First, let's state these facts about the human race, and more specifically, about the 5% of Americans in it:
1. People will believe any crap, and the facts are useless against a crap-filled belief system.
2. When one bunch of people looks at the problems of another bunch of people, they always ask: how can we make their problems all about us?
These are two of the most powerful operative correlatives that define the human condition.
Whatever is happening out there — the early passing of Michael Jackson, another puerile attempt to fix our healthcare system, or the drama of the Iran election — you can be pretty sure that your understanding of them will depend on these two operative correlatives. None of us — not even Chomsky, Heidegger or Foucault — are immune to their power.
And here's why:
We live in a world of stories, not a world of events.
We live in a world of stories told by a whole bunch of story-tellers.
Politicians. Philosophers. Experts. Pundits. Critics. Academics. The media. Bloggers. Wall Street. Main Street. Labor unions. Global capitalists. Etcetera.
These story-tellers tell us their stories so they can gain all sorts of goodies for themselves.
Votes. Ratings. Sales. Market shares. Wages. Bonuses. Grants. Nobel Prizes. And so on.
And we believe their stories.
We believe their stories NOT because they are TRUE stories, but because they are GOOD stories.
They appeal to our story-enjoying selves, the way comedies and tragedies about men, women and the gods appealed to the ancient Greeks, where the template for Western-minded stories was created.
I. SOME AMERICAN STORIES
Today, our American stories include:
1. The right beer or handbag can get you laid or admired or promoted by a person with higher status than you.
2. You can get really lucky and become a celebrity.
3. Celebrities suffer just like us or worse than us.
4. A messiah will arrive among our anointed selves to save our sorry asses just when we need him, and maybe he'll get killed in the process, be he Jesus, FDR, JFK, MLK, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, John Lennon or Michael Jackson.
6. All that is good in this world has been brought into the world by us. Look at how we brought down Soviet Communism, and South African apartheid, and rid the world of dictators like Saddam, Lumumba, Aristide and Allende. Everything we do and have in America is better, from the iPhone to SUVs to the Ivy League to Hollywood to our Constitution to Springsteen to Barack Obama to Goldman Sachs to our democracy to our sports, which include the aptly named World Series.
Chomsky famously wrote that consent is manufactured, but he stopped short of what is really being manufactured, and on a much deeper level.
It's not just consent that's manufactured: it's our consensual SELVES that are being manufactured. The stories we are told manufacture not just what we think, but WHO WE ARE. And it is our consensual SELVES — who we are — that make us do the stupid and glorious things we do.
For example, we didn't just agree with a small section of our midbrain to go and invade Iraq. No, our whole country moved itself heart and soul in patriotic zeal to go there and support our troops in their heroic mission to bash the evil Saddam and his terrorist followers to a semblance of sandy pulp. At that point, we not only acted out of outrage about 9/11 — we WERE in fact a nation of avengers bent on justice, however rough that justice might be, and however mistaken we might've been in where that justice needed to be meted out. (We picked Iraq, but it might've made a whole lot more sense to pick Saudi-Arabia — except our first family Bush was totally wired into the Saudi/Bin Laden axis of oil and arms sales.)
Mind you, not all our American selves were manufactured to set out on this happy invasion lark. Some of us were manufactured to say: hey, this is a mistake, folks, this is not good, what the heck are we doing?
In fact, there will always be a 10% to 30% hold-out against any national consensus of self. Behold the fact that Bush Jr's approval rating never reached minus infinity as it should have, but held steady around 30%. Behold the fact that if Obama did all of the following:
a) locked up all the fraudulent bankers making big bonuses off the backs of job-and-home-losing Americans;
b) destroyed the HMOs;
c) helped put Detroit back on its feet;
d) doubled the salaries of good teachers;
e) created a huge new black middleclass, and
f) made us totally energy independent
… there'd still be at least 10% of folks on the left who'd complain that last week he didn't hug enough of the important Latino demographic 45 to 65, or some such whine.
We Americans are just ornery that way.
Let's see how consenual story-telling applies to three events recently and currently flooding our consensual selves.
