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In his famous statement about the perils of presidentialism, Juan Linz argued that newly emerging democracies ought to avoid adopting a presidential form of government. One of Linz’s reasons had to do with the winner-take-all-nature of presidential elections. By definition, such elections are zero-sum games where the losing candidates have little to no prospect of sharing in executive power. By having a single indivisible and powerful executive office, presidential elections amplify the gap between winning and losing, and can contribute to creating and deepening political divisions, which is precisely what a new democracy ought to minimize.
At the same time, having the people elect the head of their state directly can strengthen the legitimacy of the democratic foundations of the new constitutional order. When conducted in a fair, free, and transparent manner observing the highest standards of electoral integrity, direct presidential elections can play an important role in aiding the development of civic and political values such as electoral participation, competitiveness, and accountability. If the population is not imbued by such values, the new democratic system may soon hollow out and become a procedural mechanism with no substantive values informing and guiding it.
An intermediate constitutional solution is the adoption of a semi-presidential system of government, which, according to scholars like Maurice Duverger and Robert Elgie, is characterized by a presidency that is elected directly by the people but that is also considerably weaker in power and authority than the chief executive of a presidential system of government. The relative weakness of the semi-presidential head of state is underscored by the fact that the office shares executive power with the prime minister who, as the head of government, is responsible to the legislature. Semi-presidentialism often becomes an attractive constitutional choice in new democracies precisely because it has the advantage of encouraging popular participation in the political system without concentrating too much power in a single executive office.
The experience of the ten post-communist democracies in Eastern and Central Europe is an excellent case in point. At the time of their transition to democracy in the early 1990s, only half of the ten states had a semi-presidential executive: Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, and Romania. The remaining five states (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, and Slovakia) remained parliamentary systems with both the prime minister and the president elected by the legislature. By 2015 Hungary, Estonia, and Latvia have remained the only three cases with indirectly elected heads of state. At first Slovakia, in 1998, and then the Czech Republic, in 2012, enacted constitutional changes to move from indirect to direct presidential elections. In both of these cases, the adoption of direct presidential elections was the result of repeated failures by parliament to ensure a smooth and efficient process. In Slovakia, the National Council was unable to elect a president after several unsuccessful rounds of balloting in 1998, whereas in the Czech Republic both the 2003 and the 2008 elections were characterized by legislative tumult leading to renewed calls for delegating the choice of president to the people.
What can constitutional designers and engineers learn from the history of presidential elections in the post-communist region? Insofar as political stability and legitimacy are concerned, there are three important lessons:
The semi-presidential model is a reliable and good constitutional choice as long as the formal powers of the head of state are kept modest. Some of the most serious constitutional battles between a directly elected president and the legislature took place in the three states where the head of state had the greatest formal powers (Lithuania, Poland, and Romania). However, while subsequent constitutional changes in these states modified the term or the powers of the president, none of them did away with the directly elective nature of the office.
Indirect presidential elections can be a major source of political instability, and loss of public trust in the legislature, unless the rules of the game are kept efficient. The examples of Slovakia and the Czech Republic showed that inclusive and consensus-oriented rules do not work in the long run. In both cases, the constitution required that the winning candidate obtain a highly qualified majority of votes, which proved to be extremely difficult, or even impossible, in an already fragmented multi-party parliament.
Efficient rules for indirect presidential elections ought to combine a simple majority threshold for winning with a fixed number of rounds in which the election must be completed. As the cases of Hungary and Estonia show, efficient rules will typically favor the candidate of the incumbent governing coalition and as such will further concentrate executive power in its hands. However, this may be a small price to pay relative to the instability that can be caused by the failure of consensus-oriented inclusive rules.
In short, the post-communist cases suggest that the ideal form of choosing the president of a new democracy may be either direct election by the people or indirect election by parliament using efficient, result-oriented rules and procedures. While presidentialism as a constitutional system may be perilous for the stability of a new democracy, as Juan Linz argued, there is also a great danger in adopting parliamentary processes of presidential election which can themselves become the source of political instability.
When the Senate of the Free City of Krakow oversaw the renovation of the main gate to the Royal Castle in 1827, it commemorated its action with an inscription: SENATUS POPULUSQUE CRACOVIENSIS RESTITUIT MDCCCXXVII. The phrase ‘Senatus Populusque Cracoviensis’ [the Senate and People of Krakow], and its abbreviation SPQC, clearly and consciously invoked comparison with ancient Rome and its structures of government: Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome. Why did a political entity created only in 1815 find itself looking back nearly two millennia to the institutional structures of Rome and to its Senate in particular?
The situation in Krakow can be seen as a much wider phenomenon current in Europe and North America from the late eighteenth century onwards, as revolutionary movements sought models and ideals to underpin new forms of political organisation. The city-states of classical antiquity offered examples of political communities which existed and succeeded without monarchs and in the case of the Roman Republic, had conquered an empire. The Senate was a particularly intriguing element within Rome’s institutional structures. To the men constructing the American Constitution, it offered a body which could act as a check on the popular will and contribute to political stability. During the French Revolution, the perceived virtue and courage of its members offered examples of civic behaviour. But the Roman Senate was not without its difficulties. Its members could be seen as an aristocracy; and for many historians, its weaknesses were directly responsible for the collapse of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Empire.
In these modern receptions of the Roman Senate, the contrast between Republican Rome and the Roman Empire was key. The Republic could offer positive models for those engaged in reshaping and creating states, whilst the Roman Empire meant tyranny and loss of freedom. This Tacitean view was not, however, universal in the imperial period itself. Not only was the distinction we take for granted, between Republic and Empire, slow to emerge in the first century A.D.; senatorial writers of the period could celebrate the happy relationship between Senate and Emperor, as Pliny the Younger does in his Panegyricus and many of his letters. Indeed, by late antiquity senators could pride themselves on the improvement of their institution in comparison with its unruly Republican form.
The reception history of the Republican Senate of ancient Rome thus defies a simple summary. Neither purely positive nor purely negative, its use depended and continues to depend on a variety of contextual factors. But despite these caveats, the Roman Senate can still offer us a way of thinking about how we choose our politicians, what we ask them to do, and how we measure their achievements. This continuing vitality reflects too the paradoxes of the Republican institution itself. Its members owed their position to election, yet often behaved like a hereditary aristocracy; a body offering advice in a state where the citizen body was sovereign, it nonetheless controlled vast swathes of policy and action and asserted it could deprive citizens of their rights. These peculiarities contributed to making it an extraordinarily fruitful institution in subsequent political theory.
