What Tehran is Thinking

20 November 2014

Tehran’s Nuclear Playbook

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We’re down to the wire.  The November 24 deadline for the Iranian nuclear deal is looming .  In this final week, negotiators from the P5 +1 and Iran are meeting in Vienna in a last ditch effort to resolve what has been more than a decade-long standoff with Tehran over its nuclear program.

Following meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Muscat, Oman in early November, little information has emerged on the outstanding issues.  Most likely sticking points: the number of centrifuges Tehran can maintain, and the extent of its sanctions relief.   The West seeks to reduce Iran’s number of centrifuges from 19,000 to 4,000 to limit its breakout time should it one day decide to go nuclear.  Tehran claims it needs at least double that number for peaceful energy purposes.  In exchange for reducing centrifuges, the West has agreed to partially lift a number of U.S. sanctions over the next few months. Tehran, however, would like United Nations sanctions as well as banking and oil sanctions to be lifted earlier.

All sides do, however, agree on one thing:  This is a unique ‘now or never’ moment to achieve a nuclear deal and potentially end Iran’s longstanding international isolation.

Here’s what you need to know to follow the news on the talks as it unfolds.

 Iranian conservatives are akin to strict constitutional constructionists in the U.S.

The Background

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, was elected in June 2013 on the promise of cinching a nuclear deal and sanctions relief.  With the necessary backing of the Iran’s conservative Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Rouhani and his technocratic team have relentlessly pursued negotiations.  Khamenei’s endorsement of the negotiations resulted in unanimous support across Iran’s factional political elite; hardliners and conservatives loyal to the Supreme Leader such as Friday prayer leader Ahmad Khatami, parliamentarian Ruhollah Hosseinian who is a member of the Endurance Front faction and Hossein Shariatmadari who is editor of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper have curtailed their opposition to Rouhani and his nuclear agenda in the hope that a nuclear deal would relieve pressure on Iran’s flailing economy.

Then came the historic phone call between President Obama and Rouhani.  And about a month later, the November 2013 Joint Plant of Action (JPA). Iran agreed to freeze parts of its nuclear program in exchange for a decrease in sanctions and continued negotiations. But following this initial victory, Rouhani’s team has struggled to find a final compromise that will not result in an onslaught of domestic criticism from Iran’s conservative factions who don’t want to yield to western pressure.

Related: Here are 7 things you need to read on Iran.

What’s behind this fear of the West? Iranian conservatives are akin to strict constitutional constructionists in the U.S.  Only instead of the constitution, they’re unwilling to concede on issues connected to the ideological foundation of the Islamic Republic – such as preserving Iranian independence and protecting Islamic values.

They remain suspicious of western intentions and fear a slippery slope will follow from compromise, i.e. that any initial concession to the U.S. will bring pressure on other outstanding geopolitical, regional and domestic issues.  Those include, for example, Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al Assad and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, opposition to Israel and criticism of Iran’s bleak human rights record.  For them, independence from the West is the safest solution to protecting the regime.

On the other side, moderates and reformists tend to favor liberalization and reform of the system while respecting the Iran’s revolutionary principles.  This is the group that’s more amenable to rapprochement with the West. It believes that restored economic and political relationships are the best way to preserve the longevity of the Islamic Republic.

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Why Time is Running Out

Both Tehran and Washington do not have the luxury of time.  Conservative legislatures in both countries are waiting in the wings to curtail the gains of their respective presidents.  Iran will hold parliamentary elections in March 2016.  Conservative factions are already jockeying to hold if not gain their parliamentary majority.

Despite support for the nuclear agenda, conservatives have been making every effort to obstruct Rouhani’s domestic social and cultural liberalization campaign.  Human rights, women’s issues, press freedom and Internet policy to name a few have suffered significant setbacks in the past year.  They also fear that a foreign policy victory will increase Rouhani’s popularity at home making it more difficult to sabotage the president’s domestic agenda.

Winners and Losers

Should a deal be reached that provides for extensive sanctions relief, Rouhani and his supporters will have greater leverage to pursue their domestic agenda.  Popular support for reformists will also lead to a gain in their parliamentary representation in 2016.

A failure to overturn sanctions, however, will not only allow conservatives to step up factional criticism of Rouhani, but could also return hardline politicians such as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or former 2013 presidential candidate and nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to the political arena.

To see a moderate victory in this domestic power struggle, a final deal will have to be comprehensive offering a combination of substantial sanctions relief including a timeline for banking and energy sanctions removal as well as allowing a respectable number of centrifuges to continue to spin.

