Category Archives: Ideals & Ideology

Passionate Moderate Manifesto

The idea of civilization either “progressing” or “conserving” itself is useless. Sometimes doing what’s “good” for the world and its inhabitants needs something radical. Other times, it requires holding onto something traditional.

Long ago, G.K. Chesterton said:

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob.

So don’t commit to being a “Progressive” or a “Conservative.”

Don’t commit to Revolution. Or Counterrevolution. Or Reform. Or Orthodoxy. Take a genuine shot at solving problems and making the world a better, freer place. Commit to THAT. Commit to approaching the world with clear eyes, empirical evidence, rigorous reasoning, intellectual honesty and compassion. Commit to these.

A New Uncertainty Principle: Some Uncertainty In Your Principles Is Good

Looks like we might be in for another economic downturn. We’re inching ever closer to ecological disaster. Instead of looking at the possibilities with some humility, there are people, with real power, raring to push their long-beloved ideologies harder than ever.I want to make a humble plea: stop being so certain about everything.


About fifteen years ago I read a book that is now almost thirty years old, from which I gleaned (apart from very cool bits of information about dynamic systems and other macrophysical phenomena) a very simple lesson.

The book was James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of New A Science. The lesson was that certainty and clarity are not synonymous. Not even close.

I think this is true not only of trajectories and attractors, but also of knowledge itself. In fact, when it comes to knowledge (and the epistemic processes we have to use to know or to make any sense at all of the undifferentiated mass that is our life and our universe), you might go so far as to say that certainty and clarity seem to have an inversely proportional relationship. I made some marginal notes in my copy of Chaos. On page 41, I wrote: “theory makes you see things. Theory makes you miss things.” All abstractions – theory, language, measurement, description – are necessarily approximations and reductions. When you think about that, the expectation that our theories would infallibly fit reality – or worse, that reality would “fit” our theories – is simply ridiculous.

Far greater intellects than mine have acknowledged this conundrum. Albert Einstein said of mathematics (one of our most powerful epistemological tools) “as far as laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are uncertain and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” Werner Heisenberg pointed out that our observations are not so much “nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of inquiry.”

Yet, although analysis, abstraction, and theoretical filters destroy the gestaltic reality of things, without those methods we would understand very little about anything. In fact, speaking of Chaos Theory, let’s not forget it was mathematical analysis that revealed the vast descriptive validity of nonlinear patterns, which prior mathematical/theoretical filters had treated as “error.”

It’s scary how many people insist on sticking to their ideological guns in the face of real disaster.  Those who want to continue extracting and burning fuels pretend they can do it for ever. Those who want to take “bold action” will bulldoze ahead without actually considering whether their “solutions” will end up making things much worse and whether it’s wise to ram policies through on a global scale, endowing governments and tech industry giants with limitless power over all of us with no guarantee we can ever back out if/when we realize they got something very wrong or lied to us (both of which governments and corporations do so well).  Maybe there are newer more creative ways to solve problems. Maybe we can get people who disagree to brainstorm together. Whatever the cognitive devices we use to learn about our world, all of our learning stops being useful and may even become dangerous when we forget that our theories are just tools that point to reality, with varying degrees of success, but they are not reality themselves.

Alfred Korzybski said it better: “the map is not the territory.”

[photo by energepic-com from Pexels]

Paranoia In Shifts

Some people will believe the very worst about others.  Well, not all others, just some others….

People will believe that president Obama would euthanize their grandparents. They will believe that he “hates white people.” They will cry in public and ask for their “America back” — when to most of us America doesn’t look all that different from last year. That is, unless there really is no place in one’s America for a black president — but I don’t honestly believe that’s what that woman was thinking. Even if race played into her fears, I’m pretty sure it was subconscious.

So why is it that people are willing to believe such extreme things about Obama and the Democrats? Why are they willing to believe, not just that they have misguided ideas, but that they have such actively evil intentions? It seems incredible to me.

A friend of mine asked me an interesting question the other day. “Do you think this is how conservatives felt during the Bush years?” She wondered. “That they couldn’t figure out why so many were fearful of the administration’s policies — not just disapproving, but fearful?”