Headline image credit: Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate: “Cicero Denounces Catiline.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Thou shall not plagiarize. Warnings of this sort are delivered to students each fall, and by spring at least a few have violated this academic commandment. The recent scandal involving Senator John Walsh of Montana, who took his name off the ballot after evidence emerged that he had copied without attribution parts of his master’s thesis, shows how plagiarism can come back to haunt.
But back in the days of 1776, plagiarism did not appear as a sign of ethical weakness or questionable judgment. Indeed, as the example of Mercy Otis Warren suggests, plagiarism was a tactic for spreading Revolutionary sentiments.
An intimate of American propagandists such as Sam Adams, Warren used her rhetorical skill to pillory the corrupt administration of colonial Massachusetts. She excelled at producing newspaper dramas that savaged the governor, Thomas Hutchinson, and his cast of flunkies and bootlickers. Her friend John Adams helped arrange for the anonymous publication of satires so sharp that they might well have given readers paper cuts.
An expanded version soon followed, replete with new scenes in which patriot leaders inspired crowds to resist tyrants. Although the added material uses her characters and echoes her language, they were not written by Warren. As she tells the story, her original drama was “taken up and interlarded with the productions of an unknown hand. The plagiary swelled” her satirical sketch into a pamphlet.
But Warren didn’t seem to mind the trespass all that much. Her goal was to disseminate the critique of colonial government. There’s evidence that she intentionally left gaps in her plays so that readers could turn author and add new scenes to the Revolutionary drama.
Original art was never the point; instead art suitable for copying formed the basis of her public aesthetic. In place of authenticity, imitation allowed others to join the cause and continue the propagation of Revolutionary messages.
Could it be that plagiarism was patriotic?
Thankfully, this justification is not likely to hold up in today’s classroom. There’s no compelling national interest that requires a student to buy and download a paper on Heart of Darkness.
Warren’s standards are woefully out of date. And yet, she does offer a lesson about political communication that still has relevance. Where today we see plagiarism, she saw a form of dissent had been made available to others.
The Vermont Department of Public Service will hold public hearings to gather public input on the final draft of the 2014 Vermont Telecommunications Plan. The Plan addresses the major ongoing developments in the telecommunications industry, including broadband infrastructure development, regulatory policy and recommendations for future action. The Department will hold two public hearings in Orange County on the public comments draft of the Plan prior to adopting the final Plan. Middle Branch Grange, 78 Store Hill Road, East Bethel, Vermont, September 18, 2014, at 2:00 p.m.
I went to this meeting. There weren’t even going to be any meetings in Orange County, the county where I live, until someone showed up at one of the Barre meetings and suggested them. So there were two meetings in Orange County last week. One during the day in Bethel and one in the evening in Strafford. Unfortunately the weather didn’t totally cooperate so there was a local power outage for some reason and a forecast of a hard frost that evening. So a lot of the farmers who would have shown up at this even had to stay home and cover plants and do other things that farmers do when the weather starts getting cold.
I’ve been doing a lot of leisure-time stuff in keeping with my theme this month but today I went to work. I sat and listened to multiple stories of farmers and other neighbors struggling with digital disinclusion. I took some notes and I made a statement. This is the polished version of what I said.
My name is Jessamyn West, I’m a technology educator in Randolph Vermont and I wrote a book about the digital divide. I have three points I’d like to make
We’re interested in results, not projections. A lot of the data we hear talks about when we’re going to have everyone online, or points to the number of people who have this technology available. I’d like to know why people aren’t online and what we’re doing to work with those people. Saying that most Vermonters have access overlooks the chunk of people with no access who should be the focal point of future build-outs. This report talks about how Burlington Vermonters have a choice of ISPs and overlooks that most of us have almost no consumer choice at all.
And while we’re getting people access, let’s make sure they all have the same access. People talk about 3G and 4G as if they are the same as cable or DSL. They’re not. They come with bandwidth caps, overage charges, and a lot of concern about impending lack of net neutrality. Similar to how, back when people had dial-up, some people in more remote locations had to pay for the phone calls in addition to having to pay for the service. We’re seeing the same gap now with remote users only having satellite or cellular-based access. We should strive for everyone having equitable access.
Most important to me is what we call the empowerment or the usability divide. I heard a person earlier say she wanted to get access to the internet so that she could run a website for her small business. Just getting access isn’t going to give her a website. She’ll need resources and likely some human help in order to be able to do that. And where does that come from? It used to be that the digital divide was just “People don’t have access to computers” and then it was “People don’t have access to the internet” and now that most people have access, sometimes only through their public library, we are still seeing participation gaps. These gaps align along the same lines as other structural inequalities like poverty, educational attainment, age, race, and disability status. The people not participating are already facing multiple challenges. We know this. We need to find a way to support those people and not reinforce those inequalities.
The hardest to serve have always been the hardest to serve; the challenge of getting everyone online is going to necessarily mean having a plan for those people as well as everyone else. Thank you.
Tuesday’s Cabinet reshuffle by David Cameron has been trailed for some time now, but until the last moment it was not expected to be of the scale it has assumed. As a result, it sets up the government to present a rather different complexion in the run-up to the general election.
The key factor in the scope of the reshuffle looks to have been William Hague’s decision to step down as Foreign Secretary. For some, this was the result of he’s being broken/bored by the work, but to have seen him last week pushing hard on ending sexual violence in conflict should give the lie to that. The reasons remain rather unclear for now, but the consequence is that the Foreign Office is losing one of its staunchest defenders of recent decades: Philip Hammond might be an operator, but he doesn’t have the same personal attachment to diplomacy that Hague has shown over the past four years.
If Hague walked, then Michael Gove certainly didn’t. His removal from Education to become Chief Whip isn’t a vote of confidence in either the man or his project for school reform: very little is coming through the legislative process in the next nine months that will require much arm-twisting. Cameron’s decision is very odd, given the extent to which he has backed Gove until now, when he could have cut his losses much earlier. Here the judgement might have been that things have moved far enough down the line that they can’t be reversed and that Gove is better moved out now to start building a profile in another area while Nicky Morgan picks up the metaphorical pieces.
Alongside these two big changes, a third individual was also pushed into the limelight: Lord Hill of Oareford. Jonathan Hill’s name is one which has been on the lips of almost no-one until today, when he was nominated as the British member of the European Commission. A Tory party insider, Hill has been Leader of the Lords since last year, providing with the skills of political management and coalition-building that Cameron argues will be essential in Brussels. His nomination also has the propitious consequence that there will be no need for the by-election that use of an MP would have entailed.
Beyond these three big changes, the rest of the reshuffle is mainly one of filling in the gaps created and rewarding allies (see the Institute of Government’s very useful blog for more). Thus several of the 2010 intake get into the Cabinet, such as Liz Truss, Stephen Crabb, and Priti Patel.
