I recently participated in an interesting discussion on NPR’s Air Talk about Social Media and its impact on American politics. You can listen to the interview at Air Talk’s web site.
Another controversial court ruling, another night of rioting and looting. Last week Californians once again witnessed the temperamental acting out of those who feel they were on the wrong side an injudicious decision by a jury of their peers.
Last Thursday San Francisco-area transportation police officer Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the 2009 death of BART rider Oscar Grant. Video evidence showed that while arresting Grant, Mehserle unholstered his gun, instead of his taser, and fatally shot Grant. Given the racial overtone of the tragic New Year’s Day killing (Mehserle is white, Grant was black), citizens of the East Bay felt only a conviction for murder would be true justice. So divisive was the issue, the trial was moved to Los Angeles.
Although first-degree murder wasn’t an option for jurors to consider, many Oakland-area citizens were still stunned by what they perceived to be a lenient involuntary manslaughter conviction, which, in conjunction with other charges, carries up to 14 years in jail for Mehserle.
Whether justice was truly served in the case is a question that will be debated for years to come. But the public response to the conviction is unequivocally wrong. By late Thursday afternoon, media outlets in San Francisco were warning citizens to leave downtown for fear of a violent reaction to the verdict. Riot police geared up for a long evening. While most citizens shared their disgust at the verdict through lawful verbal condemnation, those who have no respect for the law, judicial system or social order in general seized upon the public anger as an opportunity to be violent.
As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Officials said the main instigators appeared to be organized “anarchist” agitators wearing black clothing and hoods.” The so-called outsiders took advantage of the seething anger of local residents, inciting violence. They successfully turned mere emotional anguish into physical aggression.
Such anarchic acts are not just an assault on local authority and community, they are an assault on society at large and the very structure of social order. While such violence is an extreme example of anarchy, rebellion and disrespect for the societal order, there are less-violent but just as insidious acts that eat away at society—and they often come from the very government charged with keeping order and administering justice.
As the tumult in San Francisco was unfolding, a hundreds miles away in Sacramento, another form of rebellion was taking place. This time, violence wasn’t incited, but the same rebellion against social order was at its root.
State Controller John Chiang defied Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s order to implement a federal minimum wage for 200,000 state workers until the state budget is passed—which is currently almost two weeks past its constitutional deadline. A state court ruled the governor had the authority to impose such a pay standard until the legislature and governor agree upon a new budget.
In defiance of both the executive and judicial branches, Chiang whined that his department is physically incapable of issuing a $7.25 per hour paycheck to state workers. An antiquated computer system tied his hands. Considering this is the same politician who last year allocated $2 million in tax dollars to redecorate his office, his pathetic excuses were not well-received by the public. This type of lame excuse seem utterly illogical to a commonsense business world. If cuts must be made and then implemented, they are made.
Apart from the social contract that provides societal order, the life of man is, according to Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Communities and societies are established to protect the weakest among us and administer justice. An orderly society can only exist when citizens agree upon the laws that will govern them and then abide by those rules. Without consent and then obedience, social order unravels quickly. From hooligans on the street, to special-interest-beholden politicians defying separation of powers, both are insidious forms of rebellion against society at large.
Although one form of rebellion is violent and physically destructive, and the other is played out in well-lit, orderly courtrooms, they are both rooted in the same destructive attitude. Anarchists want to destroy social order, preferring the solitary and brutish life described by Hobbes. Self-absorbed politicians bend social order to meet their selfish ends, regardless of the damage inflicted on the delicate balance of governing authority.
It was an ending so dramatic that even Hollywood’s best writers couldn’t have scripted it. After a courageous 90-minute fight against a defiant Algeria, it seemed that once again America’s World Cup dreams would end in disappointment. In just the first two weeks of the international competition, Team USA had been denied two game-changing goals and been on the losing end of questionable referring decisions, but had battled back.
As millions of soccer fans watched with bated breath, American soccer star Landon Donavan scored an amazing goal with just three minutes of play remaining, sending America to the elite round of 16. For a country that isn’t usually passionate about soccer, suddenly soccer was the center of every conversation. Outside of Saturday morning children tournaments, soccer has never enjoyed the same popularity, money or prestige of basketball and football, or even hockey. But, true to the American spirit, this country loves an underdog. And when it comes to underdogs, America’s soccer team has seen its share of heartbreak and loss on the international level. All it took was one significant game in the biggest sporting event in the world to renew America’s interest in what is considered the world’s most popular sport. Before the start of the 2010 World Cup, most Americans probably didn’t know the name of even one member of the country’s representatives at the competition. But the team’s victory may have sparked a new interest in what was once considered the pastime sport of childhood. There was so much buzz about Landon Donavan’s miraculous soccer goal it set a new Internet record, with traffic reaching 11.2 million visitors per minute. Athletic events have the ability to renew our patriotic passion and pride. Sports—especially international events—are supposed to transcend politics. But in a way, it is the very venue where one expresses nationalistic pride the most. If internationalists truly understood the patriotism inspired by sports, they would end what they consider xenophobic-inducing competitions. In 1980, the Olympic Miracle on Ice was such a miracle not only because the underdog American hockey team was unlikely to beat the steely Communist Soviet Union team, but because it served as a metaphor for the Cold War. When America bested the Soviets, the country was downtrodden. An inept Jimmy Carter had allowed the country to slip into a recession, which Carter blamed upon a “crisis of confidence.” In that infamous “Malaise” speech, Carter recognized the mood of the country, by observing, “It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” But instead of cheering America on to greatness, he called upon Americans, for the “nation’s security,” to limit travel and use more public transportation. How inspiring: don’t expect to overcome current problems, just acclimate. Just like thirty years ago, America is once again experiencing a crisis of confidence. