The other day I had lunch with an old friend, Erik, whom I hadn’t seen in a few years. Erik is five or ten years older than me, has a philosophy degree from Berkeley, writes Internet standards for a living, and is generally a very stable, responsible and successful guy, unlike of course yours truly. He lives in Germany and is married to a German, and his politics are quite solidly progressive.
I was confident that I had informed Erik of this blog. But I think it got lost in a long email. So I had the rare opportunity of really solidly failing to explain the point of UR.
“It’s a neo-f -,” I said. "Um, no, it’s not really a neofascist hate blog. I just call it that sometimes to shock people. It’s a, what it is, is an anti-democracy blog."
“An anti-democracy blog. Well, that’s certainly…”
“You’ve got to admit, it’s an under-served market,” I said.
“Well, I’d certainly agree with that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It was actually about a year and a half ago, I decided I didn’t believe in democracy anymore. It was great. Just like deciding not to believe in God.”
“More like deciding not to believe in God about 250 years ago,” Erik said. He actually said this. I don’t believe I’ve cut a single line from this exchange.
In fact, I had actually never thought of quite it this way. But yes—disbelieving in democracy in 2008 is a lot like disbelieving in God in 1758.
For one thing, you disagree with basically everyone in your society. For another, your thoughts undermine the theory of legitimacy on which your government is founded. For a third, acknowledging your beliefs, let alone evangelizing them, is not exactly an effective way to make friends or influence people. And for a fourth, your original reason for believing in it was that when you were very small, grownups told you that it existed and was good.
Of course, the same could be said for disbelieving in, say, Australia. I am pretty confident that “Australia” is more or less what everyone thinks it is. I am not at all confident that the same can be said for “democracy.” If you share similar suspicions, please feel free to read on.
I had a very peculiar upbringing. I (a) had a father who taught philosophy, then joined the US Foreign Service; and (b) skipped three grades before high school. I was never acculturated in any discernible way into any tradition I could even start to define. My father’s parents were Great Neck communists and my mother’s were Tarrytown Republicans, but both these worlds had been soundly rejected. There was a bit of Whole Foods avant la lettre, but small other trace of general hippieness. It was an almost Socratic upbringing. We didn’t even do Christmas trees. We believed in nothing.
And we never, ever had a TV. That was absolutely unthinkable. But I did read a lot of science fiction—Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harry Harrison, and of course Heinlein. My favorite, though, was the great Hal Clement, who wrote what I still think may be the best SF novel ever. In the pure literary department, there was always a lot of basically negative and unconstructive material sitting around, including Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson, Jaroslav Hašek, and that great satirical novel of the ’70s, The Serial.
I hasten to assert, however, that none of this included any kind of anti-democracy agitation. And certainly nothing in any sense right-wing. My parents may not have been hippies, but they weren’t monarchists, either. They were civil servants. When we were in the US, we listened to NPR. When we were outside the US, we listened to the BBC. The thought of tuning to VOA in the latter, or any commercial radio station in the former, was impossibly gauche.
(In retrospect I’m sure VOA was easily as left-wing as the BBC, if not more. But it didn’t matter. The name was enough. And I’ll bet the BBC was probably better, anway.)
As you can see, there is a certain amount of contempt in this perspective. This makes sense, because it’s more or less the perspective of the global ruling class. For example, the only real sport I learned as a kid was squash. When my father was consul in Oporto, we would go to Le Meridien and play squash. At the time this struck me as completely normal. I’m not sure where my father learned squash, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in Great Neck. Perhaps they teach it in the Foreign Service orientation class.
I was introduced to America, the real America, in the following manner: I went from being an 11-year-old third-former in an ersatz British public school in Nicosia, to a 12-year-old sophomore in a genuine American public school in Columbia, Maryland. I am still picking little bits of Maryland out of my skull. (Of course, Columbia is not really Maryland proper—hence the name. It ain’t Frederick. But it’s not Silver Spring, either.)
For example, the first thing I remember from my first year in Maryland was something called a “pep rally.” For those of you who did not attend an American public high school, a “pep rally” is basically a straight ripoff of what Albert Speer did at Nuremberg, except that (a) it is indoors, (b) there is not quite as much fire, and (c) there is less saluting, more screaming, and about the same amount of chanting.
If you are an American raising kids abroad and you want to reintroduce them to your country, I highly recommend this sort of shock-and-awe approach. Having to deal with an American high school was not pleasant, but it gave me a certain respect for America: it exists. Once you go to college, you are no longer in the real America. You are in a fortified outpost of future America, which has been planted in the real America to enlighten and assimilate it. Respect is not on the menu.
