Iran and Us

 

There's a rally scheduled in Iran today. It should happen around 7:30 EST. I've been up all night thinking about it. The news from that country over the past week has shaken me. As the week wore on and the rallies continued, I feared the hardliners might lose their patience. Yesterday, they seemed to indicate they have. Ayatollah Khamenei's speech at Friday prayers hinted at violence and left little room for compromise. Iranians know what may happen today if they once again march silently by the millions through the streets of their capital: They might not come back. It seems they will go anyway. As you can tell from the (immensely moving) video above (h/t Andrew Sullivan, who deserves an award for his coverage of the past week), the shouts of "God is great" and "death to the dictator" were louder than ever in the city last night. The opposition leaders do not seem to be backing down, despite government promises to arrest any of them who appear at the rally. Defeated presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi and former president Mohammed Khatami have promised to be there, according to the BBC. (Update 7:00 a.m.: The situation is increasingly ambiguous, and the BBC says they're getting "mixed messages," but their Tehran correspondent says the rally will probably still go ahead. Twitter messages seem to confirm it's still on.)

There's a feeling I've had in the pit of my stomach ever since the rallies started in Tehran. I recognize it from every time I have really wanted something to happen despite how unlikely it seemed at the time. It's not optimism, because I know the protesters face overwhelming odds and I know that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei and the hardliners won't go easily. It's hope. Hope is rooting for something you know to be unlikely or impossible, like universal health care or a black man being elected President. Hope is what we hold on to in the face of tough realities. That's why the stories, fictional and not, that move us most deeply are the ones in which the heroes face down enormous odds. Every culture—every family, even—has its own David and Goliath story. In my family, that story is about my grandparents.

My maternal grandmother, whose mother was Christian, converted to Judaism in Berlin in 1937.  She was in love with my grandfather, who was Jewish. When he was deported to the Warsaw ghetto, she could have left Germany with the Peruvian visa she had somehow obtained. Instead, she followed him. They escaped from Warsaw before the liquidation of the ghetto and were married in hiding. On Easter Sunday, 1944, they boarded a train to Berlin, carrying false papers. My grandfather figured that Berlin would be the last place the Nazis would be looking for Jews in 1944, and that Easter would be a good day on which to travel. He was right, and here I am today.

What does any of that have to do with Iran? Just that, in the face of overwhelming odds, people don't always do the rational, self-preserving thing. They go to Warsaw instead of Peru. They risk their lives in the streets instead of going to work. Sometimes things work out, and the underdogs win. My existence is proof of that. But a lot of the time people aren't as lucky as my grandparents. David doesn't always win. The tanks roll into Tienanmen. The neighbors turn in Anne Frank. And seemingly mundane decisions separate the times that the underdogs win from the times that they don't.

This relates to the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt wrote about. Evil doesn't always manifest itself in grand conspiracies or random murders. That's too easy. More often, it's just someone doing his or her job. A soldier following orders. A Basij beating up some people in the street. A bureaucrat making sure the trains run on time. When the underdogs win, it's usually because people don't act the way they're expected to. What's happens today in Iran rides on that interaction between people just doing their jobs—cogs in the machine—and people who, because of their frustration and disappointment, are fighting against that machine. A German soldier helped my grandparents escape. Who will help the protesters today? Will the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij slaughter their own people? Or will some—or all—join with the protesters? What would you do?

I know that even if, by some miracle, the soldiers lay down their arms and the protesters win today's confrontation, the Middle East's problems won't be magically fixed. Mousavi isn't some pro-American friend of Israel—far from it. But it's hard to root against the people marching silently though the streets, demanding a vote and a voice. As Peggy Noonan wrote yesterday, "the uprising, as it moves us, reminds us of who we are: lovers of political freedom who are always and irresistibly on the side of the student standing in front of the tank or the demonstrator chanting 'Where is my vote?' in the face of the billy club."

That's why, as much as I understand how counterproductive it would be for President Obama to speak directly in support of the protesters (because it would help Ahmadinejad/Khamenei to paint them as American stooges), I sometimes harbor the secret, selfish wish he would. We keep hearing that this isn't about us—it's about them. That's right, of course, but it's more complicated than that. We identify with the protesters. I know it's overly emotional and solipsistic to get so involved in the political goings-on in Iran while sitting comfortably in America. But I can't help it, and neither, I suspect, can many people around the world. Their calls for justice and freedom have universal resonance. On Friday, President Obama, constrained as he is by political realities and his own temperament, warned the Iranian government about what might or might not happen today:

I am very concerned... that the government of Iran recognize the world is watching, and how they approach and deal with people who are, through peaceful means, trying to be heard will, I think, send a pretty clear signal to the international community about what Iran is - and is not.

