Good government begins at home, and we’re fresh out of it

There are two organizations here in DC that don’t get as much attention as they deserve and not nearly as much money as they need. They’re called the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), and their mission is to work with local partners all over the world on behalf of the Democratic (NDI) and Republican (IRI) Parties (though I should stress that they are generally not highly partisan organizations) to help build democratic (small ‘d’) political and civic institutions in countries that are still struggling to bring about free elections and full citizen participation in the political process. Their efforts cover a lot of ground: get out the vote drives, government transparency initiatives, election monitoring, civic education, initiatives to bring women into the political process, etc., but a very important part of what they do is to help establish functioning political parties. George Washington’s warnings about the dangers of excessive partisanship are worth remembering, but the fact is that democracies work much better when there are well-established, well-organized political coalitions that can contest elections on more or less equal grounds. Elections should be about ideas, and none, or even worse, only one, of a country’s political parties can effectively get its message out to the public, then elections get decided entirely on bases (tribal allegiance, bribery, personal charisma) that are not conducive to sustainable democracy.

As far as I’m concerned NDI and IRI should be given whatever resources they need to be in as many places as humanly possible, because we see the effects of non-existent or poorly-developed political institutions all the time. It would have been immeasurably better for Egypt if its secular liberals weren’t such an utterly disorganized mess, so that when Mubarak was finally overthrown they could have contested the subsequent elections with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood instead of being beaten on grounds that were at least as much logistical as they were ideological. Tayyip Erdogan  in Turkey, whose ideological inclinations are in the same conservative/Islamist vein as Morsi’s and who has been the target of large-scale protests in recent months, benefits greatly from the fact that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is much better organized than the fractured, squabbling secular opposition (though Turkey’s well-established democratic institutions limit the extent to which Erdogan can move in the kind of majoritarian direction that Morsi did). What would have happened in 1979 if the secular half of the Iranian Revolution had been as well-organized as the religious half, or had a figure to rally around with the same kind of credibility that Khomeini possessed? I don’t know, but it’s certainly an interesting what-if.

Anyway, I mention the NDI and IRI because I’m starting to think that their next major project should be building a second functional political party here in the US, because we only have one at this point. The only difference is that in our case the collapse of one of our two parties hasn’t led to an ineffective and disorganized opposition getting steamrolled by the ruling party; instead, it’s led to the formation of a tightly-formed cult of pure nihilism that brooks no dissent and will tolerate no deviation from its demands. It has no ability to effectively contest elections or win ideological arguments on the merits, but it has been able to exploit flaws in our political system that had never really been considered before, probably because America’s founders never figured that a rump group within a minority party would so fully commit itself to manufacturing a total breakdown in the governmental process.

Functional political parties are by definition parties that involve themselves in the political process, that try to win elections on the strength of their ideology and plans for the direction of the country. They don’t bend over backwards to exclude groups of voters from the political process in order to improve their chances of winning. They don’t make the drawing and redrawing of absurdly shaped and ideologically safe legislative districts a core part of their electoral strategy. They don’t try to change the rules of elections because they can’t contest them as is. If they do find themselves out of power, they still participate in the process; they don’t use whatever levers they have to try to prevent the government from functioning at all. They accept, at a minimum, that elections have consequences, and they don’t spend outrageous amounts of time and energy in doomed attempts to undo legislation that has been legally passed by the legislature, signed into law by the president, fully adjudicated at the highest levels, and ratified by an electorate that easily returned that president to office. They don’t threaten to literally shut down the government over and over and over again. They certainly don’t threaten to cause the country to default on its loan obligations unless their ridiculous list of demands (this is, remember, the opposition party, not the party in power, and an opposition party that in the last election actually lost seats in the one legislative chamber it controls) is met, as though acting to maintain the country’s creditworthiness were a great concession on their part.

This is not how a modern country is supposed to operate, lurching from one temper tantrum to another with the threat of a government shutdown, or a debt default, or both never more than a couple of months away. It remains to be seen how long this country can survive it. We’re about to face a government shutdown followed immediately by a debt default, and if you think the Republican rump isn’t crazy enough to go through with both, or that the shutdown will somehow excise the crazy that has permeated the GOP for more than 5 years now, and thus preempt a default, then I’d love to know what medications you’re on and where I can get them. It’s gotten to the point where Republicans are wondering why the president will negotiate with theocrats but not with them:

…and all they’re doing is pointing out that the theocratic government of Iran is less dogmatic and more open to reasonable dialogue than the Republican House Caucus.