Perhaps for some distance I should deploy my usual euphemism, “Plainland.” Do you have any idea how weird a country Plainland is? History still exists there. Nowhere else in the world is there any significant political division whose heritage predates 1940. Both Republicans and Democrats worship FDR, but Democrats worship him a little more. My mother’s mother now swears she voted for Kennedy in 1960. I know for a fact that she voted for Nixon. I’m pretty sure they were FDR-haters. Not that the Old Right wasn’t smashed, not that its particles weren’t broken into tinier particles, not that even a trace of it reached me in my formative years. But some atoms survived, and you can tell.
In Europe, forget it. Europe was conquered in 1945, but it was not conquered by Plainland. It was conquered by Georgetown. As I wrote here, the ideas now popular in Europe are obvious descendants of what the most influential people at State believed in 1945. The various so-called “parties” in Europe are mildly-flavored versions of this belief system, which becomes completely homogeneous in the upper elite. Brussels has no politics at all. It doesn’t need it. The situation is under control.
What Europeans call “anti-Americanism” is actually a belief, generally quite sincere, that America is not living up to her own ideals of 1945. “Anti-Americanism” might be better described as “ultra-Americanism,” or perhaps “Georgetownism.” And it certainly has nothing to do with the any pre-1940 negative perceptions of America. There is minimal cultural continuity between Europe before the war and Europe today. All the institutions were purged, all the individuals have finally kicked it. The Dutch who let you smoke weed in their cafes and the Dutch who ruled Indonesia might as well be on different planets. The former are thoroughly ashamed that they are even descended from the latter. And the latter are dead, which is probably a blessing.
So: my first political opinions were, of course, Georgetownist. I remember going to school in Nicosia the day after Reagan was elected in 1984. I was terribly embarrassed. I felt that my country had more or less taken a crap in its pants. To the Georgetownist, America exists so that it can lead the world to democracy and peace. Obviously Reagan did not stand for either of these things. He stood for Plainland and “pep rallies.” Of course I knew little of either, but I had a sense that they were out there, waiting.
No wonder, in the face of all this confusion, that our greatest mistakes in national policy seem to occur where the military factor is most prominently involved.
But I wonder whether this confusion is not compounded by certain deeply ingrained features of our political system. I am thinking first of all about what I call the domestic political selfconsciousness of the American statesman. By this I mean his tendency, when speaking or acting on matters of foreign policy, to be more concerned for the domestic political effects of what he is saying or doing than about their actual effects on our relations with other countries. In the light of this tendency, a given statement or action will be rated as a triumph in Washington if it is applauded at home in those particular domestic circles at which it is aimed, even if it is quite ineffective or even self-defeating in its external effects. When this is carried to extremes, American diplomacy tends to degenerate into a series of postures struck before the American political audience, with only secondary consideration being given to the impacts of these postures on our relations with other countries.
This situation is not new. We have only to recall Tocqueville’s words, written 150 years ago, to the effect “that it is in the nature of democracies to have, for the most part, the most confused or erroneous ideas on external affairs, and to decide foreign policy on purely domestic considerations.” Nor is this, in essence, unnatural. Every statesman everywhere has to give some heed to domestic opinion in the conduct of his diplomacy. But the tendency seems to be carried to greater extremes here than elsewhere. This may be partly explained by the nature of the constituency to which the American statesman appeals. In the European parliamentary systems, the constituency is normally the parliament—because the ministry can fall from office if it loses parliamentary support. In our country, unhappily, the constituencies are more likely to consist of particularly aggressive and vociferous minorities or lobbies. These, for some curious reason, seem more often than not to be on the militaristic and chauvinistic side, either because there is some particular nation or ethnic group abroad which they want our government to support, or because they like to wrap themselves in the national emblem and beat the jingoist bell as a means of furthering their partisan purposes. American administrations seem to be particularly vulnerable … to just this sort of intimidation, presumably because they do not want to be placed on the defensive by being charged with lack of patriotism. And the effects of this are ones we have had occasion to note, both in connection with our policies in third world areas, such as Vietnam or Lebanon, and in connection with the problems of arms control and the relations among the great military powers.
If there is any substance to what I have just been saying, then this is simply further evidence for the fact, to which many wise observers besides Tocqueville have drawn attention, that our political system is in many ways poorly designed for the conduct of the foreign policies of a great power aspiring to world leadership. I, in any case, believe this to be true, and I consider that the trend of events in these recent years has revealed deficiencies in this system which even Tocqueville could not foresee.
