The silent Iranian Revolution

CIVIL AFFAIRS

In 1979, religious fundamentalists overthrew the government in Iran. Built-up by the repressive conditions of the despotic Shah, who despite his autocracy was fiercely secular and even admiring toward the west, religious groups loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini, an Islamic cleric, engaged in an armed struggle to win control of the country.

Iran, which to that point had been a model of secularist values in the Middle East, quickly turned its back on the progress. Bolstered by popular support, Khomeini took supreme control of the country, and began a brutal crackdown on all dissenters and minorities. Equality between the sexes, once a goal in Iran, became a distant dream as misogynists only reinforced patriarchal conditions in the country. Iran, as well as countries with similar stories such as Afghanistan, only took a step backward since being taken over by religious zealots. They have turned their back on the 21st century, and all the values that go along with it.

Today, Israel stands on the precipice of its own “silent Iranian revolution.” However, the reactionary and misogynistic brigades of today will rely upon votes, not violence, and ballots, not bombs, to achieve their goals.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, comprised with some centrist elements, has collapsed, new elections will take place in 10 days time. Opinion polls prognosticate that Netanyahu will likely be returned as prime minister in the parliamentary elections, which feature a plethora of parties as a result of the nationwide proportional representation system. However, more significant than Netanyahu’s likely re-election is that his most extreme allies, namely the far-right religious parties such as The Jewish Home, look destined to retain their strong presence in the Knesset at the expense of those aforementioned centrist parties.

Originally, one of Israel’s key advantages compared to its backwards neighbors was its dedication to secular values. Even though, as early as the state’s declaration of independence, there were references to the state’s dedication to being a home for the Jewish people, this sentiment echoed the people and not the religion. Many of the state’s founding fathers, including David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzchak Rabin, were avowed atheists.

Unfortunately, as time went on, the population has become far more religious, heavily comprised of individuals with little appreciation for democratic values. Dedication to free speech/expression, minority rights and equality of the sexes has particularly been ignored by these backwards, reactionary and extreme parties.

Under Netanyahu’s stewardship, the government enacted an anti-democratic law, ostensibly designed to protect against well-organized boycotts against the state. The law allows for private individuals to launch litigious, frivolous and punitive suits against those advocating for such boycotts, chilling the free speech rights of those advocating for dissenting opinions in Israeli society. This illiberal, authoritarian law was heralded by the aforementioned religious and far-right parties.

They have similarly done their best to alienate the Arab minority within Israel. Long heralded for its colorblind and ethnicity-blind laws that extended equal protections and democratic rights to all citizens, Jewish, Arab or something else entirely, these protections have been all but eviscerated in recent years. In 2010, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his racist ilk attempted to push through a so-called loyalty oath that would have required citizens, of all ethnicities and religions, to pledge fealty toward the “Jewish state.” The heinous proposal, which sought to humiliate religious and ethnic minorities, was derided by newspapers and even cabinet ministers as simply fascist in nature.

Perhaps most perniciously, ultra-religious groups have begun expanding segregation based on gender in public spaces. Be it cemeteries, sidewalks or even buses, women are often compelled to occupy second-class conditions as a way of fulfilling misogyny and sexism masquerading as religious values. Former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, one of the centrist politicians recently sacked by Netanyahu and a key rival to him in this month’s election, attempted to criminalize these abhorrent practices but received immense pushback from religious societies.

The ultra-religious have exponentially grown in population and influence in Israel as a result of the indefensibly generous deal they get from government welfare. These individuals simply get a check from the government, subsidizing their unemployment, and spend all days at Synagogues or Yeshivas, contributing absolutely nothing to society. Most Israelis agree they are a drain on the economy, but political realities suggest they are also a drain on the morality and progress of the state. Like the fundamentalists who propped up Khomeini in Iran, their vision for the future is theocratic and deleterious.

In the next Israeli parliamentary election, the hard and religious right looks likely to continue their stranglehold in power and continue to implement their harmful, reactionary and fascist agenda upon the state. For all those curious to see how theocracy can work out for a Middle Eastern country, one need not look any further than Iran. For the sake of Israel, which despite all these criticisms is still at heart a liberal democracy (albeit with many, many flaws), it should seek a different path. Their silent Iranian Revolution may not be silent much longer.

