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World Press on Rape, Human Rights, Biden, Macron and Saudi-Israeli Normalization: New Age Islam's Selection, 19 October 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Bureau

19 October 2020

• Rage against Rape

By Ramisa Rob

• Biden’s Proposed Middle East Policy Would End Any Prospect for Saudi-Israeli Normalization

By Dr. Raphael Benlev

• No Vaccine for Cruelty: The Pandemic Has Eroded Democracy and Respect For Human Rights

The Economist

• Macron Has Enjoyed Wielding His Authority during Covid – And The French Don't Like It

By Cole Stangler

• In America’s Bizarre Electoral System, Some Votes Are More Equal Than Others

By Farhad Manjoo


Rage Against Rape

By Ramisa Rob

October 19, 2020


Death penalty is not a solution to gender-based sexual violence—which is a much larger systemic problem deeply rooted in the fabric of our society. Photo Courtesy: Sudeshna Biswas (Beyondparameters)


Many have welcomed the government's introduction of the death penalty, misconceiving Bangladesh's rape problem as a quick-fix punishment problem. Reckless rape reporting concentrating on graphic details, sensationalising disturbing rape cases, and the new fashion of sharing trauma porn to raise awareness on social media have all contributed to misdirecting collective outrage against sexual violence. 

But let's get one thing straight: death penalty is not a solution to gender-based sexual violence—which is a much larger systemic problem deeply rooted in the fabric of our society.

The Indian government had also responded to the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case by introducing the death penalty and what has that done for India? This March, after seven years, four perpetrators of the case were executed, while according to recently-released figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, the police registered 33,977 cases of rape in 2018. The numbers have been consistently rising over the years.

As for Bangladesh, what positive change in favour of rape victims will the Women and Children Repression Act Ordinance 2020—replacing life imprisonment as the maximum sentence for rape with the death penalty—accomplish? Most of us overlook the fact that the death penalty already exists in Bangladesh for certain cases of rape, under Section 9 of the 2000 Act which include gang-rape and rape leading to death. In other words, the ordinance isn't bringing any new form of "justice" for the victim in the Noakhali gang-rape case, which has galvanised the series of protests last week.

The reintroduction of the death penalty essentially means rapists in all rape cases will receive death sentence as maximum punishment. But the rape law—section 375 of the penal code 1860—still hasn't changed its narrow definition of rape, so it's rather hard to imagine the authorities holding speedy trials, prosecuting and executing all rapists in the 975 cases from January to September, 208 of which were gang-rape, per Ain o Salish Kendra. And even if that were to happen, does it realistically counter rape culture and the culture of impunity? Can we really imagine a future where husbands won't rape their wives because they're afraid that the wife reporting on them would lead to their death? It seems far-fetched to even imagine all these scenarios of "justice."

We must not be satisfied with this death penalty announcement that we know all too well will accomplish no such justice for rape victims. We must not fall for this punishment debate trap either, which essentially trivialises sexual violence as an exceptional problem that can be solved by addressing those few exceptions.

Addressing the recent introduction of the death penalty, a panel discussion organised by Feminist Across Generations—an alliance established by a group of young and experienced feminists who have been fighting gender-based violence for decades through legal and social advocacy—asserted that "legal reforms is one part of the puzzle, an extremely crucial part, but it needs to go hand in hand with bold ambitious plans to bring societal change."

Moderating the conversation, Umama Zillur, founder of KOTHA, added that, "even if we were able to pass every single law and reform that has been put forward over the last couple of years and decades, and if we were able to have the most airtight strong legal framework," we would not feel safe because at the end of the day we would be coming back to our "homes and our families and our schools and our friends who would continue to inflict violence on us."

More often than not, we tend to other rapists as psychopaths and monsters and not men who live amongst us, in our communities. It's high time to put a stop to all these counterproductive and harmful practices we have normalised in society. We must use our anger and pain productively and strategically to dismantle the system that upholds a culture of impunity and holds so much space for men to rape women.