More: Why Iran missed the real revolution.

What could happen? 

This is a decisive week for Iran and its future.  To some, Iran is hedging its bets and feeling triumphant having secured a Russian lifeline to build additional nuclear reactors in Iran.  Iran is also militarily engaged in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—a role that has enhanced its regional influence as well as exacerbated fears of Iranian regional ambitions within Arab countries.

At the same time however, the impact of declining oil prices, the compounding effect of sanctions, prolonged economic mismanagement and long standing international quarantine suggest that the isolationist status quo is equally untenable.

To see a moderate victory in this domestic power struggle, a final deal will have to be comprehensive offering a combination of substantial sanctions relief including a timeline for banking and energy sanctions removal as well as allowing a respectable number of centrifuges to continue to spin.  The sunset period of the deal is also critical with Tehran seeking to limit the duration to no more than five years. No ultimate deal can take place without the blessing of the Supreme Leader.

Should negotiators fail to make a comprehensive deal this time, a number of scenarios are on the table.   One option would be to extend the JPA and implement another extension as officials did in July 2014.  Alternatively, negotiators could agree to a broad framework and allow for more time to finalize the remaining issues.   The only almost certainty is that after such significant progress, no party is willing to walk away.

About the Author

Sanam Vakil
Sanam Vakil is an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS Europe).  She is the author of Action and Reaction: Women and Politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

The Most Destructive Gender Binary

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It was the latest setback for women’s empowerment. But you probably haven’t heard about it.

Part of the gender equality goal set to replace one of the U.N.’s soon-to-expire Millennium Development Goals didn’t make it through. The target left on the cutting room floor? Engaging men and boys around gender equality issues.

Why, exactly, is this is a setback for women’s equality? Because the fates of the two genders are intertwined; for women to thrive, men and boys must be part of the gender equality agenda.  Why, then, in 2014, are we still addressing gender issues as a binary, girls vs. boys, women vs. men? And how can we get beyond it?

We asked that big question at a conference last week in Delhi – organized by the global MenEngage alliance ( full disclosure: I’m co-chair and co-founder of the alliance). Our answer – to get beyond the binary, and to achieve the promise of empowering women – we need to show the world just how much each gender depends on the other, and how men, too, benefit from full equality.

To achieve the promise of empowering women – we need to show the world just how much each gender depends on the other, and how men, too, benefit from full equality.

Let’s start with violence.  If you want to combat violence against women, you’ve got to understand, and address, violence against boys. Let me explain. Global data confirms that about one-third of the world’s women have experienced violence from a male partner. We have little evidence—with the possible exception of the U.S. and Norway—that any country has been able to reduce its overall rates of men’s violence against women.  There are challenges with measuring violence, to be sure, but it’s far too early to claim that we have made real progress in reducing the daily threat to women and girls.

Why haven’t we moved the needle? Partly because we’ve been coming up with solutions for only half of the affected population. We know that men who witness violence growing up are nearly three times more likely to go on to use violence against female partners. Data also show that men who witness violence growing up are more likely to be depressed, contemplate suicide, and more likely to binge drink. In other words, men’s lives, too, are harmed by the violence of men.  Ending violence against women must also mean ending violence against boys and men.

Unpaid care work is another area where we can see the same intertwined narrative playing out. Women do the majority of the unpaid care work in the world. And yet, studies show that when men take on those responsibilities, they’re happier, less likely to be depressed (and have better sex lives). According to one study in the U.S., we even live longer as men when we’re involved fathers.  A study in Sweden finds that involved fathers are less likely to miss work, and are healthier. Not to mention all the data showing that children benefit when fathers are involved in caring for them.

Or consider this: a recent World Health Organization report confirmed that there are 800,000 deaths from suicides each year, about two-thirds of those are men. We know something about which men commit suicide: men who are socially isolated, who feel they can’t reach out for help, whose sense of identity was lost when they lost their livelihoods. Men who, in part at least, are stuck in outdated notions of manhood.

Related: Why the discussion of what low-income boys need to succeed in school is outdated.

What’s more, entire economies benefit when women can devote more time to the paid workforce.  If women’s participation in the workforce were equal to men’s, the U.S. GDP would be nine percent larger and India’s GDP would be 1.2 trillion U.S. dollars bigger. Yet right now, that disparity is arguably the single largest driver of women’s lower wages compared to men.  Globally, 77 percent of men participate in the paid workforce, compared to just 50 percent of women—a proportion that has remained virtually unchanged for 25 years.   Even when women are in the workplace, they earn on average 18 percent less than men for the same work. Few countries outside of Scandinavia have created policy incentives to encourage men to do a near-equal share of unpaid care work. We know what it has taken in Scandinavia to push us closer toward equality in terms of care work: paid paternity leave. In other words, encouraging men to do a greater share of the care work.

