Archive for October, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight


Saw this the other day. I did not have high expectations, in view of its mediocre score on Metacritic.com—I didn’t read the reviews themselves, as I never read reviews of Woody Allen films, before or after seeing them (French reviews of it are better, though when it comes to Woody Allen films, I pay no attention to them either)—and the less-than-compelling trailer (which I saw at least four times). But as I see everything by Woody Allen—it’s a yearly ritual, now four-plus decades old—I was obviously not going to miss this one. The verdict: It’s good! I enjoyed it. It’s a good romantic comedy, which holds together, has something larger to say, i.e. a message, and keeps one engaged from beginning to end. It’s an enjoyable film. I left the theater feeling good and satisfied. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

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The Tunisian election


[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

What a pleasant surprise. I had assumed that Ennahda would come in first place, as it has been my operating assumption for the past 25 or so years that the Islamists will always come in first place in any genuinely free and fair general election in an Arab country. It looks like I may be behind the curve, or maybe need to rethink my assumptions. Félicitations au peuple tunisien! La Tunisie a sauvé l’honneur du monde arabe (et pas pour la première fois). If only the Egyptian military had patiently waited for the next election there, so that the Muslim Brotherhood could bite the dust legitimately and without violence (or at least a minimum of it). Or if Bashar al-Assad had sought dialogue with the Syrian opposition in spring 2011…

As for analyses and commentary, I thought this one by Bernard Guetta—this morning on France Inter—on “the three lessons of Tunisian democracy” was pretty good

Et maintenant, les ennuis commencent. Nidaa Tounes, la grande coalition des laïcs tunisiens l’a largement emporté, avant-hier, sur les islamistes d’Ennahda mais, faute d’avoir obtenu la majorité absolue à la nouvelle Assemblée nationale, elle devra se trouver des partenaires avec lesquels gouverner et n’a que deux choix devant elle.

Soit Nida Tounes – l’Appel de la Tunisie – cherche à s’agréger de petites formations et entre alors dans des marchandages sans fin qui ne mèneront qu’à l’instabilité permanente soit elle respire un grand coup et accepte de former le gouvernement d’union nationale que lui proposent les islamistes.

Cette décision révolterait beaucoup des laïcs dont la constante et si courageuse mobilisation avait forcé Ennahda, majoritaire aux élections de 2011, à finalement accepter une Constitution démocratique puis la formation d’un gouvernement de technocrates chargé d’organiser les législatives de dimanche. Cette décision ne serait pas non plus sans risques car elle impliquerait une répartition des grands postes de l’appareil d’Etat dans lequel les islamistes continueraient ainsi de s’installer alors même que tous leurs cadres ne partagent pas, et loin de là, la modération de leur direction.

Cette union nationale serait tout, sauf évidente pour les laïcs mais, d’un autre côté, rien ne serait plus dangereux pour eux que de laisser les islamistes se refaire et se radicaliser dans l’opposition alors que la situation économique est si mauvaise, que des mesures douloureuses s’imposent et que le mécontentement social ne pourra que s’accroître. Les ennuis commencent mais « Vive la Tunisie ! », car ce petit pays sans autres ressources que son intelligence collective vient de nous rappeler à trois réalité d’importance.

La première est que rien n’est plus infondé que ces théories tellement répandues sur l’incompatibilité de l’islam et de la démocratie. La Tunisie est musulmane, tout ce qu’il y a de plus musulmane, mais non seulement elle sait ce que sont la liberté, la tolérance et la démocratie mais elle sait aussi les défendre.

La deuxième réalité à laquelle rappelle son évolution depuis janvier 2011 et que l’adjectif « islamiste » ne veut plus rien dire tant les forces politiques qu’il qualifie sont différentes et même divergentes, tant il n’y a rien de commun entre les illuminés sanguinaires de l’Etat islamique, les conservateurs musulmans au pouvoir en Turquie, les Frères musulmans égyptiens et, maintenant, Ennahda dont les dirigeants veulent ancrer dans la vie politique un parti conservateur, clérical et thatchérien mais nullement jihadiste.