My friend, much like me, is a “liberal” in her values, without being committed to any technocratic or partisan political agenda. We are liberals because we believe in freedom and compassion and fairness. We want things like poverty and discrimination to be eradicated without necessarily being wedded to particular policy approaches. We love the founding fathers and will fight any white supremacist who tries to appropriate them for their own sick visions of “their” America. We are willing to be just as hard on the government under President Obama as we were on the one under President Bush on all the same issues: state secrets doctrine, extraordinary renditions, military tribunals, don’t-ask-don’t-tell, wall street bailouts with practically no strings attached. . . etc.

And yet, we too, are willing to accept that the Obama people aren’t dangerous in ways that maybe we weren’t always absolutely certain about the Bush people. (Although sometimes I do think Tim Geithner is the devil, but that’s a different post).

I will say this, though: the whackos on the left — the ones that used to peddle anti-Bush theories that 9/11 was an “inside job” or that the delay in responding to Katrina was a result of Bush “hating black people” — never really got traction with mainstream or influential liberals. Not one factually unproven conspiracy-type theory about the Bush administration was taken up by anyone prominent enough that I can recall his/her name. Dan Rather doesn’t count — he relied on the wrong documents but his charge, that Bush didn’t fulfill his National Guard duties, was true and substantiated; and even if he does count, that’s just ONE. On the other hand, mainstream, influential conservatives — Bill Kristol, Lou Dobbs, Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity — don’t seem to have any qualms about giving credence to complete fabrications about “death panels” and “Kenyan citizenship.”

I will also say this: for all the conservative accusations of inadequate liberal respect for our erstwhile “commander-in-chief” — no liberal ever actively wanted President Bush to fail as a president. We just wanted him to be a better president. Rush Limbaugh actually said he wanted Obama to fail (and Fred Thompson and Bobby Jindal defended him in this). Can you imagine the Fox News response if someone had said that about Bush? Despite the conservative alarm at liberals not caring about the security of our country, it was a conservative that wanted Osama bin Laden to attack our country.

I will say this, too: I wouldn’t have any reason to be paranoid about President Bush if he didn’t actually lie to us about the reason we went to war with Iraq; if he didn’t try to usurp legislative power with elaborate “signing statements”; if he didn’t have guys like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Gonzalez, Bybee, and Yoo working for him (I know, I know, Tim Geithner. . . but he’s kind of a lesser devil, like Phil, The Prince of Insufficient Light).

Nevertheless, I think my friend has a point. What we tend to see as “flawed” rather than “evil” may often be a product of our own invention, at least in part, and this might apply to even the least partisan, most fair-minded and judicious among us. That’s bad enough, but what’s really scary is that so very many of us these days are deliberately, and gleefully partisan with absolutely no intention of being fair-minded or judicious.Maybe it’s “their” turn to be paranoid. So much for the post-political neo-camelot.

Legends Of The Fall

Sometimes the world gets better.

Twenty years ago tomorrow, Hungary began taking down the barbed wire partition between itself and Austria. It wasn’t attended by all the fanfare of the fall of the Berlin Wall a few months later. But it was a quietly heroic start of that gloriously literal, physical dismantling of the Iron Curtain.

We in America like to celebrate it as a matter of national triumph. That feeling is warranted only in the sense that our ideals of democracy and open societies had prevailed. But when we do the revisionist victory dance and buy into the popular cowboy narrative of how we strong-armed the Soviets to surrender, we do a great disservice to history and the truth and ourselves.

First of all, that attitude diminishes the role of the people living inside the countries behind the curtain, who essentially rose up to overthrow their own oppressive governments (many of these, like Solidarity in Poland were labor activists, a fact that gloating neocons like to sweep under the rug).  The truth is, communism failed as an economic structure and authoritarianism failed as a governing principle. They were no longer tenable propositions and historical forces brewing for many years imploded the system from within, in some cases violently (Rumania). As Karl Marx might have recognized if he had actually lived through the era of communism, it was a historical inevitability.

Secondly, keeping alive the fantasy that we defeated the communists through force, denigrates the role of our values – democracy, freedom, and equality – that formed the real impetus for the fall of communism. We were the shining example of a life they wanted. As George Shultz said (criticizing the Jackson-Bannick Act), “telling our friends. . . we are forcing you to do [something] doesn’t work.” What does work, according to him, is to let them see that what we are asking for works to their own benefit.