But what is the intent behind all of this?
There are two possible readings of this, one more optimistic than the other.
The positive interpretation is that this is part two of Cameron’s strategy, building on the radical phase needed to pull the UK up from the depths of the recession and forming a new team to create a positive shine to that work in anticipation for the general election. This is certainly Cameron’s own spin, trying to create a narrative that the worst is behind us and the strength of the economic recovery means we can afford not to think too hard about the difficulty that has passed.
Part of that strategy is to make a Cabinet that is more resistant to Labour attacks. One of the more-remarked-upon aspects has been the promotion/retention of women, an obvious rejoinder to the recent months of criticism from the Opposition. Likewise, Gove’s removal has at least some aspect of depriving Labour of one of their favourite whipping boys.
However, if we are feeling less generous, then we might look at things rather differently. Hague’s departure might seem less surprising if we consider that he might expect to be out of the Foreign Office next May in any case, on the back of a Tory defeat.
This is really the unspoken sub-text: that we give party loyalists some time in the political sun because it’s unlikely to last very long. Despite the tightening of the opinion polls in recent months (see the excellent Polling Observatory posts), the Conservatives still look like being out of power in May, even as a coalition partner. That puts a big disincentive on laying long-term plans and refocuses attention on making the most of the remainder of this Parliament.
It’s easy to forget in all of this that the Tories are still in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and that whatever electoral nemesis they face next year, that still lies in the future. Hence Cameron still has to temper the desires and pressures of his party to fit the coalition agreement, not least in his allocation of government posts.
All of this has echoes of 1992, when John Major looked set to lose, only to scrap through for another five years. Back then, there was a distinct sense that the foot had come off the gas and that the long period of Tory government was coming to an end. It was to be the questions over the electability of Labour that finally proved more consequential in the vote.
Cameron might not have had the long period in power that Major did, but he does have an Opposition that has struggled to impress. Even with the more fractured arithmetic of a party political system with UKIP, Tory victory is not impossible. That raises the potential danger that Cameron might pull it all off next year and then have to follow through.
If that did happen, then Europe is going to be the big fight, which will take up almost all his energies until 2017. Whether Hammond in the Foreign Commonwealth Office and Hill in Brussels will still look like good choices then remains to be seen.
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Image credit: Prime Minister visits Russia, by Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Flickr). Open Government License v1.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The wasteful attitude of the American society has reached a level of absurdity hitherto unmatched, or so it seems to me.
Here’s an example for you. Last week Yahoo News reported that Mitt Romney, that political candidate for presidential campaigns, intended to raze his $12 million home in California to build a bigger, more costly model.
When I read this assertion, my question flag began flapping in the breeze. If this person ever made it into the White House, what perfectly good taxpayer item would he raze in order to spend even more taxpayer money for vanity’s sake? I also asked myself how anyone could be so wasteful in the face of the current economy.
A couple of days later my sister and I returned home from the grocery store, frustrated and irate. We commented—okay, we complained—about the current price of fresh produce. We understand all the arguments about supply and demand, etc. Those weren’t the questions we were discussing.
Instead, we discussed the question of how those who were on restricted diets for medical reasons, like diabetes and heart disease, were expected to afford the continuing price increases with a shrinking dollar. On the tail of that question was another one that asked, perhaps, an even more critical question. How can grocers dispose of perfectly good produce at the end of a work day by throwing it into dumpsters in the back alley?
NAW, you say. Unfortunately, that is a practice that’s been going on for years. If I had the time, I’d research out the mandates of health departments and USDA rulings to uote those covering the length of time fresh produce can be displayed in stores before mandatory disposal. If you stop to think about how grocers display produce, you’ll quickly figure out why such foods have a limited shelf life.
Okay, back to the subject. One of the aspects of this questionable practice that really angers us is that we don’t hear about any grocers who relieve themselves of this frequent burden of fresh food by donating it—as a charitable contribution, no less—to homeless shelters, women’s shelters, prisons, schools, etc.
I realize that for prisons and schools and any other institution that accepts moneys from the federal government, the red-tape necessary for such donations makes such generosity nigh on to impossible. But, organizations like Meals-On-Wheels, and shelters could certainly use the boost, as could local food banks.
For some obscure reason Americans with lots extra to give to solving public problems ha
By Julie MacLeavy
In recent years, governments of both the right and left have been involved in debates over the best way to deliver public services. Whereas during the post-war period it was widely accepted that state provisioning of infrastructure, health, education and social services was the best way to ensure the well being of citizens, in the latter decades of the twentieth century the market was claimed to be a better way of delivering public goods and services because it was associated with competition, economic efficiency and consumer choice. Commitment to the market entailed a qualitative shift in welfare provision, whereby welfare was based less on a model in which the state counters the market and more on a model where the state serves the market.
The Government emphasis on reading for pleasure could be behind an uplift in sales to school libraries, claims bookseller Marilyn Brocklehurst of the Norfolk Children's Book Centre.
She said: "The pronouncements by the government about reading for pleasure are having an impact; schools are asking us for support to develop their libraries. Teachers who care about reading now have a mandate to sort out the school library."
I misfiled our tax extension. My husband, who is hilarious, wrote a letter to the IRS asking for clemency due to new-baby-induced Jello Brain. The IRS, who are apparently also hilarious, quoted him in their response.
I scanned the letter and he put it on Facebook. It went viral.
That afternoon during a lull in the daily baby-management, I hopped on Reddit to post the letter and discovered that someone had put it up hours earlier. Our funny IRS letter was now at the top of Reddit’s front page.
Over 1,800 people left comments and opinions. Everyone was pretty nice and we enjoyed the discussion. Some IRS employees even chimed in, talking about their jobs and lives.
This is the nature of the Internet. Something strikes a chord in our collective subconscious, and we share it with ourselves at the speed of thought.
I think we are all a little afraid of the IRS.
They seem to speak a slightly different language. They use phrases like: “A nonbusiness bad debt must be treated as a short-term capital loss” and look at us expectantly.
Every year they make us do math. They know our financial secrets, and they remind us that our money will be spent by people we probably didn’t elect, on things we might not like.
They could put us in jail. They took down Al Capone.
As a result, people yearn for a bit of humor from the IRS. I think any reminder that the government is made of people who are themselves parents and taxpayers is welcome news.
Governance, governance everywhere – why has the word “governance” become so common? One reason is that many people believe that the state no longer matters, or at least the state matters far less than it used to. Even politicians often tell us that the state can’t do much. They say they have no choice about many policies. The global economy compels them to introduce austerity programs. The need for competitiveness requires them to contract-out public services, including some prisons in the US.