I understand Obama's rightly-praised reluctance to hand Ahmadinejad ammunition for his political battle. But if Khamenei cracks down, and the world witnesses another Tiananmen, I doubt that Americans will embrace engagement with the regime. We see too much of ourselves in the protesters. We hope for them. We are watching. If they are murdered, and they very well could be, what will Obama say then?

The cliché goes something like, "Not many people saw the Velvet Underground, but everyone who did, started a band." Count the Mirrors among that select few who fit the cliché.

Formed in 1972 Cleveland, the Mirrors were one of the Ohio bands that—like Electric Eels, Styrenes, and Rocket From the Tombs—creating the embryonic goop that evolved into or influenced some of the best Punk and New Wave bands, ever. (Like Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, and Pagans).

The Mirrors wear the Velvets' influence well, with some songs tending to the slower, lo-fi, jangly side—more Loaded-era VU—and others mining arty, experimental depths. While they were around, the Mirrors had a 40-minute freakout jam called "Sweet Sister Ray" which they said was a sequel to VU's "Sister Ray." That one's not included on the album. It's probably a song better experienced live, and possibly best experienced under the influence.

At the same time, early Syd Barret-styled Prog Rock can be heard creeping through some of the songs. It's a less freaked out sound, but still noodles through some killer, exploratory guitar riffs. The Mirrors also nail the basic, essential garage rock pounder.

As disparate as all that sounds, the Mirrors' sound has the singular, syncopated roar of a Ford 355 engine (known as the Cleveland).

Not as bent as the Electric Eels ("I'm So Agitated!”), nor as throttling as Rocket from the Tombs, the band filled a void among the Cleveland pre-punk scene. It's a sound that at the time was slowly crawling up through the cracks of music, as heard in other obscuro-bands like Simply Saucer (Canada), the Twinkeyz (Sacramento), or X_X (featuring former Mirrors members). But it showed up in less obscure bands, too—like the Modern Lovers (led by Jonathan Richman) and Red Krayola.

This 15-song album collects the two Mirrors songs originally released in 1977 as a 7" on Hearthan records, in addition to tracks from the incredible Those Were Different Times compilation of Cleveland pre-punk (Scat Records), and material from the Hands In My Pocket CD (Overground Records). Everything was recorded during the Mirrors brief apex, 1974/75.

Make no mistake, the new, vinyl-only Mirrors reissue on Violet Times is a record nerd’s record: a beautifully packaged, limited, vinyl-only release, by a band time forgot. It shouldn't have to be that way.

Ordering information on the Mirrors' Myspace page, or try your friendly independent record store/mailorder.

Earlier today I looked at health care co-ops—which the Senate Finance Committee includes in its draft health care bill instead of a public plan—and explained why they're a poor substitute for a true public option. Independent filmmaker Lee Stranahan spotted the post and made this video zeroing in on committee chair Sen. Max Baucus's bait and switch on the public plan. Check it out here.

On the left, Inkblot looks like a subject in a Rembrandt still life.  Or so he thinks.  On the right, Domino is getting a bellyful of afternoon sun.  No problems with body image for Domino!  Enjoy your weekend, everybody.

Can your ten-year-old daughter talk to diplomats? Hold her own at a cocktail party? Put guests at ease with her easy charm and natural grace?

No?

Sounds like someone is in dire need of manners camp. Macleans ran a story yesterday about a new two-week etiquette camp for ten- to 14-year-old girls in Montreal. The program description from the camp's website:

A unique program designed to offer your child a memorable summer while they develop confidence, social charm and grace, a sense of style and refinement. Participants will learn an array of skills from social etiquette, personal presentation skills, personal grooming and care, choice and co-ordination of attire, reception planning and hosting, to singing and dancing, Students will also be introduced to selected disciplines of music and fine arts (such as painting, and piano). At the end of the event, participants will host a cocktail reception for their parents to celebrate the results of their efforts in a real-life setting.

Understandably, feminists are fuming. (A sociologist interviewed by Macleans quipped, “It might as well be called Wife Camp! Is Betty Draper happy on Mad Men? No! She’s miserable!”)

But camps like this one are nothing new. A Google search for "etiquette camp" turns up a bunch of results, my favorite of which is the Courtesy for Kids camp offered by the North Carolina-based Pinky Toes Party Palace, which includes the ominously named lesson "Eat, Drink, and Be Wary."