Instead of trying to rig electoral systems or invalidate the results of fairly contested elections, functional political parties try to win the next election, and see their platform implemented as a result. The Republican Party has given up trying to win a fairly contested election and has gone all-in on trying to rig the system or, failing that, using every trick it can find to punish Americans for not electing them. There’s a name for that kind of thing: a protection racket. The GOP has reached the point where its campaign pitch to voters might as well be, “Say, this sure is a nice country you got here. Be a shame if something was to happen to it.” So let’s shut this whole Republican thing down and get NDI and IRI in here to build us an opposition party that will actually participate in governing this country instead of spending all its time working on ways to crash it, OK?

The enemy of my enemy is… (Syria and Iran)

Jim White at emptywheel wonders if Jabhat al-Nusrah is about to become “the next MEK.” MEK, if you’re unfamiliar, is a left-wing Iranian revolutionary/terrorist group that calls itself the “People’s Mujahedin,” or Mujahedin-e Khalq (hence MEK). It originated in the 1960s as part of the leftist opposition to the Shah, but in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, when it became clear that the clergy, not the communists, were going to be taking power, began to oppose the Islamic Republic. MEK was designated a terrorist group by the United States in 1997, mostly for its role in 1970s violence against the Shah and a plot in the 1990s to attack the Iranian mission to the UN, but that designation was removed last year. The US had for some time considered the members of MEK to be “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions, and they are subject to harsh treatment in Iran. However, they also allegedly dish out harsh treatment of their own in, for example, the prison camps they’ve been accused of running in Iraq, and they’ve been called a “cult” for the somewhat disturbing way the organization is run. You can imagine, if you like, that we finally removed their terrorist designation because we wanted to help them in their struggle against the Iranian regime, but in reality what happened is that MEK hired a small army of very high-profile lobbyists–major DC players like Rudy Giuliani, Tom Ridge, Wesley Clark, Bill Richardson, Andy Card, Ed Rendell, Louis Freeh, Howard Dean, and Evan Bayh–to burnish their credentials for them.

White sees the beginnings of a similar PR rehabilitation for Jabhat al-Nusrah:

Toward the end of the New York Times story on this development, we see the al Nusra group being described as less radical than the new kid on the block, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS):

Further complicating the picture is the rise of the new Qaeda franchise, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — or ISIS, which has established footholds across northern and eastern Syria with the intention to lay the foundations of an Islamic state.

In recent months, it has supplanted Al Nusra Front as the primary destination for foreign jihadis streaming into Syria, according to rebels and activists who have had contact with the group.
Its fighters, who hail from across the Arab world, Chechnya, Europe and elsewhere, have a reputation for being well armed and strong in battle. Its suicide bombers are often sent to strike the first blow against government bases.

But its application of strict Islamic law has isolated rebels and civilians. Its members have executed and beheaded captives in town squares and imposed strict codes, forcing residents to wear modest dress and banning smoking in entire villages.

Because there already have been clashes between ISIS and al Nusra, I would not be at all surprised by an effort being organized to claim that those al Nusra groups don’t really mean their sworn allegiance to al Qaeda, especially since so many of the groups within that alliance previously were already described as our own moderates. Will al Nusra become the next MEK?

I agree there are similarities here, but selling Jabhat al-Nusrah as the “acceptable if imperfect” opposition to a more-hated enemy (and “enemy” here could be Assad, could be ISIS, or could be both, I guess) is going to be a lot tougher than it was with MEK. First of all it’s important to understand ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah share the same end-goal, an Islamist-ruled Syria with strong ties to al-Qaeda. They differ in two areas: leadership, in that al-Nusrah’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani won’t submit his to ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s control, and timing, in that al-Nusrah seems to be focused first on ousting Assad and then on establishing an Islamic state under their control, and is willing to work with other groups (not Kurds, though) to get rid of Assad (their participation in this joint statement supports this idea), while ISIS seems intent on creating the Islamic state (or statelets) now, then taking care of Assad after. From an American perspective, then, there’s no real daylight between these groups that would make one acceptable and the other not, and we are not about to start legitimizing ISIS when there are other strategic interests to protect (hint: “ISIS” stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”). In addition, there is a massive difference between Jabhat al-Nusrah, an Islamist group with well-publicized links to al-Qaeda, and MEK, which not only has no ties to al-Qaeda but is not extremist/fundamentalist at all (they’re leftists, which ordinarily is enough to get the US government to hate your rotten guts, but in this case “leftie” is preferable to “Islamic fundie”). Can you imagine the DC luminaries (or “luminaries”) I mentioned above going to bat for an al-Qaeda affiliate that wants to turn Syria into a fundamentalist Islamic state? Not so much.

