Opinion

John Lloyd

The coming clash of civilizations over gay rights

John Lloyd
Aug 12, 2013 20:54 UTC

Supporters of gay rights have been protesting in Western cities this past week, picketing in front of Russian embassies and consulates. They’re protesting the passing of a law in the Russian parliament that bans “homosexual propaganda” directed at under 18-year olds — which if interpreted strictly, bans all public demonstrations and much public and private discussion on the issue.

Not so long ago how a country’s administration handled its ‘homosexual problem’ would be thought of as its business. Many still think that way. But most Western democracies don’t. They haven’t just adopted legislation that enjoins equality of treatment for all, irrespective of sexuality. They have taken seriously, for the most part, the claims made by gay organizations for many years: that discrimination against gay men and women is an affront to civil liberties, and that when some states pursue discriminatory policies, those who do not should make their disapproval clear. Gay rights are now part of the world’s clash of cultures.

This is presently true most clearly in the United States and the U.K., not because they have been ahead of the pack in equality — they have lagged a bit behind Canada and the Scandinavian states, ever the pioneers in such matters — but because they have had, and still have, the most contentious relations with Russia.

In the U.K., Stephen Fry, a British TV star, wrote an impassioned letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, likening Russia’s treatment of gays to Adolf Hitler’s treatment of Jews, and begged him to order British athletes to boycott the Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi in February next year. In an interview for a TV series on the treatment of gays with Vitaly Milonov, a designer of Russia’s anti-gay platform, Fry was told that Britain was being destroyed by the kind of liberalism that encouraged homosexual behavior. Milonov, a city councilor, was the author of a St. Petersburg law that was the model for the national anti-gay propaganda legislation: he intends to pray for Fry, but believes he is morally and terminally “sick.”

President Barack Obama has also shown some passion on this. Appearing on Jay Leno’s talk show, Obama said that he had “no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them,” adding that he spoke out because “making sure that people are treated fairly is what we (Americans) stand for.” In his August 9 press conference, Obama hoped U.S. athletes would bring back medals — but didn’t believe he should call back the American athletes already out there “training hard.”

Politicians, mistrusted just when we need them most

John Lloyd
Aug 6, 2013 18:23 UTC

A talented friend of mine recently asked me what I thought about an offer he received to take up a political career. The friend has brains and ambition, and achieved and enjoyed a stellar career. I advised he accept the invitation. I made sure to underscore the downside; from most points of view, it’s all downside. It would be a life much less well-rewarded, more strenuous, with the certainty of bitter opposition and the strong possibility of final disillusionment. But I still said it was the better choice.

I said that if politics, the most necessary of professions, doesn’t get such people in its ranks, its current raggedness will get worse, and the fabric will begin to rip and disintegrate. I was advising selfishly. I want to live in a world where the essential work of managing its conflicts and emergencies is overseen by elected men and women who are highly intelligent with a social morality at once liberal and firmly held. I believe they exist, and shouldn’t be discouraged by the low status of politics we’re all suffering through now.

The general consensus is that political parties are losing their talent pools because there are so many lucrative, attractive and even useful careers around for clever and energetic people. It’s worse than that: their internal struggles are at least as internecine as ever, but the tasks and dilemmas facing them are more complex and strenuous than ever before. Moreover, the press and public regard them with anything between indifference and contempt. There are only occasional flashes of admiration.

Italy confronts its fate as Berlusconi meets his

John Lloyd
Aug 1, 2013 21:37 UTC

FLORENCE — In Silvio Berlusconi’s 20th year on the scene of Italian politics, he has finally been found guilty by the country’s highest court of tax fraud. Berlusconi winked and nodded at tax evasion throughout his career. He protested that no one should pay more than one-third of their income in tax, even while the government he headed demanded up to 50 percent. He paid fortunes to dozens of the most expensive lawyers to delay, obfuscate and time-out charge after charge. That is the man who has been judged guilty of a vast fraud. In a country where tax crime runs from the bottom to (especially and most lucratively) the top of society, a judgment of this kind is even larger than the shock waves it will send through the country’s political system.