The Rage Against Rape movement overhauled by Feminist Across Generations has declared gender-based violence a national emergency and put forth 10 demands to the society and to the state which must complement each other to holistically fight rape culture. Their demands include: an end to all gender-based violence by private and state actors; zero tolerance for victim-blaming at all levels of society (structural, institutional, societal and individual); that families hold their boys and men accountable for any and all violence they perpetuate; that rapists are no longer sheltered in our homes, schools and workplaces; that women have the right to occupy public spaces without fear of violence, at any time or for any purpose; rejection of the idea that women's bodies hold their and their family's honour; that comprehensive sex education, including consent, is made mandatory in school curricula; that swift action is taken against all those weaponising cyber tools to commit violence against women; that existing rape laws are reformed to recognise and criminalise marital rape regardless of the age of the victim; urgent and immediate adoption of 10-point demand issues by the Rape Law Reform Coalition, including: i) redefining rape to ensure that it covers all forms of non-consensual penetration, irrespective of gender; ii) reviewing Evidence Act of 1872 to remove scope for institutional victim-blaming; iii) ensuring protection and access to justice without discrimination for all rape victim/survivors (irrespective of gender, religion, race, ethnicity, disability, gender identity, sexuality); conducting sensitisation trainings for police, lawyers, judges and social workers so rape survivors are treated with respect and due responsiveness during reporting, investigation and prosecution.

Fighting systemic sexual violence requires us as a society to start questioning all the harmful sexist myths we have accepted as normal in our everyday lives. Cholo Kotha Boli has envisioned a pyramid to explain how the culture of sexual violence functions like a toxic system in Bangladesh. At the bottom of the pyramid, you have attitudes and beliefs that normalise sexual violence. This leads to degradation which leads to assault. According to Kotha, "the tolerance of the behaviours at the bottom supports or excuses those higher up."

So for example, everytime we say "orna koi"—no matter how "well-intentioned" the phrase may seem—we perpetuate victim-blaming and recycle the harmful myth that victims can prevent rape. Every single time we invoke a woman's modesty to slut-shame her—even if we do it as harmless gossip—we ensure that women in this nation feel unsafe, we sustain the toxic system that allows men to rape women every day. Every time we excuse wolf-whistling, groping and inappropriate advances on Facebook, citing "boys will be boys," we as a society take one step backwards from fighting towards a society where every single woman wouldn't feel unsafe in one way or another.

Every single time, we entertain or allow microaggressions that don't outright seem harmful, we recharge the system that allowed the vile Noakhali gang-rape case to happen in the first place. It's difficult to lessen the distance between our "normal" lives and face that our mindsets have contributed to the crime that continues to plague this nation year after year. But this fight isn't supposed to be comfortable. It's time to start these uncomfortable conversations with family members and friends and face each and every one of our complicities. It's time to challenge ourselves to change the attitudes and beliefs starting from our own homes.


Ramisa Rob is a masters candidate at Columbia University.


Biden’s Proposed Middle East Policy Would End Any Prospect for Saudi-Israeli Normalization

By Dr. Raphael BenLev

October 19, 2020


Joe Biden, January 18, 2020, image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC


The Abraham Accords were the product of a slowly developing structural shift in Middle East geopolitics that led to an alignment of interests between the Gulf States and Israel. The most central of these interests was opposing the threat posed by Iran and its proxies throughout the region. The current US administration successfully identified this structural shift and played a positive role as a catalyst that moved the actors toward formal recognition.

A similar dynamic lay at the basis of both previous successful peace agreements signed between Israel and Arab states, with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. In each case, there was first a fundamental alignment of interests and, as a consequence of that alignment, each state recognized the benefits that could be had by a formal peace agreement. Only then did the US have a positive role to play in helping incentivize the sides to take the next step. The US cannot make peace between regional actors that are not ready, but it is vital to the incentivizing and encouragement of progress once fundamental mutual interests have been acknowledged.

The Trump administration played this role with exceptional skill in 2020. So well, in fact, that there has been speculation about the potential for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, it is Washington’s strong support for Riyadh’s security needs, clear stance against Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony, support for Saudi actions in Yemen, and willingness to set aside criticism of Riyadh’s domestic policies that have allowed for even the possibility of a formal shift in the kingdom’s stance on Israel.

But Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s intended policies for the Middle East would completely undermine any existing potential for progress toward normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. It would be stopped dead in its tracks. This is because Biden and his advisors have stated unambiguously that they intend to reverse all the above aspects of current US Middle East policy—in other words, all the policies that allowed the Abraham Accords to come to fruition.

Biden foreign policy advisor Jake Sullivan has argued that the US “should absolutely be removing all forms of support for the continuing hostilities in Yemen” as well as adopting a greater willingness to pressure Riyadh on its domestic human rights shortcomings. Biden himself recently penned an op-ed outlining his plan for a renewed détente with Tehran. Top Biden foreign policy advisor Tony Blinken has made the same contention on a number of occasions: that Washington must abandon its current policy of maximum pressure on Iran and pursue direct negotiations along the lines of the 2015 JCPOA.

