TBILISI, Georgia -- Today, Georgia enters the final week of a parliamentary election campaign that will be decisive for its future. How decisive? A friend of mine here called it "an apocalyptic crisis that squeezes out of every human heart what is deepest in it."
This might sound like an exaggeration, but it's not. The emotional temperature of the contest broke the thermometer last Tuesday night when opposition television showed extensive video footage -- sourced from a Georgian state prison guard who'd fled to Belgium -- of other guards and their superiors torturing, taunting, and sexually assaulting prisoner after prisoner, sodomizing them with broom handles. (Partial footage from Georgian television can be found here, here, and here; discretion advised.)
President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) is desperately hoping to get all this off the TV screens by election day on October 1 so that people can go to the polls having slipped back into a previously dominant mode of fear toward Ivanishvili, Russia, and the unknown generally.
The few intelligent voices still trying to defend the government argue that prison brutality occurs everywhere, that it's hard to eradicate, and that appropriate measures are now being taken to remove the "sick" prison officials responsible for the recent abuses. Good arguments, if we limit ourselves to the incidents directly captured on video.
But was something more behind these crimes?
I think Georgians have reacted as intensely as they have to the videos on the belief that they symbolize an underlying reality in the country. What people watched on TV wasn't just isolated acts but a brutal system leading to very a specifically bureaucratic program of violence: prisoners being lined up in an orderly, bureaucratic row, holding their files, to be beaten, taunted, and often defiled.
So what would the purpose of this system be?
Actually, it's not that hard to imagine; it's not unlike hazing or basic-training rituals we're familiar with in the West: The purpose is to control people by showing them that they have no effective rights and no power, and that they're at the disposal of those who do. Georgian prison officials have done this by frightening inmates, humiliating them, and robbing them of their self-respect. (Rape is of course one of the worst human violations. In a culture still characterized by a deep fear of homosexuality, moreover, men sexually assaulted in this way tend to feel especially tainted, outcasts for life.)
In the context of this kind of power abuse, consider what meanwhile happens to many Georgian businesspeople: They're often suddenly visited by the tax police, or the regular police, told they have committed a violation (real or invented) that can be evaded but only by turning large sums of money over to anonymous hands -- or by surrendering a car, or by working on government projects for free, or by granting a majority share in their companies.
Here's an example from personal knowledge, with some details altered to keep the police from tracing the source: A friend of mine was suddenly visited by the tax police, who told her that her company had committed some transgression, one she says they invented, but that the problem could be evaded by turning over to them 125,000 Lari (US$77,000). She remonstrated that she was not guilty and did not have that much money. They replied, "You can borrow it from these relatives," naming which ones and how much to ask from each. They went on, "Don't tell anyone outside your family, and don't even think of going to the media or to foreign diplomats. We know all your sources of income, who your parents are and where they live, your grandmother and her village, where your children go to school and where they play. ... Think about them." No one mentioned going to the courts. (The acquittal rate in the Tbilisi criminal courts is in any event a fraction of 1 percent.) She paid. This is a system of financial terror. It says, "You are an insect. You have no power. What those who do have power say, you will do."
This terror goes beyond the business community, too. I have several first-hand reports from schoolteachers who were told that they will lose their jobs if they fail to vote for the National Movement -- or, in one case, if they fail to board the bus for Saakashvili's triumphal rally in Tbilisi's Sports Palace on September 8. The National Movement has largely slipped into a pattern of ruling by fear.
I have been visiting Georgia since the Soviet era, and there is more public dread here than there was under the aging Politburo of the mid '80s. I'm an American citizen, close to the airport, and I'm honestly afraid of the consequences as I write these words. As a long-term observer of Georgian politics, my impression now is that the government counts on fear as the decisive element in an electoral victory.
The U.S. government, the EU, UNICEF, and others whom you'd expect to condemn the abuse of Georgia's prisoners have indeed done so; but the condemnations ring hollow. To begin with, they all call for an investigation of the abuses by the Georgian government and courts. President Saakashvili met on Wednesday for well-televised instructions along these lines to the new prime minister Vano Merabishvili, minister of justice Zurab Adeishvili, chief prosecutor Murtaz Zodelava, and deputy interior minister Giorgi Lortkipanidze -- all of whom, along with Bacho Akhalaia, recently appointed minister of interior (read: the police) but forced to resign within the last few days, are widely suspected of being key operators in the prevailing terror campaign against businessmen, prisoners, and others.
Whoever turns out to be responsible, they are high up in the Georgian government. Among those actually filmed torturing prisoners were the deputy chief of the penitentiary system, the warden of Gldani Prison, and his deputy. Many reports from human-rights organizations, and from the government's own public defender, have meanwhile complained of prison brutality for years. Merabishvili, who was minister of interior until this summer, directly supervised the prisons until 2008. Dmitri Shashkin, who was appointed defense minister when all these people were promoted over this past summer, was minister for penitentiaries after 2008.