What are we going to do about it? It would be naive of us to expect, or even to hope, that these features of our governmental system are going to be corrected within our time. To try to correct them abruptly might well do more harm than good. In many respects, they represent the reverse side of the great coin of the liberties we so dearly cherish. And in this sense I see no reason why we should be ashamed of them. If this—our political system with all its faults—is the only way that a great mass of people such as our own, stretching from Florida to Alaska and from Maine to Hawaii and embracing individuals of the most diverse ethnic and cultural origins—if this is the only way such a mass of people can be governed without the sacrifice of their liberties—then so be it; and let us be thankful that such a possibility exists at all, even if it is not a perfect one.
But the one thing we can do, in the face of this situation, is to take a realistic account of this unsuitability of our political system for the conduct of an ambitious and far-reaching foreign policy, and to bear these limitations in mind when we decided which involvements and responsibilities it is wise for us to accept and which would be better rejected. Obviously, a number of the responsibilities we have already accepted, including some of the very greatest ones—NATO and our obligations to Japan, for example—represent solemn commitments of which we cannot divest ourselves at any early date. There is nothing for us to do but to meet these commitments as best we can, recognizing that the peace and safety not just of our country but of much of the rest of the world as well depends on the way we meet them, and trying to place them, wherever we can, above the partisan political interests that every American administration is bound to have. But when it comes to the acceptance of new responsibilities, let us, at long last, try to bear in mind the limits of our national capabilities and the price we are obliged to pay for our liberties. Let us recognize that there are problems in this world that we will not be able to solve, depths into which it will not be useful or effective for us to plunge, dilemmas in other regions of the globe that will have to find their solution without our involvement.
This is not a plea for total isolationism, such as our grandfathers and great-grandfathers cultivated. It is only a request, if I may put it that way, for a greater humility in our national outlook, for a more realistic recognition of our limitations as a body politic, and for a greater restraint than we have shown in recent decades in involving ourselves in complex situations far from our shores. And it is a plea that we bear in mind that the interaction of peoples, just as in the interactions of individuals, the power of example is far greater than the power of precept, and that the example offered to the world at this moment by the United States of America is far from being what it could be and ought to be. Let us present to the world outside our borders the face of a country that has learned to cope with crime and poverty and corruption, with drugs and pornography. Let us prove ourselves capable of taking the great revolution in electronic communication in which we are all today embraced and turning it to the intellectual and spiritual elevation of our people in place of the enervation and debilitation and abuse of the intellect that the TV set now so often inflicts upon them. Let us do these things, and others like them, and we will not need 27,000 nuclear warheads and a military budget of over $250 billion to make the influence of America felt in the world beyond our borders.
I can’t imagine a better presentation of the Georgetownist worldview. Kennan was of course a titan, and he delivered this text as a lecture to students of diplomacy who are no doubt applying it today. It strikes me as completely sincere and thoroughly well-intentioned. It contains many points of actual wisdom with which I even agree. It even criticizes democracy—sort of.
And yet it is a product of 1984. And the last 25 years have left some holes in it which, if you look closely, do not wear well at all. To put yourself in the right mood for picking apart these holes, let’s take a look at this picture.
Notice the light shining through the curtains on the left and the right? What we see here is a badly staged photo-op. Hollywood routinely shoots indoor night scenes during the day, but they generally would put some black Mylar on the windows. For some reason this was not done, and so the comedy is inadvertent.
Think about how many people had to screw up in order for this photo to make it to Time. Maybe only three or four. But it is an invaluable “blooper,” because it shows you something you weren’t supposed to see. The mechanism is visible. The film set appears. Crop an inch off the left and right sides, and you see men meeting by candle-light—perhaps discussing some critical decision, in a time of stress and hardship. Restore the curtain, and you have something much more interesting.
What does this have to do with George Kennan? The people who brought you that photo have the same worldview as Kennan. They are Georgetownists to a T, every one. I guarantee it. So it seems quite reasonable to at least suspect that if they are trying to pull the Mylar over your eyes, so is Kennan. Of course, “Salem Mohammed” is no George Kennan, but even here at UR, we have to crawl before we can run.
Here is the sun behind Kennan’s curtain:
In our country, unhappily, the constituencies are more likely to consist of particularly aggressive and vociferous minorities or lobbies. These, for some curious reason, seem more often than not to be on the militaristic and chauvinistic side, either because there is some particular nation or ethnic group abroad which they want our government to support, or because they like to wrap themselves in the national emblem and beat the jingoist bell as a means of furthering their partisan purposes.
Suppose you heard this, not in 1984, but today. Would it strike you as an accurate description of reality?
The “aggressive and vociferous minorities or lobbies” certainly exist. They march in Dolores Park on a regular basis. What “particular nation or ethnic group” do they support? Um, the Palestinians? Duh. By “national emblem,” Kennan of course means the kaffiyeh. Problem solved.