On exiles and expats, and why nobody really likes the Syrian National Coalition

A lot of attention is being paid to a joint statement made yesterday by thirteen Syrian rebel groups, who formally rejected the authority of the Syrian National Coalition, the (mostly self-proclaimed, although the US and Arab League, among others, recognize them as legitimate) “government-in-exile” awaiting Assad’s overthrow from their headquarters in Istanbul (there’s been talk of moving back into Syria, but for some strange reason they don’t seem all that interested in going back there just now). The groups, who jointly called for an Islamic state in Syria rather than one governed by the more secular SNC, all fall on the “religious” end of the “religious-secular” spectrum in the rebel coalition (which isn’t really coalescing so much right now), and several (most prominently Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham, perhaps the two largest jihadi rebel groups) had already rejected the SNC’s control. However, there are a couple of groups among the 13, particularly Liwa al-Tawhid, which has led the rebellion in the crucial city of Aleppo, that had previously accepted the SNC’s authority or were at least biting their tongues about it. NRO.com declared that the groups had “abandoned” the SNC, CBS informed us that the factions “reject [the SNC’s] authority,” and there was this:

How did this joint statement come about, and is it really all that earth-shattering? Let’s talk. Continue reading

At the intersection of innumeracy and technological illiteracy…

…we find Ari Fleischer:

Can I make a suggestion to the various cable news and Sunday show bookers who are always itching to get Ari Fleischer on to talk about whatever? Next time you feel that urge, try this guy instead:

"...134...135...136...that's 136! One-hundred thirty-six characters! AH AH AH AH AH AH!

“…134…135…136…that’s 136! One-hundred thirty-six characters! AH AH AH AH AH AH!”

Islamic History, Part 11: The Qurʾan

Islamic History Series

There’s a strong argument to be made that a series on Islamic history should begin with a look at the Qurʾan. European travelers and commentators, from the first reports of a new Arabian movement in the seventh century until the mid-20th century at least, often used some variation of the term Muhammadanism to describe the faith, and Muhammadan to describe its adherents, analogizing these terms from “Christianity” and “Christian.” But equating Christianity’s Christ to Islam’s Muhammad gets Islam fundamentally wrong in a way that might have been explainable as ignorance a few centuries ago but that is willfully designed to offend today. Muhammad is a messenger, a bringer of new revelation and new law to his people and to the world at large, but he is entirely human. Muhammad’s death, and there’s no question for Muslims that he is dead, did not challenge his validity or role in the way that Jesus’ crucifixion must have challenged the belief that he was the chosen Jewish Messiah. No one is waiting for Muhammad to return to herald the End of Days (Shi’a are waiting for the Hidden Imam, and Sunnis are actually waiting for Jesus, technically). What makes Muhammad the exemplar of the holy life is that there’s nothing inherently divine about him, nothing inherent about him that separates him from other people.

The appropriate analogy, if we have to make one, between Christianity and Islam is not Christ:Muhammad, it’s Christ:Qurʾan. The Qurʾan is the divine made earthly for the salvation of mankind. The Qurʾan is the uncreated, eternal Word of God, akin to the Logos of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, only for Muslims the Word didn’t become flesh, it came to dwell among us through one man’s preaching and the recording of that preaching by his followers. The New Testament has Jesus performing many miracles to demonstrate his divine provenance, but for Muslims the Qurʾan is the miracle. It defines Islam the way that Christ’s death and resurrection defines Christianity. It is the centerpiece of the religion.

Continue reading

Today in peons oppressing the wealthy

Forbes magazine has long been on the front lines of the daily struggle for US American millionaires and billionaires to escape their near-constant brutalization at the hands of minimum wage workers, welfare recipients, and the poor in general. But recently they’ve scored two direct hits in the war for (billionaire) equality.

Most recently they published a piece called “Give Back? Yes, It’s Time For The 99% To Give Back To The 1%” (you can tell that Forbes articles are written by important rich people because they spend the extra money To Capitalize Every Word In The Title) by Harry Binswanger, and I know what you’re thinking here, “You mean THAT Harry Binswanger?”

Binswanger

Thank goodness it’s not the other Harry Binswanger. That guy is a total dick.

For those of you who are not even familiar with THAT Harry Binswanger, rest assured that he is Right because he “defend[s] laissez-faire capitalism, using Ayn Rand’s Objectivism,” so obviously he must be Right, that is just Science.

Be warned, poors and/or salaried workers! Harry Binswanger is bringing the fight for social justice (for billionaires) to your doorstep! He’s not taking any more of your systemic repression lying down:

For their enormous contributions to our standard of living, the high-earners should be thanked and publicly honored. We are in their debt.

