IRAQ: MADE IN AMERICA?

Pennington, NJ

Naomi Klein’s March 28 “Lookout” column “Can Democracy Survive Bush’s Embrace?” was insightful and prophetic. Karen Hughes will now serve as our propagandist in selling Brand USA to the world with emphasis on the Middle East. Is Klein planning a sequel: “Can American Democracy Survive Bush’s Embrace?”

NORM GOLDMAN


San Francisco

Naomi Klein understandably seeks to blame the Bush Administration for Iraqi woes, but she missed her mark when discussing Iraqi democracy. The Iraqi electoral system was not “designed” in Washington. In fact, its proportional representation system was designed by leading experts, many associated with the United Nations, who understand the importance of power-sharing. That plan was opposed by the Bush neocons who wanted the Iraqis to have an electoral system “just like ours,” which would have meant carving up Iraq into single-seat, winner-take-all districts, creating disastrous turf wars. When Angola used a US-style winner-take-all system to settle its civil war, one side won nearly all the representation, so the other side resumed fighting. In Iraq, winner-take-all would have resulted in the United Iraqi Alliance, despite winning less than a majority of the popular vote, winning an overwhelming majority of seats, allowing it to ignore the Kurds and other ethnic minorities. Instead, with the proportional system, the Shiites must negotiate and share power, preventing a Shiite, possibly fundamentalist, stranglehold.

No, Iraq’s proportional system is not “profoundly undemocratic,” as Klein states. It’s the best way for divided societies to make a transition to democracy, as the examples of Afghanistan, South Africa and former Soviet Eastern bloc nations show. A dose of it in the United States is strongly advisable.

STEVEN HILL
New America Foundation


KLEIN REPLIES

Toronto

It’s difficult to understand why Steven Hill would imply that the UN rather than the United States was the architect of Iraq’s highly irregular and flawed electoral system. The UN’s recommendations for when and how to form Iraq’s first elected government were overruled at every stage, to which various UN workers have publicly testified (most vocally Salim Lone, who worked as a senior adviser in the UN mission in Baghdad before the 2003 bombing).

It’s also shocking that Hill would describe the system in Iraq as “power-sharing.” The US-designed model does not share power among all of Iraq’s ethnic groups: It drastically augments the power of one group (the US-friendly Kurds) while diminishing the power of two other groups (the less-US-friendly Shiites and Sunnis). This is the direct result of three decisions, all made by Washington in its own interest. The first was to treat all of Iraq as a single electoral constituency, with no seats set aside by region. That meant that seats went to whichever group managed to turn out the greatest number of people, regardless of where they lived. The second decision was to brutally attack Falluja and other Sunni cities in the months leading up to the elections, guaranteeing that a majority of Sunnis would either boycott the elections in protest or be physically unable to cast ballots because they were exiled from their homes. Because of the lack of regional representation, when Sunnis didn’t turn out to vote, their seats simply went to the Kurds, who turned out in droves. (It’s as if low voter turnout in California meant that all the state’s seats went to Texas.)

The third was to require that all major decisions of Iraq’s National Assembly–including the formation of the government itself–be made by a two-thirds “super majority,” rather than by a simple majority. This gives the Kurds, with their inflated number of seats, a virtual veto over Iraq’s democracy. This is hardly standard post-conflict power-sharing, as Hill claims. In fact, as Iraq expert Juan Cole recently commented, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the two-thirds super-majority is characteristic of only one nation on earth, i.e., American Iraq. I fear it is functioning in an antidemocratic manner to thwart the will of the majority of Iraqis, who braved great danger to come out and vote.” Naomi Klein


GATES: GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

New York City

Roberta Brandes Gratz and Stephen A. Goldsmith view Christo/Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates through saffron-colored glasses [“In the Park With Christo,” March 28]. They celebrate Central Park as “dynamic public space” while ignoring its semi-privatization under the Central Park Conservancy (CPC). They celebrate Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s generosity without a hint of skepticism about their supposed $21 million “gift to New York,” and without a hint of awareness of the conflicts of interest involved.

The authors contrast Central Park with the spread of “privatized space…like kudzu across the land,” including malls where “public assembly…can be legally denied.” But that’s precisely what happened when the city and CPC prevented the August 29 antiwar march from going to Central Park. The CPC, a combine of mega-corporations, invites some public events and bars others. Surely, this is something to challenge, not celebrate.

In addition, Christo was grinding out Gates drawings that sold individually for $600,000 and by one estimate $1 million. Among the purchasers were the CPC and Mayor Bloomberg (who collected Christos, which would skyrocket in value), whose promotion of The Gates enhanced the value of their investments. This is big business. The European Fine Art Fair opened in Maastricht less than a week after The Gates closed. Three of Christo’s earlier works sold there for more than $1 million, his dealer attributing this to The Gates.

The authors largely pass over aesthetic questions, leaving the display to stand or fall as “populist spectacle” and Great Communal Event. The Gates, and the puffery around them, are faux populism, a poor case on which to hang an argument for art for the people.