So President Saakashvili's pious calls for investigation may resemble Comrade Stalin's instructions, in November 1938, to Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police, to find out the truth behind reported violations of socialist legality by the NKVD (the KGB's infamous predecessor).
Wouldn't the Saakashvili of the Rose Revolution have been the first to expose official misconduct and torture and set them right? What happened to brave young Misha, who defied election fraud with an armful of roses, cleaned up feudal corruption, vanquished the mafia, set a failing state on its feet and resolutely defied the Russian tanks?
Yes, Saakashvili and his comrades did all this -- and it intoxicated them with a feeling of righteousness, ability, and power. They believed that they were bringing light into a dark cellar that had been padlocked for 70 years, exterminating the vermin who infested it, and cleaning it like new.
From the very beginning, the Rose Revolution had a punitive spirit; and so, from the very beginning, Saakashvili's project concealed an inner contradiction. The light it was bringing was liberal democracy; but in a place so dark and infested as Georgia was, Saakashvili believed, that required harsh measures.
To cope with the failing state they inherited, the revolutionaries raised revenue by milking Eduard Shevardnadze's corrupt officials without going to court. Through this and other improvisations, they rapidly built a strong state. They now possessed an effective instrument they could employ for whatever task they needed -- or simply wanted. So, for their noble purposes, they began to squeeze normal businessmen when short of money.
They then began to realize that a strong state could yield not just money but votes, as well, by intimidation or fraud at the margins. That came in useful in 2007 when Saakashvili, like many heroes who have come to power before him, began to grow unpopular. He could have left office then, or amid the current scandals. If he did, he might someday return in triumph. But what would happen to him in the meantime? Having had recourse to so many shortcuts and illegalities, and having inflicted so many indignities, he and his friends could lose everything. In this sense, you can see Saakashvili today as a trapped, tragic figure.
None of this is to deny Saakashvili's eminent place in Georgian history as the founder of a real Georgian state under highly adverse conditions. Neither is it to denigrate the fortitude of his resistance to Russian imperialism. Neither for that matter is it to argue that Ivanishvili is a savior on a white horse. His campaign has not been very tolerant -- or even particularly skillful. But Ivanishvili did have the courage, in a system where one group monopolizes power by squeezing "black money" out of the society around it, to make his vast fortune available for the creation of a genuine opposition movement; and he did this at great personal risk.
Some U.S. political leaders, John McCain notably among them, have responded to Georgia's electoral contest with the generous instinct to help Saakashvili in his hour of tribulation. But instinct isn't always the best guide to complicated foreign realities, particularly at a moment when we need to come to terms with the counterintuitive dark side of Saakashvili's rule. However you look at the decisive elections next week, let's be clear-minded in understanding that the methodical torture and rape uncovered last week are not isolated breakdowns of civilization within Georgia's prison system; they're symptoms of a deeper crisis that now permeates Georgia's whole political system.
Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He was formerly a research professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins' Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and a director of the Central Asia/Caucasus Institute.
Do mission-driven organizations with tight budgets have any choice but to demand long, unpaid hours of their staffs?
Earlier this year, at the encouragement of President Obama, the Department of Labor finalized the most significant update to the federal rules on overtime in decades. The new rules will more than double the salary threshold for guaranteed overtime pay, from about $23,000 to $47,476. Once the rules go into effect this December, millions of employees who make less than that will be guaranteed overtime pay under the law when they work more than 40 hours a week.
Unsurprisingly, some business lobbies and conservatives disparaged the rule as unduly burdensome. But pushback also came from what might have been an unexpected source: a progressive nonprofit called the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). “Doubling the minimum salary to $47,476 is especially unrealistic for non-profit, cause-oriented organizations,” U.S. PIRG said in a statement. “[T]o cover higher staffing costs forced upon us under the rule, we will be forced to hire fewer staff and limit the hours those staff can work—all while the well-funded special interests that we're up against will simply spend more.”
A new survey suggests the logistics of going to services can be the biggest barrier to participation—and Americans’ faith in religious institutions is declining.
The standard narrative of American religious decline goes something like this: A few hundred years ago, European and American intellectuals began doubting the validity of God as an explanatory mechanism for natural life. As science became a more widely accepted method for investigating and understanding the physical world, religion became a less viable way of thinking—not just about medicine and mechanics, but also culture and politics and economics and every other sphere of public life. As the United States became more secular, people slowly began drifting away from faith.
Of course, this tale is not just reductive—it’s arguably inaccurate, in that it seems to capture neither the reasons nor the reality behind contemporary American belief. For one thing, the U.S. is still overwhelmingly religious, despite years of predictions about religion’s demise. A significant number of people who don’t identify with any particular faith group still say they believe in God, and roughly 40 percent pray daily or weekly. While there have been changes in this kind of private belief and practice, the most significant shift has been in the way people publicly practice their faith: Americans, and particularly young Americans, are less likely to attend services or identify with a religious group than they have at any time in recent memory.
