Saturday, March 27, 2010

Living in the future, Egyptian politics section


Steven A. Cook writing in Foreign Policy [thanks to Arabist.net]:

Perhaps more important was the return to Egypt in February of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), after a 12-year absence. ...Foreign news outlets estimated that as many as one thousand Egyptians turned out to welcome him home at Cairo’s airport -- and to implore him to run for president in Egypt’s 2011 elections (a significant number given the government’s record of intimidation and violence).

...
He coyly told the Egyptian and foreign press that he would consider running if the Egyptian government enacted electoral and party reforms to ensure truly free and fair elections. At the same time, he formed a new political organization called the National Front for Change, which encompasses a broad swath of Egypt’s fractious but largely ineffective opposition movement.... The creation of the Front, along with his tantalizing public statements, only amplified the ElBaradei phenomenon. By late February, Egyptian bloggers and journalists were reporting that one thousand people were joining ElBaradei’s Facebook page every ten minutes. This story is surely apocryphal, but it is nonetheless worth noting that ElBaradei currently has 82,069 Facebook supporters, compared to [Egyptian President] Gamal Mubarak’s 6,583.


Image:ElBaradei's Facebook fan page.

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Now the walls say “Long Live Barcelona”.


After extensive travels outside of Baghdad, Nir Rosen reports:

As worldwide attention has returned to Iraq in the run-up to the March 7 elections, a new chorus of worry has emerged, concerned that the corrupt political manoeuvring of some Shiite parties – who have succeeded in banning prominent nationalist and secularist candidates under the thin pretence of de-Baathification – would lead first to a Sunni boycott and then to renewed sectarian violence and war. But just as the dismantling of the Sunni Awakening groups last year failed to produce the disaster many analysts predicted, the results of the election seem unlikely to stoke the embers of a new insurgency.

The continued sectarian exhortations of Iraqi politicians have been met with cynicism by the public, whose support for religious parties has diminished considerably. Iraqis are still “sectarian” to a degree: most Shiites prefer the company of Shiites and Sunnis the company of Sunnis. The vitriol and hatred of the war have faded, but a legacy of bitterness and suspicion remains. What has gone is the fear of the other – and it is this fear that led to the rise of the militias and the sectarian religious parties.

During my travels in Iraq last month – in the capital and, more importantly, in the surrounding provinces of Diyala, Babil, and Salahuddin – I found Sunnis and Shiites alike talking of the civil war as if it were a painful memory from the distant past. Just as the residents of Northern Ireland refer obliquely to “the Troubles”, Iraqis speak of “the Events” or “the Sectarianism” – as in, “my brother was killed in the Sectarianism”. Uneducated Iraqis might even say “when the Sunni and Shiite happened.”
If you are really interested in Iraq, you owe it to yourself to read the whole thing.
On my trips to Iraq in years past, I made a habit of scanning the walls of Baghdad neighbourhoods for bits of sectarian graffiti, spray-painted slogans that were pro-Mahdi Army, pro-Saddam, anti-Shiite or pro-insurgency. This time, however, there were almost none to be found; the exhortations to sectarian struggle had been replaced with the enthusiasms of youthful football fans: now the walls say “Long Live Barcelona”.
Image: Electioneering.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Big deal in Iran

From Juan Cole's Informed Comment:

The BBC is reporting that clashes are continuing into Monday morning between protesters and the regime security forces in Tehran and perhaps other cities, marking the first decisive failure of the basij paramilitary to control the streets by early morning of the day of a big demonstration. The number of protesters allegedly killed by security men rose to 9, with dozens wounded and 300 persons allegedly arrested.

...

The chanting on Sunday turned against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, not just against President Ahmadinejad. He was castigated as the Dictator and as worse than the old shah, and the very ideological basis of the regime, the doctrine of clerical rule, was chanted against in the streets. The legitimacy of the regime, profoundly shaken by the events since early June's presidential election, is now being shredded further.

Another remarkable dimension of Sunday's events was the sheer number of cities where significant rallies and clashes occurred. Some of those allegedly killed are said to have fallen in Tabriz, a northwestern metropolis near Turkey. Even conservative cities such as Isfahan and Mashhad joined in. Shiraz, Ardabil, the list goes on. The attempt of some analysts to paint the disturbances as a shi-shi North Tehran thing has clearly foundered.

The most ominous sign of all for the regime is the reports of security men refusing orders to fire into the crowd.

But for the movement to go further and become truly revolutionary, it would have to have a leader who wanted to overthrow the old regime and who could attract the loyalty of both the people and elements of the armed forces. So far this key revolutionary element, of dual sovereignty, has been lacking, insofar as opposition leaders Mir Hosain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have tried to stay inside the Khomeinist framework while arguing that it is Khamenei who violated it by making it too authoritarian. Saying you want slightly less autocracy within a clerical theocracy is not a recipe for revolution.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports from Tehran for the FT that on Sunday in the capital, crowds-- bigger than even some of those that assembled in June-- maintained their discipline and proved unassailable by the basij motorcycle and other crowd control techniques. She quotes people in the crowd urging demonstrators to stick together for this purpose. She must be suggesting that the crowds were several hundred thousand strong in the capital.

...

But values come into it, too. Farnaz Fassihi of the WSJ points out that the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar, Muharram, has been considered a month for truces and non-violence. The very name of the month means 'sanctified.' Even the brutal troops of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah or king overthrown in 1979, had not fired on crowds during Muharram. Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi openly said that even the shah's regime had not behaved on Muharram as clerical Leader Ali Khamenei's had. Hint: in revolutionary Iran, that is a slam.

The regime therefore violated crowd norms, helping account for the vehemence of the pushback.
...

The killing of Ali Mousavi, the 34-year-old nephew of former presidential candidate Mir Husain Mousavi, was also a violation of Shiite values. The Mousavis are putative descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, a sort of caste in Muslim societies called 'sayyid' or 'sharif.'

In fact, in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, one of the complaints of the crowd was that the Qajar monarchy had had sayyids beaten. So if beating a scion of the House of the Prophet can help spark a revolution, what about shooting one? And, oppositional film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf maintains that Mousavi was killed by a death squad that came for him in a van rather than just falling victim to random police fire.

Killing a sayyid is a blot on any Iranian government. Doing so on Ashura, the day of morning for the martyred grandson of the Prophet, Imam Husayn, borders on insanity.

Cole also provides a link to Robin Wright's article at the Times Online: Is this Iran's Berlin Wall moment?

Of course questions like this are hard to answer. However, it is clear that for millions of Iranians, the current regime has lost any claim to representing Islam (in other words, justice).

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Outbreak of the rule of law in Pakistan?

So argues Juan Cole:

The US punditocracy has never understood that the central political narrative of Pakistan in the past 2 and a half years has been the restoration of the rule of law (in the form of the Supreme Court chief justice and then the rest of the SC) and the ending of the Musharraf military dictatorship in favor of a return of the major political parties.

That twin project was riddled with a contradiction, though, since the political parties capable of supplanting the military were themselves often corrupt, while Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was determined to clean house. So what has happened is that the contradictions have just come to the fore.

How flat-footed the US commentariat is in this regard was obvious in the reaction of CNN's Wolf Blitzer to Malik's detention. He asked Pakistani ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani if it was the sign of a military coup. Haqqani was taken aback, and the Urdu press headlined the interchange.

No, Wolf, it is the opposite. It is an outbreak of the civil rule of law. It was a military dictator who had amnestied Malik. It is the Supreme Court calling him to account. The US media think the Pakistan Story is 'violent fundamentalism, military rule, and nuclear threat.' The reality-- that most of the Pakistani public wants a civil rule of law, is almost impossible for Westerners to grasp.