The above proposals would constitute drastic changes to the current policy. Taken as a whole, Biden’s program is essentially that the US administration should say to Muhammad bin Salman: “Look, we’re not going to sell you any more missiles for your operations against Iran’s proxies in Yemen. We’re abandoning the maximum pressure policy against Iran and instead are going to pursue a more conciliatory relationship with your greatest rival and most serious geopolitical threat. We’re also not happy with aspects of your political culture and human rights record and expect to see changes if you want to maintain our support. But hey, would you mind taking the dramatic and historic step of normalizing relations with Israel?”

The Biden team’s policy proposals that would undermine any prospect of normalization don’t end there. The structural shift that pushed Israel and the Gulf States together allowed for the diplomatic opening, but wasn’t enough on its own for the UAE take the final step of formal recognition. In fact, as long ago as 2002, Saudi Arabia, and later the Arab League, expressed a willingness (in theory) to recognize Israel with the announcement of the Arab Peace Initiative. The problem was that the demands the initiative made of Israel were complete nonstarters, such as an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines and the implementation of the Palestinian “right of return,” the standard Arab euphemism for Israel’s demographic subversion. No Israeli government is going to accept such terms, so whatever potential existed for normalization has been dead upon arrival for almost two decades.

It was only the recent change in US policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue that altered the dynamic. Instead of making unreasonable and ill-founded demands on Israel for territorial concessions, the Trump administration demonstrated its willingness to go along with Israeli plans to assert sovereignty over parts of the Jordan Valley. This put an entirely new card on the table. It was the credible threat of annexation that opened the door for normalization. The Gulf States were interested in normalization for their own interests but needed another incentive to take the next step. Once annexation was on the table, there was a concession that Israel could reasonably make, as putting off the assertion of sovereignty for an undefined period is something even the Israeli right can live with. The UAE could then show it had achieved something concrete by taking the final step.

But Biden and his advisors intend to reverse that as well. As he and his team have made abundantly clear for months, Biden adamantly rejects any prospect of extending Israeli sovereignty to additional territory.

It is a basic principle in negotiations that a stalemate can be broken by adding more dimensions to the mix that can then be traded. But by preemptively rejecting even the notion that Israel could move forward with extending its sovereignty over vital territories in the future, Biden would be doing the exact opposite: he would remove dimensions for negotiation and deepen the state of deadlock.

In November, Americans will decide whom to elect as their next president, and Israel will work and cooperate with whomever the American people place in the White House. One would hope that whoever is making decisions in Washington will be open to learning the lessons of the Abraham Accords regarding what works in today’s Middle East and what does not, and to adapt their actions accordingly. If Biden wishes to further the historic process that began with Trump, he might want to consider retaining a little more continuity with current US policies in the region. This would be for the good of the US, Israel, and their Arab partners.


Dr. Raphael BenLevi is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Political Sciences at the University of Haifa.


No Vaccine For Cruelty: The Pandemic Has Eroded Democracy And Respect For Human Rights

The Economist

Oct 17th 2020

People were hungry during lockdown. So Francis Zaake, a Ugandan member of parliament, bought some rice and sugar and had it delivered to his neediest constituents. For this charitable act, he was arrested. Mr Zaake is a member of the opposition, and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has ordered that only the government may hand out food aid. Anyone else who does so can be charged with murder, Mr Museveni has threatened, since they might do it in a disorderly way, attract crowds and thereby spread the coronavirus.

Mr Zaake had been careful not to put his constituents at risk. Rather than having crowds converge on one place to pick up the food parcels, he had them delivered to people’s doors by motorbike-taxi. Nonetheless, the next day police and soldiers jumped over his fence while he was showering and broke into his house. They dragged him into a van and threw him in a cell. He says they beat, kicked and cut him, crushed his testicles, sprayed a blinding chemical into his eyes, called him a dog and told him to quit politics. He claims that one sneered: “We can do whatever we want to you or even kill you...No one will demonstrate for you because they are under lockdown.” The police say he inflicted the injuries on himself and is fishing for sympathy with foreign donors.

The charges against him were eventually dropped, but the message was clear. “The president doesn’t want the opposition to give out food,” says Mr Zaake, who walks with crutches and wears sunglasses to protect his eyes. “He knows that people will like us [if we do].”