II. MICHAEL JACKSON — FROM ABUSED CHILD STAR TO WACKO JACKO
In our household, my brilliant girlfriend could give a flying flickering fetish about most celebrities, which is easy for her, since she doesn't know who the heck they are anyway: to her, the cover of any People Magazine could be a catalogue for agricultural equipment, given the sometimes dorky-looking models they use.
So we missed all the TV coverage on Michael Jackson that I read about on the blogs.
However, my absence from the TV coverage didn't really matter, because my consensual self could write the obits in my sleep. Greatest entertainer of all time. Everybody tries to sing like he sang but they can't do those hiccups like he could. Fred Astaire said Michael had the best moves ever. He sold more albums than Prince (the more talented man). HE NEVER HAD A CHILDHOOD. His Dad was too tough on the sensitive little tyke. He married Priscilla for PR reasons. He slept with young boys in his bed, and god knows what went on in that bed of his.
And so on. Why can I write it in my sleep? Because that's the story we've all settled on. Because that's what Barbara Walters says. Because that's what Oprah Winfrey says. Because that's what my neighbor says who saw Oprah say it.
So let me be the consensual 30% hold-out here, and state my own ornery opinion:
1. Michael Jackson had a great childhood, for chrissake. He did exactly what he wanted, and sang and danced his way into the hearts of America, surrounded by his loving older brothers. He was as happy as a clam doing it. He absolutely LOVED working hard to get things absolutely right, and boy, did he get things right. When he was a grownup, he saw kids doing the moonwalk, so he took their move and practiced it for hours every day, for weeks on end, to get it totally and absolutely instinctively in-his-bones-and-balls-and-synapses right. Then he totally and absolutely blew the nation's mind when he did that incredible performance of Billie Jean on TV in real time. I saw the damn thing, and my mind is still blown. More so than Prince blew my mind with his Purple Rain album, even though Prince is the more talented musical maestro.
2. Michael Jackson was a marketing genius. That's why he outsold Prince, and everyone else except Elvis and the Beatles and Bing Crosby. That's why he turned MTV from a racist white channel into a hey, black-dudes-are-really-neato channel with one video: the Billie Jean one, directed by Britain's top video director, Steve Barron. Michael Jackson was ridiculously smart. When he went out on his own, he hired the absolute best people: Quincy Jones, Bob Giraldi. Listen, I worked in advertising, and I'm telling you now, only Steve Jobs has done half as good a job as Michael Jackson, and Jobs has it easy: he does a little song and dance every now and then, but that's like cruising compared to the intensity of what Michael Jackson pulled off. Michael Jackson created the perfect all-age-appeal persona: the boy-man who likes to dress up. And teen girls loved it UNIVERSALLY, especially in that haven of cute (kawai), Japan.
3. Michael Jackson wasn't weird. Bill Clinton screwing every big-haired bimbo that walked past his winkie and becoming President — that's weird. Then NOT banging Monica Lewinsky — that's even weirder. (She came from a good family, so maybe she wasn't trashy enough for him, and he therefore substituted the phallic symbol of his cigar for the real thing.) There were people in my High School in South Africa who were way weirder than Michael Jackson. One guy ate raw frogs; another actually bonked his dog, and then let most of his friends try, too. The dog didn't seem to mind, I was told. Damn weird, though. One of my best friends told me he had an affair with his sister who was a few years older than him. And then, when she turned 17 and said no more nooky, he told me he was totally pissed about it for TWO YEARS. That's weird.
4. So if Michael Jackson wasn't weird, what was he? He was rich, that's what he was. He could do anything, and he did. He shopped like crazy. He bought the Lennon-McCartney catalogue. The man owned Yesterday and Hey Jude. He lived the life of the rich, who apparently are different from you and me. He over-leveraged himself, just like AIG and Wall Street and all those leveraged-buyout guys (who like to call themselves private equity firms to mask the fact that they're riddled with debt). He had three children, whom he loved so much that he decided to do a concert series for them because they hadn't seen him perform live yet. Like a good daddy he wanted to do it just so for them. So he worked his ass off at the age of 50, and his heart conked out. He died for love of his art and his kids. What's so weird about that? Who wouldn't like to die for their art or their kids?
