Saturday, June 29, 2013

Italy's Brigitte Bardot?

I happened to stumble on a Vanity Fair slideshow of photographs of Claudia Cardinale, introduced as follows:
Once Upon a Time in Italy

The 1960s produced some of the most iconic actresses of modern film—figures that we still revere for their style and nonchalant beauty. Though lesser known in the States, Claudia Cardinale embodied all the wow factors of a 60s starlet: big hair, cat eyes, a seamless hourglass figure, and a raspy, unforgettable voice. This year marks the 50th anniversary of three of her most memorable movies: The Leopard, Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, and The Pink Panther. To celebrate, we savor the moments of the Mediterranean beauty at her best.
On the Vanity Fair website the slideshow was tagged "Italy's Brigitte Bardot", and that analogy strikes me as perceptive.  Both of them, in their prime, projected a certain specific type of striking and entrancing beauty, with a deceptively 'natural' and spontaneous-seeming style, that made them genuinely iconic figures ... even though neither of them, truth be told, had that many major roles in that many great movies.

(Claudia Cardinale did appear in Fellini's "8½", but that was really a cameo role which used her image without asking her to do much acting.  And the fact that this writer has to reach for "The Pink Panther" to fill out her list of "memorable" movies says it all.)  When the Martian archeologists and cultural historians sift through the rubble of our civilization someday in the future, they will certainly conclude that Bardot had a much bigger impact, but they should pay a little attention to the Claudia Cardinale cult, too.

Anyway, it's worth looking at the photos.  People who were young during the 1960s might (or might not) find they induce nostalgia ... and people born after the 1960s can treat them as a bit of cultural history (and, perhaps, wonder what all the fuss was about).

—Jeff Weintraub

The Magdalene Laundries – The Irish Republic comes to terms with some shameful legacies of its not-very-distant theocratic past

The BBC report below, from earlier this year, dealt with some recent developments in the ongoing process of recognizing and making amends for a historic scandal.

The story of the Magdalene Laundries helps to highlight some of the darker aspects of the record of the Irish Republic.  For more than a half-century after Ireland (minus Ulster) gained its independence in 1922 (first as a Free State still quasi-affiliated with Britain, then as a full-fledged Republic), the Catholic Church had a privileged role and exercised massive influence on Irish society and politics.  Among other things, the state and the Church collaborated in enforcing conservative social norms, including a fairly repressive and punitive treatment of female sexuality.  The incarceration, abuse, and economic exploitation of young women in the Church-run system of Magdalene Laundries were among the results.  The increasing public recognition that this was, indeed, a shamefully abusive system is one sign of the way that Irish society has been breaking free from the most egregiously theocratic elements in its past.

 (Another sign is the increasing willingness of Irish public opinion to criticize the Church harshly over its cover-ups of clerical sex abuse, and the willingness of government officials to pursue legal actions against perpetrators—even in the face of strong institutional resistance from the Church.)

=> A parting thought:   In a western European context, perhaps, one might be tempted to take the less-theocratic direction of this evolution for granted.  For various deeply rooted historical reasons, 20th-century Ireland was more priest-ridden than most other western European countries, but one could argue that it's now joining the more general anti-clerical and secularizing trends in western Europe.  However, leaving it at that would be sociologically superficial (and, dare I say it?, excessively Eurocentric).

It's worth reminding ourselves that during the past three or four decades, the trends in some other parts of the world have been moving strongly in the direction of more theocratic politics.  In fact, Christian Caryl's recent book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century correctly identifies the increasing significance of politicized religion as one of the most important developments of world history during this period. (And if anyone hadn't noticed this phenomenon already, that would suggest that they have been living in a cave, without newspapers or TV or an internet connection, for the past 40 years.) In this respect, Ireland is getting more integrated into European exceptionalism.

—Jeff Weintraub

BBC News
February 5, 2013
Irish PM: Magdalene laundries product of harsh Ireland
By Shane Harrison

          [JW:  To see the video, click here.]

Mr Kenny said the laundries had operated in a "harsh and uncompromising Ireland," but he stopped short of a formal apology from the government.

About 10,000 women passed through the laundries in the Irish Republic between 1922 and 1996, a report has has revealed.

The laundries were Catholic-run workhouses that operated in Ireland.

Mr Kenny expressed his sympathies with survivors and the families of those who died.

He added that the report found no evidence of sexual abuse in the laundries and that 10% of inmates were sent by their families and 19% entered of their own volition.

The inquiry chaired by Senator Martin McAleese found 2,124 of those detained in the institutions were sent by the authorities.

There will be a debate in the Irish parliament in two weeks time giving members time to read the 1,000-page document.

State involvement

Girls considered "troubled" or what were then called "fallen women" were sent there and did unpaid manual work.

In 2011, the UN Committee Against Torture called on the Irish government to set up an inquiry into the treatment of thousands of women and girls.

In response, the Irish government set up an inter-departmental committee, chaired by Senator Martin McAleese, to establish the facts of the Irish state's involvement with the Magdalene laundries.

Survivors and representative groups, and the religious congregations, co-operated with the departmental committee.

Senator McAleese's inquiry found that half of the girls and women put to work in the laundries were under the age of 23 and 40%, more than 4,000, spent more than a year incarcerated.

Fifteen percent spent more than five years in the laundries while the average stay was calculated at seven months.

The youngest death on record was 15, and the oldest 95, the report found.

Some of the women were sent to laundries more than once, as records show a total of 14,607 admissions, and a total of 8,025 known reasons for being sent to a laundry.

Statistics in the report are based on records of eight of the 10 laundries. The other two, both operated by the Sisters of Mercy in Dun Laoghaire and Galway, were missing substantial records.


Women were forced into Magdalene laundries for a crime as minor as not paying for a train ticket, the report found.

The majority of those incarcerated were there for minor offences such as theft and vagrancy.

A small number of the women were there for prostitution.

The report also confirmed that a police officer could arrest a girl or a woman without warrant if she was being recalled to the laundry or if she had run away.

Amnesty International has called for former residents of Magdalene laundry-type institutions in Northern Ireland to come forward to report their experiences to the Historic Institutional Abuse Inquiry.

Amnesty spokesman Patrick Corrigan said: "Those who suffered abuse as children are now eligible to come forward to the inquiry, recently established by the Northern Ireland Executive, and we would encourage them to consider doing so."

Some former inmates rejected Enda Kenny's apology and demanded a fuller and more frank admission from government and the religious orders involved.

Picture from BBC drama sinners about life in a Magdalene laundry
(Picture from a BBC drama about life in a Magdalene laundry)

• Originally termed Magdalene Asylums the first in Ireland was opened in Dublin in 1765, for Protestant girls

• First Catholic home was founded in Cork in 1809

• Envisaged as short-term refuges for 'fallen women' they became long-term institutions and penitents were required to work, mostly in laundries on the premises

• They extended to take in unmarried mothers, women with learning difficulties and girls who had been abused

• The facilities were self-supporting and the money generated by the laundries paid for them

• Between 1922 and 1996 there were 10 such laundries in the Republic of Ireland

• Many Irish institutions, such as the army, government departments, hotels and even Guinness had contracts with Magdalene laundries

• The women toiled behind locked doors unable to leave after being admitted and while the laundries were paid, they received no wages

• The last Magdalene asylum in Ireland, in Waterford, closed in 1996

• The congregations which ran them were the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, the Religious Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd

Friday, June 28, 2013

Does anyone really want constructive criticism?

One of the most forthright and illuminating treatments of this subject that I have encountered over the decades is this cartoon that my friend Steve Cornell once shared with me.  That punch-line (in the second panel) captures what people are often thinking, whether or not they actually come out and say it.  —Jeff Weintraub

A world-wide gay rights map

Max Fisher of the Washington Post put together a useful map comparing the legal status of homosexuals and homosexuality in different places around the world, ranging from countries that criminalize homosexuality (and even execute people for it) to countries that grant gay men and lesbians full legal equality—including, in some cases, a recognition of same sex marriages.  I don't have the expertise to vouch for the map's accuracy in every detail, and I do have a few small quibbles (e.g., Israel should be at least blue-ish), but it looks generally right.  (You can click on the map to enlarge it.)