The pandemic has been terrible not only for the human body but also for the body politic. Freedom House, a think-tank in Washington, counts 80 countries where the quality of democracy and respect for human rights have deteriorated since the pandemic began. The list includes both dictatorships that have grown nastier and democracies where standards have slipped. Only one country, Malawi, has improved (see map). Covid-19 “has fuelled a crisis for democracy around the world,” argue Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz of Freedom House. Global freedom has been declining since just before the financial crisis of 2007-08, by their reckoning. Covid-19 has accelerated this pre-existing trend in several ways.

The disease poses a grave and fast-moving threat to every nation. Governments have, quite reasonably, assumed emergency powers to counter it. But such powers can be abused. Governments have selectively banned protests on the grounds that they might spread the virus, silenced critics and scapegoated minorities. They have used emergency measures to harass dissidents. And they have taken advantage of a general atmosphere of alarm. With everyone’s attention on covid-19, autocrats and would-be autocrats in many countries can do all sorts of bad things, safe in the knowledge that the rest of the world will barely notice, let alone to object.

Measuring the pandemic’s effect on democracy and human rights is hard. Without covid-19, would China’s rulers still have inflicted such horrors on Muslim Uyghurs this year? Would Thailand’s king have grabbed nearly absolute powers? Would Egypt have executed 15 political prisoners in a single weekend this month? Perhaps. But these outrages would surely have faced stronger opposition, both at home and abroad. Granted, the current American administration makes less fuss about human rights than previous ones have and covid-19 has not changed that. But the voice from the White House is not the only one that counts.

Last year was a year of mass protests, which swept six continents, brought down five governments (Algeria, Bolivia, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan) and forced others to rethink unpopular policies, as in Chile, France and Hong Kong. This year, by contrast, governments have banned mass gatherings to enforce social distancing. For many, this is wonderfully convenient.

For example, in India, the world’s largest democracy, the biggest campaign of civil resistance for decades erupted shortly before the pandemic. For 100 days protesters raged against proposed changes to citizenship laws that would discriminate against Muslims and potentially render millions of them stateless. These protests petered out after a curfew was imposed in response to covid-19, since it was no longer possible to occupy the streets.

Later, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government began imposing strict local lockdowns, it singled out neighbourhoods which had held protests, many of which were Muslim. Heavy police barricades locked in residents for weeks.

In early September the government declared that in the upcoming parliamentary session there would be no Question Hour for the opposition and no private members’ bills—long-standing institutions that allow opposition mps to query the government directly. The excuse: the health risks of covid-19, along with assertions that in a crisis, legislative time was too precious to waste on noisy debate. The opposition walked out, allowing Mr Modi to ram through 25 bills in three days. He then suspended the session eight days early, having apparently forgotten the earlier excuse that time was short.

At the outset of the crisis Mr Modi, who has a knack for the theatrics of power, called on citizens to bang on pots, and later to light sacred lamps, in a show of solidarity to fight the pandemic. These displays, taken up by his supporters with glee, were not spontaneous expressions of support for doctors and nurses, like similar displays in Italy, Spain or Britain. Rather, they were a demonstration of Mr Modi’s power.

H.L. Mencken, an American journalist, once wrote that “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” He could have added that when people have real cause for alarm, they are even keener to be led to safety. Some put their trust in the sober calculations of evidence-driven experts. Others put their faith in strongmen.

Mr Modi has racked up colossal approval ratings this year, even as he presides over a double catastrophe of mass death and economic slump. So has Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, despite the largest reported caseload in South-East Asia. Mr Duterte’s poll numbers may be coloured by fear; he has had thousands of people, supposedly criminal suspects, killed without trial, a campaign that appears to have intensified during the pandemic. But many Filipinos admire his grim style—extending a “state of calamity” for another year last month, temporarily banning many nurses from going to work overseas and vowing to try the first covid-19 vaccine himself to show it is safe.

Popular, you’re gonna be popular

Admiration for Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s militaristic president, is as high as ever, despite over 5m covid-19 cases and more than 150,000 deaths. This is partly because he has handed out emergency aid to 67m hard-up Brazilians, but his macho posturing also appeals to many voters. He caught covid-19 and recovered, crediting his background as an athlete. He declared: “We have to face [the virus] like a man, damn it, not like a little boy.” He blames state governors for being so scared of the disease that they wreck people’s livelihoods unnecessarily.

That strikes a chord with some. When São Paulo’s lockdown was at its tightest, a clothing shop was illegally letting customers in through a tiny metal shutter door. “The governors shut things down to hurt the economy and make Bolsonaro look bad,” grumbled the owner, who shared his president’s dismissive attitude towards covid-19. “The death numbers are a lie,” he said: “I’m only wearing this mask out of respect for our clients. I don’t need it.”