Not. Actually, if anything, he is thinking of the infamous “Israel lobby.” I think I once saw a pro-Israeli crowd in New York. It was maybe ten or twenty people. Of course, it wasn’t in 1984, either. On the other hand, when I think of “aggressive and vociferous” in 1984, what I think of is the anti-apartheid divestment movement. Was there ever an anti-Palestinian divestment movement? Promising not to invest in companies that do business with Arab states that support Palestinian terrorism? Maybe I just missed it.
Of course, the “particular nations” that Kennan expects his audience to think of—the candles—are the Cuban emigres, the Taiwanese, the South Vietnamese, etc. The “particular nations” he does not expect us to think of—the sun behind the curtains—are the Palestinians, the Cuban socialists, the Maoists, the North Vietnamese, etc. All of which have enjoyed the support of remarkably large and influential “aggressive and vociferous minorities or lobbies.”
Moreover, the second list is much longer. It includes essentially the whole Third World. And the two lists could never be confused with each other. Sending the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang, in 2008, constitutes engagement. Sending the New York Philharmonic to Pretoria in 1984 would have been something else entirely.
Kennan’s lecture made sense in 1984 because in 1984, Plainlander anticommunism was still a viable political force. If barely. Today, to argue the same case, you would have to come up with some kind of nonsense about anti-terrorist “aggressive and vociferous minorities.” Who are so aggressive and vociferous that they put yellow ribbons on their cars. Have you ever seen or heard any trace of an anti-terrorist, let alone anti-Islamist or anti-jihadist, march, parade, meeting or demonstration? Are our colleges full of anti-Islamofascist Cheneyite activists? The suggestion is laughable, and Kennan would be too smart to make it.
What hindsight shows us is that Kennan was projecting. He and his audience genuinely perceived themselves as beset by a mob of pitchfork-wielding Plainlander peasants. When Dean Acheson, Kennan’s boss and a truly devious and arrogant man, wrote his autobiography, he called his chapter on the Hiss affair “Attack of the Primitives.” I don’t think Kennan would ever be so crude, but the attitude is certainly the same.
But when we step back and take a broader view, we see easily that these “militaristic and chauvinistic minorities” were stronger—in terms of their influence over decisions in Washington—in 1924 than 1934, stronger in 1934 than 1954, stronger in 1954 than in 1964, stronger in 1964 than in 1974, and so on right down to now. With a brief exception, for obvious reasons, in 1944. On the other hand, we could easily take the series back to 1844. North America is not exactly new to militarism and chauvinism.
And where the heck is the John Birch Society today? If the “Primitives” are indeed “attacking,” they are doing an awfully bad job of it. Because they seem to be going in reverse. On the other hand, this state of affairs is not at all inconsistent with the hypothesis that their actions (often quite hostile) are actually best classified not as aggression, but more properly as resistance. “Cet animal est très méchant: quand on l’attaque, il se défend.”
This is how Kennan can sacralize democracy while castigating politics. He has seen, personally, a wide range of problems caused by clumsy attempts to execute a foreign policy which is somehow both Primitive and Georgetownist. He knows perfectly well that, in almost every post-1945 military conflict, Primitives have lined up on one side of the ball and Georgetownists on the other. In fact, he knows that there is a huge nest of Primitives right on the other side of the Potomac. (Perhaps, for balance, we could call them Arlingtonists.)
Kennan’s words are deftly chosen, but he means exactly what he says. He has seen innumerable screwups and disasters, wars and tragedies, caused by this organizational schizophrenia. In fact, in a substantial percentage of postwar conflicts, Georgetownists have been rooting for one side and Arlingtonists rooting for the other. Sometimes rooting isn’t all they do, since the Arlingtonist specialty is, after all, war. So quite a few of these little events could be described, by a malicious and negative person, as civil wars by proxy. Which is—let’s face it—nasty.
It is entirely understandable that Kennan, being more or less the Georgetownist to end all Georgetownists, would believe that, if Washington had followed a purely Georgetownist foreign policy without Arlingtonist meddling, none of these awful things would have happened. As a counterfactual, the point is irrefutable. And also unverifiable. And there’s certainly no shortage of Arlingtonists who believe precisely the opposite.
And, as a wise elder statesman, here is his solution: learn to live with the Primitives now, and do your best to evangelize them out of existence. Win your battle domestically, “elevate” your subjects “spiritually and intellectually,” and you will be able to pursue your Georgetownist visions of global democracy and world peace without a bunch of Birchers carping about homosexual communist “rock music.”