The hysteria in Washington about Pakistani political instability (read: civilian politicians elected to office and an independent judiciary instead of a military dictatorship) will be heightened by this development. And it does potentially weaken president Asaf Ali Zardari, against whom there are outstanding cases. But most judicial authorities hold that Zardari cannot be tried while in office, and there is no obvious way to unseat him, since his party is the largest in parliament.

The rule of law is more important for the structural integrity of Pakistani society and politics than the back door deals of the Musharrafs, Bushes, Rices and Cheneys. Pakistan has a parliamentary system. It will go to new elections in a couple of years. If the government falls before then, it will just have early elections and someone will form a government based on their electoral performance. It might be Nawaz Sharif and the Muslim League. So what? Sharif once agreed with Clinton to send in a Pakistani SWAT team against Bin Laden, and it was Musharraf who nixed that plan. And whereas Zardari has never shown an ability to run anything, Sharif is a steel magnate-- though his last term as PM was marked by an overly authoritarian style and a cozying up to Muslim fundamentalists substantially to his right.

And who knows, maybe some of the new non-corrupt PPP voices such as Aitzaz Ahsan will emerge if Zardari falters.


Then there is this development, also drawn to my attention by Juan Cole (originating in the International edition of the News, a Pakistani newspaper:
ISLAMABAD: Ulema and Mashaikh, belonging to different schools of thought, unanimously declared suicide attacks in the country un-Islamic and forbidden in Islam.

A large number of Ulema and Mashaikh, who attended the Ulema Mashaikh Conference arranged by the Ministry of Religious Affairs at the National Library here, denounced on Thursday the killing of innocent people in the name of religion. They spoke against suicide attacks in particular.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Minister for Religious Affairs Allama Hamid Saeed Kazmi and Ulema Mashaikh from across the country participated in the conference. The interior minister also briefed the Ulema and Mashaikh about the security situation and the measures taken by the government for curbing the menace of terrorism.

The Ulema said it is clearly stated in the Holy Quran that killing of innocent people is un-Islamic and it could not be justified in any way. They said the Shariah introduced by Hazrat Muhammad (SAW) is complete and adequate for us and we do not need anything more.

Speaking on the occasion, Minister for Religious Affairs Allama Hamid Saeed Kazmi said the conference was arranged with an aim to devise a strategy against terrorism.He said those who launched attacks upon mosques and educational institutions could never be called Muslims. He said Islam does not allow anyone to kill innocent people or attack mosques.

Those laying down their lives in the fight against terrorism are martyrs as they are fighting to save the motherland, he said.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy


Well, I finally finished the big new history of democracy I picked up a while ago. Here's my review, exclusive to this site.

Uneven but provocative

A review of John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy

John Keane ends his massive history of democracy with a chapter called New Democratic Rules, in which he discusses his project and why he approached it in the rather odd way that he did.

... I quickly became convinced that my subject demanded a fundamental rethink of what would be required in trying to write a new history of democracy.... I was sure of only one thing: all the existing rules of writing about democracy and its history had to be broken. Crusty silences deeded to be shattered; customary ways of thinking had to be amended, or ditched. New rules were definitely required.

Perhaps the most important innovation that Keane made in writing this book is his simple but necessary rejection of the old consensus that democracy is the product of Athens or the Atlantic world of the 18th century (or somehow both), and that most of the rest of the world has had little to do with producing its ideas and institutions. Keane refuses to tell the same old linear story in the same old critical way. He has a wide view of what democracy is, has been and will be, maybe; as a result he has many stories to tell about places and people who generally do not fit into the usual narrative of democratic origins, successes and failures. This is a book that has much more to say about Martin Van Buren than Thomas Jefferson or Robespierre, lots to say about Nehru and not much about Gandhi. Keane follows a thematic method that sometimes defies chronology, or at least the usual assumptions about priorities. For instance, he has a long chapter on Spanish America through the 19th century that precedes and quite overshadows his discussion of the French Revolution and its consequences. This took me aback, but I could see his point when I had finished the two sections.

To write such a daring and ambitious synthesis, Keane needed to master a great many histories and cultures; it is the great problem with this book that sometimes he seems to have failed to understand or remember accurately some of his chosen material. Erasmus, for instance is generally not considered a Protestant dissenter, and to refer to him simply as a man whom Luther disliked and who regarded women as fools hardly seems either fair or relevant. To say that Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke when he was speaking tour to sell his military strategy to the American people is a rather astonishing error. It makes one wonder how many other errors might lurk in material less familiar to me. (That 100 pages of endnotes were from final text, presumably at the publisher's insistence, may explain some of the unevenness.)

Keane was determined not to write a stuffy and colorless book, and he took a number of stylistic chances. Some of the risks paid off, others did not. The least successful strategy involved Keane's discussion of the most recent events and the problems that they pose for democracy. He puts the discussion into the mouth of a historian fifty years in the future -- or at least says he does, because this historian is nameless, faceless, and lives in a future society we are not allowed to see. This historian's judgments, which are sensible enough, might as well have been expressed by Keane in his proper persona, because the conceit of another narrator adds nothing to our understanding of the recent history of democracy. If Keane had plunged wholeheartedly into a fictional future whose scholars look back on us, much as Margaret Atwood did at the end of The Handmaid's Tale, something much more interesting might have been produced.

I have said quite a bit about a number of flaws I found in the book. Yet there is certainly a lot of good stuff in this book, and here are some of the things I liked about it

Keane believes that the origins of democratic practices come from nearly every place in the world ( East Asia perhaps excepted, since he has little good to say about Chinese culture). He argues this point fairly effectively, discussing for instance what he believes are the Syrian-Mesopotamian origins of government by assembly. Likewise he identifies the Muslim belief in the value of what we would now call "civil society" as an important contribution to global culture. Australia and South Australia in are credited with a number of changes in democratic practice and attitudes that affected people in every hemisphere. Various frontier regions, including Pitcairn Island, are shown to have been on the cutting edge in making enfranchisement of women a necessity for any democratic community. A whole list of more or less obscure people, from John Wilkes of London to Juan Vucetich of Argentina, to Angelina Grimké of South Carolina have their moment in the sun. Again, not all of Keane's interpretations convinced me, but I learned some interesting history from this book, and I find it difficult to imagine a person who knows it all already.

Keane's most important overall analytical idea is that democracy has gone through three stages, or better that there are three types of democracy which have been invented and reinvented various times in various environments. One is assembly democracy, the democracy of Athens many other small communities throughout history. The second is representative democracy, which grew out of undemocratic roots to become the dominant ideal of the 19th century democrats and remain influential in the last century. Keen with a sharp eye critiques representative democracy and its relationship to nationalism and totalitarianism, not an original analysis but very well discussed. One of the most valuable ideas in the entire book is that the so-called "third wave of democracy" that followed the near extinction of representative democracy before and during the Second World War cannot be understood as a mere restoration of the representative idea. Keane argues that the successful democratic countries of today should be understood as "monitory" democracies, in which the flaws of the representational system are at least partially corrected by the existence of local, national, and international organizations that investigate, publicize, and propose solutions for the abuse of the political process. Two examples given are Amnesty International and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. That many of these monitory organizations around the world have been nurtured on the ideal of human rights, is for Keane typical of the ethos of monitory democracy, in which the questions of how the unitary people should be mathematically represented in legislative institutions, or how the populist Leader can be identified and empowered are no longer the sole or even the central issues of democracy. Keane does not think of monitory democracy as being new or some kind of magic bullet. As a perhaps unexpressed ideal it has been around since at least the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it has not solved all of the world's problems. There is no magic bullet, no final solution, and democracy is not inevitable. It is not simple either, a point established by the complexities of his own presentation.