But what makes the Montreal one particularly troubling—to me, at least—is the arts thing. Manners, poise, personal presentation—not my idea of summer fun, but all sort of useful skills, I guess. But what, then, are we to make of the painting, piano, and singing components? A Jane-Austen-ish arts-as-party-tricks line of reasoning? Ugh.

The good news: If manners camp isn't your kid's thing, take heart. If she has a special interest, be it Scientology or Ted Nugent, rest assured there's a camp out there for her.

Yet More VAT

A couple of days ago the New York Times reported that House Democrats were considering a VAT (a tax similar to a national sales tax) as a partial funding source for national healthcare.  Today AP reports this again.  Jon Cohn is pleased.  Ezra Klein isn't.

I continue to think this isn't a serious possibility.  The VAT is just one of half a dozen potential revenue sources that Ways & Means is considering, and in the end my guess is that the others are far more likely to be approved than a VAT.  But I'm happy to see this on the table anyway.  One of these days I think we're going to need a VAT as a funding source for healthcare, but it's not going to happen until the ground has been prepared and it morphs from being viewed as an outré piece of European socialism to being just an ordinary and familiar option to argue over.  It's an Overton window kind of thing, and the sooner it gets started the better.

Bruce Bartlett has more on the VAT here and here.  I've written about it here. Properly constructed, it's transparent, reasonably progressive, able to raise significant sums, and economically efficient.  It's worth trying to give it a higher profile.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the California Academy of Sciences weekly nightlife gathering. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that at the event was a special screening of a documentary film titled Frogs: The Thin Green Line.

Whereas I thought that human development was the only major problem causing frogs' rapid worldwide decline, the film made me aware of the many other threats facing frogs, their critical importance in the food chain, and steps that humans are taking to prevent further extinction of frog populations.

Fortunately, even if you missed the documentary on the big screen, you can watch it in its entirety online (click here!).

Sidenote: Our Mother Jones office frog, Mudraker, is doing very well. He spends his days in and around his castle and he is most active in the evenings. Also, all 7 of our fish are still alive and the community is thriving.

The U.S. Senate voted unanimously yesterday to apologize for U.S. slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed. Upon first reaction, this seemed to me like "too little too late." The resolution, following a similar vote in the House last year, seemed especially insignificant because it did not include reparations for slaves' descendents. But as The Root, an online magazine providing "news from a variety of black perspectives" notes, the apology is "better way, way, way late than never."

It turns out the United States government has a history of apologizing to ethnic minorities for their systematic opression. Below are some of the top examples:

  • In 1988, President Reagan signed an Act apologizing to Japanese Americans interned in work camps during World War II. The Act promised $20,000 to each of the 60,000 detainees still living.
  • In 1997, President Clinton apologized to the African American community for the Tuskegee Experiment, which put African Americans at risk of often dangerous treatments for syphilis. "We cannot be one America when a whole segment of our nation has no trust in America," he said.
  • In 1998, Clinton traveled to Uganda and acknowledged the evils of slavery, but stopped short of offering a formal apology.
  • In 2005, the House voted to apologize to America's native population "for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect" inflicted against them by the United States.
  • Speaking at the Summit of the Americas in April 2009, President Obama acknowledged that the United States has a troubling past relationship with The Americas." The United States will be willing to acknowledge past errors where those errors have been made," he said.

Considering some of our worst actions, apologies seem futile, but their symbolic function is actually quite important to the affected communities. Still, Obama's foes in the GOP have been quick to criticize him as an apologist. Instead of acting as the party of "no apologies," though, the GOP should let President Obama actively try to restore the United States' image in the world by apologizing for its most flagrant past mistakes.

Obama's Temperament

Jacob Heilbrunn praises Obama's reaction to the Iranian election crisis:

Clearly Obama was caught flatfooted by the protests. But he does seem to be carefully ratcheting up his criticisms of the mullahs. In a Tuesday interview with CNBC, Obama said that when, "you've got 100,000 people who are out on the streets peacefully protesting, and they're having to be scattered through violence and gunshots, what that tells me is the Iranian people are not convinced of the legitimacy of the election. And my hope is that the regime respond not with violence, but with a recognition that the universal principles of peaceful expression and democracy are ones that should be affirmed."

....The truth is that the impressive thing has been how well Obama has handled the crisis....Obama's basic approach has been to follow the foreign policy equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath: "First, do no harm." Imagine the obloquy that would greet Obama if he were to champion the demonstrators and help to create a bloodbath, as Radio Free Europe did during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, when it encouraged Hungarians to revolt by assuring them that they had backing of the West, which they didn't. So far, Obama has shrewdly hewed to a middle course that allows him some flexibility in dealing with Iran.