Judge Edoardo d’Avossa, in the first hearing of the fraud case in Milan last October, referred to “an incredible machine of fraud” set in place under the aegis of one who “had a natural capacity for crime.” The venerable judges of Italy’s Supreme Court took their time weighing in. Outside the vast palace that houses the court, a few enthusiasts for and against the former prime minister shouted at each other, and the broadcast reporters, half-demented by the need to fill the airwaves hour after hour, gave variations of “I have no clue what’s happening.” A little further off, a cinema showed posters advertising the French film L’Immortale, a story about the Marseilles mafia. The irony was picked up and bounced around the airwaves: would Berlusconi continue his apparent immortality?

No. But what does this mean for the coalition government, half of which is sustained by Berlusconi’s recent creation, the People of Freedom party? Despite an unpromising beginning, yoking together two parties that contained many who loathe each other and led by a modest man who was number two in the hierarchy of the center-left Democratic Party, it has given signs of real determination. It has a grasp of what must be done and a certain urgency, in the first three months of its life, in doing it. Prime Minister Enrico Letta, the man overseeing the coalition, may have a modest demeanor, but he has the advantage of surprise in a political culture that tends to privilege the flaunting of power. So far, he has shown more than a little steel beneath the mildness. He has said he wants to make large privatizations; to reduce the power of the Senate, which is presently co-equal with the lower house, leading to frequent blockages; and to change an election law that privileges tiny parties, incentivizing splits in larger ones.

Berlusconi awaits his judgment

John Lloyd
Jul 31, 2013 17:39 UTC

FLORENCE – Waiting for the judgment on Silvio Berlusconi is more nerve-racking than waiting for Godot, but should be over sooner. The Court of Cassation, Italy’s Supreme Court, should this week confirm or deny the lower courts’ sentence on the former prime minister of four years in prison and five years of exclusion from public life. (The court’s name derives from the French casser, to break: it can “break” the judgments of the lower courts, but none can break its own.)

The case that set Berlusconi on this path was one of tax fraud by his Mediaset company. He has also been found guilty of using an underage prostitute named Karima El Mahroug — “Ruby the Heartstealer” — and of abusing his office by securing her release from prison. 

The engines of his supporters, both in his party, the People of Freedom, and in the media, have been revved up to the highest pitch these past days, as the final judgment nears. They have claimed that it is absurd that a court should impose such a heavy sentence for what was a “mistake” in a tax declaration. They have underlined again and again what has been a major trope of Berlusconi’s 20years at the top of Italian politics — that the judiciary is a nest of communists waiting for the chance to destroy him. They have said, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that someone who has been as popular, and so often elected, as he has been should not be brought low by mere courts.

Where is Russia headed?

John Lloyd
Jul 24, 2013 12:20 UTC

Masha Lipman, one of the great chroniclers of Russian politics, told a story at a conference I attended outside of Moscow earlier this week. It was about two scholars who, in a recent discussion about the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, fell into a savage argument. One saw the end of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, the other as a release from tyranny. So radical and bitter was the disagreement that they came to blows, an unheard of event in the generally decorous world of Russian academia. 

Lipman also noted that, in a discussion in the Duma (parliament), several deputies called for the abolition of the country’s Independence Day on June 12, established in 1990. One suggested moving the date to whenever National Day took place in the 10th century, when “Rus” was first formed — in Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine — a none too subtle way of saying that Russia was once a Slavic empire, and could be again.

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, might agree with the deputies. It would be surprising if he did not — he is, after all, the same man who said in 2005 that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

In Britain, a summer of quiet revolution

John Lloyd
Jul 16, 2013 16:13 UTC

The British Isles are sentries in a turning world. The monarchy, pageantry, the mediaeval House of Lords, titles, accents, the established Church of England with the Queen at its head — they all give the adroit illusion of continuity and the primacy of tradition over change.

But this summer there are diverse changes modernizing the Isles. These revolutions, small and large, will not be reversed, and will contribute significantly to a redefinition of what it is to be British (and Irish). The illusions of tradition will remain, as diligently served as ever. The core is hollowing out.

These changes are not unique to these wet and windy islands. But it’s more remarkable because for many centuries Britain and its offshoots punched above their weight, making history and creating (or inventing) traditions. The French are famed for having a beautiful and mostly efficient country and for grumbling furiously about it. The British change everything all the time, and worship the old customs whose essence they have long since destroyed, or are destroying.