Keane is to be congratulated on the accomplishment of his daring project. Sometimes obscure, sometimes inaccurate, sometimes wrongheaded, The Life and Death of Democracy is still a treasure chest of ideas, incidents and personalities. I identified earlier in this review some significant flaws, which I think might confuse or frustrate readers. Perhaps I should say that this book needs and deserves adventurous readers. Maybe it is not primarily for scholars anyway. I say with no condescension whatsoever that this book should be on the shelves of high school and university libraries or anywhere else younger readers can find it and become entranced by the size, variety and importance of the subject. It's certainly far more worthy than the big history I read in high school: Toynbee's A Study of History.

Question: is there any chance that all those missing footnotes could be put online?

Hurried update: The book has a website.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

The plot thickens

There seems to be an international plot to keep me away from Men at Arms, my translation of and commentary on Charny's Questions on War. Last night I got an invitation to write another article on ancient democracy. I have to do some hard thinking about whether to take up the offer. At least they don't want it immediately...

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Sunday, November 08, 2009

Afghanistan's local elections: a measure of success

That's the conclusion of a 30-page report (Voting Together by Noah Coburn and Anna Larson) for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, which describes itself thus:
AREU is an independent research organisation based in Kabul. AREU’s mission is to conduct high-quality research that informs and influences policy and practice. AREU also actively promotes a culture of research and learning by strengthening analytical capacity in Afghanistan and facilitating reflection and debate.
Here's the key passage, I think:

There has been intense criticism of the August 2009 elections by international and Afghan commentators alike. But were they actually a failure? Most estimates are that around US$300 million was spent carrying out these elections in a “free and fair” manner. During campaigning and on election day, thousands of monitors came to the polls and four provincial council candidates lost their lives. Despite this, this research shows that Afghans have amalgamated existing structures of political activity with the newly-introduced SNTV system to create a hybrid, nontransparent and often fraudulent electoral system.

Yet at the same time, the primary purpose of elections is to renegotiate power between key political groups in a non-violent manner. Some power has exchanged hands in these elections, with certain winners, such as the Hazara, gaining some power in the provincial council in the study area and through presidential bargaining, and losers, most notably the Panjshiri Tajiks, losing some power in both of these areas. This transition has remained relatively free of violence thus far, particularly considering the fact that Afghanistan is still a country at war, with over 80,000 international troops currently in the country, and is experiencing the most intense fighting since the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001. During the election all major political groups engaged in the process of negotiating the structure of the Afghan government, even if not in a typical Western way envisioned by the international community. On a local level this study demonstrates that elders, commanders, religious figures and ordinary voters in Kabul Province entered into conversations about the issues that matter most to them, particularly when discussing provincial council candidates.

...

It is evident that international expectations concerning the 2009 elections in Afghanistan were vastly unrealistic. Democratic institutions such as elections do not function independently from their political and cultural settings. In a context in which an ongoing insurgency meant that much of the country was seriously underrepresented at the polls, and in the light of a flawed voter registration process that has been a poor substitute for a valid census, it was misguided to expect the 2009 elections to be a test of “democracy” in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the pervasion of “corrupt” practices in daily political life at a national and local level in Afghanistan
makes the levels of electoral fraud unsurprising.

From this factor alone it is clear that elections are a product of and inextricably linked to the society of which they are a part. As demonstrated by this report, political power is still very much based on highly localised political groups. Therefore, the fact that most candidates did not have developed platforms and that debates between candidates were generally not substantive is also logical given that gaining votes is still primarily a question of using personal appeals and material incentives to secure voting blocs. For this reason, the few attempts that have been made by international actors to develop a political culture among candidates, for example by encouraging the formation of issues-based blocs and party platforms, have met with limited success. Similarly, initiatives to develop and encourage “civil society” in Afghanistan have had little effect, since strong tribe- and kin-based political blocs already exist, fulfilling a function very similar to that of civil society in Western societies.

When thinking about the future of Afghanistan, how 2009’s elections continue to play out politically, and particularly the upcoming Wolesi Jirga elections, the international community could gain much by reshaping their expectations and considering many of their goals more realistically within the Afghan context.
[A number of concrete proposals follow.]


Noah Coburn has a forthcoming dissertation entitled Potters and Warlords in an Afghan Bazaar: Political Mobilization, Masterly Inactivity and Violence in Post-Taliban Afghanistan (Boston University).

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

One of the best things to happen in human history

We are coming up to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, part of the greater fall of communism and the Iron Curtain in Europe. This is one of the best things that ever happened in human history. It could all have gone very wrong.

All over the web there is commentary and reminiscences, and I urge you to have a look. The Toronto Globe and Mail is not a bad place to go. Their coverage was excellent 20 years ago, and I have just finished reading an amazing article by Doug Saunders and video by the same, both discussing what happened in East Germany.

The video is here.
(Click video tab if necessary.)

The article, "Half a life ago, Katrin blew the Wall down," is here. (Click article tab if necessary.)

Some excerpts (note the lack of mythologizing about Gorbachev or Reagan):
Through the bare tile walls of her solitary-confinement cell in Leipzig, Katrin Hattenhauer could feel a rumbling. As she lay on her bare, plank bed, her petite frame shook with a vibration from the main street outside, the sound of something large and heavy and determined.

She knew, from the air of distress among her Stasi guards, that something was going on. But it was damningly hard to make the distinction: Was this the thundering surge of huge numbers of people rising against the state, or of tanks and columns of soldiers restoring order?

It was Monday, Oct. 9, 1989. In a month, it would be her 21st birthday. It seemed unlikely she would live that long. Cancer had nearly killed her five years before, and now the Stasi, the East German secret police, had told her that they wanted her dead, soon.

She had been locked in isolation for five weeks, after being picked out of a crowd of hundreds and arrested for insurrection as she carried a large, cloth banner: “For an open country with free people.”

...

Unbeknownst to Katrin Hattenhauer, East Germany had erupted that Monday, in her name. The banner she had carried, and the air of martyrdom created by the arrest of her group of unknown students, had galvanized the nation.

During her confinement, the tiny, silent peace protests they had been holding on Mondays in the square of Leipzig's St. Nicholas Church had metamorphosed into a full-scale revolt with thousands of people, then into a mass insurrection with tens of thousands, then into a national revolution, bringing a million people onto the streets, that would precipitate the end of the Berlin Wall exactly a month later, on the night of Nov. 9.

When Berlin celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Wall's breach on Monday, it will mark a symbolically important event that was neither the beginning nor the end of anything. Communism would stagger on for a month after Nov. 9, and elections and German reunification wouldn't take place until well into 1990.

Nor was the Wall's fall the event that triggered the end of East German communism. That pivotal event, the day that ripped past from future, had taken place exactly a month earlier, in Leipzig, where pressure had been building quietly, for weeks and years, in a church courtyard.

Its eruption was what Katrin Hattenhauer had felt shaking her prison-cell bed. It was the eruption she and her friends had launched.

The rumbling she felt on Oct. 9 had been the force of 70,000 people marching past and occupying the city's downtown district. Tanks, dogs and train-loads of shells had been shipped into the city that morning, and stood waiting at the train station, along with thousands of troops.

The soldiers were under direct orders from Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic, to prevent the occurrence of mass protests “from the start,” and, if provoked in any way, to respond “offensively.” Only four months earlier, tanks had cleared Beijing's Tiananmen Square of democracy protesters, killing hundreds. Mr. Honecker was not against a Chinese option. Slaughter seemed the logical outcome.

But the soldiers did not fire. They didn't even block anyone's path. Mr. Honecker was shocked, and only a few days later the magnitude of the Oct. 9 protest (and the even-larger ones encouraged by its lack of violence) would force him to resign.

Their decision not to shoot – apparently made without much discussion – owed much to the collapse of East German confidence. Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev had made it clear a year before that he wouldn't use Soviet troops to enforce communism in satellite states. Poland and Hungary had ceased to be communist earlier that year in peaceful, negotiated handovers, so they wouldn't provide troops.