5. Did he fellate boys? Of course not. He shared a bed with them, because he liked it. Not a custom I would personally encourage, but that was the way it was with him. He liked being with young boys. Lewis Carroll liked being with young girls. Not all people who like being with kids are perverts. Jeez, there are probably Catholic priests who like being with kids and don't try to bang them. Some mothers nurse their kids till they're six. So Michael Jackson liked hanging out with boys, but then had to pay millions to make predatory mothers go away who were so weird they pushed their kids at Michael Jackson, hoping to collect.
6. Was he a self-hating black man? Please. Spare us. The man had the money to do what he wanted with his face, so he did it. Sure, it's not something you and I would do, but in show business all of them do it all the time, and being Michael Jackson, he did it more avant-ly than the others (yet not quite as avant-ly as the French performance artist Orlan). He did it because he dug it, and he did it because he needed a new face as a marketing tool. He collapsed all the successful star personas in one. The universal boy-man (James Dean, Brad Pitt). The fantasy elf man (Freddy Mercury, Boy George). The androgynous buster of gender boundaries (Jagger, Bowie). The action doll (the Silver Surfer, Wolverine). He put it all together for the entire cosmos of concert-goers, and people bought into his trip like hopped-up maggots going after a fat cadaver. Michael Jackson didn't want to be confined by his ethnicity — stamped as another good-looking black dude, like Harry Belafonte. No, he wanted a face that would bring bigger sales than that. First he tried the Diana Ross unisex look (my personal favorite). Then the small upturned nose pixie look, a kind of space-age elf. Lately a more mature Joan Crawford diva forties look, which he sort of pulls off, except the journalists have decided for us that it's “ghoulish” (they probably said that about Joan Crawford herself, too).
7. It might be that Michael Jackson checked out because of the effects of prescription drugs, enabled by his doctors, just like Elvis got returned to sender while sitting on the crapper, also from drugs prescribed by an enabling physician. Metallica paid their shrink $40,000 per month to keep the band sane, so if that's any guide to what an enabling doctor to the stars gets paid, it's pretty easy to understand why these doctors are so ready to cash in their oath.
So that's it: my 30% holdout ornery story on Michael Jackson.
Who's right, me or the consensus?
Does it matter? No. Right or wrong has got nothing to do with it. Because this is not about him — it's about us. We always make it all about us. That's what we habitually do as a nation of narcissists in the mirror. We can't help it.
Michael's mom and dad and siblings and Elizabeth Taylor know who Michael Jackson is, but we don't, and we probably don't much care whether we do.
And you? You're either going to go with your consensual self, or with my holdout self. Or a mixture of both: some damn consensus that's got nothing to do with any actual facts. In fact, the facts are useless against my or your crap-filled belief system.
This we know for sure: the accepted consensus story about Michael Jackson will beat out all other stories. Because in our world of stories, the packaging will always be more important than the product, and a package of kitsch and bathos will always sell bigger than blunt truth or the authentic Real (whatever that is: we have contending simulacra here).
III. WHO DO YOU WANT TO STAND BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR DOCTOR? THE GOVERNMENT? OR AN HMO?
When it comes to the healthcare debate, there are two consensus stories that confront each other head-on.
On the one hand (the right hand): “The public plan would inexorably crowd out private plans, leading to a single-payer system.” So says Wharton's Scott Harrington in the Wall Street Journal. Here's The American Medical Association, pretty much mirroring him: “The introduction of a new public plan threatens to restrict patient choice by driving out private insurers, which currently provide coverage for nearly 70% of Americans.”
On the other hand, we have the left-handed story, which goes something like this: Folks, those damn HMO's have been gouging us long enough. They're ruining our economic competitiveness and our health.
And you know where you stand: in fact, you've probably gone so far as to read an article or two to back up your own feelings about the issue. Our consensual selves are often out there roaming around on a feeding mission to fatten ourselves at our preferred troughs.