Most ironically, believing the cowboy myth does a grave disservice to the Cowboy himself. When I emphasize that our values and our example helped end the Cold War, I don’t mean to suggest our foreign policy didn’t. But it wasn’t our tough-talking, deficit-exploding-defense-spending policy that did the trick. It was our diplomacy.

Ronald Reagan’s contribution in this was significant, though not singular. But the key to his foreign policy success (contrary to every self-styled Reaganite who gives The Gipper practically the entire credit for “ending communism”), was not his unrelenting “show of strength.” It was the opposite of that. (Remember that Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had all been as hawkish and as much the anti-communist crusaders that Reagan was, but they all failed. Remember also that the Cold War was not so much “won” as thawed.)

The reason Reagan was able to make any headway was, along with the historical realities I mentioned earlier (and the good fortune to be dealing with Gorbachev, instead of the likes of Khrushchev and Brezhnev) was really his flexibility. He was willing to engage in “constructive dialog,” as Gorbachev explained.

Last week, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Shultz were on Charlie Rose. They talked about the truly successful aspect of Reagan’s legacy, one that his most vocal disciples NEVER mention, which is one of peacemaking. He came to realize that cooperation works better than bullying. Gorbachev said he witnessed Reagan evolve from a hardliner to a peacemaker. Shultz noted the same evolution of Gorbachev.

Reagan and his foreign policy team took a lot of heat from their hawkish domestic constituency (and some allies) for promoting a ballistic missile ban, and a general, progressive, nuclear weapons reduction plan with the goal of eventual disarmament. Shultz said Margaret Thatcher hit him with her purse over the disarmament proposal at Reykjavík (although I think that may well have been because she wasn’t invited to the Summit).

What Thatcher didn’t get – and her neocon fans in America still don’t get– is that Reagan got somewhere because he met his adversary halfway. Gorbachev recalled a meeting early in their relationship, when he essentially told the president “I’m not your student; if you don’t stop lecturing me, this conversation is over.” Reagan realized being conciliatory (a dirty word to today’s conservatives) might be a better strategy. Unlike our last Republican president, who never liked to admit errors, Reagan actually rescinded the “evil empire” statement. He told a Soviet journalist “I believed it at the time I said it, but I don’t anymore.” How refreshing!

We don’t generally think of Reagan in those terms (because conservatives like to pretend his success validates a diehard conservatism that it really doesn’t and liberals like to disregard his redeeming qualities because they dislike so much else about him).  But Reagan, at his best, did listen to people, and correct himself, and compromise. In fact, his compromises on weapons discussions helped him to negotiate his human rights agenda. There’s something else people don’t seem to remember about Reagan: he cared about human rights! Certainly I (as a shameless liberal) care about a whole of host of human rights issues that Reagan was indifferent to, but one has to respect the fact that the rights that he did care about – like religious freedom – seemed to be important to him in substance, and not merely as lip service to win elections and to justify invasions. Gorbachev remembered that Reagan tried to coax him to talk about the Jewish emigration issue, at EVERY meeting! Shultz recalled a quiet deal worked out between the two leaders whereby the USSR would permit a Pentecostal community to emigrate if the US promised not to “crow” about it.

In America, we take a lot of pleasure in thinking of President Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech as pivotal in communism’s decline. In reality, of course, it was just a great sound bite, like “audacity of hope” – inspirational, to be sure, and I never fail to feel a certain spine-tingling whenever I see archive footage of it. But was it really “pivotal”… in a concrete, history-altering sense?  Come on! It wasn’t like he was sending us off to battle in Gettysburg.


Berlin Wall, 1989. Photo released into public domain by its assumed author.

Gorbachev, who remembers Reagan with great admiration and affection, chuckled at the suggestion that changes in the Soviet foreign policy posture was at all influenced by that speech. “This did not really impress us, as it did you,” he admitted. But he gave Reagan a great deal of credit for the actual work of diplomacy that did influence changes.

There was one more factor to which we do more than a little injustice by claiming Reagan as a latter-day Lincoln, single-handedly liberating the bulk of Eurasia from totalitarian serfdom.  I speak, of course, of Mikhail Gorbachev.