But even more important was the tradition of calm, tranquil protest that began in Leipzig as “prayers for peace” with a few dozen people holding candles, expanded into the Monday demonstrations and then inspired the quiet queues of people who chanted open the Wall on Nov. 9.

On that Monday, the soldiers searched for provocations that might justify a violent response, but found none. “We were told we would be facing counterrevolutionaries,” one soldier explained later, “and we realized it was just people like us.”

...

The “peace prayer” protests (only a small fraction of the participants had religious beliefs) and environmental statements had not been intended to challenge the existence of the state. Nobody dared imagine that. But the mood in East Germany changed in 1989: Between the increasingly dramatic liberalizations occurring in the USSR under Mr. Gorbachev, the sense of economic collapse within the GDR and the quiet revolutions in Poland and Hungary, there was a desire for change.

And one of the only vehicles for change was the small circle of protesters in Leipzig.

“No one was dreaming that the Wall would fall,” Ms. Hattenhauer said. “That was unimaginable – 1989 was a year of escalation, where we had the feeling the state was getting more dangerous. People were being arrested faster and disappearing faster. Nobody had sensed that the system was kaput economically.”

By July, after news of Poland and Hungary ending communism had reached the public, the Monday protests were attracting hundreds of people. The Stasi and police would sometimes arrest and beat protesters – they had started to worry.

But the protesters became organized. There was a circle of half-a-dozen young students who became very adept at sidestepping the Stasi. Mr. Müller devised ways to stay in touch with other protest groups forming in different cities. And he developed a way to get videotapes of protests, and subtle messages of coming ones, smuggled out to the West, where they would be broadcast on TV stations that could be received in towns close to the border such as Berlin and Leipzig.

...

Three weeks after her release from prison, on Nov. 9, Katrin Hattenhauer took the train to Berlin. This was illegal, as she was still under arrest for insurrection and was not allowed to travel.

But she wanted to celebrate her 21st birthday, on Nov. 10, so she defied the Stasi and went to meet her friends at a bar on Bornholmer Strasse, near a fortified checkpoint. Later in the evening, guests started leaving because they had heard a rumour that the Wall had opened.

Nobody believed it until the bar owner himself shut down the place, ushered everyone out and made his way down the street to the crossing.

What had happened at the Wall that night, like what had happened in Leipzig in September and October, was by no means inevitable and relied entirely on the quiet accumulation of large numbers of people.

An official had announced, earlier that day, that more-liberal travel policies would soon be in effect. Without clear instructions, he mistakenly announced that they were in effect immediately. Within an hour, East Germans were rushing to the border crossings to find out if they could get visas to the West.

The bureaucratic confusion and the sheer number of people pressing at the gates, especially those at Berlin's Bernholmer Strasse checkpoint, eventually provoked the guards simply to throw up their hands, open the gates and walk away.

Shortly after that, the heroes of 1989 simply melted into the crowd. Unlike in Poland and Czechoslovakia, people such as Ms. Hattenhauer and Mr. Müller were not transformed into heads of state and cabinet ministers: There was a pre-existing German government waiting to absorb the reunified East.

Mr. Müller stayed east and had the family he had put off during the underground years, staying an environmental activist. Ms. Hattenhauer moved west and became an artist. Most of their colleagues followed similar paths: Now in their early 40s, they reminisce about the moment, half a lifetime ago, that they changed history.

“It was completely absurd: We didn't really believe it until we saw it,” Ms. Hattenhauer said while making me coffee in her flat in one of the quiet bedroom communities that make up much of the former West Berlin, now that the city's core has shifted sharply east.

“It was almost cute to see how the East Germans just went to see if it could possibly be true, and just by being there in such numbers they made it come true.

“For me, it was a sign of what could have happened had we gone to the Wall years earlier, instead of doing a typical German revolution where we all went to work during the day and then we went to the St. Nicholas Church afterwards and protested.”

She laughed at this, and reflected for a moment. “Maybe something would have happened much earlier if we'd done that, but we went about it in a very organized, very peaceful, German way, so it took a lot longer.”

It's all in the timing. And you need luck. Ask anyone who was at Tiananmen Square. Charles Kurzman's book on the Islamic revolution in Iran makes a similar point about timing, numbers, and luck.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Sabbatical score so far -- updated

Since classes ended in April, I have completed the following academic projects:

Reviews:
  • Charles Kurzman, Democracy Denied (Journal of World History, accepted for fall 2010)
  • Mark Pegg, A Most Holy War (Michigan War Studies Review, now available online)
  • Richard Kaeuper, Holy Warriors (The Medieval Review, submitted and accepted)
Article:
  • "Republics and Quasi-Democratic Institutions in Ancient India: Their Significance Today," for the forthcoming book The Secret History of Democracy (a rethinking and recasting of an earlier web-published article; forthcoming next year; submitted and accepted)
Not bad, but these projects and some family health problems have slowed progress on the book I'm supposed to write; a scrappy first draft of Chapter 1 is all I have written so far, though I have also partly revised the translation of the crucial text.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"We should avoid simple dichotomies."

I had a pleasant shock this weekend. I found out that I had already read, some years ago, a key work by one of the most recent winners of the Nobel Prize in economics, Elinor Ostrom. Her book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, is relevant to the questions that Phil Paine and I have addressed in connection with our interest in a world history of democracy. Brad DeLong's blog directed me to this entry on Marginal Revolution which explains some of the reasons her work is considered interesting and important:

Elinor Ostrom and the well-governed commons

Elinor Ostrom may arguable be considered the mother of field work in development economics. She has worked closely investigating water associations in Los Angeles, police departments in Indiana, and irrigation systems in Nepal. In each of these cases her work has explored how between the atomized individual and the heavy-hand of government there is a range of voluntary, collective associations that over time can evolve efficient and equitable rules for the use of common resources. [emphasis SM]

With her husband, political scientist Vincent Ostrom, she established the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in 1973 at Indiana University, an extraordinarily productive and evolving association of students and professors which has produced a wealth of theory, empirical studies and experiments in political science and especially collective action. The Ostrom's work bridges political science and economics. Both are well known at GMU since both have been past presidents of the Public Choice society and both have been influenced by the Buchanan-Tullock program. You can also see elements of Hayekian thought about the importance of local knowledge in the work of both Ostroms (here is a good interview). My colleague, Peter Boettke has just published a book on the Ostrom's and the Bloomington School.

Elinor Ostrom's work culminated in Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action which uses case studies to argue that around the world private associations have often, but not always, managed to avoid the tragedy of the commons and develop efficient uses of resources. (Ostrom summarizes some of her findings from this research here). Using game theory she provided theoretical underpinnings for these findings and using experimental methods she put these theories to the test in the lab.

For Ostrom it's not the tragedy of the commons but the opportunity of the commons. Not only can a commons be well-governed but the rules which help to provide efficiency in resource use are also those that foster community and engagement. A formally government protected forest, for example, will fail to protect if the local users do not regard the rules as legitimate. In Hayekian terms legislation is not the same as law. Ostrom's work is about understanding how the laws of common resource governance evolve and how we may better conserve resources by making legislation that does not conflict with law.

The MR links and comments by its readers are worth following up. In particular I am grateful for the link to this appreciation of the work of Elinor and her husband Vincent, which includes long interviews with both of them. I think anyone interested in the history of government or economic history or institutional history of just about any sort would benefit from looking at this. The quote that I used for the title of this post comes from Vincent, who said, in a rectification of names spirit,
Language always simplifies. Yet, recourse to overly abstract simplifications such as "states" and "markets," "capitalism" and "socialism," the "modern" and the "less developed," is becoming increasingly useless. We must take care not to reify concepts and conceptual models -- to treat them as though they are realities. We should avoid simple dichotomies.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

What I said about Spain and India -- a follow-up to the "Bad Samaritans" post

Ha-Joong Chang said in his book Bad Samaritans that "cultural explanations" of economic development often seem to be self-justification based on 20/20 hindsight. Here's what I said in 2005 at a conference at the Political Science Department of the University of Delhi about how similar discussion of the world history of democracy often misses the point.