If the state isn’t ruling through government institutions, then presumably there is a more diffuse form of governance involving various actors. So, “governance” is a broader term than “state” or “government”. Governance refers to all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market, or network, whether over a family, corporation, or territory, and whether by laws, norms, power, or language. Governance focuses not only on the state and its institutions but also on the creation of rule and order in social practices.
Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament
The rise of the word “governance” as an alternative to “government” reflects some of the most important social and political trends of recent times. Social scientists sometimes talk of the hollowing-out of the state. The state has been weakened from above by the rise of regional blocs like the European Union and by the global economy. The state has been weakened from below by the use of contracts and partnerships that involve other organizations in the delivery of public services. Globalization and the transformation of the public sector mean that the state cannot dictate or coordinate public policy. The state depends in part on global, transnational, private, and voluntary sector organizations to implement many of its policies. Further, the state is rarely able to control or command these other actors. The state has to negotiate with them as best it can, and often it has little bargaining power.
But, although the role of the state has changed, these changes do not necessarily mean that the state is less important. An alternative perspective might suggest that the state has simply changed the way it acts. From this viewpoint, the state has adopted more indirect tools of governing but these are just as effective – perhaps even more so – than the ones they replaced. Whereas the state used to govern directly through bureaucratic agencies, today it governs indirectly through, for example, contracts, regulations, and targets. Perhaps, therefore, the state has not been hollowed-out so much as come to focus on meta-governance, that is, the governance of the other organizations in the markets and networks that now seem to govern us.
The hollow state and meta-governance appear to be competing descriptions of today’s politics. If we say the state has been hollowed out, we seem to imply it no longer matters. If we say the state is the key to meta-governance, we seem to imply it retains the central role in deciding public policy. Perhaps, however, the two descriptions are compatible with one another. The real lesson of the rise of the word “governance” might be that there is something wrong with our very concept of the state.
All too often people evoke the state as if it were some kind of monolithic entity. They say that “the state did something” or that “state power lay behind something”. However, the state is not a person capable of acting; rather, the state consists of various people who do not always not act in a manner consistent with one another. “The state” contains a vast range of different people in various agencies, with various relationships acting in various ways for various purposes and in accord with various beliefs. Far from being a monolithic entity that acts with one mind, the state contains within it all kinds of contests and misunderstandings.
Descriptions of a hollow state tell us that policymakers have actively tried to replace bureaucracies with markets and networks. They evoke complex policy environments in which central government departments are not necessarily the most important actors let alone the only ones. Descriptions of meta-governance tell us that policymakers introduced markets and networks as tools by which they hoped to get certain ends. They evoke the ways central government departments act in complex policy environments.
When we see the word “governance”, it should remind us that the state is an abstraction based on diverse and contested patterns of concrete activity. State action and state power do not fit one neat pattern – neither that of hollowing-out or meta-governance. Presidents, prime ministers, legislators, civil servants, and street level bureaucrats can all sometimes make a difference, but the state is stateless, for it has no essence.
Mark Bevir is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of several books including Governance: A Very Short Introduction (2012) and The State as Cultural Practice (2010). He is also the editor or co-editor of 10 books, including a two volume Encyclopaedia of Governance (2007). He founded the undergraduate course on ‘Theories of Governance’ at Berkeley and teaches a graduate course on ‘Strategies of Contemporary Governance’.
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Image Credit: Martin Schulz during the election camapign in 2009. Creative Commons Licence – Mettmann. (via Wikimedia Commons)
A protestor holds a picture of a blood spattered Neda Agha-Soltan and another of a woman, Neda Soltani, who was widely misidentified as Neda Agha-Soltan.
It was agonizing, just a few weeks before publication of Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction, to discover that there was a minor mistake in one of the captions. Especially frustrating, as it was too late to make the necessary correction to the first print run, though it will be repaired when the book is reprinted. New research had revealed the original mistake. The inaccuracy we had been given had circulated the web and had been published by numerous press agencies and journalists too. What precisely was wrong?
To answer this question it is necessary to go back to Iran. During one of the demonstrations in Tehran following the contested re-election of President Ahmadinejad in 2009, a young woman (Neda Agha-Soltan) stepped out of the car for some fresh air. A few moments later she was shot. As she lay on the ground dying her last moments were captured on film. These graphic pictures were then posted online. Within a few days these images had gone global. Soon demonstrators were using her blood-spattered face on posters protesting against the Iranian regime. Even though she had not intended to be a martyr, her death was turned into a martyrdom in Iran and around the world.
Many reports also placed another photo, purportedly of her looking healthy and flourishing, alongside the one of her bloodied face. It turns out that this was not actually her face but an image taken from the Facebook page of another Iranian with a similar name, Neda Soltani. This woman is still alive, but being incorrectly identified as the martyr has radically changed her life. She later described on BBC World Service (Outlook, 2 October 2012) and on BBC Radio 4 (Woman’s Hour, 22 October 2012)how she received hate mail and pressure from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence to support the claim that the other Neda was never killed. The visual error made it almost impossible for Soltani to stay in her home country. She fled Iran and was recently granted asylum in Germany. Neda Soltani has even written a book, entitled My Stolen Face, about her experience of being mistaken for a martyr.
The caption should therefore read something like: ‘A protestor holds a picture of a blood spattered Neda Agha-Soltan and another of a woman, Neda Soltani, who was widely misidentified as Neda Agha-Soltan.’ This mistake underlines how significant the role is of those who are left behind after a death. Martyrs are made. They are rarely, if ever, born. Communities remember, preserve, and elaborate upon fatal stories, sometimes turning them into martyrdoms. Neda’s actual death was commonly contested. Some members of the Iranian government described it as the result of a foreign conspiracy, while many others saw her as an innocent martyr. For these protestors she represents the tip of an iceberg of individuals who have recently lost their lives, their freedom, or their relatives in Iran. As such her death became the symbol of a wider protest movement.
This was also the case in several North African countries during the so-called Arab Spring. In Tunisia, in Algeria, and in Egypt the death of an individual was put to use soon after their passing. This is by no means a new phenomenon. Ancient, medieval, and early modern martyrdom stories are still retold, even if they were not captured on film. Tales of martyrdom have been regularly reiterated and amplified through a wide range of media. Woodcuts of martyrdoms from the sixteenth century, gruesome paintings from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, photographs of executions from the nineteenth century, and fictional or documentary films from the twentieth century all contribute to the making of martyrs. Inevitably, martyrdom stories are elaborated upon. Like a shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean, they collect barnacles of additional detail. These details may be rooted in history,unintentional mistakes, or simply fictional leaps of the imagination. There is an ongoing debate, for example, around Neda’s life and death. Was she a protestor? How old was she when she died? Who killed her? Was she a martyr?