Quant à la troisième réalité que nous rappelle la Tunisie elle est que la Syrie aurait parfaitement pu suivre la même voie qu’elle parce qu’elle avait des élites tout aussi larges, éclairées et démocrates que les siennes. Le drame est que ces élites, on les a laissé massacrer par une dictature sanguinaire et que le monde en paie désormais le prix qui a pour nom « l’Etat islamique », l’armée de barbares que l’on sait.

This post-election interview in Mediapart with Choukri Hamd, who teaches political science at the Université Paris-Dauphine, is also worth the read.

UPDATE: Tunis-based Oxford doctoral student Monica Marks has a commentary in The Guardian (October 29th) in which she argues that “The Tunisian election result isn’t simply a victory for secularism over Islamism: The battle between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda is more complex than enlightened secularists versus backwards Islamists.”

2nd UPDATE: Laryssa Chomiak, director of CEMAT in Tunis, has a commentary on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog (October 29th) on “The richness of Tunisia’s new politics.” And Hussien Ibish, writing in NOW, celebrates “Tunisia’s triumph,” saying that “As much of the rest of the Arab world sinks into chaos, Tunisia shows there is real hope for the future.”

3rd UPDATE: Well-known neocon author and commentator Max Boot visited Tunisia, for the first time it seems, as a member of the International Republican Institute’s election observer mission. He was suitably impressed with the country—American and Brit pundits are invariably impressed with Tunisia, be it a dictatorship or struggling democracy—, though was disappointed with the absence of McDonald’s and Starbucks franchises in the dumpy seaside town near the Algerian border where he was based. His observations, “Tunisia Stands Alone: A peaceful election in the birthplace of the ‘Arab Spring’,” are in the November 10th issue of TWS.

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Gone Girl


Saw this last weekend. It’s a hit here, with long lines at the cinemas and stellar reviews by critics and Allociné spectateurs alike. With US reviews mostly very good as well and having liked other films I’d seen by the director, David Fincher (e.g. ‘The Social Network’ and ‘Zodiac’, though not ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’), I figured this one would be a safe bet. The verdict: It’s certainly entertaining and holds one’s attention for the entire 2 hours 20 minutes but is overrated. It does not merit the praise that has been bestowed on it. The pic is, as NY Post critic Lou Lumenick aptly put it in his mixed review (one of the handful), “empty and ultimately unsatisfying.” First—spoilers to come!—, the marriage of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) was not credible. They may have been physically attracted to one another and had mind-blowing sex but, apart from that, their relationship was a big nothing (and his initial pick up banter when they first met at the cocktail reception was 100% Hollywood cliché). They were an uninteresting, one-dimensional couple, despite both being professional writers at prestigious New York magazines. Secondly, on Amy willingly leaving her life in NYC to accompany Nick back to his bumfuck Missouri hometown where she would then be bored out of her mind, and despite her being the one in the couple who had the money and fame—who wore the pants, as it were: I’m sorry but this was simply not believable. Thirdly, Amy’s diabolical caper—which is what the movie is all about—was preposterous. One would think she’d have found it so much easier to simply divorce the wanker, take her money (she did have a prenup, as one learns), and move back to New York, rather than concoct a crazy Rube Goldberg scheme in which something could obviously go wrong (though had she taken the simpler way out, there would have been no movie). Okay, so she was a psycho, but still… And the bedroom scene at the luxurious hideaway villa, where she dispatches her creepy high school ex à la Norman Bates, drenches herself with blood, and which is not washed off at the hospital… Ouf! Fourthly, on Nick’s affair with his ditzy student—Nick teaching a writing course on the side at the local community college—, i.e. the college prof bonking a hottie half his age from one of his classes: As I’ve written elsewhere (here, scroll down), this only happens in movies. Fifthly, the ending is both unsatisfying and puzzling, raising the question as to what it’s supposed to mean and how to interpret (possible answer: wait for the sequel, ‘Gone Girl 2’).

