July 12, 2006 | 2:32 AM ET

Are the mullahs losing their grip in Iran?  I keep hearing things to that effect, but I'm skeptical.  I'd certainly like for it to be the case, of course, but it's notoriously hard to know what's going on inside a dictatorship.  Still, here's an interesting report from StrategyPage:

Although "Supreme Leader" the Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khameini has basically told the world to buzz off regarding the country's nuclear ambitions, relations between him and radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be deteriorating. Apparently, Ahmadinejad's frequent arch-conservative ranting on foreign policy and domestic issues runs contrary to a more nuanced, pragmatic approach favored by Khameini and the circle of conservative clerics who are his principal advisors. Khameini has on several recent occasions spoken far more moderately on certain issues than has Ahmadinejad. As a result, Ahmadinejad reportedly has recently told Khameini to button his lip about certain diplomatic matters, as an intrusion on the president's authority. In a sense, this can be likened to the complexities of the "Red Guards" phase in Maoist China during the 1960s, when various factions in the Communist leadership tried to out-do each other in radicalism in order to firm up their control. How such a scenario might unfold in Iran will be interesting to see. Iranian politics is considered a blood sport, with the losers getting themselves dead. Unrest among the nations minorities (Azeris, Arabs, Kurds, and Baluchis), continues, with evidence of insurgent activity by some groups (Kurds and Baluchs). More importantly, however, is that there appears to be growing unrest among the country's Iranian majority population.

I hope that's right.  Iran is trouble, and a democratic revolution there would be good for Iran, and for the world, if it happened.

We talked to Jim Dunnigan, publisher of StrategyPage, and military blogger Austin Bay about North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iran.  You can listen directly by clicking here or get it via iTunes here.  There's a lo-fi version for dialup users here.  The world, alas, remains a dangerous place.

But not as dangerous as it used to be, according to a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: "The institute's recently released Yearbook 2006, drawing from data maintained by Sweden's Uppsala University, reports that the number of active, major armed conflicts worldwide stood at 17 in 2005, the lowest point in a steep slide from a high of 31 in 1991."

You wouldn't know that from watching the news.  Let's hope the trend continues.

July 11, 2006 | 10:21 AM ET

Congress:  Not above the law

It's a big loss for members of Congress — like Speaker Dennis Hastert and Rep. William Jefferson — who thought they were above the law:

A federal judge on Monday upheld the FBI's unprecedented raid of a congressional office, saying that barring searches of lawmakers' offices would turn Capitol Hill into "a taxpayer-subsidized sanctuary for crime."

Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan rejected requests from lawmakers and Rep. William Jefferson to return material seized by the FBI in a May 20-21 search of Jefferson's office.

The overnight search was part of a 17-month bribery investigation of Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat.

In a 28-page opinion, Hogan dismissed arguments by Jefferson and a bipartisan group of House leaders that the raid violated the Constitution's protections against intimidation of elected officials.

Hogan acknowledged the "unprecedented" nature of the case. But he said the lawmakers' "sweeping" theory of legislative privilege "would have the effect of converting every congressional office into a taxpayer-subsidized sanctuary for crime."

A member of Congress is bound by the same laws as ordinary citizens, said the judge, who had approved the FBI's request to conduct the overnight search of Jefferson's office.

Judge Hogan is right.  There's nothing in the Constitution — or common sense — that would give members of Congress the kind of special immunities they were trying to claim.  (In fact, the Constitution specifically forbids "titles of nobility," though many members of Congress seem to feel that their job should guarantee them all kinds of privileges that ordinary mortals lack.)

What's unfortunate is that they had to go to court to be reminded of something that should have been obvious all along.

July 7, 2006 | 12:48 PM ET

What threatens marriage?

Yesterday's post on marriage gay and straight brought a lot of e-mail.  A few samples:

Name: C. Weidnen
Hometown: Wilm,NC

We are looking at the whole gay marriage thing in the wrong light.  Suppose I am in a social gathering with a movie star on his 4th marriage and a young basketball star on his first marriage. Neither of these guys plans on being forever faithful and each has a prenuptial agreement the size of a phone book.  Then there is a gay couple who met two weeks ago in a bath house and a couple who was so busy with lifestyle and career that they married at age 55 just prior to retirement so they could travel together.  Also present would be a gay couple committed to each other and who had raised 3 adopted children.  I have been married 44 years and we have 3 kids who married people whose parents are still married and each has 2 or 3 children.  Of this group who has the most in common culturally and who has the partner bond most in common?  Who should be considered married and who should be considered merely coupled and how would you rate the bond of each couple?

