CO120 Reese Erlich on Tensions with Iran

Reese Erlich has won numerous journalism awards including a Peabody award. He’s also a freelance journalist who writes for CBS Radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp., NPR and VICE News, and his Foreign Correspondent column distributed nationally in the US.

Last year he published his latest book with the title The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy.


I mentioned the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong a few weeks back, particularly the fact that a huge proportion of the city’s population was taking part in them. Since I talked about them, the protests have been covered widely in the western media, and they haven’t dissipated, they are continuing every weekend.

It’s notable that in the meantime protests have started in Moscow on a similar theme. People, mostly young people, are taking to the streets complaining about the lack of democracy. There are some notable similarities, but also big differences.

The main similarity is that they started in much the same way, over a seemingly minor issue. In Hong Kong that was an extradition bill that would have allowed authorities to forcibly take anyone they arrested to China where the rule of law is much weaker, where the government can basically lock up anyone they want.

In Moscow, it was about banning opposition candidates from standing in elections for the Moscow local government. This is a relatively minor issue, if Putin lost control of the local government there, it would in theory barely cause a blip on his total control of the country, and that was never going to happen anyway because the chances of more than a few of those opposition candidates winning were remote.

But in reality, Putin runs a régime where no uncontrolled opposition can be tolerated. If they can win a few seats in this election, they can more the next time, then maybe a majority, and then challenge Putin in more serious ways. The way Putin runs Russia, all opposition must be controlled.

But it’s import to note a big difference between the scale of the protests. In Hong Kong, up to two million out of the seven million citizens have taken part in the protests. The biggest demonstration in Moscow had perhaps 50,000 people. That’s a lot, but only about two per cent of the size of the Hong Kong protests, in a city with vastly more people. Moscow has an official population of about 12 million, but in reality it’s far larger.

The protests started when many opposition candidates were rejected for spurious reasons. This was mostly that, the authorities claim, more than 10 per cent of the thousands of signatures required to get on the ballot, were flawed, usually for unspecified reasons. This despite that the number of undisputed signatures far exceeded the number required, and that many candidates had documentary proof that many disputed signatures were valid, and even video testimony from the signatories.

Other excuses to kick people off the ballot bordered on the ridiculous, such as because on the official form, candidates put a dash in a column to indicate that they didn’t own any foreign property, rather than writing out the words saying that they don’t own any.

The candidates excluded were exclusively associated with opposition figures, real opposition figures such as Alexey Navalny, although they have to run as independents because their parties are banned. The controlled opposition, mostly candidates associated with the rump communist party, widely believed to be a puppet of the Kremlin, had no trouble getting their candidates on the ballot.

The demonstrations started on July 20, this one was permitted by the authorities, but they might have been startled by the fact that more than 20,000 people attended. At that rally, Navalny called for further demonstrations if the candidates were not permitted to run. For saying that, he was sentenced to a month in prison, for calling for an unauthorized demonstration. The following Saturday, the 27th that demonstration went ahead in the teeth of police harassment and violence.

Hundreds of people were arrested just for attending, most were later released, but about a dozen people face serious charges, which they could typically get eight year sentences, for offences such as throwing a paper cup towards the police lines. Eight years in a Russian prison is no joke, apart from the horrendous conditions, it’s not uncommon for people to go into the prison system only to disappear and never be heard of again.

The rallies have continued every Saturday up to this past weekend, with typically 50,000 or more people attending. On July 28, Navalny was rushed from prison to hospital, apparently having been poisoned, and then sent back to prison by against the objections of his doctor.

But it’s important to remember that as well as being small, these protests in Moscow are supported by a particular slice of society. There is a group of well-educated Russians, mostly in Moscow and other large cities who yearn for democracy and western-style freedoms. You could call them a young middle class. They travel abroad on holidays, they speak English and other foreign languages, they get their news online from largely independent sources and they all know each other.

They are a small minority. There is the elite in Russia, numerically tiny, who like the current system because, well because they are the elite, and there are is a broad mass of people who live outside the main cities, along with the working-class majority in the big cities who at best have no interest in these protests, or the fixing of the elections that sparked them.