From a world-historical perspective, one striking feature of this map is how many countries do not treat homosexuality as a crime—those are the gray and blue countries on the map.  For example, not a single country in Europe, North America, or South America now criminalizes homosexuality, and the same is true for the world's two most populous countries, India and China.  A mere half-century ago the situation was very different in that respect (and if it were up to Antonin Scalia, it would still be different in some parts of the US).  The spreading acceptance of legal recognition for same-sex marriages (or civil unions), which is a very recent development, is also pretty striking.
[Update 12/23/2013:  Up until recently, homosexuality was legally permitted in India—not by legislation, but because of a 2009 court ruling that struck down an anti-homosexual law dating from the colonial era.  But on December 11 the Supreme Court of India reversed that earlier ruling and upheld the criminalization of homosexuality.  What happens next remains to be seen.]
At the other end, there are 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal, and in some of those countries (like Uganda) there is a strong push to make the penalties harsher, not milder.  In 5 of those 76 countries (Mauritania, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran), homosexuals are subject to the death penalty.  The countries that criminalize homosexuality are overwhelmingly in Africa and the Middle East (including under that rubric Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekhstan), with some others in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean.  (In sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa stands out as a conspicuous exception to the regional norm.)

It's worth adding that this map refers only to the formal legal codes.  Even in some countries that are colored gray because homosexuality is not technically illegal, in practice being identified as a homosexual can still get you into trouble with the police or with violent homosexual bigots (including, but definitely not limited to, religious fanatics)—and if people attack or murder homosexuals, especially in the context of family-related honor killings, they are often not likely to face much legal difficulty or social disapproval.  (Similarly, there are countries where slavery is technically illegal, but still exists in practice.)  And even in South Africa, where the formal legal equality of gay people is complete, violent homophobia is not uncommon and the "corrective rape" of lesbians in order to "cure" them seems to be an increasingly frequent practice.

(One question does come to my mind as I ponder this map.  I know that back in the 19th and 20th centuries, some legal codes that criminalized male homosexuality simply ignored lesbianism.  That still seems to be true in some places today.  In Jamaica, according to the relevant Wikipedia entry, "Sexual acts between men are punishable with up to ten years imprisonment. Sexual acts between women are legal."  I wonder whether that distinction still holds anywhere else.  By the way, the fact that lesbianism is not formally illegal in Jamaica is far from the whole story; in practice, being an openly lesbian woman in Jamaica can be quite dangerous.)

For Fisher's own discussion of his map and some of its implications, see here.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  It may also be worth adding a few points about the touchy subject of the relationship between legalized homophobia and the Islamic world (a subject to which Fisher alludes only indirectly).

As the map makes clear, not all countries that formally criminalize homosexuality are Muslim-majority countries, and not all Muslim-majority countries criminalize homosexuality.  The ones that do not criminalize homosexuality include the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, Indonesia, as well as the most economically advanced, Turkey.  On the other hand, one can't help noticing that outside of sub-Saharan Africa, the countries where homosexuality is a criminal offense are almost all Muslim-majority countries. (There are some scattered exceptions to that pattern in the Caribbean, in South Asia, and in Southeast Asia.  The two most notable exceptions, Sri Lanka and Burma, are Buddhist-majority countries that happen to have persecuted Muslim minorities.  But aside from Sri Lanka and Burma, those exceptions are all countries with fairly tiny populations.)  Right now, all the countries where homosexuality is a capital crime are Muslim-majority countries.  And in a number of Middle Eastern countries now undergoing political and ideological upheaval, the situation for gay people is likely to get worse before it gets better (presuming, perhaps a bit Whiggishly, that it will eventually get better).

Incidentally, in some non-Muslim-majority countries where being openly gay or lesbian is especially dangerous, or where there is strong support for making homosexuality a capital crime, Christian-fundamentalist versions of theocratic politics are sometimes part of the picture.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

In the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to cripple the Voting Rights Act, the majority barely even tried to pretend that its ruling was based on any logic other than blatant right-wing judicial activism

Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 10.56.18 AM.png(Registration figures from Chief Justice John Roberts's opinion, reproduced here.)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, called the decision an act of "hubris" that "errs egregiously by overriding Congress’ decision.”  "Hubris" doesn't seem like an excessively strong word.  The majority brushed aside the fact that the Voting Rights Act had not merely been re-authorized by Congress as recently as 2006, but overwhelmingly re-authorized.  It also, perversely, turned the successful record of the voting Rights Act (see the chart above) into a reason for crippling the key enforcement provision that has helped make it successful..
“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” she wrote. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclear­ance is no longer needed. … With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.”
The substantive result is a blow to democracy.  But what legal or constitutional reasoning did the majority use to justify its decision?  The more carefully one considers that reasoning, the more flimsy, tendentious, and unconvincing it looks.  Various analysts have been demonstrating this, but for the moment let's just highlight two of them, Kevin Drum and Richard Posner

=>  Kevin Drum compared Tuesday's decision with the Court's decision in another voting-rights case in 2008:
In 2008, the Supreme Court decided Crawford vs. Marion County Election Board. Previously, the state of Indiana had passed a statute requiring voters to show photo ID at polling places, something that was likely to disproportionately hurt black turnout. Indiana's justification for the law was its interest in preventing voter fraud, something that they were unable to demonstrate even a single case of. Nonetheless, the court upheld the law under this reasoning:
If a nondiscriminatory law is supported by valid neutral justifications, those justifications should not be disregarded simply because partisan interests may have provided one motivation for the votes of individual legislators.  [Etc. ....]
Today, the Supreme Court decided Shelby County vs. Holder, an attack on the "preclearance" requirement of the Voting Rights Act. In 2006, Congress renewed the Act for 25 years, and after considering voluminous evidence decided not to make changes to the formula for deciding which states require preclearance for changes to their voting regulations and which ones don't. Nonetheless, the court overturned the law [....]

Note the difference. In Crawford, where the target is a law that's likely to disenfranchise black voters, the bar for constitutionality is almost absurdly low. Regardless of what the real motives of the lawmakers are, or what the likely effect of the law is, it's valid if the state merely asserts a "neutral justification." That's it.

But in Shelby County, where the target is a law designed to protect black voters, the bar for constitutionality is suddenly much higher. Even though the Fifteenth Amendment gives Congress the unconditional right to enact legislation designed to prevent states from abridging the right to vote "on account of race [or] color," the court ruled that, in fact, Congress is quite fettered after all. It cannot decide to simply renew a law that it thinks is working well. Instead, it's required by the court to update its formulas to satisfy the court's notions of what's logical and what isn't.

So here's your nickel summary. If a law is passed on a party-line vote, has no justification in the historical record, and is highly likely to harm black voting, that's OK as long as the legislature in question can whomp up some kind of neutral-sounding justification. Judicial restraint is the order of the day. But if a law is passed by unanimous vote, is based on a power given to Congress with no strings attached, and is likely to protect black voting, that's prohibited unless the Supreme Court can be persuaded that Congress's approach is one they approve of. Judicial restraint is out the window. Welcome to the 21st century.
=>  OK, Drum is a left-of-center Democrat.  But here is an assessment from the right-of-center federal judge, law professor, and (implausibly prolific and wide-ranging) public intellectual Richard Posner.  Posner has never been much of a stickler for precedent and proceduralism, but the way that the majority simply conjured up the alleged basis for its decision out of thin air was too much for him:
Shelby County v. Holder, decided Tuesday, struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act (the part requiring certain states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to obtain federal permission in advance to change their voting procedures—called “preclearance”) as violating the “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” of the states. This is a principle of constitutional law of which I had never heard—for the excellent reason that [...] there is no such principle.  [....]