Martyrdoms commonly attract controversy. One person’s ‘martyr’ is another person’s ‘accidental death’ or ‘suicide bomber’ or ‘terrorist’. One community’s ‘heroic saint’ who died a martyr’s death is another’s ‘pseudo-martyr’ who wasted their life for a false set of beliefs. Martyrs can become the subject of political debate as well as religious devotion. The remains of a well-known martyr can be viewed as holy or in some way sacred. At least one Russian czar, two English kings, and a French monarch have all been described after their death as martyrs.
Neda was neither royalty nor politician. She had a relatively ordinary life, but an extraordinary death. Neda is like so many other individuals who are turned into martyrs: it is by their demise that they are often remembered. In this way even the most ordinary individual can become a martyr to the living after their deaths. Preserving their memory becomes a communal practice, taking place on canvas, in stone, and most recently online. Interpretations, elaborations, and mistakes commonly cluster around martyrdom narratives. These memories can be used both to incite violence and to promote peace. How martyrs are made, remembered, and then used remains the responsibility of the living.
Jolyon Mitchell is Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion, Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI) and Deputy Director of the Institute for the Advanced Study in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh. He is author and editor of a wide range of books including most recently: Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence: The Role of Religion and Media (2012); and Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction (2012).
The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday!
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Image credit: A protestor holds a picture of a blood spattered Neda Agha-Soltan and another of a woman, Neda Soltani, who was widely misidentified as Neda Agha-Soltan, used in full page context of p.49, Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction, by Jolyon Mitchell. Image courtesy of Getty Images.
The US military involvement in Iraq has more or less ended, and the war in Afghanistan is limping to a conclusion. Don’t the problems of torture really belong to the bad old days of an earlier administration? Why bring it up again? Why keep harping on something that is over and done with? Because it’s not over, and it’s not done with.
Torture is still happening. Shortly after his first inauguration in 2009, President Obama issued an executive order forbidding the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” and closing the CIA’s so-called “black sites.” But the order didn’t end “extraordinary rendition”—the practice of sending prisoners to other countries to be tortured. (This is actually forbidden under the UN Convention against Torture, which the United States signed in 1994.) The president’s order didn’t close the prison at Guantánamo, where to this day, prisoners are held in solitary confinement. Periodic hunger strikes are met with brutal force feeding. Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel described the experience in a New York Times op-ed in April 2013:
I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before.
Nor did Obama’s order address the abusive interrogation practices of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) which operates with considerably less oversight than the CIA. Jeremy Scahill has ably documented JSOC’s reign of terror in Iraq in Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. At JSOC’s Battlefield Interrogation Facility at Camp NAMA (which reportedly stood for “Nasty-Ass Military Area”) the motto—prominently displayed on posters around the camp—was “No blood, no foul.”
Torture also continues daily, hidden in plain sight, in US prisons. It is no accident that the Army reservists responsible for the outrages at Abu Ghraib worked as prison guards in civilian life. As Spec. Charles A. Graner wrote in an email about his work at Abu Ghraib, “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss himself.’” Solitary confinement and the ever-present threat of rape are just two forms of institutionalized torture suffered by the people who make up the world’s largest prison population. In fact, the latter is so common that on TV police procedurals like Law & Order, it is the staple threat interrogators use to prevent a “perp” from “lawyering up.”
We still don’t have a full, official accounting. As yet we have no official government accounting of how the United States has used torture in the “war on terror.” This is partly because so many different agencies, clandestine and otherwise, have been involved in one way or another. The Senate Intelligence Committee has written a 6,000-page report just on the CIA’s involvement, which has never been made public, although recent days have seen moves in this direction. Nor has the Committee been able to shake loose the CIA’s own report on its interrogation program. Most of what we do know is the result of leaks, and the dogged work of dedicated journalists and human rights lawyers. But we have nothing official, on the level, say, of the 1975 Church Committee report on the CIA’s activities in the Vietnam War.
Frustrated because both Congress and the Obama administration seemed unwilling to demand a full accounting, the Constitution Project convened a blue-ribbon bipartisan committee, which produced its own damning report. Members included former DEA head Asa Hutchinson, former FBI chief William Sessions, and former US Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering. The report reached two important conclusions: (1) “[I]t is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” and (2) “[T]he nation’s highest officials bear some responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of torture.”
No high-level officials have been held accountable for US torture. Only enlisted soldiers like Charles Graner and Lynndie England have done jail time for prisoner abuse in the “war on terror.” None of the “highest officials” mentioned in the Detainee Task Force report (people like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush) have faced any consequences for their part in a program of institutionalized state torture. Early in his first administration, President Obama argued that “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past,” but this is not true. Laying blame for the past (and the present) is a precondition for preventing torture in the future, because it would represent a public repudiation of the practice. What “will be gained” is the possibility of developing a public consensus that the United States should not practice torture any longer. Such a consensus about torture does not exist today.
Tolerating torture corrupts the moral character of the nation. We tend to think of torture as a set of isolated actions—things desperate people do under desperate circumstances. But institutionalized state torture is not an action. It is an ongoing, socially-embedded practice. It requires an infrastructure and training. It has its own history, traditions, and rituals of initiation. And—importantly—it creates particular ethical habits in those who practice it, and in any democratic nation that allows it.
Since the brutal attacks of 9/11/2001, people in this country have been encouraged to be afraid. Knowing that our government has been forced to torture people in order to keep us safe confirms the belief that each of us must be in terrible danger—a danger from which only that same government can protect us. We have been encouraged to accept any cruelty done to others as the price of our personal survival. There is a word for the moral attitude that sets personal safety as its highest value: cowardice. If as a nation we do not act to end torture, if we do not demand a full accounting from and full accountability for those responsible, we ourselves are responsible. And we risk becoming a nation of cowards.
Rebecca Gordon received her B.A. from Reed College and her M.Div. and Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory from Graduate Theological Union. She teaches in the Department of Philosophy and for the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Letters From Nicaragua, Cruel and Usual: How Welfare “Reform” Punishes Poor People, and Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States.
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I think April 15th would be the worst birthday to have. There are two kinds of people as it relates to taxes – those who get a check and those who have to send a check. If you have to send a check (like me), you grudgingly hold onto it until the last minute and mail it on April 14th, leaving you broke and unable to buy a present for your friend with a birthday the following day. If you get a check, you filed in early February. Since you considered the return a sudden windfall, you blew it on something frivolous like a snowcone maker, leaving you no residual to buy a present for your friend with the worst birthday of the year.
Conversely, there would be something extremely cool about being a leap baby and having February 29th as your birthday.