Guess what? A little encouragement goes a long way. Today, with paid leave and “use-it-or-lose-it” leave for fathers only, the majority of men in Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Quebec (which has policies similar to the Nordic countries) are taking leave of six weeks or more. Iceland is the global leader: fathers there take an average of 103 days of paid paternity leave.

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We’re stuck in a similar gender box when it comes to empowering women to control how many children they have. In 2005, women represented 75 percent of global contraceptive users and men 25 percent.  In 2014, women represent 73 percent.  Hardly numbers to celebrate and proclaim equality; indeed, that change does not even pass the confidence interval. Why does it matter? Well, last time I checked, reproduction involves both women and men. Anything less than 50-50 in terms of contraceptive use cannot be called equality. By not engaging men as equal partners in contraceptive use, we hold women back.  This doesn’t mean giving men control over women’s bodies; it means engaging men to assume their share of reproduction as respectful, aware and supportive partners.

In terms of HIV/AIDS, the story is similar. We have made amazing strides in rolling out HIV testing and treatment.   Treatment as prevention is working in many countries. One of the key remaining obstacles in reducing HIV rates and AIDS-related mortality rates even more is the fact that in much of the world, men are far less likely than women to seek HIV testing and treatment.  The result is increased risk for women and higher AIDS-related mortality among men.

From economic empowerment for women to violence prevention, the evidence consistently affirms that engaging men as partners in gender equality is more effective than only tapping women.

The arguments could go on. From economic empowerment for women to violence prevention, the evidence consistently affirms that engaging men as partners in gender equality is more effective than only tapping women.  And the data is clear that men who support gender equality, are more supportive, democratic partners and get involved in their share of the care work are happier men.

Twenty years after one of the largest events to promote women’s equality in Beijing – where Hillary Clinton made her famous proclamation that “women’s rights are human rights” –  the conclusion is this: we won’t achieve full equality for women until we move beyond binary us-versus-them, women-versus-men thinking. We must commit to ending patriarchy in the lives of women and in the lives of men. As men, we must acknowledge that we have an equal stake in gender equality. In fact, let’s acknowledge this: our lives get better when we embrace it.

About the Author

Gary Barker
Gary Barker, Ph.D., is founder and International Director of Promundo, an international organization with offices in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Washington, DC, and Kigali, Rwanda, that works to engage men and boys in gender equality and ending violence against women.

The Hackers of Oz

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New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter and guests explore the ideas and policy challenges that not only dominate today’s headlines, but will shape our future. Subscribe to the Weekly Wonk Podcast in iTunes.

Related: See how terror suspects are actually caught.

How do we win a war that can’t be seen? Anne-Marie Slaughter goes behind the cyber curtain to find out by speaking with ASU Future of War Fellow Shane Harris about his new book, @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex. Harris, who has been reporting on intelligence as a journalist for fifteen years, talks on this episode about his unprecedented access to how the NSA works and why our response to the threat of cyber war – rather than the risks of harm – will have a bigger impact on cyberspace in the 21st century.

Related: See how investigators actually catch terror suspects.

How to Combat ISIS, Starting in Your Community

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When you hear ‘online predator,’ you probably conjure an image of a sexual predator – perhaps a middle-aged man targeting oblivious kids through various social media channels. But if we want to effectively counter ISIS’ efforts here – and overseas – we may need to broaden that definition.

“We are pretty sensitive to the issue of online predators when it comes to sexual predators, but not necessarily when it comes to violent extremists,” says New America International Security Fellow Rabia Chaudry. “ISIS especially has been very successful in recruiting using online tools, so we have to increase awareness and find out what our kids are doing while online.”

I sat down recently with Chaudry, a longtime advocate in the American Muslim community and the President and founder of the Safe Nation Collaborative, to ask her a series of questions about how successful methods of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) have been so far –  and how we should refine our strategies in the future.

Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

About one-third of would be terrorist acts by Muslim perps were reported by Muslims themselves to law enforcement.

Related: 7 things you should read on ISIS.

How big of a problem are ISIS’ efforts to recruit and radicalize Americans?