It’s possible that the federal government would subject a state to unequal treatment so arbitrary and oppressive as to justify a ruling that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s very impressive opinion (in part because of its even tone), at a length (37 pages) that, remarkably, one would not like to see shortened—marshals convincing evidence that the reasons Congress has for treating some states differently for purposes of the Voting Rights Act are not arbitrary, though they are less needful than they were in 1965, when the law was first enacted.

That evidence—the record before Congress—should have been the end of this case. For apart from the spurious principle of equal sovereignty, all that the majority had on which to base its decision was tenderness for “states’ rights.” One doubts that this actually is a primary value for any of the justices. The same conservative majority that decided Shelby had rejected a more cogent argument for states’ rights when it held three years ago in McDonald v. City of Chicago that the Second Amendment—a provision of the Constitution designed to secure state autonomy—specifically, the right of states to maintain their own little armies, the militias, against federal abolition—creates rights against states’ limiting gun ownership. It seems that the court’s regard is not for states’ rights in some abstract sense but for particular policies that a majority of justices strongly favors.

The majority opinion in Shelby acknowledges that racial discrimination in voting continues, but notes that the situation has improved since 1965 and that the procedures in the current Voting Rights Act do not make a clean fit with the current forms and pattern of discrimination. Ordinarily however a federal statute is not invalidated on the ground that it’s dated.  [....]  And the criticisms of the statute in the majority opinion are rather tepid. That’s why the court’s invocation of “equal sovereignty” is an indispensable prop of the decision. But, as I said, there is no doctrine of equal sovereignty. The opinion rests on air.

Emily [Bazelon] calls Chief Justice Roberts a “stealth conservative” whose “genius” is to conceal his political agenda.  That’s a roundabout way of saying that a modest, pedestrian opinion may be more effective than one that, being forthright and candid, thrusts its inadequacies in the reader’s eye. But the real key to “stealth” jurisprudence is patient, crafty incrementalism (no conservative monopoly on that strategy, of course). It’s a strategy illustrated by Shelby’s predecessor, the 2009 decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, heavily cited in Shelby. That was a case in which Chief Justice Roberts, again writing for the majority, criticized the same part of the Voting Rights Act, and invoked the same imaginary doctrine of “equal sovereignty,” yet without actually invalidating anything, and so avoiding a dissent by the liberal justices. So now in Shelby he could quote extensively from his opinion in Northwest Austin as if to imply that really there was nothing new here—just a small and logical next step.

Was that a disreputable tactic, or merely a clever one?
=>  So, since it's hard to see a convincing constitutional or procedural justification for this decision, our assessment of it has to center on its substantive content and probable consequences.  In this respect I think Kevin Drum, again, cut to the heart of the matter:
Ten years ago I might have had a smidgen of hope that this would turn out OK. There would be abuses, but maybe not horrible, systematic ones. Today I have little of that hope left. The Republican Party has made it crystal clear that suppressing minority voting is now part of its long-term strategy, and I have little doubt that this will now include hundreds of changes to voting laws around the country that just coincidentally happen to disproportionately benefit whites. There will still be challenges to these laws, but I suspect that the number of cases will be overwhelming and progress will be molasses slow. This ruling is plainly a gift to the GOP for 2014.
And, in fact, Republican state governments got started immediately.  But perhaps this might backfire on them eventually?  Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Pope says anti-semitism is "not Christian"

According to a report in the Jewish Chronicle:
Pope Francis condemned “all manifestations of antisemitism” during his first meeting with official Jewish representatives since his election.  [....]

[T]he Pope said: “Because of our common roots, a true Christian cannot be antisemitic.” [....]
I don't want to sound ungracious or ungrateful, but I'm afraid there is a great deal of historical evidence from the past two millennia that casts some doubt on that last assertion—unless, of course, one defines what it means to be a "true" Christian in a fairly specific and demanding way.

But I certainly appreciate the sentiment, even if it's more aspirational than strictly empirical.  And I guess the Holy Father is a more authoritative judge of what being a "true Christian" entails than I am.  So I would be delighted to see other Christians go along with him on this matter.

Pax vobiscum,
Jeff Weintraub

The Supreme Court strikes down DOMA and lets Proposition 8 expire

          (The legal progress of same-sex marriage since 1970, from here.)

This has been a busy and complicated week for the Supreme Court, with two very significant 5-4 decisions.

On Tuesday the 5 Republican Justices struck a blow against democracy by gutting a key section of the Voting Rights Act.  (This was done cleverly, since they didn't straightforwardly throw out the protections embodied in the VRA, which was overwhelmingly re-authorized by Congress as recently as 2006, but issued a less obviously drastic ruling that effectively crippled those protections.)

Then today a 5-4 majority voted to invalidate the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition for same-sex marriages performed in states that allow them.  With a slightly different line-up of votes, the Court also declined to overturn a California court ruling against Proposition 8, which had banned gay marriage in the state.  These rulings add up to a major victory for the acceptance and institutionalization of marriage equality.  And, more generally, they probably represent a significant milestone in the long-term process by which the rejection of bigotry and discrimination against gays and lesbians is becoming part of the mainstream consensus.  In that respect, the transformation of public attitudes and legal norms over the past generation, in the US as well as other western societies, has been remarkable—one might almost say revolutionary.  I would describe this, without irony or equivocation, as a case of genuine moral progress.

In both of those 5-4 Supreme Court decisions, as in many other recent decisions, Justice Anthony Kennedy proved to be the swing vote.  The reasoning behind Kennedy's position in the DOMA case raises interesting issues (which have already been worked over by a lot of analysts), and perhaps I'll add my own two cents to that discussion sometime soon.

For the moment, I just want to quote from the reactions of Andrew Sullivan, an early and persistent advocate of putting marriage equality (which he presented as a fundamentally conservative reform project) on the agenda and pursuing it as a central political goal.  The idea looked quixotic at the beginning, and was derided and attacked from many ideological directions, but in the end it seems to have worked.  Sullivan deserves to feel some special satisfaction today:
Some final thoughts after so many years of so many thoughts. Marriage is not a political act; it’s a human one. It is based on love, before it is rooted in law. Same-sex marriages have always existed because the human heart has always existed in complicated, beautiful and strange ways. But to have them recognized by the wider community, protected from vengeful relatives, preserved in times of illness and death, and elevated as a responsible, adult and equal contribution to our common good is a huge moment in human consciousness. It has happened elsewhere. But here in America, the debate was the most profound, lengthy and impassioned. This country’s democratic institutions made this a tough road but thereby also gave us the chance and time to persuade the country, which we did. I understand and respect those who in good conscience fought this tooth and nail. I am saddened by how many failed to see past elaborate, ancient codes of conduct toward the ultimate good of equal human dignity. I am reminded of the courage of a man like Evan Wolfson who had the vision and determination to change the world.

But this happened the right way – from the ground up, with argument, with lawsuits, with cultural change, with individual courage. I remember being told in the very early 1990s that America was far too bigoted a place to allow marriage equality – just as I was told in 2007 that America was far too bigoted a place to elect a black president. I believed neither proposition, perhaps because I love this country so much I knew it would eventually get there. I trusted the system. And it worked. From 1989 (when I wrote the first case for this on the cover of a national magazine) to today is less than a quarter century. Amazing, when you think of how long it took for humanity to even think about this deep wound in the human psyche.  [....]
A good day for all of us.

—Jeff Weintraub

The Republicans' IRS scandal evaporates

There are still valid questions to be raised about the procedures used by some IRS employees to assess whether some activist and pressure groups qualified for tax-exempt status on the basis of their claims to be non-partisan and/or non-political.  And the whole system of campaign financing and its regulation is a mess, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court's act of blatant right-wing judicial activism in its Citizens United decision.  (That's the real scandal.)   But the attempts of Republicans and right-wing propagandists to blow this incident up into a Watergate-type mega-scandal, especially their assertions (or insinuations) that this was a campaign of political disruption and intimidation aimed specifically at right-wing Tea Party groups, have turned out to be unfounded.