Now, allow me to introduce my 30% hold-out ornery position:
First, a question: why is the healthcare industry so sissy-scared of a robust public option? Next, an answer: maybe because they'll be forced to come up with a smarter business model. Their current business model appears to be so riddled with bureaucracy it resembles a 1950's Kremlin Department of Grain Production, where it took 10,000 bureaucrats and farmers and a five-year plan to produce what an Iowa farmer could do in a afternoon.
If you ever meet someone who works for an HMO, ask them what they do. They'll be eager to tell you their title, but they may not be able to explain what they do, because most of them shuffle paper up and down a bizarre food chain.
At the bottom is the first layer of gatekeeping HMO bureaucrats. They're there to refuse care. The next slightly higher layers are there to refuse care and single out any potential troublemakers, i.e. those claimants who might not take no for an immediate answer. The next layers are there to try and bamboozle any persistent claimants with rules (if your wife had ordered an ambulette instead of an ambulance when you fell and broke both legs, you would've been covered under your plan). And so it goes up the food chain to the top rung, where the people are senior enough to decide, ohmigod, these claimants hired John Edwards, we'd better pay them.
Most people give up quite soon if they're refused, and that's one way HMOs make money. It's also how everyone in the business gets trained in the way HMOs do business. If you're a kid entering the industry, and you don't hit your annual target of care refusal to guarantee a certain amount of profit, you don't move up or get your bonus.
Wendell Potter, a 20-year veteran of Cigna, explained to a Senate Committee how the industry works in two other ways to make money. He said HMOs are driven by “two key figures: earnings per share and the medical-loss ratio, or medical-benefit ratio, as the industry now terms it. That is the ratio between what the company actually pays out in claims and what it has left over to cover sales, marketing, underwriting and other administrative expenses and, of course, profits.”
The HMOs drive down the “medical-loss ratio,” says Potter, by not insuring unhealthy people.
Pretty obvious, that. You can make more money off a healthy person's insurance dollar, because they need less medical care.
How do the HMOs get rid of unhealthy people so they can make a profit on healthy people?
“One is policy rescission,” Potter told the committee. “They look carefully to see if a sick policyholder may have omitted a minor illness, a pre-existing condition, when applying for coverage, and then they use that as justification to cancel the policy, even if the enrollee has never missed a premium payment.”
Then there's “purging.” An insurer will get rid of an unprofitable account by sticking them with “intentionally unrealistic rate increases.” For example, to get the Entertainment Industry Group Insurance Trust in California and New Jersey out of the door and off its books, Cigna slammed them with a massive rate increase — to the point where some family plans would've cost over $44,000 a year — and told them they had only three months to come up with the cash or else.
This is what happens when you have to make a profit, which HMOs do (how else would they end up owning sport stadiums?).
Now it doesn't necessarily mean that HMOs are evil bastards from the sixth circle of hell, whose CEOs build vast mansions in Bermuda on the backs of dead Americans (even though one might claim that the meddling of HMOs in American lives has caused American deaths). It just means that HMOs have to make a profit, otherwise they go under. Potter recalls how an insurer's stock price fell 20% in a day because the first-quarter medical-loss ratio went from 77.9% to 79.4%.
So that's my story about what the HMOs are up to. They're more interested in making money than healing people, and nobody should blame them for this, because that's how it works when you give the job of caring for sick people to the free market.
That doesn't mean that a public option is the greatest thing since sliced bread either. It will destroy many jobs, because the HMOs will shrink, and the vast majority of their paper-shoving bureaucrats will lose their livelihoods. As for doctors, it will probably halve their incomes. They'd be making $200,000 a year instead of $500,000. As much as doctors may hate having HMOs tell them how to treat their patients, they like the money that comes from our medical system, where a neurologist can charge a patient $900 for an hour's visit. That's getting close to what lawyers can charge on Wall Street.
