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June 17, 2009

Iranian and Iraqi Democracy--Stuntz

In the many discussions of the pro-democracy protests in Iran, I’ve seen precious little about the relationship between that country’s democracy and democracy in its majority-Shiite neighbor: Iraq. The example of a democratic and not theocratic state on Iran’s borders may be destabilizing in precisely the ways the Bush Administration hoped – only the effect took hold more slowly than expected. If so, Bush should get some credit for this hopeful turn of events.

June 19, 2009

Democracy and Law--Stuntz

With good reason, ours is an age in which the rule of law is a terribly important concept. In the United States, support for law—and support for law’s natural product: order—is near-universal. Not so with respect to support for democracy. Americans oscillate between Administrations (like the previous one) that seek to promote both law and democracy and Administrations (like the current one) that seek to promote stability and order: the key products of the rule of law. We agree about law’s virtues. About democracy, not so much.

This is curious, and deeply wrong. Law has no moral content: its rights and wrongs depend wholly on the content of the relevant legal rules. Democracy does have moral content: it says that, as between thuggish rulers and people in the streets of Tehran, the people in the streets are on the side of the angels. True, democratic governments are sometimes evil—but the concept of democracy places limits on those evil rulers; their rule is subject to a power they cannot control. Law is more a tool for evil rulers than a limit on them. As between democracy and law, I would think Americans of all political stripes could agree that democracy is a better and more consistent ally.
 
Perhaps that will be the lesson of what looks more and more like the Iranian Revolution of 2009. I certainly hope so. The American-style rule of law is deeply problematic; much about our legal system is nightmarishly wrong and unfair. But the twin ideas that elections matter and that governments do not fake election results—those are thoroughly good and right ideas, ones with which all of us, Bushian and Obamaphile alike, ought to agree. Maybe the rise of the Iranian street will produce such agreement. Again, I hope so.
 

March 15, 2010

Rome Will be Rome--Skeel

When in Rome, I make a bee-line for the three great Caravaggio paintings of St. Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi, just east of Piazza Navona. Standing in front of the paintings a few days ago—transfixed by the look of utter certainty on Christ’s scruffy features as he points a narrow finger toward Matthew in The Calling of Matthew [here]-- I realized that it was a good thing that none of my traveling companions had come with me. My gushing would have been unbearable. It occurred to me that this might make a nice topic for a blog post.

And then Rome intervened. The next day we watched six or eight trams go by in the other direction as we started out from our hotel in Trastevere, and none in our direction. The tram finally came after I had given up and had run across the street to try to catch a bus.
 
Last night as I made my way to Piazza del Popolo, which houses another great Caravaggio church, I was slowed by a wave of humanity coursing slowly down Via del Corso. This wasn’t a transportation strike—that was two days earlier—it was an enormous protest against Prime Minister Berlusconi. (A very cheerful protest, I should add. The middle aged Italians carrying signs reminded me of the protestors at a Tea Party rally). I made it nearly to the Piazza before finally giving up.
 
These frustrations alternate with the happy accidents that inevitably accompany them. One of the students on our trip get separated from us as we wandered around the edges of the Forum looking for Perilli’s Rome office, and happened upon a restaurant where she and her husband had eaten during their honeymoon six years ago. After several frustrating shopping expeditions, I finally found a birthday gift for my wife, whose birthday I missed because of the hard time I was doing in Rome. (We’ll see soon if she likes it too …)
 
I think heaven will be a little like Rome: full of aesthetic splendor and moments of pure, unexpected joy—just without the frustrations which, in a fallen world, provide the sharp, Caravaggian contrasts of dark and light that make the joys of Rome so arresting.
 
 

March 25, 2011

Italy's 150th--Skeel

Last week, Italy celebrated the 150th anniversary since its unification with a new holiday that occasioned more than a little skepticism and handwringing. Italy has rarely been genuinely unified, and the divisions between Italy’s prosperous north and troubled south seem to be widening rather than shrinking.

The celebration confounded the usual Italian politics. I initially assumed that it must have been cooked up by the embattled Berlusconi government.  But the holiday actually posed a dilemma for the ruling coalition, since they depend on the Northern League party, which favors a sharp separation from the south and has little interest in Italian patriotism. The center-left opposition, which usually steers clear of patriotic gestures, associating them with Italy’s fascist past, staged rallies at which—quite uncharacteristically-- Italian flags could be seen.
 
On the morning of the celebration, green, white, and red Italian flags hung from windows throughout Rome. As I walked up Via Babuina from the Spanish Steps to Piazza del Popolo (a favorite spot for demonstrations), a squadron of fighter planes roared past overhead, trailing columns of green, red and white smoke. The blank face of a man walking toward me filled with a look of surprised pride; another man was smiling broadly.
 
Most of the people I talked to later in the day also seemed pleasantly surprised with the holiday, pronouncing it more successful than they expected. But I have my doubts as to whether it will catch on. In the U.S., the last debate over a national holiday was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Although there was serious resistance in some quarters, supporters were passionate about the holiday.   No one in Italy seems to have the same fervency, which may make last week's celebration a one-off event.