Voice

International sex scandals of the week

Nothing captures the intellectual desolation of the wasteland that is American media like the fact that this week ended with the media in a furor over the fake and largely irrelevant story of a bungled human resources issue in the bowels of the Department of Agriculture while buried inside Friday's papers were obituaries for efforts to combat climate change and actually create the energy policy America has lacked for, well, ever.

What does this go to show? Well, for one thing, it underscores the obsession of the media with conflict and human drama no matter how inconsequential to the public at large. But even more, it should send a stark reminder to all that -- more often than we care to admit -- the most important story in the world is one that is just not getting covered or ends up as a blurb buried on an inside page. You can't get a good shot of what isn't happening... and with amazing frequency, the most important stories are of what we are not doing.

Also, of course, stories about climate and energy and global warming are -- despite their centrality and even despite a current crisis that could have been used as a springboard to highlight the urgency of doing something -- boring. What isn't boring? Fighting. Personal attacks. And, of course, sex.

Given the unpleasantness of fighting and personal attacks, let's see what we can learn about the world from the Top Sex Stories of the Week.

1. Arab Jailed for Impersonating a Jew:

In Israel, a Palestinian man named Sabbar Kashur was sentenced to a year-and-a-half in jail for what was characterized as "rape by deception." His deception? He told a Jewish woman he met in September 2008 that he was an SJM (single Jewish male) ISO (in search of) a meaningful relationship (insert sounds of wedding bells here.)

One thing led to another, and Kashur and his partner had what both characterize as consensual sex. According to one of the judges ruling on the case however, "If she hadn't thought the accused was a Jewish bachelor interested in a serious romantic relationship, she never would have cooperated." Kashur is appealing. The case, I mean. Certainly, his approach to dating leaves something to be desired. The case raises several important issues. One relates to the ironies involved: Israel is created after centuries in which Jews had to hide their identities to avoid persecution and then produces social divisions so great that a man ends up being arrested for impersonating a Jew. But the bigger question that arises out of this is: How fast can we build jails? Because if the case sets a precedent for men being arrested for lying to get a woman into bed, we'll never have enough room for the incoming waves of freshly minted convicts.

2. Latest Twist in Vatican Sex Scandals: Priests Having Sex with Adults
How can you not enjoy a good sex scandal presented by a magazine owned by an Italian prime minister who knows a thing or two about sex scandals himself? This week, Italy's Panorama magazine rocked the Vatican with yet another exposé, this one revealing priests at play in Roman gay clubs. "By day they are regular priests," wrote Panorama's editors, "complete with a dog collar, but at night it's off with the cassock as they take their place as perfectly integrated members of the Italian capital's gay scene." Of course, the last thing the Vatican needs is another sex scandal. If only there was some way for them to avoid such scandals. Perhaps after more than a millennium and a half of trying to prevent their priests from having sex -- despite the fact that this prohibition was added long after the founding of the Church and has been a resolute failure at every level ever since -- they might consider a set of rules that actually are consistent with, I don't know, the fact that priests are actually also human beings.

3. Iranian Defends Decision to Stone Woman to Death for Adultery: "At Least We're Not Saudi..."
In Iran, which has somehow both prided itself as the most cosmopolitan country in its region while also being the most careful in adhering to medieval laws, a 43-year-old woman from Tabriz was just convicted of having extra-marital relations with two men (who later killed her husband.) Her initial punishment was the traditional local remedy of 99 lashes. But when she appealed, the higher court thought better of the laxer whipping and decided she should be stoned to death. One Iranian journalist named Kourosh Ziabari, who writes for Foreign Policy Journal (probably not, I think, affiliated with this publication), argued "Everything is not perfect here but Iran is very advanced in women's rights when compared to other Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, neither of which receive regular condemnation from the international community over human rights and are allied with the U.S." This is possibly the weakest defense of the indefensible I have heard since Mel Gibson argued that he punched his baby in self-defense. (I kid. I don't believe the baby was actually threatening Mel.)

4. Drama In the Garden of Barbara Eden: Saudi Man Possessed by Female Genie:
Maybe there is something to Ziabari's defense. If you think it's bad for Saudis who are involved in extramarital relationships with one another (see long history of stories about convictions and punishments in this vein), its not so much better for Saudis having an intimate relationship with a phantasm. One poor Saudi guy, a 29 year-old Mecca resident named Turki, has ended up being chained in a basement for the past six years because his parents are convinced he has been possessed by an evil female genie. How do they know? Convulsions, eyeballs rolling back in his head, the usual sort of thing. And then supposedly he speaks in a woman's voice. While you might suppose this sort of display really calls for a visit from a doctor, poor Turki's misfortune is that his father was also apparently possessed by a genie when he was a young lad -- "a woman who would at times appear very beautiful and at times extremely ugly." OK, so now maybe you're thinking what they need is a shrink who understands they have some issues with the opposite sex. But actually, in Saudi Arabia, apparently the proper response to genies is either exorcism or, alternatively, as in the case of one family last year, getting a lawyer and taking the genie to court for the mayhem it produced.

5. Speaking of American Allies: How Do You Sing "Everybody Must Get Stoned" in Urdu?:
In the Northwest Pakistani garden spot known as Kala Dhaka, a couple who were married -- but not to each other -- have also been sentenced to death by stoning. Fortunately for the man involved, he escaped -- or at least that's the explanation being offered for the fact that only the woman reportedly now faces death for their indiscretion. Convicted in a tribal court she either is or is not in imminent danger, depending on which local authorities you believe. One man who sat on the tribunal argued however, that it was unlikely that they will do anything so brutal as the stoning. According to the McLatchy wire report on the case:

We burnt down the man's house, as per our tradition," said Maroof Khan, who allegedly sat on the jirga that decided the case, though he denied that. "When we get hold of them, we'll kill them, there's no doubt about that. It was a clear-cut case. This is our custom. We will just shoot them. Finished."

