WHO’S AFRAID OF REGULATION? In April, Senator James Inhofe released an old tape of EPA administrator Al Armendariz describing how the Romans once invaded villages and crucified people at random to make an example of them. “That town was really easy to manage for the next few years,” he quipped. Right-wing pundits and industry allies had a field day, suggesting that Armendariz was calling to “crucify” oil companies and selectively quoting him without further context. “Find people who are not compliant with the law,” Armendariz had continued, “and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them, and there is a deterrent effect there.” This is the definition of how regulatory action works.
Yet almost immediately, the Obama administration threw Armendariz under the bus. Press secretary Jay Carney called his comments “inaccurate as a representation of…the way that the EPA has operated under President Obama.” On April 29, Armendariz submitted his resignation letter, which was immediately accepted.
The administration may have wanted to avoid a distraction as it heads into the election, but in failing to defend Armendariz it failed to defend the basic principles of regulation. All he was saying was that without vigorous enforcement, regulation becomes an empty gesture. But it’s the sort of mistake Democrats love to make: prematurely bowing in the face of a manufactured mini-firestorm simply to take the talking point off the table. And it is symptomatic of an administration that has been consistently afraid of its own shadow when it comes to regulation. GEORGE ZORNICK
MICHIGAN’S EMERGENCY MANAGERS: The struggles over labor rights that have played out across the country in the past year are really about democracy. When GOP governors try to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees and attack and undermine unionized workers, they make it harder for low-income and working-class Americans to be heard in policy debates and in political campaigns, which are increasingly dominated by corporate spending. They also limit the ability of local elected officials to negotiate fair contracts with workers and to deliver needed services.
Nowhere has the assault on democracy been more sweeping than in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder has appointed emergency managers to oversee the public schools of Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights, as well as the cities of Benton Harbor, Flint, Pontiac and Ecorse. These unelected managers have shoved aside elected officials and used so-called super-powers granted by the state to bypass collective bargaining, restructure union contracts, sell off utilities, and make devastating cuts to education and public services.
More than 200,000 voters have signed petitions to force a referendum to overturn Michigan’s emergency manager law. But in late April, Republicans on the Board of State Canvassers blocked the effort by claiming, absurdly, that the font size on the petitions was too small. The move brought cries of “shame” from the Stand Up for Democracy campaign, which had gathered the signatures. “The Constitution was not judged on the basis of font size,” said Detroit NAACP president Wendell Anthony. He’s right. The emergency manager law is bad enough. The use of a technicality to block a popular referendum on the issue denies Michigan voters the right to petition for the redress of grievances, which the founders of the American experiment understood as being essential to democracy. JOHN NICHOLS
PUSSY RIOT VS. THE NIGHT WOLVES: In his final interview as president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev was asked to comment on many of the issues one would expect: relations with the United States, Ukraine and Georgia, government corruption… and the Pussy Riot case. The feminist punk rock collective has roiled Russian politics since an impromptu performance of the song “Punk Prayer,” staged in February on the pulpit of Christ the Savior Cathedral, the Russian Orthodox equivalent of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The performers wore ski masks, jabbed and kicked at the air, and genuflected to verses imploring the Virgin Mary to “get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin.”
It seemed a feisty—perhaps to some, tasteless—prank, a musical protest that amplified the demands of tens of thousands who had been protesting Putin in Moscow since December. But the authorities didn’t view it as so benign. On March 3—one day before Putin won the presidential election—two members of the group, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were arrested. Two weeks later, band member Irina Loktina was arrested as well. All three have been charged with “hooliganism” and face up to seven years in prison. Even though two of the women are mothers of young children, they are all being held in pre-trial detention until June 24 at the earliest.
Amnesty International has declared the three women prisoners of conscience. In Russia, the backlash against the government has been intense. The Russian Orthodox Church, which has called for harsh sentences for anyone who participated in the performance, has been accused of exploiting the case to deflect attention from its corruption and wealth.
In April the Church organized a massive demonstration in front of the cathedral to “defend itself” against a “campaign of blasphemy,” according to the New York Times. The Church bused in people “from over a dozen dioceses” and welcomed the Night Wolves, “a group of nationalist motorcyclists.” With estimates that as many as 65,000 people attended, it was a real show of strength—as large or larger than any of Moscow’s pro-democracy demonstrations.
The Pussy Riot case has revealed deep fissures between the secular and more conservative elements of Russia, and within the Russian Orthodox Church. Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute for Global Research and Social Movements, points to “a growing movement to defend secularism, which wasn’t there even a month ago.” But the significance seems lost on Medvedev, who, when asked about the case, simply said that the women “got exactly what they were seeking—popularity.” Maybe. Or maybe they wanted to do exactly what they did: make a bold political statement without physically damaging the church or harming anyone. Either way, detention and up to seven years in prison for these actions seems riot-worthy. KATRINA vanden HEUVEL