The reason Kennan likes Europe is not just that parliamentary systems are more apolitical—it is that Europe has no organized Primitives. Thanks to its postwar can of whoop-ass, Europe is way ahead of us in its Georgetownist Gleischaltung. Nothing like the Republican Party of 2008 would be tolerated in Europe today, let alone the Republican Party of 1984. (And if you want a real trip, find some of Governor Reagan’s speeches from the ’60s.)
What happened in Europe was that its entire intellectual operating system was reinstalled. There were Arlingtonists in Europe, and not all of them were Nazis. And it wasn’t just Germany that got reprogrammed. Europe has spent the last fifty years abolishing a set of perspectives that constituted the entire mainstream political spectrum in 1900. It is only Plainland that was not completely conquered by the Georgetownists. And it is far more conquered now than it was in 1984.
So we have completely reframed the story that Kennan is trying to tell. Instead of the struggle of a decent public servant against chauvinist demagoguery, we have the struggle of a Machiavellian bureaucrat to govern the world and abolish his enemies. Which of these stories is truer? Neither. Both are completely consistent with the facts. History is always the Necker cube. (It would help, though, if we knew whether Kennan ever owned a long-haired cat.)
And notice one thing that we have not learned about the struggle between the Arlingtonists and the Georgetownists, the Primitives and the Brahmins. We have learned who won and is still winning. We have learned that at least one side is willing to tell a lie or two, or at least shade the truth—hardly shocking in the twentieth century. What we haven’t learned is who was right and who was wrong. In fact, maybe they’re both wrong.
And this is how I stopped believing in democracy. Let’s go back to the God analogy.
What’s amazing about the whole God thing is that people actually used to believe in God. Almost no one believes in God today. The most they are willing to give Him is that he “exists.” Perhaps there is a Heaven and maybe even a Hell. But before you find people who actually believe that God actually uses His alien black-magic superpowers to actually affect events on Earth, you have to scrape pretty deep in the barrel. We are all deists now.
Before this change, there was an entire branch of philosophy called theodicy, whose goal was to figure out how God and evil could coexist. Doesn’t it strike you as completely and utterly obvious that the answer is “they don’t”? Why didn’t all these incredibly smart people—Aquinas and Leibniz and Pascal and so forth—just consider the null hypothesis?
I think the answer is that when you really believe in God, the belief that God is good and makes good things happen is completely woven into your cerebral cortex. If you were to stop believing in God, you would instantly solve the problem of explaining all the evil things that have happened in the world. You would also instantly create the problem of explaining all the good things that have happened. For which your present explanation is that they happened because they were good, and therefore God wanted them to happen.
Similarly, as a kid raised on the IHT and the Economist and other Georgetownist goodness, I had a simple, pretty explanation of the world. There were two kinds of governments: democratic ones and undemocratic ones. The first kind were good and the second kind were bad. History was the story of humanity’s progress from bad, undemocratic governments to good, democratic ones. The rest was all details.
One can certainly arrange the facts in this way. But, first, history is not a list of facts. And second, when we do arrange the facts in this way, we find that we have a number of facts left over, which require additional explanations. Of course these explanations can be assembled. Pretty much any theory of history can explain pretty much any fact. However, the more patches of this sort you have to apply, the more you miss your simple, pretty story.
And there is an even more upsetting observation, which is that the process of explaining why democracy isn’t perfect is remarkably similar to good old theodicy. Perhaps we could call it demodicy—the problem of explaining how democracy can coexist with evil.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that democracy has not exactly worked out perfectly in Iraq. Oh, there were elections. Elections, sure. But after the elections, did Iraq turn into Belgium? Um, no. How can we explain this? Almost any way we want:
- Democracy cannot be imposed by occupying troops.
- American troops have committed human rights violations, which makes Iraqis hate us.
- America supports Israel, which makes Iraqis hate us.
- Iraqis must overcome their tribal conflicts, which make them hate each other.
- Iraqis marry their cousins and have low IQs. They are too stupid for democracy.
- The “oil curse” makes Iraqis want to fight for cheap oil money.
- Iraq was brutalized by colonialism, from which it is still recovering.
And on and on and on. For each of these we can construct examples, counterexamples, refutations, rebuttals, and in short an entire tangle of scholastic philosophy. Classic demodicy.
Or let’s look at another example: democracy in South Africa. Of course by “democracy” I mean multiracial democracy. It is not okay to have an election in which only white people can vote. It’s actually worse than having no elections at all. It’s a sort of blasphemy, like appointing your horse to the Senate, electing a crack whore as Pope, or giving Pol Pot the Nobel Peace Prize.