ISIS poses a unique challenge. They are better funded, better organized and are presenting a different framework than we saw from Al Qaeda and other associated groups, which is that they are trying to create something. They’re not saying “we want to disrupt Western governments.” They’re saying “forget all that, we’re creating a model community and encouraging people to come with their families to live there.” A kid might say, “man I’m not going to blow up a local school but I can live as a Muslim without feeling demonized or marginalized in the caliphate.” It gives these kids an alternative they maybe wouldn’t find anywhere else. [ISIS is] also very social media savvy.

How should we measure the success of CVE efforts?

That’s a complicated question because CVE as a field can look like a lot of different things. On an international level a CVE program could be something like a literacy program, or it could be a jobs skills training program. So how do you then measure that? That’s really something we are still trying to figure out. We’re not quite up to speed on monitoring and evaluation when it comes to CVE yet. Unfortunately.

How successful are current efforts to counter violent extremism?

It’s really too early to even tell. On a domestic level – and most of my work is domestic – we have been doing quite well.  More American Muslim communities are comfortable working with the government and with law enforcement. About one-third of would be terrorist acts by Muslim perps were reported by Muslims themselves to law enforcement. So Muslim Americans have been very forthcoming. They want to keep their communities safe. Muslims in this country are very well integrated. And our security and intelligence folks have done a really great job since 9/11; we have not had any major attacks.

Can you tell us a bit about your organization, the Safe Nation Collaborative?

Safe Nation Collaborative is a CVE Law Enforcement training firm. The idea there is that one of the most important relationships we can encourage right now is between local law enforcement and local Muslim communities because they share the same community. Their kids go to school together. Community members should be comfortable enough with local law enforcement that if there is an incident and they don’t know how to handle it, they feel safe picking up the phone and calling the local police chief or liaison. Right now that’s missing in a lot of jurisdictions. So this training provides law enforcement with the information and tools to engage in a respectful and informed way with Muslim communities.

The civil liberties difficulties and national security issues that are intertwined with CVE, have discouraged some communities from even accepting information on how to deal with threats.

Some efforts at community engagement have been criticized as being a cover for surveillance. What can be done to keep that perception from overtaking efforts to prevent extremist violence?

That is the prevailing perception – certainly in American Muslim communities – and it is true. We know that the FBI has used its outreach office to conduct surveillance. I have personally represented people who have been asked to become informants in the community – not in response to an imminent threat but just to fish for information. What is really difficult about the situation is that it completely undermines the CVE framework of engaging and partnering with local communities. On the one hand the administration says “we want to partner with you” and then on the other hand you have one or two agencies that undermine it by treating the community like suspects.

How can communities best be prepared to confront individuals who present a threat?

The civil liberties difficulties and national security issues that are intertwined with CVE, have discouraged some communities from even accepting information on how to deal with threats. What complicates this further is that when a community suspects that somebody local is having issues, the community will often as quickly as possible put distance between itself and the individual because it doesn’t know legally to what extent it can intervene. Often, it’s much easier to just kick them out of the mosque, out of the community. Then you have somebody who is out there who could on their own do something really terrible. Communities are very unprepared. We have asked policymakers and law enforcement repeatedly to provide communities with some guidelines that explain the legal framework in which you are safe to engage this person, and at what point should you contact law enforcement. We still don’t have it.

It’s crucial that we continue to ask what kind of trainings and what kind of information communities are getting. We are far enough along since this framework was first authored in 2011 that we should have a more systematic way of getting trainings to law enforcement and of being much more receptive to the concerns of Muslim communities. Otherwise CVE is going to fail.

Related: We asked 6 experts “How can we defeat ISIS?”

What lessons can be drawn from CVE efforts to prevent violence beyond just jihadist extremist violence?

We cannot take violent or extremist activity and ascribe the responsibility of preventing it to a particular group. This is a real complication for Muslims. More Muslims are victims of violent extremists than anybody else. It’s our kids these people are trying to recruit and if they do recruit them and something happens it is our community that suffers the consequences. Treat it like any other crime prevention, like you would with other communities, and I think Muslims would be more comfortable with it. I know it’s a challenge because of the religious undertones that some perps have, but if the government reinforces those undertones then you’re going to push communities away.

About the Author

David Sterman
David Sterman is a research associate for New America's International Security Program and a graduate of Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies.

The New Case for LGBT Rights

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What’s the secret to convincing the world to back a movement? Figure out how it could impact the global bottom line.

Economic reasoning is part of what propelled the modern women’s empowerment movement. And now, it’s informing an emerging argument for LGBT inclusion: Unequal treatment of LGBT people, as it turns out, can cause economic harm, leading to lower economic output for individuals, businesses, and even countries. And on the flip side, inclusive policies can boost a country’s GDP.