First, the warming of international relations was led jointly by the Reagan-Gorbachev team. More importantly, international relations played a small part of the actual fall of the Soviet empire as compared to the internal pressures, as I mentioned before. And Gorbachev must get much of the credit for the way he dealt with that. Although I give the people of Eastern Europe more credit for their own liberation than any politician, it’s obvious that in the Soviet Union itself, Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost programs definitely catalyzed the process by liberalizing Soviet society from within. (Ironically, he was trying to save communism by rescuing it from totalitarianism, but it turned out totalitarianism was pretty much the only thing holding it in place!)

Gorbachev says that he was “defeated” in his political career, but, in the final analysis, the liberalization policies he put in place proved successful in principle.   I’d say!

I’d also say that the end of the Cold War, Communism, and the Iron Curtain are all related, but they are not the same thing. The Cold War was an arms-race between us and the Soviets. Communism was the economic system of the Easter Bloc. The Iron Curtain was the opaque and tyrannical political conditions within the Bloc. If you look at our interactions in the world today, and indeed our other interactions during the late Cold War years, all these factors aren’t always necessarily related.

Watching Gorby and Shultz chew the fat with Charlie made for one riveting hour. Twenty plus years later, all their nerve-trying diplomatic calculations, all the guarded communications through a political minefield that could prove, at any moment, to become an actual minefield on a planetary scale. . . transmuted into reminiscences of the kind that you might have with an old college debating rival over a decent Beaujolais.

There is a scene in Ken Burns’s “The Civil War” in which a couple of old soldiers – one Union, one Confederate – are talking about the “old days” like brothers in arms. It was like that: surreal and yet exactly right.

[The  cover image is a work of the United States Government and is in the public domain in the United States.]


The Absolute Value of Truth

Some people have so little credibility that even if they happen to say something correct, we are entitled to tell them to shut up. But that doesn’t mean we adopt the opposite posture just because we want to oppose them.Dick Cheney is such a person.  Hillary Clinton is correct that Dick Cheney has no business asking for “transparency” from government in relation to its release of the torture memos. Not only was his administration shrouded in secrecy and given to disclaiming any obligation of public accounting of any kind; but he has also been severe in opposing this particular set of de-classifications.

What’s “transparent” is Mr. Cheney’s deeply principled commitment to the public’s right to know. . . whatever might be exculpatory for him and his peeps. Nobody owes him that.

BUT. . . if there are documents that contextualize the shameful new facts we are learning about the use of torture as an interrogation tool, we really should have that information, irrespective of Cheney’s request.

Notice I said “contextualize” not “mitigate.” Acts that are immoral, unconstitutional, and in violation of our international agreements are still all those things even if they are spectacularly successful in meeting the objectives for which they were designed. Our constitution is replete with prohibitions against wonderfully “effective” things that government could do.

* Suppression of speech and assembly is an excellent prophylactic against insurrection.

* Broad searches and seizures powers are great for prosecuting criminals.

* A government without checks and balances has far less gridlock.

All these barriers on government likely militates against the smoothest possible functioning of government’s otherwise permitted activities.

But our founders chose to provide such inefficiency-inducing mechanisms to avoid abuse of discretion. They put a higher premium on the quality of our lives – as freely determined by us – than on the logistical efficacy of how our government functions.

Plenty of people already think that torture yields useful information. Would it surprise anyone that some memos indicating that view were written by Bush administration advisers? These are the guys who got their people to (1) find strong evidence of WMDs and an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection just in time to drag us into a war they were looking for an excuse to launch, (2) torture — excuse the pun — all reason, tradition, and canons of text-construction to somehow conclude that American laws(!) permitted them to treat detainees in ways worthy of Saddam Hussein, and (3) sign off on the legal theory that the president can unilaterally declare someone an “enemy combatant” and detain him indefinitely without review or appeal.

OF COURSE they had memos extolling the virtues of torture! Let us see the documents. All the documents – you can redact any particular info that compromises national security.

*We are going to take anything the Bush people had to say about torture with a large grain of salt. Trust us.

*We are not going to assume that the morality or legality of torture turns on its effectiveness at gaining intelligence, if that is indeed shown to be true. Trust us.

* Most importantly, even if we do decide that those memos completely exonerate the Bush Administration, that’s kind of our prerogative.  Your job is not to direct our opinions. Your job is to tell us the whole truth. Your job is to TRUST US.