Given all the news coverage of this pseudo-scandal, I suspect that many people are still not aware that it has turned out to be fundamentally bogus.  So it might be worth sharing a few explanations of the facts that have come out so far.

=> Let's start with one specific aspect of this pseudo-scandal, the right-wing claims that this was all a "Nixonian" conspiracy masterminded from the White House with partisan intent.  At the beginning, that hypothetical scenario didn't seem totally out of the realm of possibility, at least in principle.  But as various investigations and examinations have proceeded, including the Republicans' own hearings in the House, it turns out that there is precisely zero evidence to support this line of speculation, and a good deal of evidence that refutes it.  On Friday Jonathan Chait put this in a fairly mild way (Mitch McConnell Realizes IRS Scandal Is Over:
Mitch McConnell delivered a speech today at the American Enterprise Institute to officially signal that the IRS scandal has entered its post-fact phase. When the IRS first revealed that its Cincinnati office had attempted to enforce its nonprofit laws using a search function that disproportionately impacted conservatives, Republicans were certain it must have come from the White House. They were going to follow the facts. But all of the facts point in the same direction, which is that the Obama administration had nothing to do with it at all. That was the conclusion of the agency’s inspector-general report, as well as the House Oversight Committee’s own interviews, which the Republican majority tried to suppress and which (when the Democrats released them) showed the operation was an independent, well-intentioned effort to enforce the law led by an IRS official who happens to be a conservative Republican.

McConnell’s speech is an attempt to reframe the issue in a way that it can survive the utter absence of incriminating facts. One method he employs is to flip around the burden of proof:  [....]

McConnell also argues that the scandal is larger than facts about illegality or misconduct — “what we’re dealing with here is larger than the actions of one agency or any group of employees.” By "larger," McConnell means the scandal is just the same nebulous suspicions they have always had about Democrats running the government:
The attacks on speech that we’ve seen over the past several years were never limited to a few Left-wing pressure groups or the DISCLOSE Act. They extend throughout the federal government, to places like the FEC, the FCC, HHS, the SEC, and as all Americans now know — even to the IRS. These assaults have often been aided and abetted by the administration’s allies in Congress.
The “Disclose Act” is a proposed measure that would require unregulated political groups to publicly disclose their donors. Back when campaign finance reformers were trying to actually put limits on outside donations, McConnell was a fierce advocate of this idea. Since the Supreme Court killed spending limits, disclosure has become the best reformers can hope for, and McConnell has now turned against it and indeed portrays it as a sinister Nixonian attempt to suppress free speech.

The belligerent and borderline-paranoid tone of McConnell’s speech today is a kind of covered retreat, signaling the IRS scandal’s turn into a vague trope that conservatives use with other members of the tribe, the way liberals liked to say “Halliburton” during the Bush years, to signal some dark beliefs they don’t need to back up.
=>  But Chait's account, which is narrowly focused on the question of White House involvement, dramatically understates the extent to which the whole Republican scandal-narrative has unraveled.  On Tuesday Andrew Sullivan laid out the full picture ... which includes the embarrassing discovery that the errant IRS procedures were not exclusively, or even primarily, targeting right-wing groups.  Sullivan also wondered how Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fox News, and the rest of the right-wing propaganda apparatus will respond to the fact that their scandal has evaporated.  Will they acknowledge that they went over the edge and said a number of things that now look pretty foolish and irresponsible?  Don't hold your breath.
It was the legitimate one: not the Benghazi bullshit or a surveillance program checked by Congress and the courts, whose secrecy was the scandal. This was the accusation that Barack Obama was Richard Nixon, ordering the IRS to target conservative – and only conservative – groups in their legitimate attempt to check on whether “social welfare” groups actually were just campaign machines. To give a sense of how far the Republican partisans went with this – completely unproven – allegation, let’s leave Darrell Issa behind, shall we? He’s such a creep he’d say anything anyhow to advance his own career.

Let’s go to one Peggy Noonan, once a relatively sane, if lugubrious, columnist for the WSJ. She’s been running around yelling Watergate for a while now, and just accused the president of an impeachable attempt to use the power of government to destroy his political foes:
One of the great questions about the 2012 campaign has been “Where was the tea party?” They were not the fierce force they’d been in the 2010 cycle, when Republicans took back the House. Some of us think the answer to the question is: “Targeted by the IRS, buried under paperwork and unable to raise money.” …

Think about the sheer political facts of the president’s 2012 victory. The first thing we learned, in the weeks after the voting, was that the Obama campaign was operating with a huge edge in its technological operation—its vast digital capability and sophistication. The second thing we learned, in the past month, is that while the campaign was on, the president’s fiercest foes, in the Tea Party, were being thwarted, diverted and stopped.

Technological savvy plus IRS corruption. The president’s victory now looks colder, more sordid, than it did.
And so she reaches back to her “Romney-Will-Win” pre-election mindset. He did. But it was stolen! Now check out how far the WSJ’s James Taranto has run with this Nixonian meme (yes, the right is now anti-Nixon, when it comes in handy):

Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 10.22.18 AM

Notice, en passant, that the WSJ is now indistinguishable both in party line and total hysteria from Fox News and talk radio (not that it’s ed-page was anything but extreme, but at least it was smart). Now check out the latest details from the IRS about 501 (c) 4 and 501 (c) 3 entities:
The instructions that Internal Revenue Service officials used to look for applicants seeking tax-exempt status with “Tea Party” and “Patriots” in their titles also included groups whose names included the words “Progressive” and “Occupy,” according to I.R.S. documents released Monday. … One such “be on the lookout” list included medical marijuana groups, organizations that were promoting President Obama’s health care law, and applications that dealt “with disputed territories in the Middle East.” … “Common thread is the word ‘progressive,’ ” a lookout list instructs. “Activities appear to lean toward a new political party. Activities are partisan and appear as anti-Republican.” Groups involved more generally in carrying out the Affordable Care Act were also sent to the I.R.S. for “secondary screening.” And “occupied territory advocacy” seemed subject to the most scrutiny of all.
So we begin to see the actual truth (and where it usually is, Page A14): the IRS was rightly scrutinizing a whole slew of new groups claiming to be all about “social welfare” and checking to see how politicized they were – on both sides. Most of those on the progressive side were seeking 501(c)3s – not 501(c)4s so the parallel isn’t exact. But it sure suggests nothing of any malign nature here. Par exemple:
Ameinu, which on its website calls itself a “community of progressive Jews,” received its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status on May 28 — five years after applying. IRS agents peppered the group with 18-page surveys and lingered for months without follow-up, Hiam Simon, national director of Ameinu, said in a telephone interview. He said he was looking at a 4-inch thick folder of Ameinu’s communications with the IRS. “I think they were painting with a broad brush, with worries about Middle East ties to terrorism,” he said of the IRS. “I don’t think it was caused by malice. Ignorance is too strong a word, too. They simply weren’t nuanced enough or careful enough.”
They’re not perfect, but this is the critical fact:
Werfel said his review of the agency’s actions hasn’t found evidence of intentional wrongdoing or involvement from outside the IRS. That’s consistent with the findings so far of congressional investigators.
So time’s up, Peggy. Put up or shut up – especially with the outrageous smear that the president was behind this. The IRS was trying to flush out bogus non-political groups on both sides. That’s what we pay them to do. Since the targeting used classic code words on right and left, it may have been unwise as an administrative policy, but it sure wasn’t illegal or scandalous. And you can see why, given the volume of applications, these might have been shortcuts to expedite the process.

I think this scandal just evaporated into thin air.

Please let me know if you find any right-wing outlets that have pushed this untrue story that are actually reporting on this new IRS data (this attempt by NRO is lame or needs further clarification); and whether – God help us – they are apologizing and correcting. Over to you, Mr O’Reilly. And Ms Noonan.

Where’s your Richard Nixon now? Breaking into Republican Party offices?
Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Monday, June 24, 2013

Robert Worth on sectarian polarization in Syria and the tragedy of the Syrian Alawites

Ibtisam Ali Aboud (with her son Jafar) says that her husband, a Syrian Alawite, was killed by his Sunni friend.