What we need, as the record of modern democracy becomes longer and more detailed, is to focus on two things: distinct cases (to avoid the lifeless, silly, or counterproductive overgeneralizations); and the connections between democratic developments across borders and across cultures, so that we can progress from a number of national or regional histories of democracy, to a true world history.

To illustrate the importance of this effort, let’s look at the case of Spain, a provocative puzzle for any historian of world democracy. Spain was early on affected by the French Revolution, but for more than a century and a half thereafter, Spanish democracy seemed like an impossible dream. Spain appeared doomed by its culture and history to either authoritarianism or chaos. Yet in the mid-1970s democracy emerged in post-Franco Spain, and despite separatist sentiment and intermittent domestic terrorism, it has survived and flourished. The case of Spain, like the similar case of neighboring Portugal, confounds easy generalizations about the historical roots of democratic development.

For a very long time it was obvious to historians and commentators of all sorts that Spain, with its absolutist monarchical tradition and its intolerant religious establishment, must be outside the grand democratic tradition of the “West;” yet somehow despite all that historical baggage, in a moment and without attracting much attention, Spain transformed itself into a member in good standing of the democratic club. I cannot claim that this democratic transition has not been studied.[1] But one wonders how many historians not concerned with modern Spain have thought seriously about it, and whether any of them have revised their understanding of Spanish or European history in light of it. As a historian I can hardly argue that “historical baggage” is irrelevant to the life of a society; but clearly in the case of Spain a focus on historical baggage, on the national history and cultural history of Spain, narrowly conceived, deceived us all. Spain deserves more study, and it deserves to be put into a wide context, not as an odd exception, but as a prime datum in the political history of the late 20th century world.

The same can be said, even more forcefully, for India. That India is not like other successful democracies is a well-worn cliché. For non-Indians, how much thought follows the phrase “world’s largest democracy?” Very little, I suspect. The importance of India’s success so far, for the world as a whole, may not be widely appreciated in India, either. Let me briefly state my point of view, which is based on a simple comparison of India with some other, well-known countries.

Imagine the world in 1900. Informed observers examine the prospects of four important regions over the upcoming century: Germany, China, Russia, and India. Which would be picked as the most likely to succeed? And which has, in retrospect? Restrict the criterion of success to “lowest casualty count,” to my mind a more sensible criterion than per capita GDP. Who comes out ahead? I think it is inarguable that, even keeping in mind the tragedies of Partition, the consequent wars on the subcontinent, and many other incidents of violence and disorder, that the casualty count has been much lower in India than in the other three. This alone is a significant fact of 20th century world history. But of equal importance is the explanation for that fact. Indian aspirations for democracy, and Indian implementation of democratic institutions deserve the credit. Again, do the thought experiment. Take away the aspiration, take away the implementation, what would the subcontinent look like today?



[1] Indeed, one of the first systematic treatments of the new democratic developments of the late 20th century was partly inspired by the Spanish case: Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1986).

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Bad Samaritans, by Ha-Joon Chang

I just discovered this book, which came out a couple of years ago, thanks to Brad DeLong, who provided a link to a pre-print to chapter 9, "Lazy Japanese and Thieving Germans
- Are Some Cultures Incapable of Economic Development?"


Phil Paine and I have been working from a similar set of ideas when we discuss the world history of democracy (or political systems of other kinds). If I were teaching first-year World History, this might be the first thing I would have my students read. Anyone interested in world or comparative history should be exposed to this.

Here are some killer quotes:

So there you go. A century ago, the Japanese were lazy rather than
hardworking; excessively independent-minded (even for a British socialist!)
rather than loyal “worker ants”; emotional rather than inscrutable; lighthearted
rather than serious; living for today instead of considering the future
(as manifested in their sky-high savings rates). A century and half ago, the
Germans were indolent rather than efficient; individualistic rather than
cooperative; emotional rather than rational; stupid rather than clever;
dishonest and thieving rather than law-abiding; easy-going rather than
disciplined.
These characterisations are puzzling for two reasons. First, if the
Japanese and the Germans had such “bad” cultures, how have they become
so rich? Second, why were the Japanese and the Germans so different from
their descendants today? How could they have so completely changed their
“habits of national heritage”?

...

Not being able to see this, culture-based explanations for economic
development have usually been little more than ex post facto justifications
based on a 20/20 hindsight vision. So in the early days of capitalism when
most economically successful countries happened to be Protestant Christian,
many people argued that Protestantism was uniquely suited to economic
development. When Catholic France, Italy, Austria, and Southern Germany
developed rapidly, particularly after the Second World War, Christianity,
rather than Protestantism, became the magic culture. Until Japan became
rich, many people thought East Asia had not develop because of
Confucianism. But when Japan succeeded, this thesis was revised to say that
Japan was developing so fast because its unique form of Confucianism
emphasised cooperation over individual edification, which the Chinese and
Korean versions allegedly valued more highly. And then Hong Kong,
Singapore, Taiwan, and Korea also started doing well, so this judgment
about the different varieties of Confucianism was forgotten. Indeed
Confucianism as a whole suddenly became the best culture for development
because it emphasised hard work, saving, education, and submission to
authority. Today, when we now see Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia,
Buddhist Thailand, and even Hindu India doing economically well, we can
soon expect to encounter new theories that will trumpet how uniquely all
these cultures are suited for economic development (and how their authors
have known about it all along).

...

Fortunately, we do not need a cultural revolution before economic
development can happen. A lot of behavioural traits that are meant to be
good for economic development will follow from, rather than being
prerequisites for, economic development. Countries can get development
going through means other than a cultural revolution, as I explained in the
preceding chapters in this book. Once economic development gets going, it
will change people’s behaviour and even the beliefs underlying it (namely,
culture) in ways that help economic development. A “virtuous circle”
between economic development and cultural values can be created.
This is essentially what happened in Japan and Germany. And it is
what will happen in all future economic success stories. Given India’s recent
economic success, I am sure we will soon see books that say how Hindu
culture – once considered the source of sluggish growth in India (recall the
once-popular expression, “Hindu rate of growth” 29) – is helping India grow.
If my Mozambique fantasy in the Prologue comes true in the 2060s, we will
then be reading books discussing how Mozambique has had a culture
uniquely suited to economic development all along.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Afghans speak about the Afghan election

In an amazing good piece from the New York Times' blog At War, Afghans (men, no women) express their various opinions about the recent election and the country's situation in general. And various those opinions are. If your country has troops in Afghanistan, you owe it to yourself and them to read this relatively short account.

One thing that really caught my eye were the differing evaluations that two interviewees expressed on elections themselves. Have a look at this:

Sardar Mohammad
Aged 31, from Helmand Province.

Did you vote? “No. There is no security. In fact the election is not being held there. There are Taliban, they don’t let the polling boxes reach there.”

Was it a free and fair election? “No, no, no. It is to benefit America’s private interests. They have captured the whole country. America came to capture Afghanistan to oppress Afghans.”

Would you have voted if you had the chance? “No, never. Islam doesn’t accept the infidel’s democracy, Islam has its own law, God’s book.”
And then at this:

Abdul Khalil
Teacher. Aged 60.

Was it a free and fair election? “It was not a good election. There was fraud in this election, and it was not a fair or good election because there was low turnout. A lot of people did not go to vote. Firstly, because of the Taliban, and secondly, because of our traditions many Afghan women could not go out to vote. Our tradition is that our women never go to vote, men go but not women.