Glenn writes: Yes, that's the Britney Spears / Kevin Federline point.

On the other hand, there's this:

Comments:
why take a swipe at britney spears? her marriage has lasted almost 2 years, which is better then a lot of people i know. your petty snippy remark ruined your ultimate point - that marriage(whether hetero or homo) is tough and requires work.

Glenn Reynolds:  Two years, with one kid and one on the way: That's defining marital success pretty far down, isn't it?

I give Britney and Kevin credit for at least seeming to try, but they're certainly not the poster children for responsible marriage.

Name:  Tim Fergus
Hometown: 
Chicago, Illinois
The real goal of gay activists is the destruction of marriage.  Gays do not want to marry.  For proof, just look at Europe, most notably Holland, where gay marriage activists were right out front about it.  Since Holland legalized gay marriage, very few Dutch gays have married, and the out of wedlock birth rate has climbed steadily.  This fits right in with leftists' plans for national day care.  Harvard PHD Stanley Kurtz covers this issue in great detail in numerous articles at National Review Online.  The divorce rate skyrocketed with the advent of no-fault divorce, which was another high water mark for those seeking to destroy marriage.  When marriage is ultimately destroyed the family unit will also cease to exist as the foundation of our civilization.  That is what the leftists want: children raised collectively, with the state as their collective parent.

Glenn writes:  Hmm.  I've heard this argument before, but I don't buy it.  What's going on with the Dutch isn't caused by gay marriage.

Name:  Jack Schidorff
Hometown: 
Los Angeles, CA
Typical of people who are - strangely - 'pro' gay marriage, you decide to avoid arguing the fact that 'gay marriage' is not a right and instead decide to knock down the traditional institution of marriage in this country.  The ridiculousness of your argument astounds me.  Because many marraiges fail, there is something wrong with marriage as an institution?  Does this mean that if your kids don't turn out to be millionaires, they were a waste of time?  That we should stop having kids because obviously the whole process is flawed?  Marriage, as an institution, works.  Except when it doesn't.  And that's to be expected of just about any real-world system.  Remember that some of the best hitters in baseball struck out 2 out of 3 times at the plate.

Glenn writes: I thought that was my point.

Name:  Thom Benedict
Comments:
This comment in your commentary caught my eye: "...gays will learn what straights have always known, though not always practiced: It takes a fair amount of self-discipline and work to keep a marriage going well."  Not meaning to be too flippant, but...duh.  I think gay people are well-aware of the difficulties of maintaining a marriage, and perhaps, even more so than straight folks.  A couple in the gay community faces enormous obstacles.  Much of the gay community's activities are tailored to the twentysomething crowd who parade their latest designer clothes snuggly attired to the perfect gym-shaped body at nightclubs and "circut parties."  Suffice it to say that those community activities do not help a gay couple flourish.  In addition to that lack of support within the gay community, American society in the last few years has gone out of its way to demonize gay couples who want to make a life-long commitment.  Imagine how those couples feel when "love thy neighbor" Christians suggest that gay marriage will destroy the very fabric of our society.  Or how they feel when our exalted President carts out gay marriage as an issue whenever his poll numbers fall or the country is actually thinking about its mistakes in Iraq.  Nothing quite like having your love for another turned into a convenient political issue.  Ironically, judging by the recent rhetoric in our country, it seems that it's okay to be gay and single and promiscuous, but for heaven's sake, don't ask us to support you being in love and committed - that is simply too much to ask.  With that backdrop, the fact that any gay couples maintain their committed relationship is a miracle indeed.  And perhaps it's straight people who have the lessons to learn about staying with someone you love.

Glenn writes:  "Much of the gay community's activities are tailored to the twentysomething crowd who parade their latest designer clothes snuggly attired to the perfect gym-shaped body at nightclubs."  If you watch TV -- beyond Jim and The King of Queens, anyway, you'll see that the straight community isn't much different. 

And lots of people liked the podcast I mention below.  Thanks!

July 6, 2006 | 3:51 PM ET

D-I-V-O-R-C-E -- and gay marriage

The New York and Georgia state high courts have both refused to find a right to gay marriage under their state constitutions.  (The New York opinion is available online here.)

I favor gay marriage, though I do think as a practical matter that it's probably better to achieve this goal through the political process than by judicial action.  (Here's a longer treatment of that topic.)  But while we're worrying about gay marriage, it's worth noting that straight marriage isn't in the best shape, either.

Divorce rates are down, and I think people are more realistic, overall, in their expectations of both marriage and divorce than they were in the 1970s.  But there are still a lot of problems.  (The obligatory mention of the Britney Spears / Kevin Federline marriage goes here, I guess).