This argument is taking shape as treatment for LGBT people is deteriorating or stagnating in many places around the world.  In Egypt last month, eight men were sentenced to three years in jail after showing up in a video of what looked like a “gay marriage” to Egyptian officials.  Over the last year or so, countries as diverse as Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, and Brunei have implemented new laws that increase penalties for homosexuality or for supporting rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.  Anti-LGBT arrests, discrimination, harassment, and violence are pervasive –  cropping up in schools, workplaces, health care facilities, and within families.

More: Here is what’s next for the LGBT movement. 

So how does this translate into economic loss? The link between discrimination and the economy can be direct. Those eight men sitting in an Egyptian jail, for example, will not be contributing to the economy for three years and instead create an avoidable cost for the government. Their skills and knowledge might be less valuable when they get out, and if future employers are likely to discriminate against people assumed to be gay, their options might be limited to work in less productive jobs. In other cases, links are indirect, though still strong: Injuries from physical violence or the mental health effects of stigma will mean poorer health for LGBT workers, in turn reducing their productivity at work.

The numbers back up these contentions. Even though the LGBT community is a relatively small percentage of any country’s population, the economic costs from unequal treatment can add up quickly.

More broadly, disadvantaged workers can be bad for business. Absenteeism, low productivity, inadequate training and high turnover make for higher labor costs and lower profits.  Multinational companies know they’ll have trouble convincing an openly gay executive to accept a transfer to a country that is LGBT intolerant.  Tour operators steer LGBT tourists away from hotels and attractions in unfriendly countries.

The numbers back up these contentions. Even though the LGBT community is a relatively small percentage of any country’s population, the economic costs from unequal treatment can add up quickly.  A recent World Bank case study of the cost of stigma and LGBT exclusion in India shows how the losses could be calculated.  Similar studies of gender inequality and other forms of discrimination have shown the billions of dollars lost by national economies from discrimination.

Unfortunately, data on LGBT people in India are not available to estimate the effects as precisely in that study.  But my own back-of-the-envelope calculation using what we do know about the costs of discrimination and big health disparities for LGBT Indians gives us a good idea of how large the effect could be.  Even with conservative assumptions that make costs low, the estimated losses to the Indian economy range from 0.1 percent to 1.4 percent of national output, a meaningful loss that no country–rich or poor–would want to bear. The bottom line: India could be throwing away more than $26 billion a year by stigmatizing LGBT people.

Luckily, there’s a way to recoup those costs:  A study that I co-authored, just released by USAID and the Williams Institute at UCLA, finds that countries that treat LGBT people equally also have better-performing economies.  In our study of 39 countries, we compared a measure of rights granted by each nation related to homosexuality—decriminalization, nondiscrimination laws, and family rights—to GDP per capita and other measures of economic performance.

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The positive link between rights and development is clear:  countries that come closer to full equality for LGBT people have higher levels of GDP per capita over the 22 years we studied.  Even after we take into account other differences across countries that matter for GDP growth, like capital stock and international trade, we still find a strong positive effect of gay rights.  Each additional right is associated with a $320 increase in per capita GDP, or about 3 percent of the average output produced by an economy.

Countries that treat LGBT people equally also have better-performing economies.

A better environment for LGBT individuals can be an attractive bargaining chip for countries seeking multi-national investments or even more tourists. On a recent trip to Peru, I talked with people in businesses, universities, and government ministries who expressed concern that because their country lags behind many other South American countries on LGBT rights, they fear they could be less competitive globally.  They are right to be worried. A conservative climate that keeps LGBT people in the closet and policymakers from recognizing the human rights of LGBT people will hold their economy back from its full potential.

Of course, passing a nondiscrimination law may not lead to an immediate boost in economic output (although less discrimination should eventually lead to more output). Another explanation for our findings is that countries may become more concerned about minority rights as the country gets richer and less worried about economic subsistence.  The 39 growing countries we studied averaged one right for LGBT people in 1990, but the average was more than three rights by 2011.

Still, considering the economic perspective on human rights is valuable because it challenges us to think about these issues in a different way – to think about  how much we all lose when any group is denied full and equal participation in society.  Discrimination and violence against LGBT people who could contribute more to a country’s economy has put many of the world’s economies in a kind of permanent recession.  The road to recovery is clear.