This, of course, is Obama's basic modus operandi for everything.  He doesn't feel like he has to react immediately to every provocation.  When he does, his responses are usually measured and sober.  He looks for middle ground.  He's willing to wait for the right time to push the boundaries a little further in the direction of his choosing.

This is sometimes intensely frustrating.  The gay community, for example, is up in arms over his lack of action on issues like DOMA and DADT.  But there shouldn't be any surprise about that.  It was obvious throughout the entire campaign season that this is how he works.  He'll let the military stew over DADT for a while until they basically ask him to change it, rather than the other way around.  It might take longer, but he figures — probably correctly — that the end result will be better for everyone.  Ditto for DOMA, which doesn't yet have the votes in Congress for repeal.

And ditto for lots of other stuff.  He's shown a disturbing willingness to compromise on financial regulation and healthcare.  He hasn't engaged much with the Waxman-Markey climate bill as it slowly gets watered down into nothing.  He's a cautious guy who doesn't take a lot of chances unless he feels some real pressure to do so.  Paradoxically, this is exactly what I expected from him but I find myself disappointed anyway.  A little bit more fire in the belly would be welcome.

But he is who he is, and the same instincts that disappoint us on some issues serve him well on others. So far, anyway. The next few months — possibly the next few days in Iran — will tell us just how much real hope and change Obama's temperament produces when the rubber finally hits the road.

Regulating Risk

I'm not really sure if the federal government needs a "systemic risk regulator."  I just don't have a strong opinion about whether this is the right way to think about managing credit bubbles.  But a couple of days ago I said that if we do have such a thing, it shouldn't be the Fed.  Instead, "you want to give the authority to an agency that's institutionally dedicated to reducing risk and considers it a primary task.  That ain't the Fed.  It's just going to get buried in the bureaucracy and forgotten there."  Tyler Cowen responds:

Assuming we are going to do it, I think it has to be the Fed, whether we like it or not.  It's the Fed who is the fireman with the awesome power to print money, move markets, lend to the banking system on a large scale, and now even conduct fiscal policy, all without Congressional approval.  Our textbooks speak of the Fed as a lender of last resort but very often it is the lender of first resort too.

Now, this might be right.  It's possible that we just don't have any choice.  But at the risk of a bit of incoherence, let me offer an alternative.

It's true that the Fed is the agency with the brute force to make things happen in an emergency.  But I'm not sure that's the relevant thing to think about.  What we want is some kind of body that works to prevent emergencies.  That requires credibility and influence, but it doesn't necessarily require a trillion dollar balance sheet.

I guess the model I have in mind here is the Congressional Budget Office.  The CBO is unknown to most people, but despite its small size and low public profile it has a remarkable amount of power.  This power comes from two sources.  First, it has institutional credibility.  I honestly don't know how it's managed to keep this credibility in the face of what must be enormous partisan pressure, but it has.  It's widely considered an honest broker and its budget estimates are taken seriously by everyone.

Second, although the CBO itself doesn't have a huge staff or control of a huge budget, Congress has agreed to abide by its cost estimates for legislative programs.  This means that CBO analysts have considerable indirect control over a lot of money.  And in Washington, money equals power.

So my question is: could we create an agency like the CBO, but charged with monitoring systemic risk in the financial system?  It would have to be nonpartisan and independent.  It would need to have risk management baked into its DNA as its primary mission, rather than being #7 on a list of ten goals — with everyone knowing that only the top three get any real attention anyway.  Its director would need the kind of credibility that makes people listen when he warns that other agencies are allowing too much giddiness on Wall Street.  And, finally, it would need the right mix of authority, either direct or indirect, that's enough to force people to take it seriously when its mere credibility isn't quite enough.

But here's the incoherent part: I'm not quite sure how you'd construct such an agency or what authority might be sufficient for it to do its job without getting it hopelessly at odds with other regulatory agencies.  One way or another, though, I feel that giving this mission to the Fed is simply a waste of time.  Right now, virtually every impulse — both at the Fed and in the private sector — works in the direction of either ignoring credit bubbles or actively cheering them on.  If we're going to put a brake on this, we need to think about institutional priorities and balances of power, and figure out what it would take to get systemic risk established as a bureaucratic turf with a built-in constituency dedicated to protecting it over the long term.

Smart people, help me out.  What should this look like?  Or is it foolish to think this is even possible?