Now there were a few good things about the pic. E.g. the supporting cast was first-rate, particularly Nick’s sister (Carrie Coon) and the detective (Kim Dickens) (though I thought Affleck and Pike were merely okay). The media circus around Amy’s disappearance was also great satire of the us et coutumes of American cable TV news. And, as I’ve already said, the pic held one’s attention malgré tout. But that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor. It is a film that may be seen, but that may also be skipped.

Here’s brief mention of other American films seen over the past few months.

A Most Wanted Man: I’ll see any geopolitical thriller about radical Islamists and Western intelligence agencies that gets halfway decent reviews—as this one did—, and particularly if it stars Philip Seymour Hoffman (his very last film). And if it has a Chechen-Russian angle to boot, that makes it that much more interesting. This one—directed by the Dutchman Anton Corbijn, entirely set in Hamburg, and which is actually a US-German-British production—was entertaining enough but I gave it no thought after leaving the theater. A week later I had to go on to the Internet to recall its name and what it was about (and I do not have premature Alzheimer’s). In other words, the pic was, for me at least, not memorable. In an exchange on social media, a friend who saw it remarked on how cinematic adaptations of John Le Carré’s novels tend not to work too well. I agreed. And this one is a case in point.


Night Moves: This indy pic, by Kelly Reichardt—who directed the fine ‘Meek’s Cutoff‘—, opened in France a full month before it did in the US, which sometimes happens. It’s about a community of baba cool, ecologically militant, urban transplanted organic farmers in Oregon, a few of whom become radicalized in their opposition to the construction of a dam in their area, decide to carry out an act of eco-terrorism, and how it all goes very wrong. Which all goes to show that baba cool écolos are not cut out to be terrorists, as they absolutely do not want to physically harm anybody. It’s a well-done, meticulously paced thriller and with solid performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard. Recommended. Trailer is here.


Short Term 12: This indy pic, set in an L.A. group home for troubled teenagers, is based on the personal experiences of director Destin Daniel Cretton, who worked in such a home himself. The protag, named Grace (Brie Larson), is in her mid 20s, works full-time with the kids, has an outwardly strong personality and imposes her authority, but meets her match with a troubled, turbulent 16-year-old, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who joins the home. As it turns out, Grace had traumatic family experiences similar to those of Jayden’s and which, behind her facade of solidity, rendered her as psychologically fragile as the teenagers in her charge and complicated her romantic relationship with colleague Mason (John Gallagher Jr). It’s a pretty good movie and which received top reviews in both the US and France. It may be seen. Trailer is here.


Only Lovers Left Alive: Jim Jarmusch’s latest. I was a fan of his in his early years (‘Stranger than Paradise’, ‘Down by Law’) but have found him increasingly uneven with time (though I did like ‘Dead Man’ and ‘Broken Flowers’). I would have normally avoided this one, as it’s a vampire film, a genre that I have absolutely zero interest in—if not a downright anti-interest. But I decided I really should see it and for a reason that may strike others as being silly, which is that much of it was shot in Tangier, a city in which I spent two weeks last year and greatly like. I wanted the thrill of seeing on the big screen streets in Tangier I’ve walked on. And as it’s Jarmusch, I figured that it would be offbeat in an interesting way and contain some kind of message or meditation on something. So with some trepidation, I expended two hours of my time and checked it out. The verdict: As of this date it is the worst, most insufferable film I’ve seen this year. Now I won’t say that it’s bad in an objective sense; it was, in view of my tastes and sensibilities, simply bad for me. And also for my wife, who whispered to me after an hour that she had had quite enough and was leaving. I should have accompanied her but decided to sit through it to the end, to subject myself to another hour of cinematic torture—and which was absolutely not compensated for by the few scenes of the Tangier medina, and which were all at night to boot (as were those of Detroit—its bombed out sections—, where it was also set; the entire film was at night; as for its message or meditation, bof; if one is interested in that, see here). But my and wife’s sentiments were clearly not shared by too many others in the packed salle at the UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles multiplex, as there were no other walkouts. And the film did decently at the box office and to top reviews by critics and Allociné spectateurs alike. Chacun son goût. Really.