Elections get fixed, that’s what you do with elections. Friends of the strongman get rich. That’s what friends of the strongman get. They don’t see a connection between democracy and the rule of law and their own prosperity, because they have no basis for that comparison, and they don’t see democracy and the rule of law as the default method of government, because they have never experienced them.

As one member of the English-speaking foreign-travelling Moscow middle class told me, they want free elections but even if they got them, Putin would be certain to win, maybe just not by so much.

This is clearly not true in Hong Kong. The people there know democracy, they know the rule of law and they know prosperity.  They also know that the Chinese People’s Army, which massacred thousands of protesters in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago is massing on the other side of the border, and that the Chinese might prefer not to do a repeat of that, but if it comes to it, they are willing to.

That’s a lot of brave people are putting their lives on the line for democracy.

CO119 Gautam Tejas Ganeshan on What Motivates Antivaxxers

Gautam Tejas Ganeshan is a musician and a writer and blogger, and we talked about a piece that he wrote titled ‘Is there an intelligible “anti-vaxx” position?

CO118 Andrew Branca on Gun Law

Andrew Branca is a lifelong NRA member, a lawyer who consults on self-defence law and the author of The Law of Self Defense: The Indispensable Guide to the Armed Citizen.

During our discussion, I metioned the Dickey Amendment, which forbids the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from advocating or promoting gun control, but has widely been interpreted as preventing the CDC from studying the health effects of gun ownership.

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CO117 Will Wilkinson on Community and Ideology

Will Wilkinson is the vice president for research at the Niskanen Center.

He’s also and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. He was previously, a correspondent for The Economist and a research fellow at the Cato Institute.

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CO116 Raymond Ibrahim on Islam and the West

Raymond Ibrahim is the author of Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West.


Let’s do a bit of science.

Maybe, like me, you have had various social media invaded by people making all sorts of complaints about something called 5G. That’s the newest mobile data standard. Unless you are really special, that doesn’t work on your phone yet, but the networks are being installed, and newer handsets using them will be available soon, probably starting at the top end of the price range.

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CO115 John Hawkins on Politicized Data

John Hawkins is a writer for Bizpaq review, Brass Pills and is the editor Right Wing News. He’s also the author of 101 Things All Young Adults Should Know.

We talked about John’s article The Best Stats & Quotes From ‘Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse’, John’s take on the findings of that book. I mentioned the fact that the number of hours needed to work at minimum age to pay college tuition has increased about tenfold in the last 40 years, and the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.

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CO114 Greg Shupak on Reporting the Conflict

Greg Shupak has a PhD in Literary Studies and teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph in Toronto. He regularly writes analysis of politics and media for outlets including Electronic Intifada, In These Times, Jacobin, and the website Fairness and accuracy in reporting.

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CO113 Mark Vernon on the Secret History of Christianity

Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer, with a degree in physics, before two degrees in theology, and a PhD in philosophy. He’s written books covering subjects from friendship and belief, to wellbeing and love.

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CO112 Justin Strekal on Legalizing Marijuana

Justin Strekal political director at Norml.


I mentioned last week that I would talk about the earthquake – earthquakes really – in UK politics. In particular that Nigel Farage’s new party, the Brexit Party won the European Parliament elections in the UK by a mile last month.

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CO111 Bruce Schneier on Cybersecurity

Bruce Schneier is a public-interest technologist. He’s been writing about security issues for more than 20 years, and he’s a Special Advisor to IBM Security, a fellow and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a board member of Electronic Frontier Foundation.


A couple of quite similar stories caught my eye in the past while.

The first was about a German MP called Markus Frohnmaier. He was elected to the Bundestag, the German parliament for the far-right AfD party in 2017.

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CO110 Grayson Quay on Another View on MeToo

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer. His work has been published in The Washington Times,, National Interest, Townhall and others. He is also MA candidate at Georgetown University Master’s Degree candidate.