Strongmen find it easier to impress the masses when they control the news. In April Reporters Without Borders, a watchdog, counted 38 countries using the coronavirus as an excuse to harass critical media. That number has now more than doubled, to 91, says Freedom House.

Many governments have criminalised “fake news” about the pandemic. Often, this means commentary that displeases the ruling party. Nicaragua’s regime plans to ban news that “causes alarm, fear or anxiety”. El Salvador has relaunched a state television outlet, having purged 70 journalists since President Nayib Bukele came to power last year. “I am watching a very balanced newscast,” grinned Mr Bukele. “I don’t know what the opposition will see.”

Anyone in Zimbabwe who publishes or disseminates “false” information about an official, or that impedes the response to the pandemic, faces up to 20 years in prison. Two journalists were arrested when they tried to visit in hospital three opposition activists, including an mp, who had been abducted, tortured and forced to drink urine by ruling-party thugs.

All around the world, ordinary people are being gagged, too. Some 116 citizen journalists are currently imprisoned, says Reporters Without Borders. In Uzbekistan people entering quarantine facilities have had to hand over their phones, supposedly to prevent the devices from spreading the virus but actually so they cannot take photos of the woeful conditions inside.

Medics, who see covid-19 fiascos close up, face extra pressure to shut up. China’s rulers silenced the doctors in Wuhan who first sounded the alarm about the new virus. Censorship can be lethal. Had China listened to doctors and acted faster to curb the disease, it would not have spread so fast around the world.

Still, other regimes have copied China’s example. In September the Turkish Medical Association accused Turkey’s government of downplaying the outbreak. A ruling-party ally called for the group to be shut down and its leaders investigated for stoking “panic”. Yet the doctors were right. The health ministry later admitted that its daily figures did not include asymptomatic patients. An opposition lawmaker shared a document suggesting that the true number of cases in a single day in September was 19 times the official tally.

Egypt’s government says it is coping admirably with the pandemic. A dozen doctors have been arrested for suggesting otherwise, as have several journalists. One, Mohamed Monir, died of covid-19 contracted during detention.

Of the 24 countries that had national elections scheduled between January and August, nine were disrupted by the pandemic. Some delays were justified. But as South Korea showed, a ballot can be held safely if suitable precautions are taken. Some other governments were in no hurry. Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved the opposition-controlled parliament in March and did not allow fresh elections until August. In the meantime, he ran the country without lawmakers to check him.

In Hong Kong pro-democracy candidates were expected to do well in elections in September. Citing the risk of covid-19, the territory’s pro-communist leaders delayed them for a year.

Burundi’s election in May was probably never going to be clean, but the virus supplied the perfect excuse to exclude pesky foreign observers. Twelve days before the election they were told that they would have to quarantine on arrival in the country for 14 days, thus missing the vote.

In Russia Vladimir Putin has turned the virus to his advantage. He shifted responsibility for a strict lockdown to regional governors, but then took credit for easing it. In the summer he held a constitutional pseudo-referendum to allow himself to stay in office until 2036. Citing public health, he extended the vote to a week and allowed people to vote at home, in courtyards, in playgrounds and on tree stumps. The vote was impossible to observe or verify. Mr Putin declared a resounding victory. Parliament voted to change the voting procedure permanently.

In countries with too few checks and balances, rules to curb the virus can be used for other ends. On a dark road in Senegal, a policeman recently stopped a taxi and detained the driver for wearing his anti-covid mask on his chin. After 45 minutes, shaking with fury, the driver returned to his vehicle. The cop had threatened him with dire punishments unless he handed over some cash, he explained to his passenger, a reporter for The Economist. He drove off as fast as he could, cursing.

While petty officials abuse the rules to pad their wages, strongmen typically abuse them to crush dissent. Police assaulted civilians in 59 countries and detained them in 66 for reasons linked to the pandemic. Violence was most common in countries Freedom House classifies as “partly free”, where people are not yet too scared to protest, but their rulers would like them to be.

In Zimbabwe, for example, many of the 34 new regulations passed during a national lockdown are still in place, and have been used as a pretext for myriad abuses. In September the Zimbabwe Human Rights ngo Forum, an umbrella group, released a report listing 920 cases of torture, extrajudicial killings, unlawful arrests and assaults on citizens by the security services in the first 180 days of lockdown. One man was forced to roll around in raw sewage. Many had dogs set on them. Dozens of opposition activists have been arrested or beaten, including a former finance minister. There were too many everyday cases of intimidation and harassment to count.