Not that we can be sure that a public option will help solve our biggest healthcare problem: costs. Yes, I know the Netherlands and France pay about half as much as we do for better outcomes all round, but America is an odd country when it comes to costs. Heck, there's a reason we're the biggest debtor nation in the world by a factor by trillions. Our current healthcare system encourages hospitals and doctors to order up the most expensive treatments on the most expensive machines using the most expensive drugs, because that's how you make a profit. Whether the public option will resolve such extravagance I can't say for sure. What I can say is that a public option will probably lead to the right balance between our government and private industry taking care of our health.
There are at least four areas where we see this balance working pretty OK already.
There are our cops, who in New York are terrific, and in some southern states horrible, and there are our private security firms. I'd say there's a good balance here between public and private enterprise.
There's our military and all the services it buys from the private sector, which some people have mixed feelings about, especially when private firms like Blackwater kill more Iraqis than would appear necessary for the security they aim to provide. In this case, there is a debate about how much we should privatize war.
There are our public schools, which range from totally dysfunctional in some urban areas, to pretty OK in the white suburbs, and our private schools, which do a terrific job. Here it's obvious we've got some big problems in the public sector, caused by the fact that schools are funded from property taxes, so places with a better tax-base have better schools than places with a poor tax-base.
Then there is our postal service, which I rate as the best in the world, and the private services like Fedex and the like, which I also rate as the best in the world. So here we have a well-nigh perfect system shared by the government and private industry.
Let's hope that if a public option in healthcare goes through, the resulting system will work as well as our mailing and shipping system.
One can imagine that the rich will go to HMOs, just like they now put their kids in private schools, and that they will happily pay top-dollar for all the latest medical whatsits. It will then be their money (along with government grants to universities and scientific labs) that will fund the incredible medical advances that our country is justly famous for. The rest of us will get good basic care, and as a country, we'll all enjoy the better outcomes they get in the Netherlands and France.
That's my hope. That's my story about healthcare.
I must admit, I feel some pity and sorrow for the unfortunate HMO bureaucrats who'll lose their jobs, and for the many doctors who'll see their income fall from $500,000 a year to $200,000 a year. Losing your job or your level of income sucks. So I understand why they don't want any part of a public option, since their livelihoods and income are at stake. But what I refuse to buy are their idiotic excuses for the broken system that gives them profits and doubles the income they'd get in any other system. Do they believe these excuses?
Of course they do. People passionately believe any story that backs up the amount of money or profit they're used to getting. Money is a big driver of many stories. The facts are useless against a crap-filled belief system based on money.
So don't be too tough on the doctors and HMO employees: they're just trying to make a buck, like all of us.
The people who do get me pissy are the politicians who know all the angles and still commit hypocrisy. The facts are useless against any crap-filled belief system, but some of these pols have got to know that the words that leave their mouths are crap of such a lowly status — vulture crap — that even their kids must suspect these pols don't believe a word they're saying. I'm also disappointed in a guy like Barack Obama, who will make whatever deal he needs to make to get a deal, no matter how f-upped the deal is. Wall Street squashed Obama and any ideas he might've had about real financial reform flatter than a woman's breast in a mammogram machine. So might we hope that Obama will stick his neck out for a public option? Or will he do his wimp-out wriggle one more time? Or heck, will he all of a sudden surprise us by taking an actual stand on this one? Is this the hour when he finally unleashes the millions of people on his email list to batter Congress into submission? Let's wait and see. If the man sincerely wants a legacy, he might do it.
It's painful to know that in a democracy, the leaders seldom listen to the people. A clear majority of 72% of Americans want a public option, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. Most Americans also say that the government would do a better job than private industry to keep costs down. A majority of Americans are also willing to pay more taxes to get a better healthcare system. But what is Congress doing? They're doing their habitual dither dance because the lobbyists of the HMOs have their money hooks deep into the greased palms of the esteemed representatives of our people.
One can't help but be reminded of other places in the world where the government turns a deaf ear to their people. Which brings us to the drama of Iran.
IV. IRAN: WHAT THE HECK IS A THEOCRACY?
I love this comment about the Iran election, complete with spelling errors, posted by an anonymous Persepolis:
“It's the idiotic western MSM that has been trumpeting Mousavi as some kind of Lincoln or Mandella or Ghandi and his followers as bien pensant left-leaning secularist westerners who are waging a French Revolution to overthrow everything that is today's Iran. What the knuckleheads of the MSM knows about Iran could be written on the bottom of an AK-47 cartridge.”