CO109 Aaron Naparstek on the War on Cars

Aaron Naparstek is a cohost of the War on Cars podcast, and also the founder of


There have been a couple of stories about facial recognition. This audio is from a BBC report where the police set up a van with cameras filming passersby and searching for records on them based on facial recognition. One man decided that he didn’t like that, and pulled his sweater up over his mouth and nose to frustrate the camera system; the police stopped him, forced him to be photographed, and fined him £90, about $115 for what they called disorderly conduct.

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CO108 Rob Bluey on Standards and Consistency

Rob Bluey is vice president for communications at The Heritage Foundation and Founding Editor of Daily Signal. I mentioned in the interview an article that Rob wrote during the Obama administration criticizing the removal of a website about earmark reform, and contrasted it to the Trump cull of the EPA’s website.


Last month, a mob of more than 70 men, armed with baseball bats, knives, and rocks launched a series of vigilante attacks around the towns of  Clichy-sous-Bois and Bobigny, about an hour east of Paris. French police arrested at least 20 of them.

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CO107 David Dayen on the Economics of Vaping

David Dayen is a contributing writer The Intercept and a weekly columnist for the New Republic. He is the author of the book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud., and he’s shortly to become the executive editor of the American Prospect.

We talked about his article How Vaping Giant Juul Explains Everything that’s Wrong with our World.


There’s a story in the last couple of weeks that, if you’re in Australia, you’ve almost certainly heard, if you’re not in Australia, you’ve almost certainly not heard.

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CO106 Mitchell Robinson on Education Reform and Charter Schools

Mitchell Robinson is a writer for Eclectablog and associate professor and chair of music education at Michigan State University, as well as being a former high-school teacher. His research is focused on music education and education policy.

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CO105 Cathy Reisenwitz on Cars and Freedom

Cathy Reisenwitz is a writer whose work has appeared in The Week, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and others, and she’s appeared as a commentator on Fox News and Al Jazeera, which an interesting combination to say the least.

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CO104 Christian Toto on the Politics of Hollywood

Christian Toto is the editor of Hollywood in Toto, and a regular commentator on both politics and the entertainment industry.


Clement Atlee, the British World War II Labour Party leader, and minister was once quoted by Margaret Thatcher, the conservative party leader of the 1970s and 1980s. They both agreed that referendums are ‘a device of dictators and demagogues’.

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CO103 Michael Tanner on Helping the Poor

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, with an emphasis on poverty and social welfare policy, health care, and Social Security and entitlement reform.

His most recent book, The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor, looks at the ways government contributes to poverty in the United States and suggests reforms that will enable the poor to more fully participate in a growing economy. 


I saw a couple of things recently related to podcasts, or at least that might resonate with podcast listeners. One was a YouTube video that compared the market valuation of WeWork, the company that offers hotdesking to remote workers, to Regus, a similar but much more established company, now owned by the IWG group. WeWork has a valuation of $47 billion. WeWork have been advertising heavily on some podcasts. Hell, if they have that much money, I should be tapping them for ads on Challenging Opinions. Regus has a valuation of $4 billion and, get this, Regus is does almost ten times the business. Almost ten times bigger, but less than one tenth of the valuation.

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CO102 Scott Morefield on Trump, Three Years Later

Scott Morefiled is a reporter for the DailyCaller and a columnist for Townhall. His writings have also been featured  on Breitbart, BizPac, TheBlaze, National Review, The Federalist, The Hill and others.

In the podcast we discussed his article from 2016, and I mentioned a quotation from HL Mencken, and the fact that Trump’s cabinet has a collective wealth of over four billion dollars.


In the U.S., President Trump was reported recently as saying that EU countries must take back the estimated 800 Isis fighters captured in Syria by US-backed forces and put them on trial.

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CO101 Adam DeCollibus on What Was the Past Like?

Adam DeCollibus is the author of Caravan. I mentioned the excellent Caliphate podcast in the conversation.


I’ve talked about the Baltic republics, and Ukraine before – their governments, and to a large extent their people – are anxious to make alliances to the West, join NATO, join the EU. It’s notable that of the former eastern bloc countries, the Baltic states that once were part of the Soviet Union, occupied by the Soviet Union they would say, have been the most anxious to integrate with the west, joining NATO and the EU, and adopting the euro currency as soon as they were permitted to do so.

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