Many strongmen are also chipping away at pre-pandemic checks on their power. Nicaragua has borrowed an idea from Mr Putin: a law will require ngos that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents”. India used similar rules to shut down the local arm of Amnesty International, which closed in September after its bank accounts were frozen.

In Kazakhstan trials are taking place on Zoom, leading some defendants in politically charged cases to complain that this makes it easy for judges to have selective hearing. Alnur Ilyashev, a pro-democracy campaigner who was sentenced to three years of restricted movement for “disseminating false information”, said he could not always hear his own trial.

Nothing spreads like fear

Panic about a contagious disease makes people irrational and xenophobic. A study in 2015 by Huggy Rao of Stanford University and Sunasir Dutta of the University of Minnesota found that people were less likely to favour legalising irregular immigrants if told about a new strain of flu. Many autocrats, even if they have not read the academic literature, grasp that blaming out-groups is a good way to win support.

Mr Modi’s government tars Muslims as superspreaders. Bulgaria imposed harsher lockdowns on Romany neighbourhoods than on others. Turkey’s religious authorities blame gay people. Malaysian officials blame migrant workers, some of whom have been caned and deported.

Minorities have had an especially grim time in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto president, threatened severe penalties for residents who re-enter the country illegally. People understood this to refer to the Rohingyas, a persecuted Muslim group, roughly 1m of whom have fled into neighbouring countries. The rumour that Rohingyas were infecting the nation spread rapidly. A cartoon circulating online showed a Rohingya man, labelled as an “illegal interloper”, crossing the border, carrying covid-19.

Meanwhile, a un rapporteur warns that the pandemic has “emboldened” Myanmar’s army, which has stepped up its war on secessionists. The Arakan Army, a rebel group, offered ceasefires in April, June and September; all were rebuffed. In May and June the army bombed civilians, razed villages and tortured non-combatants, says Amnesty International. Some 200,000 have fled to camps for displaced people, according to a local ngo, the Rakhine Ethnics Congress. Since covid-19 struck, donations have declined and supplies of food to the camps have dwindled.

Abusers and autocrats have not had it all their own way this year. The pandemic has drained their treasuries. Their finances will still be wobbly even when a vaccine is found and the public-health excuse for curbs on freedom is no longer plausible.

And people are pushing back. Although 158 countries have imposed restrictions on demonstrations, big protests have erupted in at least 90 since the pandemic began. Furious crowds in Kyrgyzstan this month forced the government to order a re-run of a tainted election. Protests in Nigeria prompted the government to disband a notoriously torture-and-murder-prone police unit on October 11th. Mass rallies in Belarus have so far failed to reverse a rigged election there, but have made it clear that the dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, has lost the consent of his people.

Institutions are pushing back, too. A court in Lesotho barred the prime minister from using the virus as an excuse to close parliament. Russia’s opposition parties refuse to be cowed even by the poisoning of their main leader, Alexei Navalny.

With luck, when covid-19 eventually recedes, the global atmosphere of fear will recede with it. People may find the capacity to care a bit more about abuses that occur far away, or to people unlike themselves. They may even elect leaders who speak up for universal values. But for the time being, the outlook is grim.


Macron Has Enjoyed Wielding His Authority during Covid – And The French Don't Like It

By Cole Stangler

16 Oct 2020

It’s not quite a lockdown, but the new measures announced by President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday come pretty close. Starting this Saturday, Paris and eight other metropolitan areas, home to some 20 million people, will see curfews imposed on all non-essential activity between 9pm and 6am for at least four weeks.

With France now well into its second wave of Covid-19 – the last week has seen 120,000 new cases alongside a steady uptick in hospitalisations – fresh restrictions had come to be seen as inevitable. Still, as the shower of criticism from across the political spectrum has made clear, that hasn’t made the new measures any less grating.

Much of the groaning stems from a broader sense of frustration shared by the public: while French authorities may have fared better than their counterparts in the US or UK – less dithering in the early stages and less amateurism overall – there is nevertheless a sense that the government hasn’t fully met the challenge. One need only look to neighbouring Germany, which counts both far fewer deaths and a fraction of the caseload today.

To be fair, French authorities have tackled some of the most glaring deficiencies from the spring in addition to extending some vital economic aid. There is no longer a shortage of masks, and in the cities where wearing one is required, people largely follow the rules. While still insufficient, testing is also on the rise. Meanwhile, the pillar of the government’s support system for workers – a broad expansion of partial unemployment benefits – has been extended until at least the end of the year. (In France, employees put on this scheme are paid 84% of their net salary, more generous than the latest job support scheme in the UK.)