I have been planning for a while to blog on this topic, which is one dimension of the larger Syrian catastrophe, and I may get around to that in the next few days.

Meanwhile, I urge everyone to read Robert Worth's powerful  and insightful piece in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "The Price of Loyalty in Syria".  I expect that most readers will find it illuminating, and any decent person who reads it thoughtfully should also find it moving and terrifying..

(For a little more historical background on Syria's ethno-sectarian mosaic, the socio-political system of what might be called 'despotic multi-culturalism' that is now imploding so spectacularly in Syria, and the place of the Alawite minority in that picture ... see here.)

—Jeff Weintraub

Matt Yglesias and David Frum concisely explain why objections to the 1964 Civil Rights Act by Ron Paul & Rand Paul are wrong and effectively racist

Those kinds of arguments are not restricted to Rand Paul and his father Ron Paul, but are common among various tendencies on the right, including those that call themselves "libertarian".  And some people are too ready to take them seriously, or even to find them plausible and half-convincing. So it's worth taking the trouble to knock them down, since they happen to be wrong and pernicious.

For a broader discussion of Ron Paul's links to the whole neo-Confederate ideological swamp,which his son Rand Paul has tried to fudge but has not really abandoned, I refer readers back to my 2008 post on Why Ron Paul condemns the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln. By itself, a historical  argument that the side fighting for freedom in the American Civil War was the Confederacy, that Lincoln was a tyrant, and that the Union victory was a disaster for American liberties might seem to be of limited significance for current political concerns.  (Like arguments, perhaps, that Stalinism was really "progressive" on balance and has been unfairly misunderstood?)  But when the same perspective also leads people to claim that key provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were unnecessary, harmful, oppressive, and unconstitutional, then it's clear that this perspective has a lot of practical relevance.

Frankly, the kind of "libertarian" perspective for which Obamacare and Social Security and the 1964 Civil Rights Act are tyrannical but slavery was no big deal is, in my humble opinion, difficult to take seriously on either moral or logical grounds.

=> Here is Yglesias's post from Friday, In Defense of the Civil Rights Act—Against White Supremacy. As he noted, it was actually part of a series of exchanges, but it can stand quite well on its own:
I've been in a long and winding multi-front Twitter exchange over the question of Senator Rand Paul and race. The specific impetus was my assertion that Paul's opinion that democracy "gave us Jim Crow" relates to his white supremacist inclinations. Inclinations that I think are evidenced by, for example, his previous stated opposition to key provisions of the Civil Rights Act. That prompted a debate with some competing strands of conservative punditry, with Charles C.W. Cook taking the view that Paul is right and the Civil Rights Act is bad while David Freddoso thinks that the Civil Rights Act is good but associating Civil Rights Act opponents with racism is slander.

So to return to the beginning, there's no plausible meaning of "democracy" in which democracy gave us Jim Crow.
[JW:  And here Yglesias makes a crucial point that is too often overlooked, so pay close attention.]
Even if you take democracy to relatively narrowly mean majoritarian voting procedures this doesn't work. In the period between the Civil War and World War II, African-Americans were a majority in quite a few southern states and would have been a large—and potentially decisive—voting bloc in the others. If, that is, they were allowed to vote. But instead of voting, African-Americans were disenfranchised via a systematic campaign of terrorist violence. The same campaign that gave us the Jim Crow social system. The point of the Civil Rights Act, including its provisions regulating private businesses, was to smash that social system. And it succeeded. It succeeded enormously. The amazing thing about retrospective opposition to the Civil Rights Act is that we know that it worked. It didn't lead to social and economic cataclysm. In fact, the American south has done quite a bit better since the smashing of white supremacy than it was doing previously.

I think the Cook/Paul view that we should somehow regret this and pretend that everything would have worked itself out on its own is bizarre.

But it's not only bizarre. It seems to me that it necessarily has to stem from not taking the interests and history of African-Americans seriously to even be comprehensible. The "respectable" thing to say about people like Paul or the late Barry Goldwater, I suppose, is simply that they are ideologues rather than people driven by some kind of racial animosity. But I think it's selling free market ideology short to suggest that government regulations meant to undo the outcome of a century long campaign of terrorist violence is just a straightforward consequence of a general support for free enterprise. You need to combine that ideology with a sincere indifference to black people's welfare to reach that conclusion, just as you need to combine Paul's ideology with genuine indifference to the history of race in America to reach Paul's conclusion about democracy's relationship to Jim Crow.
=> In April the dissident conservative Republican David Frum, who has made it his business to tell inconvenient truths to his fellow Republicans, explained those points quite forcefully in the course of a review essay on Joseph Crespino's political biography of Strom Thurmond, Strom Thurmond's America.  Frum's piece is very intelligent and illuminating, and I recommend reading it in full.  But for present purposes, here are the key passages:
"How did the party that elected the first black U.S. senator, the party that elected the first 20 African-American congressmen, become a party that now loses 95 percent of the black vote? How did the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?"

Rand Paul posed that question in his speech last week at Howard University.

Coming from him, it does seem a singularly naive question. He might have found an important piece of the answer at, where he will find this statement by his own father on the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, explaining the Texas congressman’s continuing opposition to that law:
[T]he forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government unprecedented power over the hiring, employee relations, and customer service practices of every business in the country. The result was a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society. ...

Rand Paul is right of course that the Republican party is the historic party of civil rights; the Democratic party the historic opponent. In 1964 as in 1875, it was Republican votes that enacted civil rights laws; Democratic votes that overwhelmingly opposed them.

[JW: To be more precise, in 1964 it was Southern Democrats who voted overwhelmingly against the Civil Rights Act, along with Southern Republicans, whereas Northern Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favor, even more overwhelmingly than Northern Republicans. It's just that in 1964 there weren't that many Southern Republicans in Congress.]

But those Democrats who voted “no” in 1964 lost the struggle for control of their party. And the single most ferocious of the Democratic “no” votes, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, would soon switch to become a Republican himself, leading to the realignment of the American party system that Rand Paul lamented at Howard.  [....]

Goldwater’s platform issues were anti-communism and anti-statism. Yet we make a mistake if we forget, or choose to forget, that he not only opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but also the Brown v. Board of Education decision and its subsequent enforcement by the Eisenhower administration.

Goldwater explained his stance by invoking his libertarian philosophy. In the words of his famous book, The Conscience of a Conservative:
[T]he federal Constitution does not require states to maintain racially mixed schools. Despite the recent holding of the Supreme Court, I am firmly convinced - not only that integrated schools are not required - but that the Constitution does not permit any interference whatsoever by the federal government in the field of education. … It so happens that I am in agreement with the objectives of the Supreme Court as stated in the Brown decision. I believe that is both wise and just for negro children to attend the same schools as whites, and that to deny this opportunity carries with it strong implications of inferiority. I am not prepared, however, to impose that judgment of mine on the people of Mississippi or South Carolina, or to tell them what methods should be adopted and what pace should be kept in striving toward that goal. That is their business, not mine.
In assessing those words, begin with this one fact. Until the 1920s, both Mississippi and South Carolina had black majorities. In the year Goldwater published, blacks made up more than 40% of the populations of the two states. In what sense can we say that “the people” of a state have adopted a decision if the majority or near-majority of those people have by violence and threat of violence been excluded from participation in that decision? Goldwater probably never thought very hard about that question, but the logical implication of his words is that their author - or at least the author’s expected audience - did not consider black people as belonging to “the people.” [....]

Back when Larry Summers was President of Harvard he made himself unpopular in some circles by pointing out, correctly and pertinently, that certain positions can be anti-semitic in effect without necessarily being anti-semitic in intent. (Fans of Mearsheimer & Walt and BDS, please take note.) The same is true for white-supremacist anti-black racism.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Friday, June 21, 2013

One Brazilian's thoughts on the present discontents in Brazil (Fernanda Dobal)

More echoes of 1968? During the past week there has been a wave of protests in Brazil, beginning with relatively small-scale incidents São Paulo that escalated into massive demonstrations there and in other cities across the country. At first I thought it was curious, given Brazil's size and importance, that they didn't seem to be getting a lot of attention in the US, by comparison with the protest wave in Turkey. But whether or not that impression was correct at the beginning, this unexpected upheaval in Brazil is certainly getting increasing international attention as time goes on, including prominent coverage in the New York Times here and here.