6. What Would a List of Sex Scandals Be Without a Celebrity?, Part I
Not every sex scandal of the week has a socially significant subtext about flawed societies or ill-considered theological precepts. Some are just about sex but are important nonetheless because they affect figures of international prominence. Take, for example, Franck Ribery, the star of the French national soccer team, who used to be such a figure until France's soccer flame-out in South Africa turned them into international laughing-stocks and a source of Gallic humiliation. Not content to let their misdeeds on the pitch drag them down, Ribery added insult to injury this week when he was charged with solicitation of an underage prostitute. The winger, who plays for Bayern Munich when he is not involved in embarrassing his country, faces up to three years in prison if convicted of the allegedly crime, which came to light in the media last year.

7. What Would a List of Sex Scandals Be Without a Celebrity?, Part II
Not to be outdone, America's national sex scandal, Tiger Woods, also figured in the news this week. Because despite his internationally chronicled misdeeds, it was revealed that he still managed to be the highest paid athlete in the world last year. Yes, his earnings fell about 10 percent, and yes, his wife did get perhaps $100 million, but Woods himself still managed to collect just over $90 million in income last year, according to Forbes's rankings of highest paid athletes. About $70 million of that was from companies that paid him to endorse their products. More than a tawdry story of hanky-panky in the bedroom, each of these sex scandals is a window into the society in which it takes place. At least that's my story and my excuse for posting this list.

Athena's Pix / Flickr.com

David Rothkopf

The uncomfortable truth about America's cafeteria Democrats (with a small 'd')

The reason that I, the father of two college students, periodically lecture at universities is that I am always surprised to see what it looks like when someone of my daughters' age actually listens to me. Admittedly, the students have no choice. Still it is a refreshing change of pace from what happens around the house. (I kid. Ever since we instituted spot quizzes at home, the girls have been much more attentive.)

Also, of course, I learn far more from students than I ever did from teachers. They ask good questions. They come with fewer preconceptions. They challenge conventional wisdom. Or at least some in every class do and even those who come with a set of pre-packaged views often provoke interesting discussions.

That happened in a class I spoke to today here in DC. It was a group of visiting students from around the world and we pretty much covered the waterfront of topics. We discussed the non-scientific nature of most foreign-policy analysis and the fact that if most "experts" didn't actually explore or understand all the critical variables driving a situation that really made them more like "guessperts." We discussed the imbalances in the world and the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the few -- and how the recent crisis could have remedied this but probably actually only demonstrated and increased the power of those few.

And then one student suggested that when I spoke of such concentrated power that I sounded like Karl Marx. I don't think it was a compliment. And he asked if I was a "small-'d' Democrat" and if so, didn't I believe that democracy was actually an effective way of counterbalancing the power of the few.

Naturally, living in Washington as I do, I'm a little cynical on this issue. Because this is a town in which democracy is preached from every pulpit -- and treated as reverentially as scripture -- but also one in which two centuries of practice have gradually prised the term away from its philosophical foundations and attached it to something altogether different and corrupt.

I began by explaining that if, as in the United States, the Supreme Court determines, for example, that "money is speech" you lose the meaning of real democracy -- because of course, the idea of free speech is that it is a right everyone has because all can speak but not everyone has money and the idea of money as speech gives the most speech to those with the most money. I then extended this out to show that while we may preach the virtues of democracy abroad, we certainly compromise those virtues at home thanks to our perverse campaign finance system, the power we give to special interests within that system, the subtle ways we concentrate power in the hands of the few be they senators who can threaten filibusters or states by virtue of their electoral clout, etc. It's a long list.

In fact, at home and abroad we Americans tend to practice a kind of cafeteria democracy-wherein, like "cafeteria Catholics," we pick and choose from a menu of options rather than acknowledging that real democracy doesn't offer such choices. Nowhere, I suggested is this more clearly the case than with regard to the view of America or the American government toward international democracy. We sell it. We treat it as if the idea had a "Made in America" label on it, though I would think in today's world that ought to prompt and IPR dispute in the WTO with the Greeks and the British and a host of others.

But even as we try to persuade the world -- sometimes even at the point of a gun -- that democracy, giving a voice to each individual, governments who derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed, is the best of all political systems, we clearly don't mean it. Because if you ask an American whether they believe in concepts like "one man, one vote", they nod vigorously in assent. But ask them if they think that if China has four or five times as many people as America they should have four or five times as a great a say on global issues and they will recoil. Ask them if they think that because America has only four percent of the earth's population that we should only have four percent of the "voice," they would rebel and immediately argue that our status, our standing, our history, our armies, our economy, something justifies a greater say.

Which is saying, of course, that we are not actually "small 'd' democrats," but rather that we don't actually believe in democracy. Like cafeteria catholics, we choose to believe in democracy to the degree to which it suits us and to believe in special interests, the power of the buck, or the power of the nuclear arsenal when they better fit our ambitions. The distinction mattered less when the affairs of nations were contained primarily within their borders. It matters more with every day that critical decisions need to be made on issue of truly global scope, consequence and causes -- be they environmental, related to health, associated with proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the spread of culture, the sharing of intellectual property.

We proselytize one religion and practice another. It's an approach history has shown is unsustainable for churches and one which will ultimately prove to be unsustainable for "champions of democracy" like the United States as well.

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