But French people also tend to hold the state to a high standard. If they’re making personal sacrifices, they rightfully expect something in return. And polls show they’ve been disappointed with what they’ve been offered.

The French were already among the most critical in Europe of their government’s response. According to one opinion study in May, strong majorities of Germans and Britons (and even 50% of Italians) believed their government was handling the crisis well, while two-thirds of French people felt just the opposite. That lack of confidence persists. A poll last month found that 62% in France still didn’t have faith in Macron and his government to successfully fight the pandemic.

Much of the mistrust took root in the early days of the crisis. Just as their counterparts did elsewhere in Europe, government officials repeatedly told the public that wearing masks was unnecessary. We now know there was a shortage of masks at the time and that the government was desperately scrambling to replenish its stock behind closed doors.

And yet, to this day, high-ranking officials haven’t offered credible explanations for why those initial recommendations turned out to be so patently and fatally false. In one blistering column lambasting the state for keeping citizens in the dark, journalist Edwy Plenel quotes from the pages of historian Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat, the classic 1940 analysis of France’s defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany: “Our people deserve to be trusted, to be taken into the confidence of their leaders”.

More recent criticism has focused on the state’s management of la rentrée, the collective return to school and work after summer vacation. According to the government’s latest weekly data, universities and schools now make up a staggering 35% of Covid clusters under investigation, more than any other source. The second largest source are workplaces, generating about a fifth of current outbreaks.

Bafflingly, the government continues to urge people to go to work. While the state officially encourages “telecommuting”, it has left the final say on the matter to individual employers who, in large numbers, have apparently decided it’s not worth the hassle. That insistence on a physical on-the-job presence is proving especially inflammatory under the new restrictions: according to the government’s logic, meeting friends on a cafe terrace at night is too risky, and yet packing into an enclosed warehouse or office is safe, so long as one follows the right precautions. As an MP from the left wing La France Insoumise party wryly put it: “Macron is locking down the hours of freedom that French people have. Does the virus disappear in the morning?” Another conservative MP and second-in-command of the right wing Les Républicains party also slammed the “absurdity” of policies that call for “curfew at night, but metro in the day”.

In the meantime, contact tracing systems have proven largely inadequate, with the president himself acknowledging the failure of the government’s “StopCovid” application and vowing to unveil a new-and-improved version next week. (The current iteration has been downloaded just 2.6m times, far less than its counterparts in the UK or Germany, which, last month, counted 12m and 18m downloads respectively.) Earlier this week, the French prime minister, Jean Castex, revealed he didn’t even have the app on his phone himself, all the while repeatedly and incorrectly referring to it as “TéléCovid”. One bemused commenter online quipped that Castex must have been looking for it on his Minitel, the infamous French-designed precursor to the internet that never quite took hold abroad.

Amplifying each of these missteps, trip-ups and inadequacies is the government’s highly verticalised process for approving and communicating policies. Of course, top-down decision-making is a feature of the French state and, in particular, the turbocharged Fifth Republic presidency designed by Charles de Gaulle. But Macron has done little to break with those traditions – to the contrary, he has basked in the aura of his authority, unveiling each of the key changes in Covid policy in a string of highly choreographed, nationally televised primetime speeches.

The French can be unforgiving of their politicians, and unsurprisingly, Macron has been personally taking the heat for his management of the crisis. This is one of the risks of his approach to the job: shining a spotlight on executive action can magnify success, but it can also make for an easy target when things go wrong.


Cole Stangler is a Paris-based journalist


In America’s Bizarre Electoral System, Some Votes Are More Equal Than Others

By Farhad Manjoo

Oct. 14, 2020

I spent about an hour over the weekend filling out my ballot for the 2020 general election. As an immigrant from a country where elections were not free until 1994, I understand the privilege of the franchise. Every two years, when it’s time to vote in national elections, I rip open my voting packet with a sense of sacred, nerdy seriousness. I’ll even study the positions of the candidates for school board. But that feeling never lasts; by the time I finish filling in all the bubbles, I am bitter and angry, weighed down by the pointlessness of the whole exercise.

Like more than 100 million other Americans, I live in one of the dozens of states that do not really matter in determining the makeup of our national government. Because I’m in California, the country’s most populous state and its biggest economy, my vote in The Most Important Presidential Election of Our Lifetime is hardly worth the paper it’s printed on.