From their article on Tuesday:
Protesters showed up by the thousands in Brazil’s largest cities on Monday night in a remarkable display of strength for an agitation that had begun with small protests against bus-fare increases, then evolved into a broader movement by groups and individuals irate over a range of issues including the country’s high cost of living and lavish new stadium projects.

The growing protests rank among the largest and most resonant since the nation’s military dictatorship ended in 1985, with demonstrators numbering into the tens of thousands gathered here in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and other large protests unfolding in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Curitiba, Belém and Brasília, the capital, where marchers made their way to the roof of Congress.

Sharing a parallel with the antigovernment protests in Turkey, the demonstrations in Brazil intensified after a harsh police crackdown last week stunned many citizens. In images shared widely on social media, the police here were seen beating unarmed protesters with batons and dispersing crowds by firing rubber bullets and tear gas into their midst. [....]

Such broad protests are relatively uncommon in Brazil, with some Brazilian political analysts describing what appeared to be a political culture more accepting of longstanding high levels of inequality and substandard public services than citizens in some neighboring countries in South America.

“The dangerous news announced on the streets, the novelty that the state tried to crush under the hooves of the horses of São Paulo’s police, is that at last we are alive,” the writer Eliane Brum said in an essay about the protests. [....]

A large number of protesters in São Paulo on Monday were university students, but middle-aged professionals and parents with children in strollers were also present. The scene seemed at once furious and festive. [....]
Yesterday, as reported by the Washington Post:
Police and protesters fought in the streets into the early hours Friday as an estimated 1 million Brazilians swarmed through more than 80 Brazilian cities in the biggest demonstrations yet against a government viewed as corrupt at all levels and unresponsive to its people.

President Dilma Rousseff called an emergency meeting of her top Cabinet members for Friday morning, more than a week after the protests began. Rousseff, who has a standoffish governing style, has been almost entirely absent from the public eye, making only one statement earlier in the week that peaceful protests are part of the democratic process.

But the protests that raged across Brazil late Thursday and into Friday were spiked with violence as people vented anger over a litany of complaints, from high taxes to corruption to rising prices. [....]
=> On Wednesday I was among those who received some e-mailed reflections on the protest wave in Brazil from Fernanda Dobal, a Brazilian former student of mine who is currently living and working in New York City. Her reactions are a little complicated, but so far she finds what is happening in Brazil right now inspiring. Fernanda agreed to guest-post her thoughts here, so you can read them below.

—Jeff Weintraub

Fernanda Dobal (June 19, 2013)


By now you have most likely encountered in the media descriptions of the situation in Brazil. What started as a R$0.20 (0.09 USD) price increase in the São Paulo public transport fare has escalated to a loud, aspiringly unignorable cry for better governance. I feel compelled to write and share a brief overview, so that you can partake in a moment that is important, beautiful, and frightening. (Especially if your Portuguese is a little rusty!)

Last Thursday, a protest of an estimated 10,000 became violent when riot police turned on the crowd with tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. A journalist was shot in the eye. Another was potentially blinded, and a third report (not covered by the media, but from a friend back home), is that a girl died. It has recently been shared between unofficial Brazilian channels that the gas explosives were long expired, making them more toxic than they should be. This is a small but poignant example of the inadequacies exhibited by the executive branch.

Yesterday (Monday), the situation became much more hopeful, as a social-media led movement grew not just in São Paulo, but also in many other cities in the country and internationally. The official estimate is that only 65 thousand people marched in São Paulo and around 200-250 thousand total around the country. Countless posts are refuting these claims, including a blog where people are posting arresting photographs that betray the official estimate:

I am proud to say many of my friends and family joined the peaceful manifestation, which involved throwing flowers and chanting for the many many causes that are coming together. Causes which include:

-The fare increase and general inefficiency of public transportation
-PEC 37, a bill that seeks to remove the investigative powers of the Public Ministry (If it is approved, only the police will hold such power.)
-Backlash against the public spending in infrastructure for the World Cup and the Olympics
-Education Reform

In Rio, some of the protests again turned violent, resulting in unnecessary vandalism. In Brasília, people marched on the capital and literally climbed onto the Congress building, but the movement remained peaceful. In New York, we did our small part by supporting with a group of about 200 in Union Square. Demonstrations in capital cities around the world have shown similar support.

Today, some protests continue, albeit less peacefully than yesterday's. It is hard to say exactly what will happen moving forward. As the causes fight for attention and people split with their interests, momentum suffers. Some people are riding this as a fad, and some politicians are using it to look good (including President Dilma, who has "embraced" the protests and grievances against her government in international media), and of course, the local media outlets distort according to their individual agendas. Nonetheless, the force present is undeniable, and many of my compatriots feel pride for the unity that has transpired.

You have probably heard me say at some points that I don't see myself returning to live in Brazil. That's because I never expected things to change (and part of me remains quite cynical), but hope for the possibility of change has not manifested itself in such a big way as far as I can remember. I think it is this hope that is behind much of what is happening. I urge you to stay tuned, because as citizens of the world this is relevant. So much has been said about social media, but we really are experiencing something new, and it is fascinating.


ps:  If you want more information, the NYT blog has assembled a series of interesting videos on the topic, including news coverage, interviews, and video logs.  Here.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Was the Iranian election a referendum on Iran's nuclear diplomacy?

Omid Memarian (along with other analysts) suggests that it was, at least in part.
Hasan Rowhani’s victory is indicative of the Iranian leadership’s rejection by the Iranian people and its failure to sell its hardliner policies, including the nuclear program that has led Iran to a series of crippling sanctions.
This interpretation is contestable, and some may find it overstated, but it's certainly not implausible. A great deal will depend on the extent to which Iran's ruling elite, especially Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, share this interpretation of the election results—and how they decide to respond. I have seen a lot of commentary, and even gotten some e-mail messages, about how Obama should respond.  Yes, that's an interesting question that may prove to be of practical significance. But the more crucial question, which really needs to come first, is how Khamenei will respond.

It so happens that Rohani was in charge of international negotiations about Iran's nuclear program a decade ago, during failed reformist presidency of Mohammed Khatami (though Rohani was not in the reformist camp himself).  The most hard-line of the hard candidates, Saeed Jalili, was in charge of nuclear negotiations with the so-called P5+1 (the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) since 2007.  In addition to being the point man for a rigidly uncompromising negotiating strategy, Jalili became one of the figures who epitomized a more general orientation of intransigence and hostile confrontation in Iran's dealings with the west, especially the US.

During that time, an increasingly solid international consensus has coalesced against Iran on the nuclear issue, leading to effective economic sanctions with severely damaging effects on the Iranian economy.  In combination with the Iranian government's own economic mismanagement and the effects of the global recession, the consequences have made life more difficult for the Iranian population.  One big question was whether Iranians would put all the blame for sanctions and their effects on outsiders, above all the US—as they've been urged to do by the Iranian regime and its western apologists—or whether they would recognize that their rulers shared a lot of the blame.  Well, it seems that most Iranian voters did the latter.

As Max Fisher wrote in the Washington Post just before the election:
Whomever Iranians pick in today’s presidential election, and regardless of whether or not their votes are accurately counted, the winner will not be in charge of the country’s controversial nuclear program or its foreign policy. Those are controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But the nuclear issue and its ramifications are being debated more openly in this election than you might think and are, presumably, on voters’ minds as they head to the polls. Who they choose might give some insights into how Iranians feel about the nuclear development carried out in their name.