That tidbit is irrelevant today since I just had to write a check to the United States Treasury! Oh, I understand that it costs to provide government services. I know it has to come from the citizens. I just hate filling that out on the check – and then they want me to Fed X it or pay extra for a return confirmation. I’m sorry, but aren’t I paying for the postal service to be sufficient to deliver your money to you? If you have any doubts whether the man in blue who just took my envelop can discharge his duty properly, shouldn’t you institute a better employee screening process instead of charging me another $4.50?
I’m not bitter, though. Not at all.
But while I’m on the subject, I remember when I took my first baby home from the hospital in mid-December. When I did my taxes, I felt like I had cheated the world since I got a deduction for the entire year and she only cost me for two weeks. That was eighteen years ago. So this year I lost the tax credit for her because she turned eighteen. I love her dearly, but like most children, she is complete financial dead weight – all cost, little contribution. And let me tell you Mr. United States Treasury, she costs considerably more now at eighteen than she did at one. I’d trade diapers and formula for cell phones, clothes, gas and car insurance any day.
I’m not bitter, though. Not at all.
I could go on, about paying into a social security system that I am assured will not exist when I am of age to need it. That’s why I had four kids, they are a kind of a retirement plan for me. I figure I can rotate a week a month at each of their houses and mooch off them just to pay them back. I’ll refuse to wear pants, make odd noises and smells, and sit on the front porch complaining about the government all day.
I’m not bitter, though. Not at all…
Photo credit: Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views
If a week is a long time in politics then goodness knows what seven years represents in geopolitical terms. The publication of the second edition of the VSI to Geopolitics was a welcome opportunity to update and reflect on what has changed since its initial publication in 2007. Five issues loomed large for me in terms of the second edition.
First, the onset of a global financial crisis and the geopolitics of austerity deserved greater recognition. While much of the conversation focused on the failings of neoliberal globalisation and the banking/financial services sector, the financial crisis was also geographical and geopolitical in nature. Geographically, the impact and scope of crisis and austerity remains resolutely uneven with some communities and localities more exposed to debt, liability, loss and dispossession. The retrenchment of government spending and investment hit those communities highly dependent on public sector employment for example. Geopolitically, the financial crisis brought to the fore the manner in which some countries were represented and understood as financially reckless, political weak and incapable of reforming their economies. The so-called PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) within the European Union context might be one such example of this geopolitical profiling but another might be the manner in which Cyprus was depicted as a source of ‘hot money’ from Russia and China, which was disrupting the capacity of the Cypriot government to make ‘necessary’ fiscal and political reforms to its economy and society.
Second, the ongoing legacies of the War on Terror needed further exposition. The recent rise of Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has generated a plethora of commentary much of which insists that the contemporary crises in Iraq and Syria are related to the deeply controversial invasion of Iraq in 2003 by a US-led coalition and a US-led strategy designed to use the invasion of Iraq as a way of introducing democratic transformation in the Middle East and Central Asia. What we now appear to face is a situation where the US and Iran might find they are able to collaborate with one another in a mutual goal of preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq (and perhaps also Syria). All of this seems far removed from the situation in January 2002 when President George W Bush described Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’ with Iraq and North Korea. As critics noted at the time, this opportunistic labelling did not reflect the complex geopolitical circumstances surrounding those three states. And the refrain ‘states like these’ in the 2002 State of the Union Address by President Bush suggested that there might be even more to add to the list.
Third, the Edward Snowden revelations have highlighted the second edition had to talk more explicitly about an ‘invisible geopolitics’ or one perhaps barely visible to those of us not well connected to the intelligence community. While few would have been surprised by the rise of a surveillance culture post 9-11 in the US and UK (for example), it took these revelations to bring home quite how involved the communications sector was in enabling these mass surveillance cultures. Had popular culture, including films such as Enemy of the State (1998), offered us a pre-warning of the kind of surveillance capabilities that might be brought to bare on domestic citizens? What might the implications be for citizens to express geopolitical dissent in a world where telephone conversations and electronic conversation might be capable of being recorded, analysed and actioned?
Fourth, a new chapter on objects is introduced for the express purpose of focussing attention on the materiality of geopolitics. In other words, stuff. Whether it be either the CCTV camera on the high street or the flag being waved at an official ceremony, geopolitics is made possible by our relationship to objects. In the midst of the 2014 World Cup, it is difficult to avoid the sight of various national flags fluttering from buildings and cars, and being waved vigorously by supporters. In the contexts of mega events such as the Olympics and World Cups, the flag is an essential accomplice to host governments eager to capitalise on such global media exposure while at the same demanding ever more investment in security projects designed to safe-guard participants, spectators and the interests of government sponsors. But the flag can also matter in more mundane ways as well; the flag that might hang from someone’s house barely noticed but a powerful marker of geopolitical possibilities which extend far beyond national identification.
Fifth, and finally, the second edition was a welcome opportunity to remind readers that geopolitics is always embodied. It is not abstract. It is not something merely preoccupied with the global. It is a subject matter that is resolutely everyday. Geopolitics is about the various ways the geographies of politics are made to matter and the manner in which the local, national, regional and global co-constitute one another. Feminist geographers have been at the vanguard of this realisation and demonstrating how bodies, sites, objects and practices are inter-linked to one another and capable of producing very real consequences for people, communities and environments. The border and associated border regimes provide a rich source of material; linking border control/policing ideologies to the mobility and vulnerability of bodies. Sites and environments matter as anyone who has attempted to cross the US-Mexican border or the Mediterranean in a ramshackle boat would testify. For many of those migrants the journey itself will be one they won’t survive.
Professor Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway University of London. Since publication of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction, he has co-edited three books, Spaces of Security and Insecurity (2009), Observant States: Geopolitics and Visual Culture (2010), and The Ashgate Handbook on Critical Geopolitics (2012). He has also written The Antarctic: A Very Short Introduction. The new edition of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction
Just in time for Independence Day, Doubleday Books for Young Readers (Random House Kids) has released two new titles by Caldecott Medalist, Peter Spier. He has taken the words of two of our nation's greatest symbols, the Constitution and "The Star-Spangled Banner," and created two sprightly illustrated, perusable picture books,
We the People: The Constitution of the United States and The Star-Spangled Banner.
In We the People, it is the preamble to the Constitution that creates the story. Short phrases ("We the people of the United States") appear on each double-spread page, accompanied by many small pen and watercolor vignettes relating to the phrase. On many pages, such as "promote the general Welfare," the small paintings contrast our past and future. One set of images shows a man with a three-cornered hat delivering the post on horseback. The facing image is that of a U.S. mail truck stopping at a line of rural mailboxes.We the People has a copy of the original document as its endpapers, and contains a brief history of the Constitution and its entire text in the back matter. Names and images of the Constitution's signers are also featured.