Of course this was absolutely huge when I was in college. It was by far the most important thing in the world. I think if God had told the average male student at my college that, if he agreed to remain a virgin for life, democracy would come to South Africa, he would have instantly agreed. And in 1994, a miracle! No virginity required. Even the evil white people voted for it.
Recently, something interesting happened in South Africa. The power went out. Apparently this is not a temporary or accidental development. South Africa will have rolling blackouts for the next few years. Not a small issue in a place where ordinary life as you or I know it depends on extreme security systems and armed response teams. Here is a thread in which people like you and me debate whether or not to flee the country. Here is a sample:
I myself am deciding to leave, but I have other commitments at the moment that don’t allow me to. But in time, I will. I have been involved in crime as well, and almost everyone I know has been touched by crime in some way. It used to be a case when we read articles in the newspapers about crime, now it’s a case of hearing it happening to someone close to you. I myself, have been mugged twice, stabbed 3 times, once in the lung, and hit on the head… while I was a student who just started writing my final exams. Thereafter another incident and I was beaten up repeated and landed in hospital. A close friend of mine was killed while outside a fast food store, waiting for his order. When does it stop? I agree, we are so used to hearing about crime, that it has become the norm. Our country is full of it! There’s no place left in our daily papers to add in all the stories. Killings and rapes are now moved to page 3 or 4. Front page is now set aside for the most gruesome or horrific stories. Shock sells, and it’s getting harder to shock our nation because violent crime is now also the norm. Yet, in countries abroad, where violent crime is not witnessed on a daily basis, a story of a missing dog could easily be placed on the front page. Is there hope for SA? I honestly don’t know. But we are in big trouble. I also was optimistic—but now I realise no one will help us—the government doesn’t give a damn. The corruption and power crises is another story on it’s own. If everyone that could afford to leave—left, what then? Some of my friends, and I have been saving for the past year, not to buy a new car (which will be hijacked and taken away), but to leave. Like the government said… leave if we want… If they won’t help us—we should help ourselves.
I do not witness violent crime on a daily basis. I have never seen a story of a missing dog on the front page. In fact, I have never been stabbed anywhere at all, not even in the lung.
However, I was in a bookstore the other day and found a pile of Napa Journals from May 1940. This was a broadsheet rag put out in Napa, CA. On one, the top headline was that the Nazis had invaded France. There were some other stories of a similar nature. And down near the bottom, but definitely on the front page, the Journal saw fit to inform its readers that the police had arrested a man who was wanted for passing a bad check in Fresno. Hmm.
In any case, while poking around for news on the subject I stumbled on a little blog called “SA Rocks.” From its about page:
After reading the incredibly upsetting anti-SA blogs from expats around the world I decided to make a stand. This blog is that stand. I am standing up for all the good in SA. For all the great things that SA citizens do and for all the people who love this country. I love this country and I believe in it and the success that is soon to come.
SA Rocks is not a website dedicated to blindly praising South Africa. I understand that every country has flaws and I do not deny the flaws of South Africa. I do feel that there are enough people who berate our country and it’s time for people to start acting and thinking positively about South Africa.
I shouldn’t make fun of these people. They really, really don’t deserve what is happening to them. No one deserves to be stabbed, especially not in the lung. But the question remains: did someone make a mistake? Did they do X, when in retrospect they should have done Y? And was believing in democracy part of their motivation for doing X? What does it even mean to believe in democracy, anyway?
Hopefully we have now passed the point of mere skepticism. We are ready to reason in a structured and sensible way. At this point I recommend that you take a break from the essay, and have a beer or two, or other beverage of choice. Have to keep those neurons loose.
There are two pertinent questions. One: what does it mean to believe in democracy? Two: if you don’t believe in democracy, what do you believe in?
As I see it, there are two ways you can believe in democracy. One, you can believe in democracy as an end—that is, as a goal which is good in and of itself. Two, you can believe in democracy as a mechanism by which some other goal can be achieved.
If you believe in democracy as an end in itself, I really cannot help you. You might as well believe in, say, water polo, as an end in itself. It is impossible to reason about ethical axioms.
I think most sensible people who believe in democracy see it as a mechanism. Or more precisely, as a remedy.
Looking at history, they note that there are two kinds of governments: good ones and bad ones. Misgovernment is an extremely dangerous condition, and when we look at democracies we see that they are not, in general, misgoverned. Ergo, democracy, i.e., the process of holding elections which are basically free and fair in a multiparty state with a free press and all the rest, is a remedy for misgovernment, much as salvarsan is a remedy for syphilis.
Our problem here is that we are thinking empirically, which is to say pseudoscientifically. History is not an experiment, because we cannot control it. If we were testing a remedy for syphilis, we would assemble two groups of syphilis patients who were the same in every possible way, except that one got the remedy and the other didn’t. We cannot do this for democracy. There are no control governments.