About the Author

M. V. Lee Badgett
M. V. Lee Badgett is a professor of economics and director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  She is also a Williams Distinguished Scholar and former research director of the Williams Institute at UCLA. Her most recent book, When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage (NYU Press, 2009), focuses on the U.S. and European experiences with marriage equality for same-sex couples.

The Cult of Kiddie Danger

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The Richland, WA, school district is phasing out swings on its playgrounds. As the district’s spokesman recently told KEPR TV: “It’s just really a safety issue. Swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground.”

Ah yes, those dangling doom machines. All they sow is death and despair.

But while this sounds like yet another example of how liability concerns are killing childhood (seen a see-saw anywhere in the last 20 years? A slide higher than your neck?), it’s deeper than that. Insurance underwriters are merely the high priests of what has become our new American religion: the Cult of Kiddie Danger. It is founded on the unshakable belief that our kids are in constant danger from everyone and everything.

More: Why Silicon Valley parents are letting their kids roam free.

The devout pray like this: “Oh Lord, show me the way my child is in deathly danger from __________, that I may cast it out.” And then they fill in the blank with anything we might have hitherto considered allowing our children to eat, watch, visit, touch, or do, e.g., “Sleep over at a friend’s,” “Microwave the macaroni in a plastic dish,” or even, “Play outside, unsupervised.”

Ah yes, those dangling doom machines. All they sow is death and despair.

The Cult’s dogma is taught diligently unto our children who are not allowed to use Chapstick unless it is administered by the school nurse, nor sunscreen, lest they quaff it and die of poisoning, nor, for the same reason, soft soap in pre-k. It doesn’t matter that these fears are wildly at odds with reality. They are religious beliefs, not rational ones.

What’s more, this is a state religion, so the teachings are enforced by the cops and courts. Those who step outside the orthodoxy face punishment swift and merciless.

You can’t step out side at all, in fact. Americans are not allowed to believe any public place is safe for their children, ever, without constant supervision. Trust is taboo.

The logical under-current is illogical, as it’s based on a hapless understanding of basic statistics. How many children are kidnapped by strangers in a year? About one in 1.5 million – those are incredibly great odds. But odds don’t matter when we’re evangelizing about a vision of death and destruction.

More: Overprotecting your kids could cause them to become overweight. 

That’s why, last winter, when a New Jersey mom left her sleeping 18-month-old in the car for 5-10 minutes while she ran an errand at an upscale shopping mall, she returned to find herself under arrest. Though the child was completely fine — he seems to have slept through the whole “incident” — the mom was found guilty of abuse or negligence. An appeals court of three judges upheld this conviction with the comment, “We need not describe at any length the parade of horribles that could have attended [the child’s] neglect.”

In other words: The judges need not spell out their Boschian fantasies. If an authority can envision something “horrible” happening – and even turn that adjective into a noun — it doesn’t matter how farfetched any actual scenario is. (In fact, the danger of dragging your child across the parking lot is larger than letting him wait in the car a few minutes.) Anyone doubting constant danger is a heretic. The mom is now excommunicated — that is, she’s on the New Jersey Child Abuse Registry. Good luck to her if she hoped to work with kids, at least while the case makes its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

And if you can stand to hear another one of these, a similar case concerns a Chicagoland mom who let her young son wait in the car for less than five minutes this September while she, too, ran an errand. An onlooker alerted the authorities, which brought not only the police but also the paramedics, who proceeded to examine the child as if he had been in grave danger. Sure, it’s the same grave danger any of us face when sitting in traffic — four minutes in an unmoving car. But magically, because the mom was not directly supervising the child, it transmogrified into a near-death experience.

Zero Tolerance laws are another code of the Cult, stemming from the same belief that while the danger to a child might seem minimal to the point of non-existent, to true believers it looms large and immediate. And so children have been suspended around the country for a plastic gun the size of a toothpick, a Lego gun the size of a quarter, and the infamous “gun” made out of a Pop Tart. And by “made” I mean “bitten into the shape of, by a 7 year old.”

How can we explain any of this hysteria if not by religious fervor? To see danger where there is none is no longer considered crazy, it’s a mission. Many authorities seem to believe the more danger they can imagine, the holier they are. In a letter home to parents, the principal at the Pop-Tart school wrote, “While no physical threats were made and no one [was] harmed, the student had to be removed from the classroom.”

Had to? Because…he had a Pop Tart? Or because the boy with the pastry pistol was magically dangerous, like a witch with her cat?

In a society that believes children are in constant danger, the Good Samaritans are often terrible people. So, recently, when a woman in Austin noticed a 6-year-old playing outside, she asked him where he lived, walked him home (it was just down the hill), and chastised the mom — Kari Anne Roy — for not being careful enough.