“This is not a good tradition, in my opinion, but for us Afghans this tradition has been laid down for us by our fathers and grandfathers, so we have just continued living like this.

“In the last election there was fraud, and this time also. I heard it on the media, and everyone knows it is true. It is clear that there was fraud. The last time when [Yunous] Qanooni was a candidate, there was fraud. He couldn’t win the election, and this time as well.”

As he spoke his, pro-Karzai, fellow Pashtuns heckled him for being a dissenter, shouting “he’s crazy.”

Sardar Mohammed from war-torn, Taliban-influenced Helmand province appears to have bought into a fairly common Islamist meme; but Abdul Khalil (from Jalalabad? Kabul?) see things differently. He believes that there has been a tradition of elections in the country where men voted and women didn't (a bad tradition, he thinks). What elections does he mean? I can think of only three national elections in Afghanistan, two since the invasion and one in the 1960s. Does he also count some kind of local elections? Have there been a number of separate provincial elections? Anyone who knows more about this than I do, please chime in.

Image: Abdul Khalil.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rowing to democracy...

...is the title of a New York Times book review of John R. Hale's Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. I've speculated on this myself in this blog, so I'm interested.

An excerpt from the review:
Mr. Hale’s thesis in “Lords of the Sea” is that the construction of the mighty Athenian navy, composed largely of lightweight warships known as triremes, in which 170 oarsmen rowed in three tiers, led directly to Athens’s Golden Age and its advanced form of democracy. For more than a century and a half, from 480 to 322 B.C., Athens’s city-state of some 200,000 people had the strongest navy on earth. “Without the Athenian navy there would be no Parthenon, no tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides, no ‘Republic’ of Plato or ‘Politics’ of Aristotle,” Mr. Hale writes. “Before the Persian Wars, Athens produced no great traditions of philosophy, architecture, drama, political science or historical writing. All these things came in a rush after the Athenians voted to build a fleet and transform themselves into a naval power in the early fifth century B.C.” The hard work of building and maintaining a fleet pulled the society together. The protection the navy afforded Athens allowed it to prosper, to fend off the enemies that would have overrun it and changed its tolerant and inquisitive character. Among those who commanded fleets or squadrons of triremes were the playwright Sophocles and the historian Thucydides.

“Lords of the Sea” is, largely, a book about war. It describes a running series of water and land battles between Athens and its shifting enemies, including Persian and Spartan armies and navies.

Mr. Hale points out that the use of triremes ushered in “a new age of warfare.” For the first time “battles were being fought where the majority of combatants never fought hand to hand with the enemy — indeed, never even saw the enemy.” Triremes won battles by ramming opposing ships, and cunning was even more important as brute force.

The naval success that built Athens also, in the end, helped destroy it.

Another pirate story?

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rafsanjani's Friday sermon in Tehran: the flexibility of religion and ideology

Juan Cole published this morning a meaty analysis of Friday's sermon in Tehran by former Iranian president Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani in my view is a smart opportunist, not a radical, but the kind of guy who always survives the revolution and makes billions in the process (he is in fact now a billionaire). His position as successful profiteer and governmental insider puts him in a difficult position. Whatever may be the totality of his motivations may be, he certainly does not want the Islamic Republic to blow up. Thus he argues for an interpretation of the revolution of 1979 that will allow for compromise and unity between the angry reformists and the intransigent hardliners. Juan Cole explains the religious theories involved (the complete post is here):

The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorizes political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted.

The hard liners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader... in this view ... a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hard liners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hard line point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen.

Rafsanjani desired in his sermon to lay a Khomeinist foundation for the more democratic view. He began by underlining his own role in the revolution and the establishment of the Republic, and his position as a witness to the values of Khomeini. He said Khomeini discouraged the anti-Shah activists of the 1960s and 1970s from terrorism. Instead, he urged a direct appeal to the people in their villages and mosques, and responsiveness to their desires. He represents Khomeini as saying, if the people are with us, we have everything.

Rafsanjani is saying that the 1978-79 revolution was not Leninist. It was not the work of a small vanguard of activists. It was broad and popular and therefore inevitably, he implies, had something of a democratic character.

The authoritarian view of governance in Shiite Islam is anchored by Misbah-Yazdi and his ilk in the theory of the Imamate. Shites believe that the Prophet Muhammad was both temporal ruler and divinely inspired prophet. After him, his relatives also exercised both functions. His son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, is held by Shiites to be the first Imam, the divinely-appointed vicar of the Prophet. But Rafsanjani quotes a Shiite text showing that the Prophet Muhammad said that even Ali could only rule the people with their consent, and without it he should not try. Rafsanjani is reimagining the Imamate not as infallible divine figures succeeding an infallible prophet, but rather as an institution depending on an interaction between God's appointee and the people he is intended to shepherd.

Another piece of evidence for the popular character of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani says, is Khomeini's own haste to establish lay, elected institutions and to implement a republican constitution. He maintains that Khomeini actually strengthened some of the popular institutions when he made suggestions for revision of the draft constitution. Even having a constitution is a bow to popular sovereignty, he implies, and he contrasts the haste with which revolutionary Iran established a rule of law and popular input into government with the slowness of these processes in countries such as Algeria.

... But Rafsanjani's point is that even the Supreme Leader, whom some see as a theocratic dictator, derives his position from the operation of popular sovereignty.
Note that Rafsanjani's theory of the Islamic Revolution, like that of many reformers, is democratic without being seculer. It is a theory that grows out of Islam and the Iranian Shi'ite tradition, or at least is being reconciled with that tradition. Ditto for the hardline position. Despite the sweeping innovations brought in by Khomenei, specifically clerical rule and the idea that there can be a Supreme religious Leader in the here-and-now, important foundation stones for the hardline view are identified by its followers with the oldest manifestations of Islam and the Shi'ite traditions of the leadership of the family of Ali (and of the Prophet).

If have not picked a side in this quarrel and adopted a religious, Islamic justification for your position, it is hard to say that either of these positions is "more authentic." Both positions have evolved over the last 30 years, and especially the past couple of months. It might be very hard for a learned Iranian Shi'ite of 200 years ago to recognize either as Shi'ism. Note what Juan Cole says about Rafsanjani's presentation, which he backed up with his authority as an eyewitness to the Revolution, the foundation of the Islamic Republic and the role of Khomeini in both:

So is what Rafsanjani is saying about Khomeini and Khomeinism true? Probably only partially. Khomeini is notorious for having rejected popular sovereignty as a principle. But he did put an elected president and parliament into the constitution, and he surely knew what would follow.
One might say that Rafsanjani, the Iranian Thermidorian, is making it up as he goes along. On the other hand, who knows what Khomeini might say today?

The whole situation reminds me of an insight I had nearly two decades ago, when I was reading a short history of world Buddhism. As I went through the book I realized that somewhere, sometime, just about any religious position you could imagine had been defined by somebody as "true Buddhism." I think this dawned on me when I found out that one influential Buddhist had said that true Buddhism meant that no one should be a monk and everyone should get married.

Thinking about this situation, I eventually came to the conclusion that the inherent variety of human experience and dispositions means that any religious tradition that has any degree of success in recruiting and maintaining itself over time has to contain contradictory elements, and be open to new interpretations. Otherwise it will become completely irrelevant and die out.

This further means that the kind of wild and careless generalizations that are often made about religion and culture and their consequences for today, -- e.g. what political structures will result from Confucian or Roman Catholic or Mormon traditions -- should be treated with the utmost suspicion. (Phil Paine has written about this recently.) A very particular instance is Iran today. A week's diligent reading will tell you quite a bit about what Iranian Shi'ites have valued in the past. Faced, however, with a live Iranian Shi'ite, you or I or Juan Cole will not know what she or he thinks, unless we ask. And even then, what that means for his or her future actions will remain to be seen. As Charles Kurzman might say, when life is no longer going along its routine groove, who knows what will happen next, what you will do next? You make it up as you go along, using existing materials in whatever way seems possible or necessary.