The narrative we've gotten from the MSM is simple: it's theocracy vs. democracy, and those mullahs are really doing a number on the opposition who challenged their counting of the vote. They shot Neda. There she is on YouTube, her face covered in blood (YouTube, BTW, blocked the video, and only gave up when thousands of people posted it again and again). Those Basiji militia, the stormtrooper thugs of the Revolutionary Guard, beat little old ladies to a pulp with their big long sticks. One guy even ran amok with a big axe.
Very emotional stuff. The human race, thank heavens, never ceases to be amazed by the violence of a crackdown by the authorities. (Heck, in our country, the Waco crackdown inspired one of our homegrown terrotists to blow up 168 people in retaliation.)
There's also been the to-and-fro between Obama and the GOP's assorted Krauthammers, who want Obama to spit fire at Khamenei and Ahmadinejad and do something like … well, something. In other words, they look at what is happening in Iran and want to make it all about us. The foreign policy of other-nations'-problems-are-all-about-us is one that most nations in the world religiously follow.
Anyway, let's hear it for another 30% hold-out position. What follows is my ornery story about Iran.
First, the theocracy vs. democracy meme.
Question: what the heck is a theocracy?
A theocracy is a system of government in which religion dominates. Israel, for example, is a democratic mezzo-theocracy with some tolerance for secularists, but not much tolerance for its Muslim citizens.
In a theocracy, the religion of the state IS the state. More than that, the religion permeates with its morality all aspects of life — the nation and its goals, the institutions of its people, the people itself — as ANY RELIGION IS SUPPOSED TO DO. The whole idea is to ensure that the morality of the religion is the foundation from which the state and its people operate.
So there's no room for secularism. It's kind of like America's first Puritan colonies. It's a society that would rather be GOOD than FREE in our Western secular democratic sense of the word.
The closest analogy to what Iran's Muslim Shia theocracy is all about is to say they run their country like the Catholics run their church.
The Catholics have the Pope, a lifetime appointment. Iran has the Supreme Leader, also a lifetime appointment. Under the Pope are the cardinals. Under the Supreme Leader is the Council of Guardians (or Jurists, or clerics), the Assembly of Experts, and other clerical bodies. Under the cardinals are the bishops and priests and the Catholics. Under the Council of Guardians are the Revolutionary Guard and the military and the courts and the cops and all the other institutions of a functioning state and the Iranian people.
Power flows down from the Supreme Leader into his council of worthies who oversee everyone else. The doctrine behind it all, as laid down by the first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, is the doctrine of Welayet-al-Faqeeh: the right of the most learned clerics to rule the nation. It's as if the Chief Rabbi were the de facto and de jure last word on everything that really matters. The Supreme Leader is Allah's representative on earth — exactly like the Pope in the Catholic Church is God's guy on earth.
As it turns out, both the Catholic Church and the Iranian State are male-dominated and profoundly sexist. Not too long ago the Catholic Church actually burned women at the stake for being witches, and the Shiites have been known to stone women for adultery.
However, there is one notable difference between these two theocracies. The Iranian state is much more democratic than the Catholic Church. The Supreme Leader and his council of worthies pick four or five guys to run against each other for the job of President, for example, and all Iranians of voting age, men and women, get to vote for him.
Nobody in the Catholic Church gets to vote for anyone to represent them (the horse-trading among cardinals that goes on when they pick a new Pope takes place behind closed doors).
In Iran the President has the power to move the country towards a free-market orientation, as happened under Rafsanjani when he was President between 1989 and 1997, or towards a more socialist orientation, as has happened under Ahmadinejad.
So what the heck happened in Iran?
A lot of stuff, but mainly there was a spat between the Supreme Leader and Rafsanjani.