Civil Affairs: Plea deals

CIVIL AFFAIRS

Last night, I was reading The Economist when I came about a series of editorials and articles on what was called the great tragedy of the American criminal justice system: plea deals. The series bemoaned the rise of these agreements, which now — by some estimates — account for nearly 95% of adjudications in the system. Castigated as unreliable and prone to abuse, the newspaper suggested that perhaps some of the prosecutors’ aggrandized power be shifted to Judges. In a somewhat quixotic suggestion, they even argued that the plea deal itself should be abolished –though they quickly admitted the idea as infeasible.

In less ambitious fashion, the newspaper then suggested the outright banning of mandatory minimum sentencing (commonly used as leverage in plea deals), as well as introducing more judicial control over the plea deal process. Both are somewhat good ideas, particularly the former. But they are not realistic in today’s day and age.

The newspaper, as it prefers to be called, made quite a spot-on point in lamenting the almost biblical power that prosecutors now hold in the courtroom, arguably even rivaling that of the judge in some instances. I suppose that this is a bad thing, but perhaps not as bad as insinuated. A few years ago, I made the somewhat strange argument that the modern District Attorney, in some ways, resembles old Courts of Chancery (equity). I stated that, by applying prosecutorial discretion in the ubiquitous plea deal, the DA is able to live in the grey of a black and white world, and otherwise can be warm when the letter of the law is cold and aloof.

Perhaps my thinking back then was a little misguided, as I guess I should have thought bigger. It is an interesting idea to humor the idea of the DA being stripped of those equitable powers, and having them restored to the judges. Come to think of it, it is probably the more noble solution, though present realities make it effectively impossible.

The key problem here is that taxpayers — those who pay for the courts to function — willfully continue being the dark about how much it costs to provide an individualized and fair court process to every single defendant, which I admit is not happening now. Simply put, a lot of people go through the process every year, and if we continued having similar ratios of court staff to defendants as we may have had in the past, taxes would go up to pay for the additional courts and lawyers.

Just in Harris County, the number of Criminal Courts should probably double in order to give many of the defendants the attention they deserve. Currently, criminal courts are so swamped in Harris County that the number one priority all too often is expediency. In the name of judicial economy, simplifying the docket becomes a top priority. I’m not faulting the courts or judges for this; without keeping the docket under control, everyone loses.

Prosecutors are obviously not numerous enough to prosecute every single case. Judges are not numerous enough to preside over them either. Hence, a solution is formed for the overabundance of work coupled with the dearth of lawyers: the plea deal. It’s not pretty, but it keeps the wheels moving in courthouses all across the country. If we are getting serious about dumping it, we have to remember the fiscal consequences. Given this State and this country’s irresponsibility with fiscal affairs, I doubt we would be willing to make any hard choices.

Civil Affairs: Law

CIVIL AFFAIRS

Editorial note: Noah M. Horwitz has previously contracted work with the Clifford Group, a public relations firm that counts Yellow Cab among its clients. He currently does no work on behalf of them.

Serving on the Editorial Board of The Daily Texan, I have gotten the opportunity to sit down with a diverse set of stakeholders in community issues. This evening, I had a conversation with a few corporate representatives of Uber, who are trying desperately to pressure the Austin City Council into legalizing their service later this week. I don’t really want to get into the weeds of that issue right now, but what struck me as peculiar was their cognitive dissonance upon being confronted on operating illegally.

Uber and Lyft, app-based vehicle for hire services, routinely jump into new markets by cavalierly breaking the local laws until the municipal government agrees to legalize their courses of action. Once again, I don’t want to get into arguing why I think most all of the regulations currently governing taxis in most Texas cities are sound, or why the reforms Uber and Lyft are fighting toward are misguided. This is just about their strategy when entering a new marketplace. In Houston, they received some citations, but in Austin, they have racked up a lot of them and have even seen the impounding of many vehicles.

When I asked the Uber representatives about this, they confidently stated that they were not, in fact, breaking the law. The Austin Police Department begs to differ, but Uber’s response was that they had a different “interpretation” of the laws currently governing vehicles for hire. Of course, I know some people who have “different interpretations” of laws on cannabis and underage drinking, but it doesn’t ever seem to help them on the weekends.

Many reasonable proponents of Uber will concede that the service breaks the law, but that their lawbreaking is somehow justified by the fact that the laws are allegedly silly. Indubitably, the same thing can be said about our tax code, but the last time I checked, the IRS still does not take too kindly to tax evasion.