Then this Samaritan called the Inquisitors. Er…cops.

An officer showed up at Roy’s doorstep and despite the fact that the crime rate today is at a 50-year-low, a CPS investigator was also dispatched to interview all three of Roy’s children. She asked Roy’s 8-year-old if her parents had ever shown her movies with people’s private parts. “So my daughter, who didn’t know that things like that exist, does now,” says Roy. “Thank you, CPS.”

Today it is a sin — and sometimes a crime — NOT to imagine your children dead the moment we take your eyes off them.

It was almost seven years ago that I let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone and wrote a newspaper column about it. The result? A media firestorm. Back then I thought my crime, in the eyes of the public, was putting my child in danger.

But gradually I’ve come to realize my real crime was that I publicly disavowed the state religion. Talk show host after talk show host tried to get me to recant, asking: “How would you have felt if he didn’t come home?”

I could have sobbed and fainted, claiming it had been only a momentary lapse when I’d trusted my son in the world. Instead I said, “I wasn’t thinking that way. If I did, I could never let him do anything.”

Today it is a sin — and sometimes a crime — NOT to imagine your children dead the moment we take your eyes off them. The moment they skip to school with a Chapstick, wait in the car a minute, or play at the park.

We think we are enlightened in this quest to keep kids completely safe. Actually, we have entered a new Dark Ages, fearing evil all around us.

If we want the right to raise our kids rationally, even optimistically, it’s time to call the Cult of Kiddie Danger what it is: mass hysteria aided and abetted by the

authorities. But as earlier holy books so succinctly instructed us, there is a better way to live.

“Fear not.”

About the Author

Lenore Skenazy
Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range kids. Her show "World's Worst Mom" airs on Discovery/TLC international.

Being Present Instead of Perfect

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For a lot of American families today, the dinner table can feel a minefield, haunted by the ghosts of Leave It To Beavers past and the present-day social and economic pressures to serve up from-scratch meals. The pressure for mealtime perfection can get overwhelming, even for a professional like Cat Cora, the first female Iron Chef.

“It’s a work in progress every day,” said Cora, who emphasized that even someone like her isn’t immune to the worries many parents have about the food they put on the table or send to school or practice with their kids. She shares a household with a wife and four sons, and is a representative of an emerging new modern family– a structure whose makeup is increasingly diverse and “becoming the majority in this country.” For Cora, this shift in family structures is creating a “place where parents both have a role in raising and nurturing the kids.”  Yet, no matter how much parental roles have evolved, the pressures to be perfect haven’t followed suit. That’s something we need to change, suggested panelists who joined Cora at a recent New America event, underwritten by Betty Crocker.

“The Internet makes me cry some days,” said Frederick Goodall, the founder of the popular blog MochaDad, who condemned the shaming of parents on social media. “I always have to tell my wife – please do not look at Pinterest. Do not let that make you feel bad about yourself—just think of it as a fantasy land.” Social media, he suggested, perpetuates stereotypes about “homemaking” with little basis in fact.

When it comes to feeding our families, being present matters more than being perfect.

And what are the facts, exactly? “Only about one-fifth of U.S. families have the structure of one parent staying home,” said Latifa Lyles, the Director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor.  “It’s just not a reality anymore. And what that means is that families have less time.” For her, time is the focal point of good parenting, even if that means making PB&J more and visiting the farmers’ market less. “Because time is so valuable, how we spend that time [with our children] is more critical than anything else,” she said. “When we get into being the perfect homemaker, we lose ourselves.”

We may also be missing the larger point: When it comes to feeding our families, being present matters more than being perfect. “Kids don’t care,” as Cora put it. “They just want to see you. They want to hear your voice. They want to be told they’re loved.”

Related: Why data can tell us how to fix our work-life imbalance. 

Critically, this struggle between presence and perfection is one faced by parents from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Sarah Bowen, associate professor of Sociology and Anthropology at North Carolina State University, described a recent study in which she and her colleagues interviewed North Carolina moms from low-income and middle-class families over a five-year period about how they feed their kids and the challenges they confront in the process. They found that middle-class moms are cooking 4-5 nights a week but are discouraged by media messages that their meals should be organic and from scratch. Poorer moms are cooking at home too, but since unpredictable work schedules are increasingly the norm in low-wage jobs, they, too, worry that they’re not measuring up.