It’s always dehydrated, and it's not a great swimmer, but it can somehow cross oceans.
If someone asked you to think about a global animal that has spread over much of the earth, you’ll probably think of something like the brown rat, the rock pigeon, or us humans. You probably won’t think about the yellow-bellied sea snake.
It’s a striking animal—two to three feet in length, with a black back and yellow belly. And it is extraordinarily far-ranging for a snake. It lives throughout the Pacific Ocean, which is already more area than all the continents combined, and the Indian Ocean too. Of all the tetrapods—the animal group that includes mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians—this little-known snake is one of the most abundant and widespread.
“Off the coast of Costa Rica, there are some good days where you can observe hundreds or thousands of them over a couple of hours,” says the French scientist Francois Brischoux, who has been studying this species for a decade.
Poor white Americans’ current crisis shouldn’t have caught the rest of the country as off guard as it has.
Sometime during the past few years, the country started talking differently about white Americans of modest means. Early in the Obama era, the ennobling language of campaign pundits prevailed. There was much discussion of “white working-class voters,” with whom the Democrats, and especially Barack Obama, were having such trouble connecting. Never mind that this overbroad category of Americans—the exit pollsters’ definition was anyone without a four-year college degree, or more than a third of the electorate—obliterated major differences in geography, ethnicity, and culture. The label served to conjure a vast swath of salt-of-the-earth citizens living and working in the wide-open spaces between the coasts—Sarah Palin’s “real America”—who were dubious of the effete, hifalutin types increasingly dominating the party that had once purported to represent the common man. The “white working class” connoted virtue and integrity. A party losing touch with it was a party unmoored.
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.
Two decades ago, Osama bin Laden officially launched al-Qaeda’s struggle against the United States. Neither side has won.
Exactly two decades ago, on August 23, 1996, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. At the time, few people paid much attention. But it was the start of what’s now the Twenty Years’ War between the United States and al-Qaeda—a conflict that both sides have ultimately lost.
During the 1980s, bin Laden fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. After the Soviets withdrew, he went home to Saudi Arabia, then moved to Sudan before being expelled and returning to Afghanistan in 1996 to live under Taliban protection. Within a few months of his arrival, he issued a 30-page fatwa, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” which was published in a London-based newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, and faxed to supporters around the world. It was bin Laden’s first public call for a global jihad against the United States. In a rambling text, bin Laden opined on Islamic history, celebrated recent attacks against U.S. forces in Lebanon and Somalia, and recounted a multitude of grievances against the United States, Israel, and their allies. “The people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Jewish-Christian alliance and their collaborators,” he wrote.
How pharmaceutical price hikes and high-deductible plans create a perfect storm for people who need life-saving medications.
In lieu of spending $1,212 on four EpiPens, one mom in Virginia is planning to ask a doctor to fill some empty syringes with epinephrine, the drug inside the allergy injectors. She will then give the syringes to her 12-year-old son to carry around—the boy is so allergic to milk he has to wear a face mask when he goes outside.
That scenario, reported by Stat News, is perhaps the most extreme example of the many ways parents are struggling to cope with the rising price of EpiPen, a spring-loaded tool that can reverse an allergic reaction when stabbed into the thigh.
Mylan, the company that sells EpiPens, has driven up its price by more than $500 since 2009, from about $100 for a pack of two to $608.61 this year. Because they’re so essential, many people with severe allergies have more than one.
We’ve been flying around the country for the last three years, visiting dozens of towns that are reinventing themselves after some kind of big economic or demographic change. I have also, in a way, matched those flights stroke by stroke in America’s public swimming pools. On our first day on the ground in any town, I search for a public pool. I started swimming around the country as a way to maintain some sense of normal in my physical activity after all that flying. And then I came to appreciate it as another window into the culture and spirit of the towns we visited. I wish Ryan Lochte could share some of my experience.
Like much of America—and I’m betting most of the many hundreds of kids I have seen swimming in pools around the nation, too—I was glued to the Olympic swimming events. Katie Ledecky, Maya DiRado, Michael Phelps, truth-teller Lilly King. And then, enter Ryan Lochte.
The many obstacles trans men and other transmasculine people run into when feeding infants
When Trevor MacDonald started chestfeeding about five years ago, he didn't know anyone who had attempted it, nor had any of his doctors ever encountered someone who had. In fact, he was shocked that his body could even produce milk. As a trans man—someone who was assigned female at birth but has transitioned to identifying as male—he was born with the mammary glands and milk ducts required for lactation, but he'd had his breasts removed. Once he had his baby, his care providers supported his desire to nurse, but it was up to him figure out how.
MacDonald began blogging about chestfeeding from his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and soon discovered a whole community of transmasculine people around the world in the same boat, looking for guidance. For trans men and transmasculine folks, putting a baby to their chest to suckle can lead to complicated feelings about their gender. Many lactation support services are available for “nursing mothers,” which sounds unwelcoming to men and non-binary individuals. And many trans people say doctors don’t understand their bodies or experiences.