(By the way, as anyone with eyes to see through the fiction knows, The Gates were orange. And why did the authors erase Jeanne-Claude?)

JESSE LEMISCH


Brooklyn, NY

Gratz and Goldsmith make a common error in ascribing the lion’s share of praise for Central Park’s “brilliant reshaping of the landscape” to the work and vision of Frederick Law Olmsted. The original pastoral landscape was Calvert Vaux’s conception. Olmsted joined him later. And Vaux was the true democrat of the two–the one who viewed Central Park as a grand experiment in developing a more communal and egalitarian city where people of many different classes and cultures could mingle and mix. Olmsted had a far more ambivalent attitude toward “the public,” frequently voicing concerns about “common elements” trampling his park.

Olmsted’s political acumen and long-range planning skills made the park possible, but Vaux’s legacy is conceiving the dynamic public space that Gratz and Goldsmith so correctly affirm.

JOHN S. BERMAN
Author, Central Park


New York City

Gratz and Goldsmith, writing of the “inspired design of Central Park,” fail to mention the displacement of the community of German and Irish immigrants and African-Americans who lived peacefully in Seneca Village from 1825 through 1857. A thriving but powerless community was sacrificed by the whims of the politically connected. A plaque at 85th Street and Central Park West commemorates this village.

JACQUIE HUGHES


New York City

I always suspected that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were charlatans, beginning with my distrust of people who go by one name and dye their hair funny colors. These habits I take as evidence that their true interest lies simply in attracting attention and creating public spectacle. I live close to Central Park and walked its length several times while The Gates were up. I was unimpressed by the orange (sorry, not saffron) curtains suspended from chunky goal posts, so different from the ethereal effect suggested by the renderings circulated in advance of the installation. I was unprepared, however, for the throngs of visitors–New Yorkers and tourists–who filled the park during those cold February weeks; looking, lingering, posing, offering opinions to total strangers and experiencing our park in a different way from ever before. This was indeed a gorgeous “populist spectacle,” as the authors so well put it. In this day and age when we witness the relentless drive to privatize public space (and everything else), it is indeed reassuring to see the power of public use of public space for good collective social and artistic purposes.

BELMONT FREEMAN, president
Storefront for Art and Architecture


GRATZ & GOLDSMITH REPLY

New York City; Salt Lake City

Central Park has definitely not been privatized. It is a prime example of a very public space restored primarily with private funds and still run by the city’s Parks Department. Decisions about what can happen there are city administration decisions, not those of the Central Park Conservancy, which, over many years, raised the millions to make the park restoration happen.

That the artists and their collectors gained financially from The Gates may indeed be true. But nobody gained more than the city of New York and the millions of residents and visitors who enjoyed this unique event. That is the bottom line. As for the suggestion that we chose to “pass over” aesthetic questions, we chose to celebrate the aesthetics of Olmsted’s elegant, timeless forms rather than attack any of the awkwardness in Christo’s temporary gates; perhaps our subtlety passed over the reader.

John S. Berman may be right about Vaux being the more democratic of the Olmsted-Vaux team, but what is most interesting is the glorious end product of the collaboration of these two exceptionally creative minds. Olmsted gave form to a vision (Vaux’s, perhaps, in this case). It often takes two innovative thinkers to create something great. Christo and Jeanne-Claude gilded that vision to create for today a populist spectacle the likes of which neither New York nor any American city had ever witnessed.

Even with the quibbles illustrated above, our basic point remains unchallenged: The Gates demonstrated the strength of culture and well-designed public space to draw strangers together in a moment of great camaraderie. What a great expression of democracy this event reflected!

ROBERTA BRANDES GRATZ and
STEPHEN A. GOLDSMITH


NOT YOUR FATHER’S WAR PROTESTERS

Brunswick, Me.

Thank you for Karen Houppert’s March 28 “ The New Face of Protest?” Like the author, I’m a military brat. My mother is retired from the Navy, and my father is still active-duty Air Force. Since the war in Afghanistan began, and particularly since being galvanized by the Iraq War, I have struggled with the conflicting loyalties of fierce opposition to this Administration’s policies and a fierce love for my family.

I live in a town that hosts both a liberal arts college and a Naval Air Station, and we see this divide every day. At first the lines were clear-cut between those who opposed the war and those who were fighting it. Over the last two years, however, I have been gratified to see the increasing ambiguity of those distinctions, in my community and in my family. There are many in the military who have put in time in the “sandbox” and have been embittered by what they consider an abuse of their willingness to serve their country. Others, like my father, who spent a year in Saudi Arabia during the attack on Iraq, may not have embraced a definite antiwar stance, but they believed the President’s rationale for war and have had their faith in their commander in chief shaken in the years since. It is starting in the military, where service people miss their families and can see Iraqi ambivalence first-hand. Over the next four years, I believe many civilians will experience a similar epiphany.

CHRISTINA TOTH