• Government is Shut Down!

    In approximately six minutes, the federal government will be shut down after Congress failed to pass the spending bill. The Office of Management and Budget directed executive agencies to shut down just before midnight on Monday. The memo read: "We urge Congress to act quickly to pass a Continuing Resolution to provide a short-term bridge that ensures sufficient time to pass a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year, and to restore the operation of critical public services and programs that will be impacted by a lapse in appropriations." Still, Obama reassured that Obamacare is still in effect. From the president's Twitter account: "'The Affordable Care Act is moving forward. You can't shut it down.' —President Obama #Obamacare"

    Discussion Questions:

    • Why is the government shutting down?
    • What impact do you believe this will have on your life? Why?
  • Obama and Iran Talk

    Many Iranians were decidedly unhappy with this week's historic phone call between Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. When Rouhani returned to Tehran after the diplomatic conversation after the U.N. General Assembly in New York, however, his car was beset by crowds—not all of them friendly. About 100 protestors met him at the airport, shouting, "Death to America." One protestor threw a shoe at the presidential car, which in Islamic countries is considered a much graver insult than you'd think. It's not the only complication Rouhani ran into after the phone call: several tweets were taken down on Friday after details of the conversation appeared to be divulged from an account in Rouhani's name.

    Discussion Questions:

    • Why was this phone call historic? Do you think it signals a new era of relations between the U.S. and Iran? Why or why not?
    • Why do you think many Iranians are unhappy about the call?
  • Obamacare Rates Lower than Anticiapted

    The Obama administration has announced that insurance rates under the Affordable Care Act will be lower than expected. Rates vary state by state, but unsubsidized monthly premiums could be as low as $70 per month for an individual and as high as $1,200 for a family of four. The average premium for an individual will be $328 in 2014, before tax credits that most people who use the exchanges will qualify for. However, the rate announcement will give some fuel to Obamacare critics: part of the reason the rates came in lower than expected is because insurance companies created special plans with fewer in-network doctors and hospitals.

    Discussion Questions:

    • Is it good or bad that these rates are lower than anticipated? Why?
    • Do you think the Affordable Care Act will be effective? Why or why not?
  • The End of Baby Beauty Pageants?

    The United States was largely introduced to the world of pre-teen beauty pageants by the 2009 TLC reality show "Toddlers & Tiaras." As soon as the series began to air, many members of society had pointed questions and criticism about the appropriateness of these contests. Recently, French legislators moved to ban child beauty pageants on the grounds that they promote the "hyper-sexualization" of minors. A measure even proposes jail time and a fine for violators (parents and legislators) who sponsor or encourage "access to these competitions" for anyone under age 16. While the measure has not become law, it does open the door to such a policy being considered within the United States.

    Discussion Questions:

    • Should the U.S. follow France's lead? Why or why not?
    • What alternatives are there to banning these pageants? What is the likelihood of success for each? Why?
  • Attack in Kenya

    Tragedy struck a Nairobi shopping mall on Saturday when several gunmen attacked shoppers with AK-47s and grenades. Kenya's president announced there were at least 39 dead and 150 wounded. As many as 36 hostages remain inside. Witnesses say the gunmen told Muslims in the mall to stand up and leave, as only non-Muslims would be targeted. Authorities surrounded the mall to contain the situation, which the Kenyan Secretary of the Interior deemed "under control" six hours after it started. The Al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab from Somalia claimed responsibility for the attack: "For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it's time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land #Westgate," the group tweeted. Samantha Lewthwaite--the White Widow--is also alleged to be involved in the attack.

    Discussion Questions:

    • Why do you think this attack occurred?
    • Do you believe the U.S. is safe from potential similar attacks? Why or why not?
  • Public Health and Porn

    Tomorrow, porn shooting will resume in Los Angeles after a two week absence as a direct result of the emergence of three new HIV cases in the community. As a result of the new cases, the porn industry has opted to revise its rules on testing for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). Now actors will be required to test every 14 days (instead of 28) and performers will have to be treated by the end of business today in order to be cleared to resume filming. Just last week a state bill in California that would have required porn actors to wear condoms died before gaining approval.

    Discussion Questions:

    • Is testing every 14 days for HIV/STDs an effective way to protect actors from potential health risks? Why or why not?
    • Why do you think the condom bill failed in the legislature? Should a measure like this be passed? Why or why not?
  • Social Media and Iran

    Facebook and Twitter have this week become directly accessible in Iran for the first time since 2009, when the sites were blocked because activists used them to organize rallies during election protests. Iranians previously had to reroute service outside the country to access the social media. It is unclear whether the government lifted the bans or a technical glitch removed the filters. Either way, it provides a small opening for a country in which citizens appear to be clamoring for more individual freedoms.

    UPDATE: It was all a glitch and Facebook and Twitter are no longer accessible in Iran.

    Discussion Questions:

    • Why do you think the Iranian government continues to block social media sites? How would American citizens react if this happened here?
    • Do you ever believe Iranians will have full access to such sites? Why or why not?
  • Al Qaeda Attempting More Domestic Attacks?

    Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is calling for small-scale attacks inside the U.S. A few attacks “here and there” would “bleed America economically by provoking it to continue in its massive expenditure on its security,” he said in a speech released online a day after the September 11 anniversary. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan forces defended the American Consulate against an attack by Taliban insurgents in the usually peaceful city of Herat. The speech by al-Zawahiri renews concerns globally for American targets after the closing of embassies in recent months due to eminent threat. Further, the smaller-scale of attack called for in the video represents a shift in strategy from earlier visions of grandiose attacks aimed at shaking our nation's psyche in a different way.

    Discussion Questions:

    • Do you believe small-scale attacks would be more or less successful for Al Qaeda? Why?
    • Is it possible for the U.S. to ever effectively shut down the Al Qaeda network? Why or why not?
  • From Russia with Love...

    In an editorial for The New York Times, titled “A Plea for Caution From Russia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin writes that a U.S.-led strike against Syria “will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders.” If the United Nations Security Council does not approve of such force, he says, it would be classified as “an act of aggression.” Putin also claims it's possible the chemical warfare was used by opposition forces to incite international intervention and bashes the United States’ reliance on “brute force.” Perhaps most importantly from a domestic standpoint, Putin states in his concluding paragraph: "My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal." Reaction to the editorial has been unsurprisingly mixed.

    Discussion Questions:

    • What do you think of Putin's editorial?
    • Do you think The New York Times should have published the editorial? Why or why not?
    • How would you characterize Senator Bob Menendez's reaction?
  • American Opinion on Attacking Syria

    A Reuters/Ipsos poll, conducted at the beginning of September, shows that 63 percent of the American public opposes intervening in the civil war in Syria. That's up from 53 percent who thought it was a bad idea at the end of August. Support for intervention has declined to 16 percent, which is four points lower than at the end of August. The public seems reluctant to get involved in another conflict. Russia has offered to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control, a prospect that could lead to a compromise in the region.

    Discussion Questions:

    • Why do you think so many Americans oppose a potential intervention in Syria?
    • How could President Obama and Congress change these attitudes?
  • A Social Media Confession

    In a four-minute video posted on YouTube, 22-year-old Matthew Cordle of Columbus, Ohio says he got “blackout” drunk and drove the wrong way on the interstate, causing an accident that killed another driver. Cordle at one point in the video pointedly says: "“My name is Matthew Cordle, and on June 22, 2013, I hit and killed Vincent Canzani. This video will act as my confession...When I get charged, I will plead guilty and take full responsibility for everything I’ve done to Vincent and his family.” As of yet, Cordle has not been charged. The country prosecutor, who called the video compelling and Cordle “remorseful and sincere,” plans to ask jurors to indict him on aggravated vehicular homicide.

    Discussion Questions:

    • Why do you think Cordle opted to post this confession on YouTube?
    • Do you think his message will be received? Why or why not?

    UPDATE (SEPTEMBER 11): Cordle has pled not guilty to the charges but is expected to enter a guilty plea on September 18.

  • Obama and Putin

    Russian President Vladimir Putin recently told reporters that he gets where President Obama is coming from. "President Obama hasn't been elected by the American people in order to be pleasant to Russia," Putin said. "And your humble servant hasn't been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone either." Putin said any differences he and Obama have aren't personal. "We are human," Putin added. "But I would like to repeat once again that global mutual interests form a good basis for finding a joint solution to our problems." The conversation stems from a series of recent events. First, Russia's decision to not extradite Edward Snowden back to the United States. Second, the news coverage of Russia's ban on homosexuality and its potential effects of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. And third, Putin's warning that Russia will not support any attacks against Syria without proof chemical weapons were in fact used against citizens.

    Discussion Questions:

    • Should the U.S. be concerned about Russia at present? Why or why not?
    • How could relations between the two countries be improved?
  • What to do with Syria....

    Arizona Senator--and former Obama presidential opponent--John McCain said Monday that he fully supports the president's plan to strike against Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime. He insisted that if Congress were to vote against the resolution, it would be "catastrophic because it would undermine the credibility of the United States and the president of the United States." Because President Obama commited to military action, McCain stated that U.S. credibility would be "shredded" internationally without the support of Congress. Speaker of the House John Boehner also plans to support Obama's efforts.

    Discussion Questions:

    • Should the U.S. intervene in Syria? Why or why not?
    • Would your opinion change if we were committing ground troops? Why or why not?
    • Do you agree with Senator McCain that our accountability would be shot internationally if we don't get the approval of Congress? Why or why not?
  • Dunkin' Donuts Blackface Ad

    A spokesman for Dunkin' Brands is apologizing for an ad featuring a woman in blackface and bright pink lipstick holding a “charcoal donut” with the tag line, “Break every rule of deliciousness." While the global spokesman said they’ll be pulling the campaign, the CEO for Dunkin' Donuts in Thailand doesn’t see anything wrong with the ads and called the brouhaha just a result of "paranoid American thinking.” "It's absolutely ridiculous," said Nadim Salhani. "We're not allowed to use black to promote our doughnuts? I don't get it. What's the big fuss?” Dunkin' Donuts corporate, however, has apologized for the racist tone of the ad.

    Dunkin' Donuts Thai advert

    Discussion Questions:

    • Was the ad racist? Why or why not?
    • What do you think the Thailand CEO meant by the term "paranoid American thinking"?