The candidate who has most emphasized confrontation over compromise on the nuclear issue is Saeed Jalili, the country’s lead nuclear negotiator and a staunch hard-liner who is thought to be Khamenei’s preferred candidate. As a nuclear negotiator, Jalili has refused to compromise and stonewalled Western efforts to reach an agreement. As a candidate, he’s said not only that Iran should refuse to compromise with the West but that it is in fact winning against the foreign powers, its strategy of stubborn resistance successful. And some people in Iran seem to share that view.

“Open your eyes,” one 20-something Iranian man told a friend who was considering another candidate, according to Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian’s report from Tehran. “Everything we have now is because of Jalili and his courage.”

That Jalili supporter might be more right than he knows. It would be overly simplistic to reduce all of Iran’s problems to a single issue, but the country’s refusal to budge on its nuclear program and the crippling international sanctions that has invited play a big role. Those policies are ultimately decided by Khamenei but Jalili had been a key player in implementing them. Partly as a result, run-away inflation is devastating the middle class, prices on basic necessities are rising and the Iranian health-care system could soon be in crisis.

Jalili, meanwhile, is calling for status quo on the nuclear policy, a refusal to compromise with Western powers and a “resistance economy” that espouses self-sufficiency but has demonstrated little actual success.

When the Jalili supporter said they owed “everything we have” to him, he hit, probably unintentionally, on the degree to which Iranians owe much of their economic and social pains, if not to Jalili directly, then to the confrontational policies he has helped to champion.  [....]
And, in fact, Jalili was explicitly criticized on these grounds by several of the other candidates—not only by Rohani, but also by one of the hard-liners, Ali Akbar Velayati.  What made this public criticism especially remarkable was that everyone knows Jalili was just doing what Khamenei told him to do, so that criticizing Jalili's approach to the nuclear negotiations meant, implicitly, criticizing the Supreme Leader himself.

With what result?  The massive surge of support for Rohani during the last week before the election was based on a combination of many factors, but it seems safe to conclude that popular exasperation with the regime's nuclear policy was one important factor.  A lot of Iranians are clearly fed up with the policy of intransigence and confrontation and the results it has brought in the form of economic sanctions and increasing international isolation.  They used the election to send that message to ruling elite.

The ultimate repercussions of this protest vote remain unclear—which has not stopped many pundits, analysts, and other observers from jumping to premature conclusions which may well turn out to be based on wishful thinking more than anything else. But the implications may turn out to be significant. Among the various commentators I've read, I think Mehdi Khalaji did an especially perceptive and plausible job of spelling out some of the possible implications:
The main theme of Rouhani’s campaign was his critique of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear policy during the last eight years, which led to a series of U.N, E.U. and U.S. sanctions against Iran. Not only were the business community and private sector deeply damaged by sanctions, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s companies and government businesses also came under unprecedented pressure. The current policy left little hope for peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis and, because of sanctions, made the impasse the first concern of many Iranian citizens, both urban and rural.

In the televised debates and his campaign, Rouhani has defended the pre-Ahmadinejad nuclear policy, which he ran from 2003 to 2005. He argued that he succeeded in keeping the nuclear program off the U.N. Security Council’s agenda while also preventing a significant interruption to the program. He said that Iran should change its negotiation pattern, assure the West that it is not after a nuclear bomb and save the economy from sanctions, while letting Iran’s peaceful nuclear program proceed. He described the 2003-04 decision to suspend uranium enrichment for a few months as a way for Iran to prove that the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes while at the same time make progress on the enrichment program during the suspension.

Rouhani’s victory can be interpreted as the success of the West’s policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. Since the start of sanctions, many have doubted whether sanctions are useful, and whether they would change Iran’s nuclear policy, but the 2013 election proved that sanctions deeply affected people’s opinions of the government’s policy of resistance rather than compromise. During the campaign, many of the candidates criticized the resistance approach, which was defended only by current nuclear negotiator Jalili. Even Velayati — who has been regarded as an influential advisor to the supreme leader—criticized Jalili in the televised debate,saying Jalili’s policy harmed Iran and produced zero benefit. [....]
It's worth stopping to re-read that last paragraph.  Thus, Khalaji suggests,
the West now should have more confidence in the negotiations because the Iranian people showed that they are not indifferent to the leverages used against nuclear policy — and indeed the hard-line elite showed it is deeply split over how to proceed on the nuclear front.
But before we get too giddily optimistic, Khalaji points out that we also need to keep some important caveats in mind. Among other things, the criticisms of Jalili by the other presidential candidates focused on the tactical incompetence of his approach to negotiations with the west. So far, there has been no serious open debate about the nuclear program itself.
[O]ne should not forget that Rouhani’s justification for negotiations during the campaign was to relieve the pressure without giving up the program. This means that while the West should approach negotiations with cautious optimism, the West has to remain insistent on Iran having only a peaceful nuclear program that is verifiably far from a nuclear weapons capability.
It's necessary to add that although Rohani looks "moderate" and reasonable by comparison with Ahmadinejad and the candidates he just defeated, and although he wound up as the default candidate for reformist voters, he has no record as a serious reformist. In fact, he has always been very much a man of the system. OK, everyone can evolve. But even if Rohani is able to bring about significant changes in Iran's domestic and international policies—a big if—it remains to be seen how much these will prove to be changes in substance and how much they will be restricted to changes in tone, style, and public-relations strategy. (Though even changes in tone would be a welcome change from the last 8 years.)

Above all, it's important not to forget a crucial point made by Fisher as well as Khalaji:  The person ultimately in charge of both the nuclear program and Iran's foreign policy is not the President, but Supreme Leader Khamenei. And, more generally, all the ultimate levers of power in the system remain in the hands of the un-elected authoritarian/theocratic power structure headed by the Supreme Leader.

So the key questions, really, are whether and how this popular repudiation of hard-line policies will influence Khamenei and the rest of the hard-line power structure.
And of course, Iran’s president does not dominate Iran’s foreign and security policy, which is overwhelmingly set by Khamenei, though the fact that Khamenei allowed Rouhani to win suggests that Khamenei himself may be open to a shift in approach.
Maybe. If Khamenei does respond by allowing Rohani some flexibility, and Rohani and his supporters take effective advantage of that room for maneuver, then that could open up some constructive possibilities. In that case, the US government and other western governments should be prepared to respond appropriately. If, on the other hand, Khamenei and the other hard-liners opt for continued inflexibility, then all this will end with even more frustration and disappointment.

This will be a long game, with big stakes. So stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Ayatollah Khamenei explains the difference between US and Iranian presidential elections

I've just learned from Gene at Harry's Place that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, has a Facebook page. (No, that's not a joke.  It really exists, and appears to be genuine.)  On June 13 Khamenei posted a useful explanation, in graphic form, of the differences between presidential election processes in the US and Iran.

(As Evan Siegel noted in a comment, it's odd that the Iranian side of this comparison doesn't mention the mediating role of the Guardian Council, which needs to approve all aspiring candidates and routinely disqualifies almost all of them.  We might add that women and members of religious minorities are ineligible, and that voters who complain too loudly about stolen elections can get imprisoned, beaten, and sometimes tortured.)

In case you've been wondering who ultimately controls elections in the US, now you know.

—Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Farideh Farhi - Iranians vote for hope and change

What did Friday's presidential election in Iran mean? As I suggested earlier today, I think two of the key conclusions we can draw are that most Iranians want change and that, despite everything, they have not given up on the idea that they can use elections to help bring that change about.

I see that the analysis of the election by Farideh Farhi (below) also makes that case, and she offers an optimistic assessment of the implications. Whether or not that optimism proves to be correct, Farhi's analysis is informative and worth reading. Many of her points strike me as clearly on-target. And even where I find them less convincing, or at least more speculative, they are perceptive and usefully thought-provoking.

Here are a few of Farhi's points I would highlight.

Not only was Rohani's decisive victory in the presidential election a great surprise; the fact that he emerged as the favored candidate of the reformists was also a bit of a surprise.
But the move a few days before the election by reformists and centrists – guided by two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – to join forces and align behind the centrist Rowhani proved successful.  [....]

