detainees were acquitted or sentenced to prison. The Salem witch trials represented a collective bogeyman through which one can foresee the later threat of the Ku Klux Klan. It is hard not to wonder what bonfires would have burned today on the pyre of social media and extreme polarization.
The great Salem witch hunt can be re-read through the prism of gender. As the adage goes, se non è vero è ben trovato (Even if it is not true, it is well conceived). Witches, like those in Salem and the woman in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (made into a film in the 1950s), were demonized for going off the rails. The dominant society’s puritanical stance against any kind of heterodoxy or freestyling, against rebels with or without a cause, led people to be targeted for dressing exotically by puritanical standards or for daring to drink at a tavern, a sacrilege for the morals of the day. It’s not difficult to draw a straight line from the bonnet of a witch on the gallows to the handmaid’s white bonnet in Margaret Atwood’s novel: all were women who were demonized, objectified, and scapegoated for deeper ills.
Beyond gender, other historians emphasize the socioeconomic dimension of the Salem witch trials, which combined a deep-seated inequality with racism, the United States’ original sin since well before the Declaration of Independence. The trials targeted colonial society’s most vulnerable during a period of economic instability that unleashed fierce rivalry among Salem families. According to historian Edward Bever, society was permeated by interpersonal conflict, much of it stemming from competition over resources. People did whatever they could to survive, from physical aggression to threats, curses, and insults. One of the first women accused, Sarah Osborne, was a poor widow who dared to claim her husband’s land for herself, defying the customary laws of nature, which granted the inheritance to sons. The accusation of witchcraft ended Osborne’s claim. Tituba, an indigenous slave, was accused of being a witch because her racial origins differed from the norm. Sarah Good was also poor, but she defended herself against the humiliations of her neighbors, which led her to the gallows; her daughter, Dorothy Dorcas Good, was Salem’s youngest victim: she was arrested at only four years old and spent eight months in prison.
Since then, history has not changed the fact that vulnerable women pay the price for circumstances beyond their control. That the Puritans of the time considered women—the evil heirs of Eve —prone to temptations such as the desire for material possessions or sexual gratification was only an added factor. Poor, homeless, and childless, these women in the shadow of society’s dominant morality were fodder for the gallows. But Elizabeth Johnson Jr. didn’t just manage to save her life; 329 years later she recovered her honor as well.
Meridian Brothers: A fake salsa band ignites the rebirth of an old New York record label | Culture
A new album will land on the salsa dance floor by the end of this week; one that fuses rhythms from the 1970s with the technological dystopias of the future. Behind it is Ansonia Records, a label that, after its creation in 1949 among Latino immigrants from New York, would produce several merengue, jibara, bomba, guaracha, mambo, and boogaloo albums, before stopping altogether in 1990. This Friday, after more than 30 years, Ansonia Records will return with a salsa album.
Hermano del futuro, vengo buscando iluminación; brother from the future, I come looking for enlightenment. So says one of the songs from the new album, called Metamorfosis, by the old salsa group Renacimiento. But there is a catch: Renacimiento does not exist. It never did. It is a fake group, and this is a fake cover, explains musician Eblis Álvarez, founder of the Colombian group Meridian Brothers, who had already experimented with various genres, from cumbia to vallenato. A group that practices “tropical cannibalism,” says Álvarez. This year, Meridian Brothers decided to launch a group of salseros straight out of fiction: Renacimiento.
“Renacimiento [rebirth] is the typical name that musicians would give a salsa group in the 1970s,” Álvarez tells EL PAÍS. “For example, in the Nueva Trova movement there was talk of a political rebirth, but at the same time they combined this with a spiritual factor: when one listens to groups like La Columna de Fuego [from Bogota] or Los Jaivas [from Chile], there was a common pattern: everyone was waiting for a rebirth of the soul, and of society.”
Although on stage Renacimiento is made up of five artists — María Valencia, Alejandro Forero, César Quevedo and Mauricio Ramírez, besides Álvarez — when the album was recorded it was the founder who played all the instruments, besides doing the voice of the salsero that accompanies the songs. The album has nine tracks, some similar to the older, slower salsa, and others to the faster, contemporary style. Between the piano, the timbales and the percussion, we find verses with the concerns of the 21st century: love that “communicates by algorithm,” or the threats of atomic bombs that “take us to the cemetery.” Metamorfosis, the single that has already been released, begins with a man who wakes up turned into a robot and longs for a time “when nightclubs really had an atmosphere, not like now, full of cameras, full of drones.”
“I wanted it to sound like salsa from the 1970s,” says Álvarez. “There is no originality, or the originality of this lies in being able to replicate the music as best as possible, but in terms of the material there is nothing original, as it is made with the collective unconscious of Latin America, of Colombia, of Latinos. This is an extrapolation from the 1970s to today, and it speaks of transhumanism, like the matter of highest concern that everything, absolutely everything, is now packed inside the damn cell phone.”
The rebirth includes both the album and the label, as this is the first recording in more than 30 years to be released by Ansonia Records, a company created in 1949 and later forgotten, despite having been one of the first labels founded by a Latin migrant in the United States. Puerto Rican Rafael Pérez, its founder, brought Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians from Latin Harlem or the South Bronx, who had not found a home among American record companies, to several studios. He produced his records before the time of the powerful Fania, which made New York salsa famous.
To Liza Richardson, an American radio host who was also a music supervisor on series like Narcos or the movie Y tu mamá también, Ansonia Records is a gem. In the early 1990s, she found an Ansonia album in the station’s archives and, fascinated by the label’s production, became close to the heirs of Pérez. In 2020, she bought the record label with the intention of reactivating it. She, with the help of a small team, has begun to digitize more than 5,000 Ansonia-produced songs; an eighth of them can already be found on streaming platforms like Spotify.
Souraya Al-Alaoui, manager of Ansonia Records, explains that most of the artists chosen by the label were focused on the Latin American diaspora. That was their base; they valued the traditional sounds from islands like Cuba or Puerto Rico, and were not looking to become westernized.
“Johnny Pacheco, founder of La Fania, started with Ansonia Records, and Ansonia was an inspiration for what would later become La Fania,” says Al-Alaoui. “Ansonia was also a pioneer as a label owned by a Latino, an independent label with a founding message: ‘this is from us and for us.’ That’s why it was an inspiration for what came after.”
Over the years, La Fania grew and the seed of Ansonia Records faded away. The label never managed to promote its musicians in concerts like La Fania did, and after the arrival of the digital world, they did not set up a website or try to upload their music to any streaming platforms. Thus, it became a label that was only known by a small group of music lovers, like Liza Richardson and Eblis Álvarez.
“Now, we are hoping to release a new record every year, and we are thrilled to start with this one by Meridian Brothers,” says Richardson. “This is an album that looks to the past but tries to move towards the future, and that is exactly what we are trying to do: look to the past to, at some point, be able to grow again, to thrive.”
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