A brief defense of a quintessentially American holiday.
Columbus Day has largely been a minor national holiday with deep local roots since it was federally recognized in 1971. It was first celebrated long before that, however. Starting off in New York City in 1792 as a commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, the holiday has kept this identity over the centuries but has also been adopted as a celebration of Italian-American heritage. Most people think of it as the one day off from school in October before the deluge of holidays in November and December. Recently, it has gained in prominence – or infamy – due to a progressive crusade to label Columbus a genocidaire and to rechristen the holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. These campaigners accuse Columbus of perpetuating a deliberate genocide of native peoples and label the European interaction with the New World as irredeemably bad. This activist campaign has gained ground over the past decade and several states have officially changed their calendars accordingly. As useful and proper as it is to memorialize the contributions of Native Americans to the United States, the defenestration of Columbus Day is a terrible mistake. In many ways, Columbus Day is itself a perfect encapsulation of our amazing country and its evolution over the centuries into a “more perfect union.”
In episode 3 of the Rational Policy Podcast, host Mike Coté premieres a new recurring format – the Foreign Telegram. In this Foreign Telegram, for October 2022, Mike discusses three major topics in international affairs that have been on his mind over the past few weeks: Italian elections, Iranian protests, and the escalating Russo-Ukrainian War. Starting off, Italy’s recent parliamentary elections are briefly explored and mainstream narratives about the right-wing victors debunked. The reaction to this event is a microcosm of the broader trend over the past decade or so of populist issues being overlooked by the EU. Next, Mike talks about the growing anti-regime protests in Iran which were sparked by the religious police killing of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, for the “crime” of improper hijab. He recaps the situation, analyzes the potential impact, and lays out several suggestions for US policy. Also touched on are some common criticisms of this hawkish and direct approach. Lastly, the escalating war in Ukraine is broken down and major recent events explained, from the Ukrainian counteroffensives, to the Russian mobilization and annexation of Ukrainian territory. Mike also considers the Nord Stream pipeline sabotage, the nuclear rhetoric emanating from Moscow (and isolationist reactions), and what may happen next. Tune in for this comprehensive session on foreign policy and America’s role in responding to recent events.
This past weekend, Italy held snap parliamentary elections to replace its unpopular government. Although results are still being finalized, it looks as though the big winner of the day was the right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party. Brothers of Italy received the greatest share of the vote, twenty-six percent, and together with Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, they seem poised to build a government with popular backing.
If you’ve heard anything about the results of this democratic process from the mainstream media, however, it has likely been descriptions of Brothers of Italy and particularly Meloni herself as “hard right,” “far-right,” or even “fascist.” She has been labeled “a danger to Italy and the rest of Europe” by The Guardian, and the New York Times called her “the first far-right nationalist to govern Italy since Mussolini.” Reading those pieces, you might expect Meloni’s views to echo Il Duce’s famous fascist dictum: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” In reality, this media framing relies purely on conjecture, guilt by association, bad history, and bias.
As protests against the Iranian regime escalate yet again, will the US stand against the totalitarian theocrats in Tehran or continue to appease them?
For the third time in just over a decade, the Iranian people are bravely protesting against their dictatorial regime and the indignities it forces upon them. In June 2009, the Green Movement erupted in Tehran after a widely-disputed election returned the regime-approved favorite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. The next day, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to register their dissent and contest the (likely bogus) election results; the protestors were angry about the state of the economy, the regime’s costly foreign adventurism, and the clear disregard for the will of the people. Students, middle-class workers, and young people drove the movement, which lasted through the end of 2009. In news that wouldn’t shock anyone, the protests were brutally repressed, with thousands of arrests, hundreds of killings, and televised show trials reminiscent of the Stalin era.
Ten years later, anti-regime protests broke out again, this time triggered by an “abrupt increase of at least 50 percent in gasoline prices.” The protestors were mainly lower-class young men who were frustrated by high unemployment and lack of economic opportunity, some of which was exacerbated by American sanctions on the country due to its nuclear program and support of terrorism. Using the 2009 playbook, in which protests were coordinated and anti-regime anger spread via the Internet, the 2019 movement proliferated rapidly across the country in just a few days. Demonstrations erupted in 29 of Iran’s 31 provinces, showing significant cracks in the Islamic regime’s traditional power base. Still, these protests were put down as harshly as were those in 2009; the government cracked down hard on demonstrators, using lethal force and detaining thousands. In just 4 days in November 2019, the regime killed 321 civilians in its forceful response to the anti-government sentiment.
Now, just a few years later, massive anti-regime protests have once again arisen in Iran. As in 2009 and 2019, they have spread like wildfire, with sizeable demonstrations cropping up across the country. But will they end in the same way, with the regime still empowered after crushing a nascent democratic movement? Or will this time be different? Much of the answer relies on the specific nature of these protests, as well as the Western (read: American) response.
The rhetoric of imminent threats to the political system has been used and abused throughout history to stifle dissent, polarize politics, ostracize opposition, and much, much worse.
Political persuasion has been an art for millennia, going back to the very earliest non-absolutist systems such as ancient Greece and republican Rome. In those days, the targets of persuasion were primarily a socially-homogenous elite oligarchy which controlled politics without real input from the majority of the people. As time went on and these systems evolved (with fits and starts) into their more modern and recognizable forms, bringing more people into the political process, the targets of persuasion broadened. This expansion of the electorate, especially after the democratic revolutions and reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries, helped lead to the simplified messaging, inflammatory rhetoric, and hyperbolized language we are so familiar with today. Perhaps the easiest message by which to persuade voters to your side is the invocation of peril, especially to the political system or “way of life.” Much of the power of this message emanates from the association of the State with the People more broadly; instead of Louis XIV’s formulation “L’état, c’est moi,” we have a more pluralistic – although no more accurate – vision, “Létat, c’est nous.” This binding of People with State makes it possible to expand a narrow political danger to encompass all of society, feeding an attitude of existential menace. This stoking of a feeling of danger to the very foundations of the nation (and thus the People) is a powerful motivator by which to get your way politically; as such, it has been used by governments repeatedly over the past two centuries to achieve their goals – often for the worse.