Khatami in particular had to rally reformers behind a centrist candidate who, until this election, had said little about many reformist concerns, including the incarceration of their key leaders, Mir Hossein Mussavi, his spouse Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karrubi.

Khatami’s task was made easier when Rowhani also began criticising the securitised environment of the past few years [JW: a slightly euphemistic formulation] and the arrests of journalists, civil society activists and even former government officials.  [....]
The massive election turnout shows that Iranians still want to believe that their elections are meaningful, and that voting in elections can help bring about positive change. Perhaps just as significant, the conduct of this election suggests that for Iran's ruling elite, maintaining at least the appearance of meaningful elections remains an important priority.

As I noted in my own discussion, the unusual hybrid structure of the Iranian regime greatly adds to the complexities involved in analyzing Iranian politics. The dominant component of the regime, headed by the Supreme Leader, is un-elected and straightforwardly authoritarian and theocratic, based on Khomeini's distinctive doctrine of the "rule of the jurist". But the regime also includes an elected and representative component, including a Parliament and a President. And despite the rather severe restrictions within which these elections operate and the heavy manipulation to which they are subject, the outcomes are not entirely predictable (unlike, say, the kinds of elections that Communist regimes used to run.)  The tensions built into this hybrid structure have turned out to be considerable. But Supreme Leader Khamenei and the rest of the ruling elite remain committed to maintaining it.  Or, at least, they worry that completely discrediting the elective elements of the regime will undermine its overall legitimacy, so they are apparently willing to take some (limited) risks to avoid the dangers of total public cynicism about elections.
Much of the electorate, disappointed by Iran’s contested 2009 election and the crackdown that followed, was skeptical of the electoral process and whether their votes would really be counted, and they also questioned whether any elected official could change the country’s direction.

Although low voter turnout was the expectation, with the centrist-reformist alliance, the mood of the country changed, with serious debate beginning about whether or not to vote. As more people became convinced, Rowhani’s chances increased. Hope overcame skepticism and cynicism.

The case for voting centred on the argument that the most important democratic institution of the Islamic Republic – the electoral process – should not be abandoned out of fear that it would be manipulated by non-elective institutions and that abandoning the field was tantamount to premature surrender. [....]

The hope that the Iranian electoral system could still be used to register a desire for change was a significant motivation for voters.
In the long run, this continuing hope that elections can be used effectively to achieve reform-within-the-system may or may not turn out to be illusory (as it has so far). But Farhi would prefer to see those prospects in an optimistic light, and that perception might conceivably prove correct.

Farhi also puts an optimistic spin on this election in two other key respects. Given the structures of power within the Iranian regime, will Rohani's election as President actually lead to significant concrete changes in Iran's domestic and international policies? Farhi hopes so (though she adds some cautionary reservations). And, more generally, Farhi suggests that the results of this election add up to "nothing less than a political earthquake" in Iran.

We shall see. Meanwhile, read the whole thing.

—Jeff Weintraub

Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency
June 15, 2013
Iranians Vote for Hope and a Change of Course
Farideh Farhi

HONOLULU, Hawaii, Jun 15 2013 (IPS) - Iran’s Jun. 14 presidential election results, announced the day after voting was held, were nothing less than a political earthquake.

The Centrist Hassan Rowhani’s win was ruled out when Iran’s vetting body, the Guardian Council, qualified him as one of the eight candidates on May 21.

Furthermore, a first-round win by anyone in a crowded competition was not foreseen by any pre-election polling.

Up to a couple of weeks ago, conventional wisdom held that only a conservative candidate anointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could win. Few expected the election of a self-identified independent and moderate who was not well-known outside of Tehran, and few expected participation rates of close to 73 percent.

The expected range was around 60 to 65 percent, in favour of conservative candidates, who benefit from a stable base that always votes.

But the move a few days before the election by reformists and centrists – guided by two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – to join forces and align behind the centrist Rowhani proved successful. It promises significant changes in the management and top layers of Iran’s various ministries and provincial offices.

Rowhani has also promised a shift towards a more conciliatory foreign policy and less securitised domestic political environment.

The centrist-reformist alliance formed when, in a calculated action earlier this week, the reformist candidate Mohammadreza Aref withdrew his candidacy in favour of Rowhani. But the strong support for Rowhani underwriting his first-round win came from an unexpected surge in voter turnout.

Much of the electorate, disappointed by Iran’s contested 2009 election and the crackdown that followed, was skeptical of the electoral process and whether their votes would really be counted, and they also questioned whether any elected official could change the country’s direction.

Although low voter turnout was the expectation, with the centrist-reformist alliance, the mood of the country changed, with serious debate beginning about whether or not to vote. As more people became convinced, Rowhani’s chances increased. Hope overcame skepticism and cynicism.

The case for voting centred on the argument that the most important democratic institution of the Islamic Republic – the electoral process – should not be abandoned out of fear that it would be manipulated by non-elective institutions and that abandoning the field was tantamount to premature surrender.

Reformist newspaper editorials also articulated the fear that a continuation of Iran’s current policies may lead the country into war and instability.

Syria, in particular, played an important role as the Iranian public watched peaceful protests for change there turn into a violent civil war.

The hope that the Iranian electoral system could still be used to register a desire for change was a significant motivation for voters.

Beyond the choice of Iran’s president, the conduct of this election should be considered an affirmation of a key institution of the Islamic Republic that was tainted when the 2009 results were questioned by a large part of the voting public.

The election was conducted peacefully and without any serious complaints regarding its process.

Unlike the previous election, when results were announced hurriedly on the night of the election, the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of conducting the election, with over 60,000 voting stations throughout the country, chose to take its time to reveal the complete results.

Other key individual winners of this election, beyond Rowhani, are undoubtedly former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami who proved they can lead and convince their supporters to vote for their preferred candidate.

Khatami in particular had to rally reformers behind a centrist candidate who, until this election, had said little about many reformist concerns, including the incarceration of their key leaders, Mir Hossein Mussavi, his spouse Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karrubi.

Khatami’s task was made easier when Rowhani also began criticising the securitised environment of the past few years and the arrests of journalists, civil society activists and even former government officials.

Meanwhile, Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose own candidacy was rejected by the Guardian Council, saw his call for moderation and political reconciliation confirmed by Rowhani’s win.

He rightly sensed that despite the country’s huge economic problems, caused by bad management and the ferocious U.S.-led sanctions regime imposed on Iran, voters understood the importance of political change in bringing about economic recovery.

Conservatives, on the other hand, proved rather inept at understanding the mood of the country, failing in their attempt to unify behind one candidate and stealing votes from each other instead.

The biggest losers were the hardline conservatives, whose candidate Saeed Jalili ran on a platform that mostly emphasised resistance against Western powers and a reinvigoration of conservative Islamic values.

Although he was initially believed to be favoured, due to the presumed support he had from Khamenei, he ended up placing third, with only 11.4 percent of the vote, behind the more moderate conservative mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

The hardliners loss did not, however, result from a purge. Other candidates besides Rowhani received approximately 49 percent of the vote overall, and so while this election did not signal the hardliners’ disappearance, it did showcase the diversity and differentiation of the Iranian public.

Rowhani, as a centrist candidate in alliance with the reformists, will still be a president who will need to negotiate with the conservative-controlled parliament, Guardian Council and other key institutions such as the Judiciary, various security organisations and the office of Ali Khamenei, which also continues to be controlled by conservatives.

Rowhani’s mandate gives him a strong position but not one that is outside the political frames of the Islamic Republic. He will have to negotiate between the demands of many of his supporters who will be pushing for faster change and those who want to maintain the status quo.

For a country wracked by eight years of polarised and erratic politics, Rowhani’s slogan of moderation and prudence sets the right tone, even as his promises constitute a tall order.

Whether he will be able to decrease political tensions, help release political prisoners, reverse the economic downturn and ease the sanctions regime through negotiations with the United States remains to be seen.

But Iran’s voters just showed they still believe the presidential office matters and they expect the president to play a vital role in guiding the country in a different direction.