Is Democracy A Good Thing?

It’s easy to think of democracy as an unquestionable good in the world. It’s what we’ve all grown up with for one. But it’s also our only defence against tyrrany and elitism and corrupti…ok, it’s not working out too well on those fronts.

But it’s the best way to make sure that the will of the people is heard. I mean, it’s not like we’d ever be in a situation where the leader of the free world lost the popular vot…what’s that? Really? Oh.

Well look, all of that aside, at least can rely on people to vote ini their interests and to carefully consider complex issue and…ok, I’m done.

Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. And in these times of extreme political polarisation, it’s easy to see why he might say such a thing.

But today, I learned that one of the first critics of democracy was a leading light in the republic that founded it; Socrates.

Socrates’ concern with democracy was similar to Churchill’s. Namely that the average person isn’t well educated enough about the complexities of government to make good decisions about who should run it and why. He explained his concerns with an analogy:

If you were heading out on a journey by sea, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone? Or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter, of course. So why then do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be the ruler of a country?

It’s a fair point. Donald Trump’s presidency, the political nightmare that is Brexit, the economic collapse of Argentina and Venezuela, all of these have occurred, at least in part, because of a populace who made decision based on little or no knowledge. In an ideal world, our politicians would be experts chosen for their competence and their trustworthiness, but today, they’re often elected despite their failings in both departments.

Of course, Socrates’ argument also leaves us with a problem. Corruption is ever so much more likely if the power to vote is left only in the hands of a few ‘elites’. And how would these elites be chosen? The system would obviously fall apart if people could judge themselves worthy. So who would judge? A test? Designed by whom?

Democracy is a flawed system. And we should remember that. As instrumental as it’s been in bringing freedom to the world, it has also stood helplessly by as some of the biggest and most catastrophic failures in human history have unfolded. In the end, perhaps another favourite quote of Winston Churchill’s best sums up the dilemma:

Democracy is the worst system, except for all the other systems

A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor.

It’s open season on public letters at the moment. First there was Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate”. Then, a few days later, came a counterletter, which attacked the original not so much for what it said but for who agreed with it.

And now this letter by Joshua Katz, itself written in response to yet another (!) letter which was signed by hundreds of members of the faculty and students at Princeton university.

The most alarming part of this particular letter, as Joshua points out, is a call to create a faculty run committee that would oversee the investigation of all “behaviour, incidents, research. What qualifies as racist and what the consequences should be, would, of course, also be defined by the committee. Here’s the full quote from section 11 of the “faculty-level” demands:

Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.

Having never studied at Princeton, I can’t, with any confidence, offer an opinion on what it’s like to be a black student or faculty member there. What I can say, with great confidence, is that this le el of overreach, and the fact that it’s being demanded so brazenly at a university with the standing of Princeton, is actually pretty terrifying.

It’s difficult to say if this was just posturing, or whether there was even the slightest hope that this demand would be met, but either way, I would be deeply concerned with having staff that thought this way influencing generations of young, soon to be influential minds.

"If we could see the whole truth of any situation, our only response would be one of compassion."

The Illusory Nature Of Rights.

Elephant handlers employ a pretty devious trick to prevent their elephants from running away. When they’re young, the handlers tie a rope around the elephant’s leg and tie the other end to a tree or a post that’s been driven deep into the ground. The young elephant will, of course, try to escape, but they’ll…continue reading on Medium…
Are we too self centred to be reasonable?

Today I was introduced to a new phrase “Trump Derangement Syndrome (or TDS for short).

If I were to try to “steelman” TDS, I’d say it was the habit of attacking Donald Trump or believing that he’s bad for America and the world, because of a blind acceptance of left wing ideals, or of the mainstream media’s biased, anti-Trump narrative.

I discovered this term in a comment thread where a number of people were saying that the fact that Sam Harris suffered so badly from TDS that it was unbearable to listen to him anymore. They cited a conversation Sam had with Dilbert creator Scott Adams as a particularly strong example.

I’m not sure if it would be fair to describe Scott as a Trump supporter, but he has certainly been something of a Trump apologist at times. And given that I was intrigued to hear what Sam was being so unreasonable about, and I’ve long been trying to gain some actual insight into why people support Trump in any way, I decided to give the conversation a listen. I’ve linked it above if you feel like doing the same.

Whether you find this discussion to be a staggering effort by Scott to justify Donald Trumps lies and/or ignorance, or a staggering failure by Sam to look at Donald Trump’s presidency through any filter but his personal dislike of the man, is likely to be based on your existing political leanings. But I did find this statement that Scott makes near the beginning of the discussion interesting:

Generally I don’t have a firm position on the big international stuff, and on the smaller local stuff, the domestic stuff, I’m in favour of people doing whatever they wanna do as long as it doesn’t affect me.

This too can be interpreted in a number of different ways. On the one hand, it could be seen as the expression of a “live and let live” policy. A view that people should be free to live their lives as long as they don’t harm others.

On the other hand, it could be taken to demonstrate that Scott really doesn’t care about what happens in the rest of the world as long as he is okay. Certainly it seems impossible to be ambivalent about Trump’s attitude towards the truth, immigrants, minorities, his staff, and even his own wife, unless your only concern about these things is how they affect you.

I’m not trying to make a moral judgment here per se. I’m trying to point out that the job of creating a better society (which is ostensibly a political leader’s job and to a lesser extent the job of each voter) has to, by definition, include a willingness to concern yourself with things that don’t affect you personally. Without this will, it’s possible to wait and see, or justify anything, because you don’t really care about the consequences as long as you can be confident they won’t affect you.

Maybe this is the reason for the starkness of the divide between us politically at the moment. It seems like the political fringe on the left and right (which is increasingly becoming the political mainstream) is arguing against the things that do, or that they fear will affect them, and wilfully ignoring the things that affect people that are not then.

As much as I disagreed (and was occasionally exasperated) with Scott during this conversation, I feel like the way he’s thinking is being employed by people all the way across the political spectrum. The blind spots were seeing in the thinking of otherwise intelligent people don’t seem to be explainable in another way.

If We Can’t Talk To Each Other, We All Lose.

In his essay, Politics and the English language, George Orwell writes about the way that thoughts influence language and how language, in turn, influences thought: A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure,and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening…continue reading on Medium…