The Properties of Property and the Reality of Reality

I was talking yesterday to a friend about my concerns regarding assertions of absolute private “property rights” over stuff taken out of the public domain. My friend, an architect by training, is vehemently opposed to anything that remotely resembles a restraint on commerce and wealth accumulation. She describes herself as “nearly objectivist.” She says she was “a typical liberal intellectual” when she first started studying architecture some twenty years ago. Then, in the Autumn of 1991, she read a little book about a brilliant fictional architect, that turned her around. (That book, if you haven’t guessed, was Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”).

Anyway, she was irritated by my suggestion that any such thing as a “public domain” existed. I tried to press her to consider whether perhaps some things could be considered “commons” (the rivers, the airwaves, the last of the old growth forests, some designated public spaces. . .).“There is no such thing as ‘commons,’” she snapped. “Things don’t exist just because you say they do.”It’s not the first time I have heard statements in this vein. And she’s right to assert that “commons” is purely a construct. It’s nothing more than a proposition I am considering. It was made up by humans who think it might be a useful way to organize our relationship to the world.

But what struck me about my friend’s reaction is her utter failure – or refusal – to recognize that there is also no such thing as “private property” EXCEPT THAT WE SAY THERE IS! It’s fine to argue that “private property” is a more useful or desirable construct than “commons” but to pretend that one is a fabrication and the other is something “natural” is absolutely baseless.

Ultimately, what’s more important in property theory (a) that we all – really and substantively – have the ability to prosper as best as our talents and efforts will allow us without hindering someone else’s ability to do the same or (b) that we have a philosophically pure fantasy of limitless acquisition, even as in reality wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands?

Keep in mind, that it is modern capitalism, with all its built in public oversight and limits, that has made more people prosperous than any economic system in the history of civilization. In fact, the longest period of sustained economic robustness characterized by wealth proliferation (rather than concentration) was in postwar, post-New Deal United States. By contrast, the objectivist dream was lived out in the 19th Century, when staggering amounts of wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few Robber Barons.

Just to clarify:
*I’m not arguing against private property. For the record, I do think private property and many aspects of capitalism are useful. I just think that, like most human-made systems, they are flawed, and should be evaluated pragmatically, and modified as necessary.

* To the extent that I would entertain the idea of limiting private property rights it would only be with respect to the world’s finite natural resources, air, water, land. . . . frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum. . . NOT property rights in stuff you create yourself (although, most things you create require some natural resources; but that’s beyond the scope of this post).

* Even though I like the idea of “commons” – I like it only in a limited sense, and even then, I don’t claim to know where the lines should be drawn. I am just interested in exploring the idea.

* I understand that even if we figure out the perfect balance between private property and the public commons, there will always be a question as to who gets to administer “public” resources. Governments theoretically represent the public interest, but I think we all know better.

Before you dismiss the entire line of inquiry as either “basic” or “radical” I urge you to consider this: no one has ever made great – or even particularly interesting – leaps in knowledge without going back to first principles. I’m not saying generally accepted first principles have to be abandoned before you can have any insight. I’m saying there has to be a willingness to question them. No matter how good a theory has been in describing the world, as evidence of its weakness starts to pile up, you have to be willing to revisit it. Even Newtonian physics had to make way when Einstein came along with a theory that explained things better at a more complex level. And Newtonian physics gave a much, much better description of real-world phenomena than does classical free-market economic theories.

One or other economic system is not a “natural” order just because it makes use of some recognizable facts about human behavior (any more than basketball is a natural order just because the athletes’ movements and the trajectory of the ball follow certain laws of physics). It’s a game we made up to serve our own purposes. It’s inane to place the rules of a game we invented beyond our own ability to revise and correct when it no longer serves our purpose as well as it could.

There are significant gaps in our understanding of human nature and how best to order our economic relationships. We routinely treat our theories (private property, money, present-value-discounting, etc.) as gospel truth, and we sometimes treat the world’s refusal to comply with our models as an irrational failing on the part of world, instead of as a failing on the part of our economic theologies! As I said in another recent post, our conceptions of reality should always be recognized as such and never taken for reality itself. Reality will always be complex beyond our full comprehension. Our approach toward it will always be asymptotic.

What we can do, as Jacob Bronowski suggested many years ago, is to get at incrementally better and better approximations of some aspect of reality and with each step, open up vast new frontiers of reality about which we know absolutely nothing.