Here’s a modest proposal. Anyone who earns a million dollars or more should be exempt from all income taxes. Yes, it’s too little. And the real issue is not financial, but moral. So to augment the tax-exemption, in an annual public ceremony, the year’s top earner should be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Yes, goddamnit, a thousand times yes. Our nation’s millionaires have toiled in the shadows far too long. What’s the point of even being a CEO these days, apart from the 230:1 ratio of CEO to median worker pay? I mean, less than 15 years ago that ratio was almost 385:1, which, OK, maybe that’s something, but then America went socialist or whatever and suddenly we’re down at 230:1? Why should any rich person even get out of bed for 230 times the average worker’s salary? No, we as a people must do more to aid the oppressed (billionaires). Sure, exempt them from all income taxes, but that’s definitely too little, probably since the tax burden on the richest US Americans keeps going down. The Congressional Medal of Honor? Well, that’s kind of a military honor, and while I completely agree that people who make a lot of money are way more important than people who go fight wars and protect us and stuff, it still probably can’t happen. There is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but try convincing Comrade Kenya to put down his copy of Das Kapital long enough to give an award to some real US Americans, amirite?

What about the Congressional Gold Medal? This is a possibility, but have you seen the list of Congressional Gold Medal recipients? You’d be asking our precious successful money-makers to share an award with beatnik poets, long-haired musicians, foreigners, non-Christians, professional athletes, and blacks. Ew, thanks but no thanks, right? No, we’re going to need a new award. Let’s call it…The BinswangerTM!

The Binswanger preliminary design

THE BINSWANGERTM preliminary design

A couple of weeks back, Forbes struck another solid, though less-publicized, blow against our oppressive salaried employees, with a piece called “Who Wastes The Most Time At Work?” by Cheryl Conner (FULL DISCLOSURE: I can’t be sure that this piece was written by THAT Cheryl Conner, but please give it a chance nonetheless). Cheryl is concerned that salaried workers, who I think we can all agree are pretty much rolling in it these days, are stealing from those who can least afford it: billionaires and large corporations.

A year ago my friend Russ Warner, CEO of ContentWatch, collaborated with me on the article Employees Really Do Waste Time At Work. The interest in that article continues to grow to this day. Today he shared his updated perspective. The verdict: We’re even worse off than before.

Yes, my friends, the post-apocalyptic hellscape that is the underpaid and overworked occasionally checking Facebook at work is upon us.

When you hire employees, you expect them to be efficient and do the job right. The employees who seek you out most generally ramped up their resumes, interviewed, and wanted their job. So why, once they get the job, do they slip into habits of time wasting and self-entitlement?

Yes, if there’s anything wrong with this once-great nation, it’s obviously the sense of self-entitlement into which so many salaried employees have slipped.

According to recent data from Salary.com, employees give the following responses:

·      34% of employees say they are not challenged
·      34% say they work long hours
·      32% say there’s no incentive to work harder
·      30% are unsatisfied with work
·      23% are just plain bored
·      18% say it’s due to low wages

As dismal as these reasons may be, all of them contribute to a lack of productivity. With no drive to work hard, employees simply plod through their work unfocused and unmotivated and get little done each day. Menial tasks become accepted as a way to fill time.

Sure, worker productivity, and corporate profit, actually continues to rise while wages have been stagnant for as long as anybody can remember, but is that supposed to matter? It’s not about how much our long-suffering billionaires are overworking their worker drones right now, it’s about how much more they could be overworking them if those greedy workers weren’t literally stealing the bread gold-plated iPhones right out of the hands of the real victims here, the children (of billionaires).

It gets worse when you find out what people are wasting the company’s time on:

Another distraction that is a huge issue from the standpoint of workplace liability is pornography viewing at work. Nielsen has found that 25 percent of working adults admit to looking at pornography on a computer at work. And 70 percent of all online pornography access occurs between 9 AM and 5 PM.

Obviously our–wait, no, that is pretty bad, seriously. Look, the idea that we’re suffering a crisis of distracted, unproductive workers at a time when worker productivity is rising is ridiculous, so by all means check your Facebook or whatever, but for Christ’s sake, don’t look at porn at the office, OK? Other people aren’t going to want to see that. Exhibit a little self-control, maybe?

Anyway, good on Forbes for standing up for those (billionaires) who can’t stand up for themselves. Maybe someday we’ll manage to build a society where the billionaire occupies the same exalted socio-economic perch as, say, the minimum-wage worker, but until then we can only keep fighting the good fight.

Дурак меня, не можете ведитесь снова

No wonder George W. Bush saw something in Vladimir Putin’s eyes those many years ago…

He went on to suggest, however, that discriminating against gay people is important for maintaining population growth:

Putin says while some European nations have allowed gay marriages, “the Europeans are dying out … and gay marriages don’t produce children.

He added that heterosexual couples should have more children to reverse a population decline, saying “let us make our own choice, as we see it for our country.”

They both seem to be cut from the same intellectual cloth, so to speak.

"Also, I am very interested to be knowing more about pies, and the ways in which their heights may be increased"

“Also, I am very interested to be knowing more about pies, and the ways in which their heights may be increased”