Uncontrolled or “natural” experiments produce misleading results. If the way we test our syphilis remedy is just to sell it, then see if the people who buy it do better than the people who don’t, we are simply finding ways to confuse ourselves. Perhaps patients who have mild syphilis are more likely to try the pill those with tertiary paresis. Perhaps it’s not that elections create good governments, but that good governments are more likely to hold elections. By compiling the facts of history and expecting some objective algorithm to magically arrange them in the most plausible narrative, we think we are being scientific. In fact we have only rediscovered artificial stupidity.
Moreover, any such narrative will probably be replete with exceptions, which leads us back into demodicy. Iraq is a democracy and it’s a hellhole. Dubai, right next door, is a monarchy, and it’s about as pleasant as anywhere in the Persian Gulf could get. Why? Again, we can supply as many explanations as may be required.
And worst, we are not really thinking from scratch. We are starting with our conventional proposition, that democracy is a mechanism which produces good government, and trying to disprove it. Imagine if we applied the same algorithm to God.
Instead, let’s start with what we actually do know and try to work forward.
We know that personal influence over the actions of a government, or power, is greatly sought after by members of our species. We know that in a democracy, power is shared equally among the democracy’s citizens, each of whom has one vote. Therefore, since each citizen will favor a government that serves his or her interests, no one has more power than anyone else, and the government they all elect will serve, on average, the interests of all.
This is certainly one theory of democracy. Call it Theory A. Let me share another, theory B:
In all society or government are right to be enjoyed, burdens to be borne, and trusts to be discharged.
Among the rights are the right of property; the right of locomotion; the right to appropriate and dispose of the proceeds of our own labor; the right to worship according to conscience; and the right to protection from from society in the enjoyment of all these rights, and the right to have all the legal processes and remedies provided to make this protection effectual. These are called civil rights, and when we speak of civil equality we mean that these rights belong alike and equally to all citizens, to all classes, to all colors, to all sexes, to all ages, and to all grades of intellect, society, and worth. …
Among the burdens of society and governments I may mention: working the public highways; providing public buildings; paying the public taxes; defending the public safety, etc., etc. These burdens ought to be borne by all according to fitness and capacity, for these burdens constitute the consideration we pay for the protection we get. Women and children, lunatics and idiots do not work the highways or defend the society with arms, because their positions or capacity forbid; but they are all citizens—or members of the society—and pay taxes. These are called burdens because they are borne, not for ourselves only, but for others—for the public.
Lastly, in every society or government there are trusts to be discharged. Offices are to be filled; laws are to be made, executed and administered, else there could be no rules or process for protection; and agents are to be selected for all these purposes. The whole business of selecting agents to discharge duties, as well as the discharge of the duties themselves, comes under the head of trusts. They are called trusts because they are powers exercised not for one’s own good but for the good of others - for the public. The authority to vote is, therefore, a trust reposed, and the exercise of the authority is the exercise of a trust—the trust of selecting agents to provide and execute the laws by which rights are to be protected. All men are born to rights—which are personal—affecting each person only; but no man is born to a trust—to a power which affects all other members of society. You had as well say a man is born to an office as to say he is born to a vote for that office. So, again, all trusts imply capacity and integrity. No man has a right to be intrusted to discharge a duty affecting others who does not understand that duty, or has not integrity to be trusted with its faithful exercise.
How can the rights of the members of society be safe if the protection for those rights is to be provided or applied by ignorant or vicious agents? And how can ignorant and vicious agents be avoided if ignorant and vicious persons are born to the right to select them?
Rights are personal—born with persons—belong to the person, and affect the person; but trusts are relative—and born with society—belong to society—and are for the good and under control of society. How is any man born with a right to take my rights, or to select another to take my rights?
Suffrage, then, is not a right—it is not a privilege—it is a trust, and a most solemn and sacred trust. It is the trust of preserving society, of securing rights, of protecting persons.
Would you select an ignorant, or vicious, or untrustworthy man as your trustee, or the trustee for your wife or your child in the smallest concerns of life? How, then, would you make a trustee of an ignorant or vicious man to discharge these great duties, on the wise and faithful discharge of which all rights, and all protection, and all things depend?
Obviously, this wasn’t written yesterday. But don’t you find it compelling?
There are two possibilities. Either we can define good government, or we cannot.
If we cannot define good government, how exactly we can agree that democracy promotes good government is entirely beyond me. In practice, what theory A tells us is that good government constitutes whatever democracy produces. Everyone’s interest is weighed, and if its weight does not prevail it’s just too bad. You have brown hair, so the blondes have decided that you will be ground up and put on the rosebushes. We have returned to the theory of democracy as end. And this end is definitely a dead one.