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Obama is a Republican…


That’s what Bruce Bartlett says, in an essay on The American Conservative website, specifying that Barack Obama is “the heir to Richard Nixon, not Saul Alinsky.” Bartlett, pour mémoire, is a former GOP leading light who has become disillusioned with the party (which, on Twitter, he refers to as “the wanker party”). He explains

In my opinion, Obama has governed as a moderate conservative—essentially as what used to be called a liberal Republican before all such people disappeared from the GOP. He has been conservative to exactly the same degree that Richard Nixon basically governed as a moderate liberal, something no conservative would deny today. (Ultra-leftist Noam Chomsky recently called Nixon “the last liberal president.”)

Bartlett then sets out to prove his argument. Here’s what he has to say on the subject of health care reform

Contrary to rants that Obama’s 2010 health reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), is the most socialistic legislation in American history, the reality is that it is virtually textbook Republican health policy, with a pedigree from the Heritage Foundation and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, among others.

It’s important to remember that historically the left-Democratic approach to healthcare reform was always based on a fully government-run system such as Medicare or Medicaid. During debate on health reform in 2009, this approach was called “single payer,” with the government being the single payer. One benefit of this approach is cost control: the government could use its monopsony buying power to force down prices just as Walmart does with its suppliers.

Conservatives wanted to avoid too much government control and were adamantly opposed to single-payer. But they recognized that certain problems required more than a pure free-market solution. One problem in particular is covering people with pre-existing conditions, one of the most popular provisions in ACA. The difficulty is that people may wait until they get sick before buying insurance and then expect full coverage for their conditions. Obviously, this free-rider problem would bankrupt the health-insurance system unless there was a fix.

The conservative solution was the individual mandate—forcing people to buy private health insurance, with subsidies for the poor. This approach was first put forward by Heritage Foundation economist Stuart Butler in a 1989 paper, “A Framework for Reform,” published in a Heritage Foundation book, A National Health System for America. In it, Butler said the number one element of a conservative health system was this: “Every resident of the U.S. must, by law, be enrolled in an adequate health care plan to cover major health costs.” He went on to say:

Under this arrangement, all households would be required to protect themselves from major medical costs by purchasing health insurance or enrolling in a prepaid health plan. The degree of financial protection can be debated, but the principle of mandatory family protection is central to a universal health care system in America.

In 1991, prominent conservative health economist Mark V. Pauley also endorsed the individual mandate as central to healthcare reform. In an article in the journal Health Affairs, Pauley said:

All citizens should be required to obtain a basic level of health insurance. Not having health insurance imposes a risk of delaying medical care; it also may impose costs on others, because we as a society provide care to the uninsured. … Permitting individuals to remain uninsured results in inefficient use of medical care, inequity in the incidence of costs of uncompensated care, and tax-related distortions.

In 2004, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) endorsed an individual mandate in a speech to the National Press Club. “I believe higher-income Americans today do have a societal and personal responsibility to cover in some way themselves and their children,” he said. Even libertarian Ron Bailey, writing in Reason, conceded the necessity of a mandate in a November 2004 article titled, “Mandatory Health Insurance Now!” Said Bailey: “Why shouldn’t we require people who now get health care at the expense of the rest of us pay for their coverage themselves? … Mandatory health insurance would not be unlike the laws that require drivers to purchase auto insurance or pay into state-run risk pools.”

Among those enamored with the emerging conservative health reform based on an individual mandate was Mitt Romney, who was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002. In 2004, he put forward a state health reform plan to which he later added an individual mandate. As Romney explained in June 2005, “No more ‘free riding,’ if you will, where an individual says: ‘I’m not going to pay, even though I can afford it. I’m not going to get insurance, even though I can afford it. I’m instead going to just show up and make the taxpayers pay for me’.”

The following month, Romney emphasized his point: “We can’t have as a nation 40 million people—or, in my state, half a million—saying, ‘I don’t have insurance, and if I get sick, I want someone else to pay’.”

In 2006, Governor Romney signed the Massachusetts health reform into law, including the individual mandate. Defending his legislation in a Wall Street Journal article, he said:

I proposed that everyone must either purchase a product of their choice or demonstrate that they can pay for their own health care. It’s a personal responsibility principle.