We did a podcast interview on this topic a couple of years ago, with expert family lawyer Lauren Strange-Boston.  As she notes, a lot of divorces stem from problems during the marriage —or even before the marriage— that could be avoided by thinking things through.  You can listen directly by clicking here, or you can subscribe via iTunes by going here.  There's a lo-fi version for dialup here, and an archive of past podcasts is here.

Whenever gay marriage becomes widely accepted —and I think that's just a matter of time— gays will learn what straights have always known, though not always practiced: It takes a fair amount of self-discipline and work to keep a marriage going well.

July 3, 2006 | 12:39 AM ET

Happy Fourth of July, or what's more properly termed Independence Day.

I plan to shoot off some fireworks tonight, along with many other Americans — and judging by the noise outside my windows right now, some people have gotten an early start.

In other parts of America, creeping nanny-statism has made fireworks illegal.  Reason notes that New York is going crazy about citizens who purchase fireworks out of state:

Staten Island's thunderous tribute to America's independence was not, however, provided by a professional crew.  The aerial displays were produced by dozens of amateur pyrotechnic afficianados—"pyros," they call themselves—using consumer fireworks that are illegal in New York.

Far from appreciating the free show, many Staten Islanders spent last Fourth of July furiously phoning 911.  The Staten Island Advance reported that 14 residents were arrested for fireworks violations, but that wasn't enough for the complainers.  "That's nothing.  That's absolutely nothing," one angry resident told the local newspaper.  "They needed three times as many cops out there."

Glenn Reynolds
This has even led New York — because they don't have any real crime there, I guess — to get really carried away:

Thanks to the variations encouraged by our system of federalism, states like New York are free to be variably more asinine than others.  As everyone now knows on Staten Island, pretty much all fireworks are illegal in New York unless you have a permit—and just try getting one of those.

Most New Yorkers don't even bother.  Instead, they drive to Pennsylvania, a state where the spark of freedom still gets a spark now and then.  Freighted with fireworks, these New Yorkers then return home to blast away.

Mayor Bloomberg isn't happy about it.  As we discovered from his smoking ban, if it burns, he spurns.  So to prevent the sparkler smugglers, the NYPD is now dispatching undercover cops into Pennsylvania to stake out firework vendors, as New York magazine recently reported.  When they see a NY license plate, they snap a photo and prepare for the bust back home.

So far, the NYPD claims more than 60 arrests and a record number of seizures, more than 1,000 cases of fireworks.  They're even seizing cars now, at least 30 so far.  What's really ridiculous (and outrageous) is when you look at what is legal in Pennsylvania, these folks are losing their cars for stuff like fountains and spinners.

This draconian enforcement policy rests on the idea that fireworks are simply too dangerous for amateurs.  "You could lose an eye, a hand, or something worse," says Bloomberg spokesperson Virginia Lam.

But as Robert Stacy McCain notes in Reason, it's just not true:

As a safety measure, anti-fireworks laws have no discernible benefit.  In recent years, sales of consumer fireworks have skyrocketed, even as injury rates have fizzled.

According to federal data compiled by the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA), while U.S. fireworks sales increased roughly eight-fold from 1976 to 2004—from 29 million pounds to over 236 million pounds per year—estimates of annual fireworks-related injuries decreased from 11,100 in 1976 to 9,600 in 2004.

Fireworks injuries are relatively rare, accounting for an estimated 0.01 percent of annual U.S. injuries, according to an APA analysis which found that injuries from cooking ranges are four times as common as fireworks injuries.  APA officials point out that all consumer fireworks sold in the United States—most are imported from China—must meet safety standards enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The APA, the National Fireworks Safety Council (NFSC) and retailers have also engaged in extensive safety education efforts. In addition to safety labels on each product ( e.g., "Place on ground, light fuse, get away") fireworks buyers now usually receive safety pamphlets with each retail purchase.

It's as if the likes of Mayor Bloomberg just don't favor the idea of Americans celebrating their independence.  The good news, as, er, skyrocketing fireworks sales demonstrate, is that Americans aren't listening.  I think that's a hopeful sign, and a change.

When I was a kid, I read Keith Robertson's book, Henry Reed's Journey.  It was written before I was born, but it was already a cautionary tale of creeping nanny-statism.  Reed, who is about 14, journeys across America in search of fireworks, but finds that they're illegal almost everywhere.  Having lived abroad, he's appalled at what's happened in America.

Now it seems as if the trend has reversed itself, and that's a very good thing.  Celebrate your independence — and pay no attention to the folks who don't want you to.

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