The vacuum on the Nile

John Lloyd
Jul 8, 2013 17:22 UTC

Egypt now lives in a political and constitutional vacuum. The present military rulers have dissolved the sole national level representative assembly, the Shura Council, and rescinded the constitution. Both, to be sure, were self-interested creations of the Muslim Brotherhood administration. But nothing has been put in their place.

There is only the military and its choice as president, the constitutional lawyer Adly Mansour. Nothing else remains. But if further tragedy — perhaps, as Russian President Vladimir Putin forecast, a civil war — is to be averted, the vacuum must soon be filled.

Putin may be right. The killing of at least 51 supporters of the Brotherhood in incidents around a barracks of the presidential guard on Sunday raises the stakes, and the temperature. The military’s contempt for the Brotherhood, whose government they had sworn to serve, is now very evident, as is their assumption of a right to dispose of the country’s politics, and to enforce order by fear.

Egypt’s repeat search for democracy

John Lloyd
Jul 3, 2013 15:03 UTC

I’ve spent the past few days walking beside and watching the largely youthful demonstrators in Egypt, and I’ve been struck with admiration that’s quickly drowned in despair. I admire them for the way they’ve rejected the creeping authoritarianism of an incompetent Muslim Brotherhood government whose only accomplishment is inserting its members or sympathizers into every part of Egyptian life that it could.

But my despair is greater than my admiration. There is no good outcome to the Egyptian “second revolution,” as the opposition wishes it to be called. The army has taken control, and may — as it says it wishes — hold the ring only until a temporary constitution is agreed upon and another election called. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose government is led by President Mohamed Mursi, may, with reluctance, acquiesce in this — though  many of its member are furious over the coup, as they rightly call it. The opposition forces may abstain from ramming what they will see as a “victory” too hard down the Brothers’ throats. These “mays” are, as this is written, be unlikely when set against various degrees of escalating conflict. But they are possible.

Yet even if all of that were to move from the conditional to the actual, the outcome would still not be good. Hatred, or at least deep distrust, between the Brotherhood and the opposition groups has increased since the weekend, as deaths — often the outcome of attacks on the Brothers’ offices — mount. These feelings are now absolute.

In Cairo, protesters challenge Mursi’s rule

John Lloyd
Jul 1, 2013 15:08 UTC

CAIRO — I’ve been in Egypt the past few days to witness the Egyptian people’s indignation at their president, Mohamed Mursi. But where best to watch? On Sunday I joined a march from a metro station in Cairo’s Heliopolis district to the presidential palace. My fellow journalist Abdallah Hassan thought Tahrir Square would be jammed full early, and that the palace would be where the real action — different from what preceded the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak two and a half years ago — would be.

It proved to be, in part. The two or three thousand of us who had debouched from metros in the early afternoon heat swelled to many tens of thousands in the evening. Marchers came from every direction, packing into the wide boulevard before the palace complex. In all of Egypt’s cities, the same scenes were repeated. It was one of the biggest, best coordinated protests of our times, much larger than those that swept out Mubarak. Reuters quoted a military source who estimated as many as 14 million turned out countrywide.

It was a party, a joy ride, an effusion of spirits. It was led by young men who went down a list of rhyming couplets while seated on the shoulders of sweating comrades. “Shout, Mursi! This is your last day!”; “We don’t want the military! We don’t want the Brotherhood!”; “Shave your face and you’re like Mubarak!”; “You spare tire! We’ll send you back to jail!” and “Look and see! The revolution, you sheep!” (They rhyme in Arabic.)

From one tyrant to another

John Lloyd
Jun 28, 2013 20:59 UTC

CAIRO—This week marks the one year anniversary since an Egyptian government run by the Muslim Brotherhood and led by Mohamed Mursi was formed.

In that year, the economy has slumped, in part because tourism — a staple of a state that has little to export except an experience of its storied past and fabulous monuments — has all but disappeared. Disconsolate restaurateurs lean on their doorposts, beckoning a foreigner in to empty tables.

Enormous lines that are five or six hours long pile up at gas stations; two power outages, hours long, yesterday afflicted the Cairo suburb where I am presently staying with a friend. Prices are rising even though nearly half of the population is trying to live on two dollars or less a day. The patchwork of groups and forces opposed to President Mursi are assuring everyone that the dire state of the economy, and the lack of a program to address it, are what have solidified ordinary people behind their call for new elections now, three years ahead of the end of Mursi’s term of office.

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