Image: Rafsanjani, photo from Wikipedia.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Problems and disasters -- and a piece on India's democratic achievement

Sometime in the last few years I came to the conclusion that one's life may usefully be divided into two parts, one where you're beset with a few or many problems which just seemed to soak up all of your time. This is most of your life. Then something really bad happens and that's it.

If this is a useful insight, it means you better enjoy the times when you have lots of problems.

Right now is one of those times for me. Not including family commitments that right now are taking up a certain amount of time and energy -- e.g., a trip to the Big Smoke (Toronto) and back in one day--I have got a lot on my plate. Just this week on the scholarly front, I wrote and had an abstract accepted for a major conference (the creative energy for one day used up, admittedly to good purpose), and then got an acceptance of a chapter I proposed for a book on the history of democracy, just as I was finally writing about, rather than reading and rereading material about, 14th century men at arms for my book on Charny's questions. That acceptance qualifies as a problem because the chapter, on ancient India's democracies, must be done by September 30th.

These are problems, you say? Stop whining, Muhlberger, you say; better yet, stop showing off! You have (you might rightly say) three good projects on the burner. And you are on sabbatical.

All too true. I am just concerned that something might get burned, or undercooked, on that stove. From where I sit, there don't seem to be too many working days before September 30th.

Problems, problems. But at the moment, no disasters.

I have to admit that I'm very pleased to be included in this book, which is entitled The Secret History of Democracy. Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I am interested in current democratic movements. It may be less obvious that I have tried, generally working with Phil Paine, to see democracy as not something restricted to just a few countries in the modern era. I have a World History of Democracy website, which you are welcome to visit; to get a taste of my particular perspective on world history and democratic history, see the short excerpt of a paper I gave in Delhi in April 2005 that I've put it at the end of this post. There is plenty of room to disagree with me or ask for clarification. That is what the comment section is for.

Imagine the world in 1900.

Informed observers examine the prospects of four important regions over the upcoming century: Germany, China, Russia, and India. Which would be picked as the most likely to succeed? And which has, in retrospect? Restrict the criterion of success to “lowest casualty count,” to my mind a more sensible criterion than per capita GDP. Who comes out ahead?

I think it is inarguable that, even keeping in mind the tragedies of Partition, the consequent wars on the subcontinent, and many other incidents of violence and disorder, that the casualty count has been much lower in India than in the other three. This alone is a significant fact of 20th century world history. But of equal importance is the explanation for that fact. Indian aspirations for democracy, and Indian implementation of democratic institutions deserve the credit. Again, do the thought experiment. Take away the aspiration, take away the implementation, what would the subcontinent look like today?

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Tehran: the cats are happy

Juan Cole passes along this "final dispatch from Tehran," which I don't dare summarize. Don't miss it.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A History of Modern Iran, by Ervand Abrahamian

This short and recent book (2008) doesn't tell you everything you might want to know about 20th century Iran, for instance it says little about the Iran-Iraq war, but it very usefully focuses on a consistent theme, the building of a modern state in a country where governmental power was extremely limited in 1900. Except for occasional long lists of personal names that will not mean a lot to most potential readers, the book is quite well-written. The author has a talent for the appropriate quotation, and it seems that Iranians over the years have had a talent for producing those quotations. For instance, an opponent of Mossadeq in the early 1950s expressed his opposition thus (page 116-17):
Statecraft has degenerated into street politics. It appears that this country has nothing better to do than hold street meetings. We now have meetings here, there, and everywhere -- meetings for this, that, and every occasion; meetings for university students, high school students, seven-year-olds, and even six-year-olds. I am sick and tired of these street meetings...

Is our prime minister a statesman or a mob leader? What type of prime minister says "I will speak to the people" every time he is faced with a political problem? I always considered this man to be unsuitable for high office. But I never imagined, even in my worst nightmares that an old man of seventy would turn into a rabble rouser. A man who surrounds the Majles with mobs is nothing less than a public menace.
Abrahamian also likes economic and social statistics, but he uses them well. The growth and development they document is impressive.

One theme I followed with interest was the role of elections and the Parliament or Majles in Iranian politics since 1906. Some of this sounds pretty familiar, for instance this discussion of how Reza Shah controlled all the elections in the 20s and 30s (page 73):
Reza Shah retained the electoral law but closely monitored access into parliament. He personally determined the outcome of each election and thus the composition of each Majles ... the control mechanism was simple. The shah -- together with his chief of police -- inspected the list of prospective candidates, walking them is either "suitable" or "bad,"... the suitable names were passed on to the interior minister, who, in turn, passed them on to the provincial governor-generals and the local electoral boards. The sole function of these boards was to hand out voting papers and supervise the ballot boxes. Needless to say, these words were all appointed by the central government. Unsuitable candidates who insisted on running found themselves either in jail or banished from their localities. Consequently, the successful candidates were invariably "suitable,"...
Cambridge University Press has an "e-widget" that gives you a preview of the book.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

The spectator's dilemma

Over at Accumulating Peripherals, this thoughtful piece: human sympathy and a lack of posturing.

...But the most difficult cases Parfit considers concern various kinds of Prisoner’s Dilemmas, especially ones with a complex range of outcomes and large numbers of participants....

For example, let’s say that if you participate in a protest march of 1 million people and the Army mutinies and prevents bloodshed, then there will be a “velvet revolution”-type peaceful transition to a democratic system. But if you participate in a protest march of 1 million people and the Army doesn’t mutiny, then 1,000 people will be massacred and the regime will become more repressive; and there is no reason to believe that this outcome will lead to a democratic transition any sooner than might have happened otherwise. And meanwhile, one of those 1,000 people massacred could be you, or secret police might identify you at the rally and kick your sister out of university, or whatever. Should you join the march?

I have known several appealing young democratic activists in autocratic countries inspired by visions of creating “velvet revolution”-style transitions to democracy. In conversations with them, one inevitably feels compelled by empathy to offer one’s opinions about what they should do. And I generally wind up making it implicitly clear, just out of empathy, that I don’t think they should be engaging in pro-democracy activism. The issue depends, for me, on the question of how large the democracy movements in their countries already are. Where such movements are quite substantial, then participation makes intuitive sense. But in countries with tiny, irrelevant dissident movements, where autocratic governments are in firm control and there seems very little likelihood of change on any scale shorter than the generational, I think it’s not worth the risk. I can’t sit across from someone I find appealing and intelligent and wish for them anything other than that they keep their heads down, get a well-paying job, read widely and have informal unrecorded discussion groups with close friends, and wait for the moment twenty years down the road when some kind of shift may become possible. I can’t wish for them that they make an example of themselves and wind up jailed, their reputations and careers ruined, with exile the only promising option — an option that generally renders all their attempted activism irrelevant.

But sometimes, the brave ones go ahead and do it anyway. And in those cases I don’t think Parfit’s moral math or my wimpy skepticism even matter, because I don’t think such people are chiefly motivated by consequentialist thinking. I think that the Iranians who go out to protest are chiefly motivated by considerations like honor and hope [emphasis SM].

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

An authoritative religious critique of the situation in Iran

Ayatollah Montazeri is one of the highest-ranking religious scholars in Iran, though he holds no political office. The following statement was posted on the Iranian-American blog, niacINsight. It takes only a little imagination to see how such an analysis might harm the religious legitimacy of the current Iranian government:

Montazeri said “I have been involved in the struggles against the previous (Shah) regime and the establishment of the Islamic Republic as much as I can. I feel ashamed in front of the people and clearly announce that beloved Islam…is different from the behavior of the current rulers. These actions and policies being done under the banner of religion will certainly cause large segments of people to become cynical regarding the principles of Islam and theocracy and will ruin the hard and valuable work of the Islamic ulema.”