Both the shame and lack of time may be the structural results of a conflict between policy progress on nutrition and policy stagnation on other family-related policies. Liza Mundy, director of New America’s Breadwinning and Caregiving Program, noted that neither policy debates nor media narratives about childcare and parental leave have kept pace with those about food and nutrition, where a hard-won consensus now exists in favor of cooking healthy and eating well. Promoting healthy eating is important. But the failure to generate policy support for childcare and paid caregiving leave has obscured the lack of real choices available to American families.

Related: Why the culture of busyness is changing our brains.

Goodall, who used to work in construction, recalled his former boss insisting that he keep his Blackberry turned on while he was in the delivery room with his wife, who was giving birth to their third child. He resigned six months later to start MochaDad, where he has encountered a number of dads who stay at home because of persistent unemployment post-recession, not because they want to. Citing the White House Summit on Working Families this past June and the more recent viral #LeadonLeave campaign (which highlights the fact that the U.S. is the only developed nation in the world with no paid family leave), Lyles also criticized Americans’ limited choices and the gendered double standard around taking parental leave. When women do it, employers question their commitment. Most men don’t take leave even when it’s offered, and those who do either face Goodall’s fate or get excessive praise for being dedicated fathers.

 The failure to generate policy support for childcare and paid caregiving leave has obscured the lack of real choices available to American families.

Still, there’s at least one national bright spot that could illuminate a path forward for the rest of the country. Lyles and Mundy both pointed to the example of California, which offers six weeks of paid leave to parents funded by the state’s payroll tax. Ten years of data show increased rates of fathers and mothers alike taking leave and reflect support from the business community. These results demystify the dissonance, according to Lyles, and show that having paid leave can become a norm. Mundy echoed this message of hope: “What you want is people making choices in a landscape where they have real options and where they have support.”

About the Author

Jane Greenway CarrContributing Editor
Jane Greenway Carr is an ACLS Public Fellow and Contributing Editor at New America. She holds a PhD from NYU, where she has been a lecturer and done research at the intersections between U.S. literary and cultural history and social and political activism.

The Future of Thanksgiving

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Why is Thanksgiving dinner always late, and why does it last so long? It’s one of the last refuges of irreducible inefficiency, a throwback to the days of taxis, news that left ink on your hand and human-driven delivery trucks.

My humble proposal today is to hack Thanksgiving Time by reframing Thanksgiving Time.

I begin by asking a simple question that should expand your understanding of this critical issue:  When we say “on time,” do we have to mean “all at once?”

Some of us have already disrupted past Thanksgivings by having Uber pick up Grandma so no one has to hear her ranting about the cousins you actually like, and by obsessively checking Fitbit to mitigate holiday weight gain. But here’s one more hack to bring this 17th century holiday fully into the 21st century.

Related: How Uber bridged the political divide.

The proposal: empower every cousin, every uncle and every in-law to have the Thanksgiving they want. Give them the choice in this choice-hungry economy to decide for themselves when, or even where, to eat.

With a new app – that connects people, ovens, produce and beer bottles, all this power is now in your hands.

Call it TurkFlex.

If you want to watch the Cowboys game first, go ahead.

If you want to take a Skype call for work, go for it.

Don’t like sitting near your drunk, blows-his-nose-at-the-table uncle? Tag him with TurkFlex’s surveillance chips and you can just wait til after he eats and falls asleep.

On a cleanse? Skip the food altogether. It’s…all… up… to…you.

It’s simple.  You just log in and enter your preferred time and menu. TurkFlex can link that input with your relatives’ data, so that everyone in the family has the Thanksgiving they want, when they want it.

If you’d prefer vegan, TurkFlex can let your aunt know to not use the sausage in the stuffing.

If you’d prefer to talk loudly about the next Clinton-Bush election, TurkFlex can curate the in-law set to your liking.

If you want to eat after 9 p.m, TurkFlex can make sure the stove is on simmer long after the fat has congealed on the serving dish.

But TurkFlex isn’t just about you. It’s about the world. Every time you sign up for TurkFlex, TurkFlex will donate one bowl of untouched Brussels sprouts to a needy family.

TurkFlex brings freedom to have the atomic holiday you’ve always wanted.

No unexpected encounters. No unpleasant tastes. The curated experience that can only come from full autonomy for everyone.

Thanksgiving, Disrupted.

At last.

Related: Here are the books on our holiday list.

About the Author

Fuzz HoganManaging Editor
Fuzz Hogan is managing editor at New America. He spent nearly 20 years at CNN as bureau chief, producer and story editor, and has produced a PBS special on energy innovation.