The Fundamentals of Terror

During my month-long visit to India, I have noticed the disturbing trend of “Hindu Fundamentalism,” which mirrors the same sort of culture war incited by all reactionary movements.In fact, there is only one Religious Fundamentalism in the world, designed to cultivate a shared sense of righteous rage at some perceived “enemy” among a certain historically identified group. That group is encouraged to internalize a received set of values purportedly derived from some mythical “fundamental” source of the group’s identity.

Like Christian fundamentalists in the US and Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East, the new Hindu incarnation (yes, the pun is intended) of Religious Fundamentalism lashes out at an inchoate “liberal” society, allegedly hell bent on destroying their most cherished traditional values.

But what are these values, really? I don’t know very much about Islam, but scholars say that peace and generosity are its cornerstones. You wouldn’t know it from the explosions. At the very heart of Christianity, is the edict that forbids the faithful to judge others (a power that God has reserved for himself alone) and commands them to “love their neighbor.” Yet Christian “fundamentalists” sit in judgment of anyone who violates their interpretation of God’s will and express nothing but scorn for their neighbors who hold a different view.

As far as I know, Hinduism is an organic, flexible, spiritual tradition with no canonical dictates and a rich heritage of strong female deities. Unlike the monotheistic Semitic faiths, Hinduism – the world’s last great pagan religion – has never cast aspersions on sexuality. Sexuality is a deep spiritual phenomenon in the Hindu scriptural tradition (although the practice of the past several centuries has been woefully anti-female and anti-sex). But if you’re going to make claims based on the “fundamentals” of Hinduism, the pro-female, sexually enlightened spiritual tradition is completely at odds with the stance of Hindu “fundamentalist” groups like Sri Ram Sena, whose (male) members recently raided a pub in Mangalore and violently harassed women who happened to be socializing there. They beat them up for socializing in public instead of staying demurely covered and at home, like the Sri Ram Sena thinks good little Hindu women ought to.

In all three of my examples, the “fundamentalists” have taken the most perverted and oppressive social behavior and forcibly endowed them with a religious justification that is the opposite of the truly fundamental tenets of the cited religion.

The real reason behind oppression – all oppression – is the fear of power dilution. Those who have power want to limit access for everyone else. There are a couple of historically tried and true methods of this. 1) intimidate the masses and 2) exploit whatever characteristics you share with a portion of the masses to develop a fear of difference, so that they will focus their energies on hating others, equally as powerless as themselves, and never even realize that the powerful elite egging them on shares with them only some arbitrary and manufactured “values” and some irrelevant demographic characteristics, but none of the power and privilege.

A big tip off that Religious Fundamentalists are really all the same, is that by far the biggest object of condemnation – across the board, for all fundamentalist movements – is cultural liberalism.

Seems odd on the surface. Secular liberalism is no enemy of religion. It may be indifferent to the supernatural beliefs of particular religions, but its “agenda” of tolerance actually helps religions thrive. But, Religious Fundamentalists are right to perceive liberalism as a grave and mortal threat. Because liberalism is the proposition that all individuals should be free to make peaceful choices about their own lives, it becomes a powerful alternative to the narrow ideologies promoted by those who seek to exclude others from gaining resources and influence through a divide and rule strategy.

To anyone who isn’t keyed into the power structure of the society he or she lives in, but has bought into the idea that enforced traditionalism and intimidation form a legitimate and tenable part of his or her religious or cultural “heritage” I say, remember this: your ability to live your own life in accordance with whatever tradition you identify with, without the threat of someone else taking that away once they ascend to power (and let’s be realistic, empires change hands, they have since the dawn of civilization) will be secured by liberalism and only liberalism.

[photo by Pixabay from Pexels]

Republic Day

January 26 is “Republic Day” in India. It’s the day their constitution was ratified and it is celebrated with almost as much fanfare as the day they got their independence from Britain. People — some people — volunteer to register voters in remote villages. Kids enter essay contests. In Calcutta they have cookouts (it’s actually mild enough in January to do that!) and, of course they blast the Bollywood songs on loudspeakers.
Why don’t we do this for our constitution (Bollywood songs optional, of course)?

Come to think of it, why don’t we READ our constitution? Every middle school teacher and parent should require their kids to read it and write an essay about it.