I will freely admit that I was radicalized on this issue when Uber and Lyft first began nonchalantly violating the law in Houston, last February. In May, they followed suit in Austin. Now, I grew up in a fairly secular household, and my father is a super old-school attorney, so I was raised with an almost spiritual reverence and respect for the law. I couldn’t ever justify taking either service in a city that is illegal in, and I really do not understand some of the people I know, who gloated about driving for the services on their social media accounts. Perhaps I’m a goody-two-shoe, but the casual attitude on breaking laws –especially local ones– is troubling. These were not imposed by some malevolent dictator in a faraway land, they were concurred to by rather pure representatives of the people not so long ago. Say what you will about the laws being obsolete or wrong, they still need to be respected until they are changed.

And if I hear one more self-righteous liberal gripe about “civil disobedience” or compare Uber and Lyft to players in the Civil Rights movement, I think I am going to lose it. Be it from Thoreau or Martin Luther King, there is a history in this country of violating unjust laws, but this is only in the rare exception of a statute that violates higher law, be that the Constitution or the inherent liberties of man. I don’t think you would find a single person who could say with a straight face that taxi regulations requiring 24/7 commercial insurance or prohibiting variable pricing violate either of these principles. This isn’t a moral struggle.

Personally, I’m offended by how few of my contemporaries are offended by Uber and Lyft’s cavalier lawbreaking. We have a social contract in this society, and that includes abiding by mutually-agreed upon laws.

Civil Affairs: Courthouse

CIVIL AFFAIRS

Meticulously following both the 2013 election and the 2014 election has led me to examine the many differences between the two campaign cycles. In the former, an individual voter makes selections in a grand total of 8 elections at City Hall, plus one or two –give or take– around various school boards. The duties and responsibilities for these elected posts are quite straightforward. Stewardship of a municipality typically deals with rather simple issues, such as budgets and the passage of ordinances that directly deal with the public. The weeds of the issue may be complex, but it can be simplified into a newspaper headline at the end of the day.

The races down at the Courthouse, in a word, are not. Quite different from off-year elections, the average voter in Harris County will find herself with about 90 different contests to make a selection in, the vast majority of which being local judicial offices. I’m not naive, I know darn well that over 99 out of 100 voters will not bother to know the inside story about each and every race, and will likely just pull the lever straight ticket one way or another. Indeed, I would be comfortable assuming today that the sizable majority of the judicial candidates I vote for will be Democrats, even though I have not begun to intently analyze any of these contests.

One of the biggest problems with public engagement in this process is the shear number of candidates; even for the most experienced political mavens, it can be overwhelming. As I have lightly opined in the past, perhaps Texas should not elect its judges. While electing one District Judge and one County Judge for a small community may have made sense 100 years ago, the staggered hodgepodge of literally hundreds of jurists in the Harris County area just is not effective anymore.

But an equally frustrating problem that can occur when trying to make rational decisions in these contests is the amount of legal jargon and complexity thrown into the equation. Maury Maverick, the Mayor of San Antonio from 1935 to 1939, was arguably best known for coining the word “gobbledygook,” for excessively bureaucratic language. I am a layperson, as is the vast majority of the Texas electorate, so most of the goings-on at the Courthouse are coated in what could only generously be referred to as such gobbledygook.

However, such an attitude is enormously damaging to the integrity of the entire county. The great/scary thing about the way our judicial selection is set up is that I have the exact same say in selecting a Judge than an attorney who has practiced before that courtroom for the past 40 years. And obviously, there are a lot more people like me than like the hypothetical attorney.

At Texpatriate, we have positively zero attorneys among our contributors. Thus, there is some light confusion when we deal with going-ons at the Courthouse, namely our endorsement process for judicial elections. For the Democratic & Republican primaries, as well for the upcoming general election, we consulted with a few anonymous attorneys with special expertise in the courts we were profiling. However, at the end of the day, we made our own decisions.

I think that is one of the best parts about our judicial system, how open it is to the general public (at least, theoretically). Court Coordinators and other court staff, all of whom are invaluable to the process of how the legal system moves along, are seldom attorneys. Similarly, both grand juries and petite juries are almost always comprised of non-lawyers. The adjudication of a case, in many instances, is literally only decided as a direct result of their action.

Make no mistake, the best way to directly involve yourself in courthouse politics is to speak up on the issues or get involved. If you are unfamiliar with the background of certain issues, consult a friend who is an attorney to help you out. As an adulteration of the famous Pericles quote, just because you don’t take an interest in the Courthouse, doesn’t mean the Courthouse won’t take an interest in you.