Rafsanjani is said to be the richest man in the country. He sits in the Assembly of Experts, a body that has the power to appoint or dismiss the Supreme Leader. His family owns vast tracts of land in Iran, with big interests in many businesses, including foreign trade and the largest network of private universities in Iran, the Islamic Azad University, which has 300 campuses and a lot of money (think Harvard and Yale) — and about three million student activists who irritate the heck out of the clerics.
In 2003, when Forbes had Rafsanjani on their list of richest people in the world, they bluntly stated that he has “more or less run the Islamic Republic for the past 24 years.”
Well, not quite. The Supreme Leader Khamenei has strong ties with the Revolutionary Guard, and he who controls the military, or is controlled by them, usually has more power than the richest guy in the land (as Russia's oligarchs found out when they were foolish enough to think they could take on Putin).
So what we have in Iran is not really theocracy vs. democracy.
It's Khamenei vs. Rafsanjani.
Khamenei's man in the election was Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani's man was Mousavi.
These men are all devoted Muslims who together made the 1979 revolution that overthrew the hated Shah. (The last of the Pahlavi dynasty was a stooge for Western oil interests, installed by a CIA-engineered coup in one of those instances of U.S. meddling that threw up an unforeseen consequence: an opening for the clerics to take the 1979 revolution away from everyone else.)
Every leading player in today's drama was part of the 1979 revolution. They've been the ruling elite for 30 years. So what we have going on now is a feud among, say, the top thirteen guys in the country.
The Iranians who voted are the useful idiots of these thirteen guys. And some of these useful idiots are now stone dead, or lying in hospital with broken bones, or behind bars, where the Revolutionary Guards are kicking the daylights out of them, in the time-honored tradition of all upstanding military stalwarts who serve a repressive regime with a patriotic zeal more than equal to the patriotic zeal of the poor shmucks they're kicking.
Meanwhile, the top thirteen guys squabbling with each other are not getting kicked, and won't be kicked unless whoever has the greatest pull with the Revolutionary Guard gets really panicky and puts one or two or three of the thirteen who spook him the most in jail.
Thirteen is a kind of magic number, in that it never takes more than thirteen guys to screw up any country. It was no more than thirteen neocons who got the US into the Iraq War. It was no more than thirteen guys from the Goldman Sachs-Citigroup Axis of Financial Evil who screwed up our economy — and the economy of the world.
In Iran, when the forces of the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad-Revolutionary Guard faction rigged the election so stupidly that it was clear to most Iranians and their dogs that major hanky-panky had been committed, the opposition supporters started gathering en masse. Rafsanjani, ever ready to have a go at Khamenei and Ahmadinejad (who'd defeated Rafsanjani in a run-off for the Presidency in 2005), saw his chance and pushed heavily for his man Mousavi behind the scenes (in front of them, too).
And there you have it: blood in the streets.
To his surprise, Mousavi found himself representing the decadent youth and the pissed-off women of Iran. In bygone days, he'd been the arty left-wing leader, and Khamenei the religious right-wing leader, all under the watchful eye of Supreme Leader Khomeini, who used them both in various ways. Now all of a sudden Mousavi found himself seriously out in front of a take-it-to-the-streets-type revolution. And once on board, he went with the flow to the point that he actually declared himself ready for martyrdom.
A revolution can all too easily go to a man's head, especially when you have a strong wife like Mousavi's spouse Zahra Rahnavard, who was a better campaigner for him than he was for himself. Ever since she fought side by side with him to help overthrow the Shah, she must have been bending her husband's male ears about women's rights (never discount the power of a nagging wife in any revolution).
What's going to happen in Iran?
If the Revolutionary Guard decides to stick with Khamenei, there will still be some kind of change, albeit a little one, because the Supreme Leader won't be so supreme anymore, and his President Ahmadinejad will be more unpopular than before, as he gets the blame for an economy with not enough jobs for the decadent youth.
If Rafsanjani prevails, there might be some kind of revolutionary flux, as the business class and the clerics — like kids fighting over the last candies in the box — slap at each other's hands on the various levers of power.
But the clerics aren't going anywhere, and they will remain in power. We in the West are so used to being governed by connected people who've been to good universities, or by some high-up general, or by some guy who made his fortune in something like the media, that we can't imagine what it must be like to be governed by guys who've had their noses in religious books all their lives.