Instead of Grand Theft Auto (or whatever the kids are playing now), why don’t we give them copies of the constitution for their 10th birthday? Am I saying that only because I am not a parent and I just don’t know what misfortune would befall me if I did that?

Maybe, but it could be, if nothing else, the perfect lesson in the idea of Sovereignty. Tell your kids that without the republican system, they would live in a world where the powers that be decided what they played, read, ate. . . .

Up With America!

It’s weird to be abroad this week. I must admit, I am missing the around the clock coverage American media must be giving to the transition in Washington. Of course, the whole world is watching – and I’m thankful for the unique perspective I’m getting (especially since I’m in a country where the Bush administration was not universally detested – more about that later). But the media here (including the regional BBC and CNN outlets) have many other priorities, naturally.

Incidentally, I am not currently able to get constant access to NPR and PBS online here as I’d planned to do when I came to India. My broadband connection has been spotty and is completely out this week. I’ve been going to an “internet café” to get online. It’s not the most convenient way to do things, but a great way to feel a part of local culture, which is a surprisingly different experience from being a part of a local family (which I am).

I met some twenty-somethings who are in a band called the “Hool” (it means something like a needle or pin prick) – they have an exciting sound too, and not free from the New-New Wave craze sweeping their generation (and making mine nostalgic).

These boys are (as creative youth everywhere tend to be) politically left leaning, but fond of America and Americans for our ideals of freedom and individual rights and respect for the rights of others – especially the equality of rights. These are the things people the world over tend naturally to ascribe to America’s essence, as strange as we ourselves may sometimes find it (either because we can’t separate it from the disapprobation we face from non-Americans when we abandon our own ideals and behave like tyrants or because we have bought into a craven view of American values as beginning and ending with the pursuit of material gain).

Members of Hool know an awful lot about American history – which impressed me. I know kids their age back home who know nothing about Indian history (or American history, for that matter). And these are ordinary middle class kids, going to public schools in what is still a relatively poor country, who don’t have internet access at home!

I could analyze the socio-political causes of this difference. I could lay out some policy direction for improving global and historical awareness among our youth. But you know what? I don’t feel like it. I just feel like savoring the feeling that there are people in the world, even among people far worse off than we are, who manage to know more than we do (if you’re comparing knowledge per unit of opportunity among similarly aged people) who nevertheless admire us. Openly admire us for all the right reasons.

Democracy: Too Much of a Good Thing?

The cure for democracy, more democracy? I don’t know, really. Although, I am a democracy freak by instinct, I must admit that my better judgment has always tempered that enthusiasm. Tuesday’s events demonstrated how capricious the majoritarian will can be. On the one hand a it’s wonderful that the majority of Americans entrusted its most powerful office to Barack Obama, a self-identified member of a historically oppressed minority. On the other hand, a majority of Californians voting on Proposition 8 (prohibition of same-sex marriage) decided to adopt an expressly discriminatory policy against a discrete and insular minority that is powerless to overcome that policy with numbers of its own. Two other states passed similar measures.

Gay folks in those states won’t be able to marry anymore, but I’m guessing they can’t opt out of paying taxes that keep the marriage bureau — or whatever the relevant state machinery — operational.

This is the danger of majority-rule. To avoid becoming tyrannical, democracy must be checked by a strong principle of individual liberties. This is why the federal constitution (like a number of state constitutions) has a bill of rights.

Of course, most constitutions get their legitimacy from the ratification of a supermajority, and it’s tempting to propose that California adopt a policy requiring a supermajority to amend its constitution.

But consider this: if you are in a sufficiently tiny minority whose interest-overlap with the majority’s interests is sufficiently tiny, then, a supermajority just means you can be tyrannized by the “sovereignty” exercised by even more people, and have that tyranny be considered even more “legitimate” and have an even harder time overcoming that tyranny.

Speaking of too much of a good thing: it’s not just the “small-d” democrat in me that’s a little spooked. By electoral orientation, I am also a “big-D” Democrat. But I’m a little worried about single party control in washington. Unlike some Democrats, I sighed a sigh of relief that we didn’t get a filibuster-proof senate. The filibuster, like judicial review and the bill of rights, is part of the system of checks against ordinary majoritarian misrule. I understand that this protective device has been abused by each party in recent years. But the gridlock that such abuse creates is a far lesser evil than having one party in charge with insurmountable power.