Chances are, you or someone you know will be involved in the Criminal Justice system, either as a defendant, a victim or a witness. You may very well have a high-stakes squabble over money, which would be routed into Civil Court. With over 50% of marriages ending in divorce, there is also a high probability that you end up in a Family Court. And, of course, one of the ugliest truths of life is that you and everyone you are related to will eventually die, likely to leave behind an estate that must be probated in Court.

My parting advice is merely to do a little digging about these judicial offices yourself, because straight ticket voting –in many instances– simply will not cut it. Many incumbent Republican Judges are decent and fair legal minds, but many are not. It’s up to you to change that.

Civil Affairs: Ignorance

CIVIL AFFAIRS

I’ve always said that the most important thing in politics is to not be cruel to other persons. Perhaps the second most important rule is to always be open to new ideas and perspectives, not being beholden to ideology above pragmatism. However, this responsibility of being accepting to new ideas comes with an equal responsibility to those spreading the new ideas: do not be offended by ignorance. Ignorance, all too often, is mistaken for malice. Those with malevolent viewpoints on a topic of discussion are mixed in with those who have few viewpoints at all, or naive ones. This is particularly troubling on Social Issues and others involving complex ideas and prerequisite knowledge.

I consider myself an openly left-wing person on most Social Issues, and yet –until college– I was ignorant on some of the fancier nuances. To the best of my ability, I always sought to believe in the equality of the sexes throughout my upbringing, although I did not know what fancy buzz words such as “patriarchy” or “rape culture” meant until college. I have been a strong supporter of same-sex marriage since before I could remember, though I called the broader issue “gay rights” and not the more inclusive “LGBT rights.” Sometimes, there are even more letters included. Heck, it was not until fairly recently that I heard the term “cisgendered,” specifically in regard to the rights of transgendered people (for what it’s worth, my spellcheck still does not recognize the word).

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Civil Affairs: Wendy

CIVIL AFFAIRS

Pardon me, but I hope you can help me in search of someone. She was last seen wearing a dress with pink tennis shoes, has blonde hair and is about yea high. My Democratic gubernatorial nominee is missing in action. Her name is Wendy Davis, and hopefully you can help me find her.

Now, for better or for worse, I follow Statewide politics to the point of obsession, so I literally do know that she has been popping up at events in towns from Austin to Fort Worth, but most people are not like me. Most people know of Wendy Davis because of the abortion filibuster, when she stood up for 13 hours against a bill that was ultimately responsible for closing most of the abortion clinics in the State. A few less, but still a sizable percentage, know that she is the Democratic nominee for Governor. Beyond that, who knows.

I can’t say that I have ever seen a Wendy Davis for Governor commercial, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a direct mail piece from her and I surely do not pass any billboards on my morning commute that advertise for her campaign. Last time I checked, Davis has a great deal of money in the bank, and her obsequious supporters have pointed to this as a sign that she will run a serious campaign. Unfortunately, having a lot of zeroes in a bank account does not command respect or momentum in and of itself. The only reason that money is feared is because it is typically spent. I’m not exactly sure what is happening in this situation.

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Civil Affairs: Pragmatism

CIVIL AFFAIRS

For those who did not hear, I was on television last night. Specifically, on the program “Red, White and Blue” on the local PBS affiliate. Among the many topics that we discussed was just how the Statewide Democratic slate might do well in November. Jay Aiyer, a law professor at Texas Southern University and one of my fellow panelists, opined that Democrats should move to the center and embrace causes typically not associated with contemporary liberalism. As you may have noticed if you watched the program, I also suggested that some embrace of social issues, specifically gay rights and abortion, might end up benefiting the Democrats. I also noted that Aiyer’s suggestion and mine were not necessarily mutually exclusive, as evident by a political persona such as Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo, the Governor of New York, is likely the type of Democrat that candidates in Texas should strive to emulate. Unapologetic in his embrace of liberal social positions, though overwhelmingly business friendly, Cuomo has marked out of position on the political spectrum that transcends the typical constraints of dichotomous opposition.  Most important of all, Cuomo possesses a trait that I call “ruthless pragmatism,” not necessarily in the style of Frank Underwood, but maintaining a healthy alacrity to changing issues and conventions nonetheless.

However, a true of pet peeve of mine would be when the idea of pragmatism is misused or otherwise adulterated by someone who is just weak willed. Not to be too cliche, but the word is defined as practically, realistically or otherwise sensibly dealing with issues. Pragmatism is not tantamount to equivocation. Just because something might be popular does not mean that it is necessarily pragmatic, particularly if there are other negative implications.

Click here to see how this all connects with the Statewide elections!