The Star-Spangled Banner features large, often double-spread paintings for each line in our national anthem. The illustrations depict the 1814 Battle of Baltimore which inspired the lyrics. The first two verses comprise the illustrated story, while the remaining two verses, along with the sheet music are included in the back matter. Also included is an image of the original hand-written poem, a receipt for the 30' x 40' flag that flew over Fort McHenry (made and sold by Mary Young Pickersgill for the sum $405.90), a photograph of the battered Fort McHenry flag when it arrived at the Smithsonian Museum in 1907, and of course, historical information regarding the flag and battle. The endpapers feature "A Collection of Flags of the American Revolution and Those of the United States of America, Its Government, and Its Armed Forces."
At 48 pages each, and a sizeable 12.5" x 9", these books offer young readers plenty of opportunity to peruse their many small characters and details. Both books should have a place in every school.
In mid-April 2010, the Icelandic volcano called Eyjafjallajokull erupted and erupted again, sending thick clouds of volcanic ash and rock into the atmosphere. Throughout the British Isles and much of northern and western Europe, air travel was deemed unsafe and airports were closed for an indefinite period, which ultimately lasted six days. Among the hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded far from home, and becoming increasingly desperate, were 40,000 Americans in Britain. I was one of them. Having completed the business for which I had gone to the UK, I devoted myself to keeping up with my AMSCO duties via iPhone, while I searched for an escape route that would enable me to reach home. The inability of any official source to indicate how long the crisis would last (an 1821 eruption of the same volcano lasted 2 years!) contributed to a terrible feeling of being trapped.
Parliament and Congress: Representation and Scrutiny in the Twenty-First Century offers an insiders’ comparative account of the procedures and practices of the British Parliament and the US Congress. In this original post, the authors – William McKay, who spent many years working at the House of Commons and is now an observer on the Council of the Law Society of Scotland, and Charles W. Johnson, who is a Consultant to the Parliamentarian of the US House of Representatives - discuss procedural and institutional developments in both countries over the last few months: in the UK, the new Parliament and coalition government, and in the US, the procedural complexities of the heath care reform bill.
Though the expenses scandal which dominated the parliamentary scene in the UK during 2009 is out of the headlines, it has not gone away. Some of the consequences of the public’s loss of confidence in Parliament are still to be worked out. The new coalition government has brought forward fresh ideas, and parliamentary reform is one of them. Some of these notions are interesting, others more worrying.
The mainspring of the UK constitution is parliamentary democracy. Some recent suggestions seem to diminish the ‘parliamentary’ aspect. One of them, a hangover from the expenses affair, would permit 100 constituents to bring forward a petition which, if signed by 10 percent of a constituency electorate, would vacate the seat of a Member found guilty of wrongdoing, so precipitating a by-election. No one wishes corrupt legislators to retain their seats but existing law already provides that Members of the Commons who are imprisoned for more than a year – those guilty of really serious offences – lose their seats. Secondly, the appropriate way for a parliamentary democracy to deal with offending Members is not for their constituents to punish them but for the House in which the Member sits to do so. The Commons has ample power to expel a Member (the Lords is a more complex matter) though it would be wise to devise more even-handed machinery for doing so than presently exists. Finally, if such a change is to be made, the legislation will have to distinguish very clearly recall on grounds of proven misdoings from opportunist political attacks. It will not be easy.
A further diminution of the standing of Parliament is the proposal for fixed-term Parliaments. It is intended that a Prime Minister may seek a dissolution only when 55 percent of the Commons vote for one. Politically, such a provision would prevent a senior partner bolting a coalition to secure a mandate for itself alone. Constitutionally there are serious disadvantages. A successful vote of no-confidence where the majority against the government was less than 55 percent would not be enough to turn out a government. It might simply lead to frenzied coalition-building, out of sight of the electorate. Governments which had lost the confidence of the Commons could stagger on if they were skilful enough to build a new coalition – for which the country had not voted. During the latest election campaign, concern was expressed that every change of Prime Minister should trigger a General Election. The idea was not particularly well thought-out – how would Churchill have become Prime Minister in 1940? – but nothing could be more at odds with the proposed threshold. Untimely dissolutions happen in two circumstances – when a Prime Minister thinks he can improve his majority and when a government loses a vote of confidence. This proposal tries to restrict the first (which may be a good thing) but does so by interfering with the second, which certainly is not.
In America, the House Committee on Rules drew much attention during the prolonged health care debates in Congress. An understanding of its composition, authority and function
We all know that July hosts our Independence Day. We all celebrate it; it’s a national holiday. You probably went to a parade or to see fireworks, right? But often we forget how many other countries can claim July independence.
For one, France has Bastille Day on July 14. It marks the storming of the Bastille fortress in 1789, and the beginnings of the French Revolution. The revolution instituted the makings of the nation as a democratic republic, abolishing feudalism, and establishing a constitution for all French people. It is now a yearly holiday celebrated all over France. But you may know a little about the French Revolution already…
The Eiffel Tower
Do you know that July claims more independence holidays than just of France and America? July 23,1952, exactly 58 years ago today, marks the start of the Egyptian Revolution by the Free Officers Movement. In the same way as Bastille Day was the catalyst for a change from a kingdom to a republic in France, July 23 marks the beginning of the revolution for a democratic nation in Egypt.
The impoverished army in Egypt at the time was growing more and more frustrated with the selfish nature of King Farouk I. Seeing him as both corrupt and pro-British, they wanted to overthrow him in an effort to give the government back to the people, and get it out of the hand
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Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Easter Studies Emeritus at Princeton University. His new book, Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East, illuminates the role of religion in the Middle East, revealing how it has shaped society for good and for ill. In the excerpt below, which looks at Islamic government, we learn about the long history of religion intertwining with governmental authority.
Every civilization formulates its own idea of good government, and creates institutions through which it endeavors to put that idea into effect. Since classical antiquity these institutions in the West have usually included some form of council or assembly, through which qualified members of the polity participate in the formation, conduct, and, on occasion, replacement of the government. The polity may be variously defined; so, too, may be the qualifications that entitle a member of the polity to participate in its governance. Sometimes, as in the ancient Greek city, the participation of citizens may be direct. More often qualified participants will, by some agreed-upon and recurring procedure, choose some form among their own numbers to represent them. These assemblies are of many different kinds, with differently defined electorates and functions, often with some role in the making of decisions, the enactment of laws, and the levying of taxes.