The roots of my despair are well known. There is the Senate, which gives all states equal representation regardless of population, so voters in Wyoming, the least populous state, effectively enjoy almost 70 times more voting power than us chopped-liver Californians. And there is the winner-takes-all Electoral College, in which a tiny margin of victory pays off, with the whole pot of electoral votes going to the winner. This means that millions of presidential votes, from both Republicans and Democrats, are effectively wasted — all the votes cast for the loser in each state and all the excess ones cast for the winner.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in California by more than four million votes. But in our bizarre system, Clinton’s four million Californians were ignored, superseded by the 80,000 voters who gave Trump the narrow margin he needed to win in three other states, and he became president.

I am not here to argue over the merits of these rules. (For that, read my colleague Jesse Wegman’s recent book, which makes the definitive case against the Electoral College.) Fights over the Constitution’s anti-majoritarian provisions tend toward tedium; one side painstakingly explains how the rules are unfair, the other side insists that the unfairness is actually very wise and by design, and then they go back and forth until oblivion.

But I would like to speak up for all of us scorned voters, especially my 40 million fellow Californians, who are watching the 2020 election sail by like a derelict oil tanker passing under the Golden Gate. All we can do is hope it doesn’t blow up in our faces; otherwise, we have little say over the matter.

I have voted in every federal election since 2000, and not once do I remember a presidential candidate ever making an effort to get my vote. This year, I feel worse than ever. Though I am as stressed out as anyone about the outcome, the election often seems to be happening in some other country, where the voters live different lives from me, the candidates don’t care about the issues that matter to me and the only time a candidate reaches out is for my credit card number.

We have had a tough time lately in the Golden State. You might have heard. Beyond the pandemic — nearly a million Californians have been infected by the coronavirus, and more than 16,000 have died — millions of Californians have had to endure months of raging wildfires and extremely unhealthy air quality.

Climate change-related disasters have compounded our other entrenched problems of livability: housing costs that eat up paychecks, an epidemic of homelessness that seems to defy all attempts to fix it, one of the highest poverty rates in the country, and the growing sense that only the very wealthy can afford to live in many of our largest cities.

These issues are not California’s alone: There are similar problems in other states’ big cities, among them Seattle, Portland, New York and Chicago. You might even say that these urban issues constitute a kind of national problem. But neither Joe Biden nor Trump dwell much on them, because they aren’t the problems of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania or Florida.

Every two years, I think about how thoroughly I am being ignored, and each time I’m more infuriated than the last. Twice in my lifetime, the loser of the national popular vote has won the presidency. The same injustice might happen again this year. But even if it doesn’t, don’t conclude that all is well and good with the way we pick the president.

Consider last week’s debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. By my count, the candidates mentioned fracking — an issue of environmental and economic importance in southwestern Pennsylvania, one of the most prized battlegrounds — 10 times. First, Pence accused Biden of wanting to ban fracking, then Harris said Biden would never ban fracking, then Pence said he would, then Harris said he wouldn’t, the whole argument very much like the one my kids have over who gets to take a shower second.

By comparison, the wildfires that set ablaze the western United States last month received only glancing mention — and it was Susan Page, the moderator, rather than Harris, California’s junior senator, who brought them up. Page mightn’t have bothered. When Pence was asked about the fires and other climate disasters, he ended his answer by insisting that Biden would ban fracking.

It wasn’t just fracking over fires. In both the vice-presidential and the presidential debates, nobody mentioned housing or homelessness, a top policy issue for people in my state. There was barely a mention of building new roads, bridges or expanding public transportation — Harris raised the issue mainly to take a shot at how Trump has turned his plan for “infrastructure week” into a joke.

Then, of course, there is the Supreme Court nomination that Republicans are ramming through the Senate. Because Republicans derive much of their political strength from many small states, the Senate amplifies their power; as CNN’s Ronald Brownstein pointed out last month, the 47 Democratic senators represent nearly 169 million people, more than they represent the 158 million people represented by the Senate’s 53 Republicans.

If Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is confirmed along partisan lines, the Supreme Court will cross “an undemocratic milestone,” as Adam Cole pointed out in Vox. For the first time, “a controlling majority of the court will have been put there by senators whom most voters didn’t choose.”

It boils my blood, all of it. Is it any wonder that the United States has one of the lowest rates of voter turnout among developed nations? The system is corrosive. We are told by everyone, everywhere, that voting is the path toward a better country, but in every election, we are shown that some votes matter much more than others, and that we should all just live with it, because smart people a long time ago decided it should be so.

I still vote. I do it out of a sense of civic duty and as a role model to my children, and to make sure I can get the NIMBYs off the City Council. But when it comes to the national government, I long ago gave up any hope of ever mattering.



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