Montazeri harshly criticized the militarization of the society saying “In a country and a regime which is proud of being Islamic and Shiite, and only 30 years after the victory of the revolution when people still remember the last scenes of the past regime, how could they turn Tehran and other large cities into a big garrison while the world is watching? They have put our brothers in the armed forces against the people. By using plainclothes agents, who are reminders of baton-carrying agents of Shah, cowardly shed the blood of the youth and men and women of this land.”

Montazeri then posed questions to authorities asking “was this the strategy of Prophet Mohammad and Imam Ali? They never cursed and accused their enemies and didn’t silence them by the sword…Now, a group of people thinking that they can commit any crime because they see themselves as being close to the government; attack student dorms, beat them and throw them down the building, commit chain murders and terrorize intellectuals of this nation and be immune from punishment; this is not compatible with any religion and custom.”

Montazeri advised the people to “pursue their reasonable demands while maintaining their calm.” He also advised the authorities, asking them to stop using harsh and irrational measures which destroys people’s trust and exacerbates the separation between them and regime. “[The authorities] should not create divisions among the people, apologize for their past mistakes, and understand that worldly positions are not permanent.”

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Women and the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381

Jonathan Jarrett directs me to the blog Bavardess, which I have missed up till now. Its author has an interesting post on the role of women in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, saying, among other things:
While most historical accounts up until the 1980s (at least) discuss the revolt as an almost wholly male enterprise, source documents including trial records and pardons show women were very much active participants, and even instigators and organisers of rebellion.
At left, for example, is an extract from a commission of Oyer and Terminer (‘hear and determine’) held in Essex directly after the revolt to seek out those responsible. Amongst the people accused of riding armed through the countryside and inciting the commons to rise against the king is one “Nichola Cartere who was lately taken as wife by William Dekne of South Benfleet”*. In another case, records from the court of King’s Bench describe Johanna Ferrour as the “chief perpetrator and leader” of a rebel group from Kent who burnt the Savoy and executed Sudbury and Hales**[an extraordinarily important episode--SM].
A good insight -- and there is more good stuff about the gendered language of revolt in the original post. When it comes to women's participation, I am reminded of how much the Peasants' Revolt reminds me of the earliest stages of the French Revolution of 1789. John Ball's list of demands makes me think that he would've loved The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. And of course 1789 was famous for the inspiring/scandalous political participation of women, which was not unprecedented even if they went much farther in 1789.

Then there is Tehran, 1979 and 2009, both times when women's initiative was/has been a key factor...

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's not a show for the spectators

US coverage of world events is very Washington-centric. Like domestic political issues, international ones are usually seen as an opportunity to show that one is on the right side, or that one's domestic opponents are on the wrong side, or if you're a journalist, to write a real horse-racing style piece-- who is ahead, who fell on his or her face. This all too easily slops over on us next door.

Joe Klein, a political columnist at Time, wrote a column today which in part says what I feel about this tendency. As others have put it, "it's not about us," what Iranians are doing comes from their own needs and perceptions, although it is important to us and the rest of the world and we will be affected. We should remember that simple phrase while we wait to see what emerges from Iran.

Joe Klein:

Again, the crucial fact about the protesters is this: they may hate the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime--who wouldn't?--but that doesn't make them particular fans of the United States. I have yet to meet an Iranian who does not believe that the United States gave poison gas to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, gas which injured thousands upon thousands of Iranian men, who still live, incapacitated, in the shadows of that society. (Indeed, the attention Ahmadinejad has paid to the Iran-Iraq war veterans and their families is a major source of his extensive support among the Iranian working class.)

The protesters admire our freedom, but they are appalled--and insulted--by our neocolonialist condescension over the past 50 years. The reformers, and even some conservatives, consider Ahmadinejad the George W. Bush of Iran--a crude, unsophisticated demagogue, who puts a strong Potemkin face to the world without very much knowledge of what the rest of the world is about. This was an anology that came up in interview after interview, with reformers and conservatives alike.

Certainly, Bush the Younger, McCain and the rest of that crowd have absolutely no idea who the Iranian people are. The are not Hungarians in 1956. They do not believe they live in an Evil Empire. They still support their revolution. They shout "Allahu Akbar" in the streets, which was the rallying cry of 1979. They are proud of their nuclear program, even if many have doubts about the efficacy of weaponizing the enriched uraniam that is being produced. They want greater freedom, to be sure. And they believe that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad forces--and the militarized regime they have empowered, the millions of basiji and revolutionary guards--is a profound perversion of that revolution. They are right. They deserve our prayers and support. But they don't need grandstanding from an American President, and they certainly don't need histrionics from blustery old John McCain.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Following events in Iran

I am following events in Iran, in so far as that is possible, but I don't think I have any special insight, except this: it is the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran as it has existed for the last 20 years or so. It's likely that in 2029, middle-aged Iranians will all know where they were today, no matter how things turn out.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Rights of Man...and Woman

Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting column in the Times Online by Danny Finkelstein. Why Finkelstein associates his values with Neoconservatism I don't know; I associate it with indiscriminate aerial bombardment. Nevertheless, I agree with much of what he says here:

For years we have been told, we neocons, that other cultures don't want our liberty, our American freedom. Yankee go home! But it isn't true. Because millions of Iranians do want it. Yes, they want their sovereignty, and demand respect for their nation and its great history. No, they don't want foreign interference and manipulation. But they still insist upon their rights and their freedom. They know that liberty isn't American or British. It is Iranian, it is human.

This idea that the critics of neocons advanced so vociferously, that liberal democracy can't be “transplanted” on alien soil - what does it mean to the people of Iran who have thronged the streets to express their will?

Does it mean that we think the morality police is just part of Iranian culture? Just their way of doing things? For the thousands of protesters it is not. It turns out that they don't think it's right for young girls to be arrested, snatched from the streets for wearing the wrong coat. And they don't think there is a cultural defence to beating these girls until their parents arrive with a “decent” garment.

They don't think that public hangings are Iranian, either. Nor arbitrary detentions of doctors who dared to organise conferences on Aids, nor keeping human rights activists in solitary confinement, nor sentencing trade union leaders to five years in jail for trying to organise fellow workers. They don't think there is anything culturally valuable in sentencing political activists to death after secret trials lasting less than five minutes, or returning lawyers to jail again and again for opposing the death penalty or “publishing insulting material with unacceptable interpretation of Islamic rules”.

It is not part of their precious heritage that someone be charged with a capital offence for circulating a petition on women's rights. Nor that nine-year-old girls should be eligible for the death penalty, and children hanged for their crimes. There is no special Iranian will, even given their religious conservatism, that students should be flogged in public for being flirtatious, and homosexuals hanged in the streets.

The protests for Mr Mousavi do not just expose the lie of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory. They expose the lie that there is something Western in wanting democracy and human rights. [The best line!--SM]

And what of the other leg of the neocon argument? What of the idea that peace comes through the spread of liberalism and democracy? Can anyone really doubt that should the reformists succeed, even a little bit, the world would be a safer place? A democratic Iran would stop financing world terrorist movements, it would stop obsessing about external enemies and foreign conspiracies, it would stop threatening its neighbours. It would still oppose Israeli policy, it would still want to acquire nuclear material, but the threat of violence would recede.

The mistake the neocons made is that we were not conservative enough, not patient enough. Such impatience with dictatorships is understandable, indeed laudable. But the frustrating truth is that there are limits to what can be achieved by outsiders. Instead we have to wait as national movements, one by one, stand up for their rights. And sometimes, tragically, we even have to stand aside as those movements are crushed by their oppressors.


Comments welcome.

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