Some of my libertarian friends balk at what looks like an individual mandate. But remember, someone has to pay for the health care that must, by law, be provided: Either the individual pays or the taxpayers pay. A free ride on government is not libertarian.

As late as 2008, Robert Moffitt of the Heritage Foundation was still defending the individual mandate as reasonable, non-ideological and nonpartisan in an article for the Harvard Health Policy Review.

So what changed just a year later, when Obama put forward a health-reform plan that was almost a carbon copy of those previously endorsed by the Heritage Foundation, Mitt Romney, and other Republicans? The only thing is that it was now supported by a Democratic president that Republicans vowed to fight on every single issue, according to Robert Draper’s book Do Not Ask What Good We Do.

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod later admitted that Romney’s Massachusetts plan was the “template” for Obama’s plan. “That work inspired our own health plan,” he said in 2011. But no one in the White House said so back in 2009. I once asked a senior Obama aide why. His answer was that once Republicans refused to negotiate on health reform and Obama had to win only with Democratic votes, it would have been counterproductive, politically, to point out the Obama plan’s Republican roots.

The left wing of the House Democratic caucus was dubious enough about Obama’s plan as it was, preferring a single-payer plan. Thus it was necessary for Obama to portray his plan as more liberal than it really was to get the Democratic votes needed for passage, which of course played right into the Republicans’ hands. But the reality is that ACA remains a very modest reform based on Republican and conservative ideas.

If any Republicans are reading this and disagree with Bartlett on the health care issue, I’d like to hear their objections.

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[update below]

The New York Met’s performance of the opera has gotten numerous Jews and others in the pro-Israel camp all worked up and bent out of shape, even though almost all of those who are protesting the opera’s staging—on account of its putative justifying of terrorism and backhanded antisemtism—haven’t actually seen it. Adam Shatz did see a dress rehearsal of the opera at the Met last weekend, however, and, in a review posted on the LRB blog, has pronounced it to be very good, hardly antisemitic, and that in no way apologizes for terrorism. As far as I’m concerned, if Adam says it is so, that means it is so.

UPDATE: Paul Berman has an essay in Tablet magazine, “Klinghoffer at the Met,” that is worth reading.

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The tragedy of the Congo

Congo David Van Reybrouck

Adam Shatz, who writes excellently on every topic he chooses to write on, has a fine review essay in the latest London Review of Books—at which he is a contributing editor—of prolific Belgian author David Van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, a 600+ page tome that sold over 300,000 copies in its original Dutch version—which is a lot given the number of Dutch-readers in this world—and has won numerous prizes, including two in France, whose French publisher refers to it as “Le livre du Congo, un essai total écrit comme un roman” (and which is akin to the assessment of one Dutch reviewer, who deemed it “More gripping than a novel. The style is casual, yet captivating.”). Adam doesn’t quite describe Van Reybrouck’s book in these terms, presenting it rather as the latest contribution—and an ambitious one—to the already extensive and accomplished literature on the tragic history of that country.

Among the many Congolese tragedies was the short-lived rule and assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Belgian/CIA/et al plot against whom Adam naturally discusses in his essay. À propos, the July-August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs had an article by Stephen R. Weissman entitled “What Really Happened in Congo: The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu.” Weissman, a former Staff Director of the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Africa—and who likely knows the subject of US-Congolese relations better than anyone—, has examined recently declassified documents—Church Commission, State Department—and parliamentary reports from Belgium, which “[paint] a far darker picture [of the role played by the US government in the Congo] than even the critics imagined.” As it happens, the incoming Kennedy administration was considering a reassessment of US policy toward the Congo, leading the CIA station chief in Léopoldville—who was intimately implicated in the plot against Lumumba—to keep his superiors in Washington out of the loop until the Belgians and their Congolese allies carried out the murder.