Theory B is much more interesting. It asserts that we actually can agree on what good government is. Good government is government that protects its citizens’ civil rights, minimizes the burdens it imposes on them, and faithfully executes its trusts. Any system for constituting a government that achieves this goal is a good one. Any system that does not is not. As Deng Xiaoping put it, “if the cat catches mice, who cares if it’s black or white?”
Well, I’m afraid that’s just the problem. The author of the above text was Sen. Benjamin H. Hill, of Georgia, in his Notes on the Situation. Senator Hill was many things, but one of them was a Redeemer. And the point of the above passage, which I have carefully elided, was that Negroes shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
So we have a slight problem. If we follow Hill’s argument that suffrage is a trust, we are pointed in a distinctly undemocratic direction. And we can follow that direction farther than Hill himself would be willing to go. Why should all white men be allowed to vote? Surely a pair of testicles and a pallid skin is hardly proof positive that the bearer of this anatomy is a responsible trustee, not “ignorant and vicious”? Surely we can devise a more effective test?
And, if our goal is really just the faithful execution of a trust, why assume that electoral suffrage of any sort is the most effective way to constitute it? Surely the shareholders of Google have entrusted its management with a tremendous trust—$170 billion worth, last time I checked. Surely this is worth as much as Georgia, or at least Georgia in the 1870s. How does Google just skate along without any suffrage at all, whereas Georgia needs elections? And which trust would you guess is more effectively exercised?
On the other hand, if we recoil in horror from Senator Hill and his sheet-wearing buddies, we are left with his arguments. If we can define good government, we can take an engineering approach to designing a system that ensures it. Moreover, we can evaluate the expected results of this system by criteria that are, if not quantitative, at least factual and absolute, rather than ethical and subjective.
Our goal is an animal that catches mice. We can add other requirements as well. Our mouse-catcher must be able to use a catbox. It should be able to purr and sit on a lap. It must not eat the baby. And so on. If what you want is good government, design for good government. If what you want is something else, why? Perhaps you’re part of the problem—there is, after all, a problem, and somebody’s got to be part of it.
And is there any reason to think that democracy—Hill’s kind, or our kind, or Odinga’s kind, or anyone else’s kind—is the output of this sort of engineering process? If not, what possible reason can we have for believing that it is the most effective mechanism for this purpose? Surely the existence of other mechanisms which are less effective is irrelevant. (Also, it is really asking too much to inflict long S’s on people, but I can’t resist a link to Dean Tucker.)
All this is interesting. But does it really get us all the way toward not believing in democracy? I don’t think so.
Daniel Dennett’s new neo-atheist book is called Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Obviously as an atheist myself I find this kind of material too boring for words, and in fact I bogged down pretty hard in Dennett. But I do like the title, and I think the analogy remains useful.
It expresses an interesting way of persuading people to become atheists. Most people are theists not because they were “reasoned into” believing in God, but because they applied Occam’s razor at too early an age. Their simplest explanation for the reason that their parents, not to mention everyone else in the world, believed in God, was that God actually existed. The same could be said for, say, Australia.
Dennett’s approach, which of course is probably ineffective in almost all cases, is to explain why, if God doesn’t exist, everyone knows who He is. How did this whole God thing happen? Why is it not weird that people believed in Him for 2000 years, but actually they were wrong?
Perhaps the same approach will work in spreading this edgier mental virus H H H H H vaccine of ademotism. If democracy isn’t tha shizzle, why does everyone believe in it? How did it get to be so big? Because we have to admit that one very, very simple explanation of how it got to be so big is that it is, indeed, tha shizzle.
Ergo, our goal is to understand democracy as a historical phenomenon. This is getting long, so perhaps we’ll take a good whack at it next week.
In case you wonder why you should care, however, let me drop in the punch line.
There’s something else about not believing in God in 1758. Which is that pretty much the only 18th-century writers that anyone cares to read in 2008 were, if not downright atheists, at least freethinkers of some variety. An enormous volume of writing was published during that century, and almost all of it was devotional or otherwise conventional nonsense. Only specialists read it. Perhaps this is unfortunate, but it’s how it is.
What would you get if you tried to compose a canon of 20th-century writers, whose only criterion for inclusion would be that its members had to express or demonstrate some kind of doubt or skepticism on the value of democracy? Your writers—of fiction, poetry, essays, journalism, whatever—would certainly be in a decided minority. On the other hand, the same could be said for the 18th-century atheists. And if you compared this canon to the stuff that they make freshmen at Stanford read these days, would it be more readable, or less?