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, an astonishing 67% of Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction. And in an eerily similar manner, just last week Barack Obama, who is increasingly compared to Carter, took the opportunity of a national crisis to chide Americans about their “addictive” use of energy. This week Vice President Joe Biden channeled Carter and once again preached the gospel of concession and acclimation by pronouncing, “there’s no possibility to restore 8 million jobs lost in the Great Recession.” Has Biden forgotten that Americans don’t know the meaning of impossible? The 1980 Miracle on Ice triggered a renewed sense of patriotism and that indomitable can-do attitude that is the hallmark of American exceptionalism. Months later, Ronald Reagan was elected president and through his eloquent reminding, the country rediscovered its purpose. America is in the doldrums. Patriotism is considered passé. The man inhabiting the White House won’t even acknowledge American exceptionalism, betraying an elitist attitude towards such small-minded nationalism. Obama seems too concerned with impressing the international community. Like the Miracle on Ice, Team USA’s exciting victory on Wednesday could be the latest example of a sporting event reinvigorating the country’s patriotic spirit. In the hours following the soccer match, videos popped up all over YouTube showing Americans’ reactions to the unbelievable goal seen ’round the world. Spontaneous outbursts of The Star Spangled Banner were heard in the streets. And the one remarkable consistency among all the videos from every corner of the nation showed an instantaneous chanting of “USA, USA, USA!” Sadly, just four days after America’s euphoric win over Algeria, America’s dream of reaching the World Cup finals were ended in an overtime loss to Ghana—the same country that beat America at the last World Cup. But regardless of how far they ultimately advanced in the competition, when Landon Donavan kicked that now legendary goal with seconds left on the game clock, Team USA kick-started a renewed sense of patriotism. Let’s channel that patriotism. That indomitable spirit exemplified by Team USA can overcome our current problems. Many in this country feel that we are in the last few minutes of our nation’s greatness. But as America’s soccer team showed us, even when all seems lost, we can turn things around and be victorious. That’s the story of America.
By now, the image of a young woman lying in a Tehran street, her life ebbing from her body, is indelibly etched in the collective conscience of the world. Twenty-six-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan has become a symbolic martyr for the millions of Iranians confronting an oppressive government. It’s fitting that an innocent young woman’s death should be the rallying figure for the movement against a government whose laws treat women as second-class citizens. It is the fairer sex that has historically suffered the most under unjust, repressive regimes and although Agha-Soltan’s murder has attracted worldwide publicity, her death is just the latest cruelty inflicted upon the women of Iran.
Over twenty years ago, another innocent young woman lay dying in a remote Iranian village, another victim of violent injustice. This week, her death will also give voice to the women of Iran when her story is told through the remarkable film, The Stoning of Soraya M. Set in a small Iranian village, the film recounts the true story of Soraya’s death at the hands of her fellow villagers after being falsely accused of adultery.
Under Iranian law, convicted adulterers are put to death by stoning, with the law even specifying that the stones must be large enough to inflict pain, but not so large as to kill the victim within the first few blows. While the free world may focus on Iran’s dangerous nuclear ambitions, attention must also be brought to the truly oppressive nature of Iran’s government toward its people. Like so many of the despotic governments throughout history, Iran’s theocracy instituted laws that blatantly discriminate against women and prescribe harsh, sometimes deadly, penalties for even the most mundane crimes.
As the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign notes, “Women constitute nearly all those condemned to death by stoning. Why? Because discriminatory laws and customs almost always assign more guilt to women than to men,” especially in crimes of moral turpitude. According to Amnesty International, stoning is still a common practice throughout parts of the world, including Iran: “Despite official claims that stonings have been halted—including a moratorium issued by the Head of the Judiciary in 2002—several have taken place.”
American politicians may squabble over whether waterboarding is torture, but surely anyone can agree that the hours-long process of hurling stones at a human being, inflicting as much pain as possible prior to death, constitutes definite torture. In The Stoning of Soraya M., the whole graphic, torturous process is laid bare in unflinching detail.
The overarching theme of this true story is that the world must know of the injustices occurring in Iran, and everywhere men and women are wrongly convicted of crimes and callously put to death. It is Soraya’s courageous aunt who defies their village’s villainous leadership and pleads with a reporter to “take my voice” through a tape recording so that the world will hear her niece’s story.
Last weekend I was honored to attend the premiere of The Stoning of Soraya M. at the Los Angeles Film Festival. In speaking with the Iranian-American cast of the film, it was clear each recognized the historic significance of this film’s release during such a momentous time for Iran. Less than a mile away from the theatre where the film was shown, hundreds of Iranian-Americans had gathered to peacefully display solidarity with their brethren fighting for freedom thousands of miles away. Several of the cast members explained that they have been glued to their televisions, computers and cell phones, riveted, with the rest of the world, by the images pouring out of Iran. Each actor expressed optimism that horrific events such as the one they portrayed in their film would soon come to an end when Iran enters a new era of freedom and democracy.
This Friday, The Stoning of Soraya M. will open in several major cities across the nation. Its premiere this week could not be more timely. To show their support for the Iranians risking their lives for freedom, Americans should attend a screening of this important movie. It may seem a simple thing to do, but by bearing witness to Soraya’s story, her death will serve the purpose of focusing attention on the cruel violation of women’s rights in Iran and around the world.
As destiny would have it, Neda’s name means “voice;” Soraya’s aunt asked a reporter to “take my voice” and share her niece’s tragic story. This week, Neda and Soraya give voice to the millions of Iranian women who have been silenced for too long.