Even though Iran will remain a theocracy, it doesn't mean that women won't get a chance to advance their agenda. After all, Rafsanjani has a daughter in politics, and no doubt she's been bending her Dad's male ears about women's rights for many a moon (never discount the power of a spirited daughter in any revolution).
Undoubtedly there'll be some bigger changes at some later point in time. The old revolutionaries of 1979 will be dead in ten to twenty years. The 70% of Iran's people who are under thirty will continue to be decadent and watch The Daily Show. The women of Iran will keep bending the ears of their husbands and dads. So sometime in the next half century, we will see a more women-friendly society, and a more Daily Show-watching country.
V. HOW DEMOCRATIC ARE OUR DEMOCRACIES?
So that's my story about Iran. It could be I'm sort of semi-cynical, or anti-dramatic, or devoid of wet-eyed bathos, because I grew up in a fascist state, South Africa. I know it takes more than a few YouTube videos to bring about real change. Also, I'm now living in a country where I've watched Wall Street take us all for a ride and get away with it as easily as you and me taking a pee. If all of us freedom-loving Americans and Washington politicians can be such suckers for a bunch of superrich con-men on Wall Street, you're not going to find me trumpeting the greatness of democracy or the greatness of America from the vantage point of another July 4th celebration. Not this year, anyway. In fact, at this point, I'm prepared to give any number of alternatives to U.S. democratic capitalism a good look.
What do I see? I see China, a one-party state, who has a state-directed capitalism that is cleaning the clock of the US and Europe when it comes to making money.
I see India, corrupt as all heck, but democratic, and they're producing a car that costs less than many bicycles in the U.S. plus they've just decriminalized homosexuality.
And I say to myself, if and when Iran actually gives women their full rights, who says their theocracy would be any worse than any of our so-called democracies?
I say so-called, because is there a democracy on earth that actually is a democracy? OK, there are the near-nigh perfectly functional democracies of the Nordic countries. They're the most economically competitive societies on earth, even though they have the highest taxes and the most generous welfare nets. But they are, and have always been, the exception. There's got to be something in the water over there that produces those diligent social democrats who've organized themselves into such excellence. They've even produced the greatest genius of the 20th century's iconic art form: the movie director Ingmar Bergman.
The other democracies we have in the West are not quite that democratic. Greg Palast calls the U.S. “the best democracy money can buy.” No wonder Wall Street is getting off scot-free (watch them blow up our economy again in 2017).
The story that we are a great democracy is the best story we have, but arguably our furthest-from-the-truth story.
At my family's own July 4th celebration, one Mom ask her 9-year-old what he liked most about America. He replied: “the fact that we've never lost a war.” I brought up the Vietnam War, and the Mom and my brilliant girlfriend jumped in to say that Vietnam is never presented as a loss, and then I felt quite sad that I might have confused the little tyke at too early an age. So in my mind I quickly ran through some of the things I like about America, and spoke a few of them out loud. For example:
Freedom of speech (even hate speech is protected).
Maximum ethnic diversity.
The strong women.
The Daily Show.
The spirit of can-do and can-do-damn-well-anything.
The way Americans keep inventing amazing new things, like laptops, the Internet, MRI machines, and those stacked seven-day pill boxes for people who take meds, that have the days of the week stamped on each separate box.
Finally, our almost child-like enthusiasm for anything well done — from a winning Superbowl play to a brilliant Obama speech to a great Bruce Springsteen performance to the eating of 68 hot dogs in ten minutes by the winner of Nathan's 4th of July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest this year. He is Joey Chestnut from California. 68 hot dogs!? Unbelievable. The dude deserves the $20,000 he won.
To sum up: we've looked at three events, and at six stories about them.
What and who do you believe? I'd say your safest bet is to believe whatever is easiest for you to believe. As for me, I'm always ready to unbelieve myself. Why the heck should I believe myself? Even more to the point, why should you believe yourself?
There's absolutely no reason to. And here's why. Come tomorrow, a better story could easily come along.