On the subject of Lumumba, for those who don’t feel like reading about him—and even for those who do—, there’s the 2000 movie, ‘Lumumba‘, by Haitian director Raoul Peck, which I rate as one of the best biopics ever made (or, I should say, that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many). The film, which was shot on location in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, is historically accurate, at least insofar as I understand the history of Lumumba’s life and times (and the scene of the meeting where the decision is made to liquidate him is likely close to the reality of how it happened).

A more recent Congolese film is ‘Viva Riva!’, which I wrote on 2½ years back (and included mention of my own visit there in 2008). This one is fun, entertaining, and not at all political.

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OMG-Ebola-still-Doktor Zoom-Wonkette

[update below] [2nd update below]

Voilà the tagline of a spot-on post by Wonkette blogger Doktor Zoom, “What stupid pointless Ebola freakouts are we having today?” It begins

Now that the first group of people to be exposed to Thomas Eric Duncan — including his fiancée and other members of his family in Dallas — have made it through their 21-day quarantine period without developing the disease themselves, you might think that maybe people might be calming down just a little bit, maybe. But then, maybe you are not a panic-mongering moron, so you may not be typical, you un-American weirdo. Maybe you’re not rushing out to buy flimsy “protective” gear or Vitamin C (or “colloidal silver” to turn your skin blue), but plenty of people are — or at the very least, scammers hope so. And it’s never a bad time to have a good old-fashioned panic over every last rumor and sneeze, like the nice people in Mississippi who pulled their children out of the local middle school when they learned that the principal had recently visited Zambia, which doesn’t even have any Ebola diagnoses, but is very definitely in Africa. Or the timid souls of Strong, Maine, who insisted on turning their town’s name into a possible Twilight Zone locale when they convinced the school board to place an elementary-school teacher on a 21-day leave because he’d been to an educational conference in Dallas. Those monsters should be coming down Maple Street any minute now…

And then there’s this freak-out story from New Jersey, where

The start of school for two students at Howard Yocum Elementary School is being delayed 21 days, Fox 29 reports, because the children recently arrived to the U.S. from Rwanda. Which is in east Africa. Which puts those students approximately 2,600 miles away from the closest West African country with Ebola cases — a distance roughly equivalent to that between Seattle, Washington, and Philadelphia…

And this one, about the good citizens in Beeville, Texas, who

are worried about what they claim is a potential risk of Ebola after 4 new students from West Africa [from Ghana and Nigeria, the latter having had eight Ebola deaths, out of a population of 175 million], enrolled in schools there just this past week.

And now we learn that the Ebola hysteria is shifting the dynamics of the North Carolina senate race and in favor of GOP candidate Thom Tillis, who, in a rally the other day,

sent a deep sigh and a shudder rolling through the crowd of Republican activists with just one word: ­“Ebola.”

Contrast this with France, where there is no particular panic over Ebola, or even great concern, with the exception of Air France personnel working the daily Paris-Conakry flight (yes, Air France is still flying to Guinea; pour l’info, there are 79 flights a week to Paris from destinations in West Africa, compared to 37 to the entire United States—and there has never in history been a direct flight between the US and Guinea or Sierra Leone, and none to Liberia since the 1980s).

Question: Could somebody please explain to me why Americans, in addition to being stupid dumbfucks so ill-informed, are such pussies so fearful? Just asking.

UPDATE: As we learn via MoJo, there are still Americans made of stern stuff

Peter Pattakos spent 20 minutes Saturday in an Akron bridal shop, getting fitted for a tux for his friend’s wedding. Thursday, his friend sent a text message, telling him that Ebola patient Amber Joy Vinson had been in the store around the same time.


Pattakos, 36, a Cleveland attorney who lives in Bath Township, called the health department, which told him to call back if he exhibits any Ebola symptoms. He called a doctor, who told him not to worry.

“I didn’t exchange any bodily fluids with anyone, so I’m not worried about it,” he said. “I’m much more likely to be mistakenly killed by a police officer in this country than to be killed by Ebola, even if you were in the same bridal shop.”

Tout à fait.

2nd UPDATE: The Onion has an informative map 🙂 “Tracking Ebola in the US.”

Aasif Mandvi_Ebola

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