The effective functioning of such bodies was made possible by the principle embodied in Roman law, and in systems derived from it, of the legal person – that is to say, a corporate entity that for legal purposes is treated as an individual, able to own, buy or sell property, enter into contracts and obligations, and appear as either plaintiff or defendant in both civil and criminal proceedings. There are signs that such bodies existed in a pre-Islamic Arabia. They disappeared with the advent of Islam, and from the time of the Prophet until the first introduction of Western institutions in the Islamic world there was no equivalent among the Muslim people of the Athenian boule, the Roman Senate, the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Icelandic Althing or the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot, or any of the innumerable parliaments, councils, synods, diets, chambers, and assemblies of every kind that flourished all over Christendom.
One obstacle to the emergence of such bodies was the absence of any legal recognition of corporate persons. There were some limited moves in the direction of recognition. Islamic commercial law recognizes various forms of partnership for limited business purposes. A waaf, a pious foundation, once settled is independent of its settlor and can in theory continue indefinitely, with the right to own, acquire, and alienate property. But these never developed beyond their original purposes, and at no point reached anything resembling the governmental, ecclesiastical, and private corporate entities of the West.
Thus almost all aspects of Muslim government have an intensely personal character. In principle, at least, there is no state, but only a ruler; no court, but only a judge. There is not even a city with defined powers, limits, and functions, but only an assemblage of neighborhoods, mostly defined by family, tribal, ethnic, or religious criteria, and governed by officials, usually military, appointed by the sovereign. Even the famous Ottoman imperial divan – the divan-i humayun – described by many Western visitors as a council, could more accurately be described as a meeting, on fixed days during the week, of high political, administrative, judicial, financial, and military officers, presided over in earlier times by the sultan, in later times by the grand vizier. Matters brought before the meeting were referred to the relevant member of the divan, who might make a recommendation. The final respon
History has always intrigued me. I hear a legend of Alexander the Great, and I want to go find a book on ancient Greece and Macedon in the 300s B.C. My university offers a class on the great thinkers of the 1960s? Sign me up! A woman writes a blog about the history of candy? Awesome, put it on my RSS feed.
I think history intrigues me for two reasons: both what happened, and what people decipher as what happened. I want to understand the significant, and why it was deemed so.
Often the concepts of social memory and cultural reality are left out in basic history studies; there are just too many years to squeeze into a lesson for this sort of discussion to fit.
What am I talking about? Here is an example: For me, it happened while I was an undergraduate in economics. I took this offbeat history course, called “History of the Marriage Crisis in Egypt,” in order to fulfill a strange liberal arts requirement. It was a class that looked at Egyptian history through the eyes of those in the time period.
It seems that modern Egypt has suffered a marriage crisis on and off for the last century; as the press, books, and the population would attest to. But the marriage and divorce rates had stayed almost constant throughout this time period. So where was this “crisis” coming from? As my professor taught the course, it became apparent that the marriage crisis would erupt during times of economic hardship and political upheaval. It was common in all forms of social discussion. The book my professor wrote argued that the marriage crisis was a lens, a form of communication, how people could view and voice their concerns through a different medium than, say, politics or poverty.
One of the best writers I know -- who also happens to be a dear friend -- has a new novel out. I just ordered copies from amazon.com and you can too. (The link is over there on the right.) If you know other fiction lovers who are appalled by the influence of Christian fundamentalism creeping into government, please pass the word along about this novel. I think people will also find it a good read even if they aren't interested in religion or politics. At least go take a look at the gorgeous cover!
Amy Poehler mentions, in an interview, that they just made up their anti-library stance in order to make a joke. But it turns out that they found many government officials actually shared those sentiments.
How much does Parks and Recreation hate the library?
The library represents that branch of government that’s like the smart kid—the teacher’s favorite. And the library always wins. They get whatever they want. Everybody loves them—nobody can say anything. People who work in the library think they are so much better than everyone else. And what’s really funny is we’ve been doing Q&A’s about our show, and people from local governments have said, “You guys nailed it about the library.” We were just making it up as a joke on the show, but I guess everyone hates the library.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins caught my attention quickly and held it fast throughout the rest of the book. The cliffhanger ending prompted me to buy the next two books without thinking twice.
A book like this makes you think about your situation as it is today and the direction everything is going. It is clearly set in a futuristic United States, but it's no future any of us (hopefully) would ever want. It has a corrupt government in every sense of the word. People nowadays may not be happy with the way things are going, but at least we aren't publicly whipped or shot if we want to speak out against things that are happening. We still have so many freedoms that The Hunger Games shows us we should be thankful for.
Who could live in a world where "games" are held every year pitting people–teenagers–against each other in a battle for their lives? Aside from that there is a constant fear of starvation or a fear of things getting worse than they already are, though that is hard to imagine. This government has torturous ways of dealing with difficulties that keeps everyone terrified.
One girl, a hunter who just wants to keep her family alive, especially her little sister, is faced with what she considers no choice. She enters the hunger games to save her sister from having to go. This sacrifice leads her down a road she can't turn away from. Her hunting skills and ability to out-think her opponents–and the government–are the only things keeping her alive. For now. But will the government let her truly win the games?
I’ve talked here before about CRS reports and how even though they’re created on the public’s dime, there’s no easy and simple way to search for and actually access them without requesting them one by one via your congresspeople. This is frustrating. Apparently, it’s not even widely known that this is not the case. Secrecy News Blog, from the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, reports that the Librarian of Congress isn’t even quite clear on this.
Members of the public enjoy unrestricted access to all reports of the Congressional Research Service, according to the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington.
“Though CRS has no direct public mission, at present the public has unfettered access to the full inventory of CRS Reports for the Congress at no cost through the office of any Member or committee,” he wrote in an April 4 letter (pdf) to Amy Bennett of Openthegovernment.org.
Unfortunately, that assertion is quite wrong. The public does not have access to the full inventory of CRS Reports. There is not even a public index of CRS reports that would enable people to request specific reports by title.
The concept and organization of the second book (I haven’t read the first one) is formulaic. Organized first by state and then by the signers in that state, the authors provide a brief biography of each of the 39 men. The biographies are short (4–5 pages each) and include interesting facts presented in a well-written way. For example, George Clymer of Pennsylvania is described as an “unassuming moneybag,” “cool cucumber,” and “big shot from a big state.” The title of this chapter, “The Signer Whose Home Was Destroyed by the British,” draws one in, though we are soon told that the destruction of his home did not affect Clymer much, and that he went on to serve as a U.S. Representative and to manage excise taxes for the Washington administration and negotiate treaties with the Creek and Cherokee.
A Good Read?I cannot imagine anyone reading Signing Their Rights Away in one or two sessions, even though the book is short. The stories are too similar to one another, though the authors do provide a twist to each biography, such as “The Underachieving Signer” for John Blair of Virginia, a man who said nothing at
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