(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘democracy

“Our beauty lies in this extended capacity for convolution”*…

John Semley contemplates an America awash in junk mail and junk science…

… In the long interregnum between Trump’s loss and his unceremonious retreat from the White House, the postal service would play a critical role in what the pundit class liked to call his Big Lie. He framed mail-in ballots, baselessly, as being especially susceptible to fraud and manipulation. Even before the election, back when he could still avail himself of Twitter, Trump tweeted that such ballots would lead, irrevocably, to “MAYHEM!!!” His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, freshly clowned-on in the new Borat movie, would likewise crow that hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots tilted the results. Elsewhere, on newly struck TV ads, postal workers were framed as pandemic-era heroes, delivering parcels to communities squirming under stay-at-home orders.

This contest over the image of the postal service—and mail itself—revealed a more profound tension, a deeper crisis facing democracies in America and elsewhere. It is a fundamentally epistemic crisis: about the control and promulgation of information, and how that information comes to shape a worldview, and how those worldviews come to bear on the world itself. And it’s just one front in a war of epistemologies that has been raging since at least the republic’s inception. Because to control the mail, as [Seinfeld‘s] Newman himself once memorably snarled, is to control information.

The control of information is key to any ideological project….

There follows a fascinating historical rumination on postal services and America’s history with information and mis/disinformation, and a consideration of our current moment, replete with insights from observers ranging from Scientific American to Thomas Pynchon– richly informative, genuinely entertaining, deeply provocative, and, in the end, at least mildly optimistic: “America, Ex Post Facto,” from @johnsemley3000 in @thebafflermag.

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

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As we scrutinize sense and sensibility, we might recall that it was on this date in 1998 that Clarence E. Lewis Jr. was named Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of the U.S. Postal Service, becoming the highest-ranking African-American postal employee to that date. He had started his postal career as a substitute city letter carrier in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1966. On his retirement in 2000, he was given the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Postal Service’s highest honor.

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“Oh, down in Mexico / I never really been so I don’t really know”*…

In this moment of altogether appropriate attention to the autocratic threat to Ukraine, it’s too easy to forget that genuine democracy is under threat all around the world. Nathan Gardels cites two examples close to home: Mexico and California…

The core crisis of governance in open societies today is the distrust that has grown between the public and its institutions of self-government. The response to this breach of trust has largely been unfolding in two directions — the autocratic tendency toward decisive strongmen who fashion themselves as tribunes of the people, or seeking to re-legitimize democracy through greater citizen engagement and participation.

Now, a new and concerning hybrid is emerging that exploits the tools of citizen engagement and participation (such as the recall of elected officials, the referendum, and ballot initiative) either to affirm autocratic leanings or to protect and promote the very special interests these tools were meant to challenge…

Participatory democracy unmediated by impartial institutions of deliberation or guarded against manipulation by the powers that be poses as significant a risk to citizen control of government as unchecked executive power or rule by those with the most gold. When plebiscitary practices are deployed from the top down to affirm the rule of a present regime, or hijacked by the most monied, instead of initiated from the bottom up, the very notion of citizen empowerment is nullified.

Top-down direct democracy is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: “Mexico: On The Path To A Perfect Autocracy?“, from @NoemaMag.

* James Taylor, “Mexico”

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As we watch our backs, we might note that not all exercises of direct democracy (even when they are structurally flawed) end badly: on this date in 1992 a referendum to end apartheid in South Africa passed by a vote of 69% to 31%… a margin that would surely had been larger had the election not been restricted to white voters. (Universal suffrage was established two years later.)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 17, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under”*…

The majority of countries are democracies, but how many people enjoy what we think of as democratic rights? A nifty interactive map from Our World In Data charts the changes in political regimes across the globe, country by country, over the last 200 years. By way of explaining its categories:

• In closed autocracies, citizens do not have the right to choose either the chief executive of the government or the legislature through multi-party elections.

• In electoral autocracies, citizens have the right to choose the chief executive and the legislature through multi-party elections; but they lack some freedoms, such as the freedoms of association or expression, that make the elections meaningful, free, and fair.

• In electoral democracies, citizens have the right to participate in meaningful, free and fair, and multi-party elections.

• In liberal democracies, citizens have further individual and minority rights, are equal before the law, and the actions of the executive are constrained by the legislative and the courts.

As Visual Capitalist observes…

Do civilians get a representative say in how the government is run where you live?

While it might seem like living with a basic level of democratic rights is the status quo, this is only true for 93 countries or territories today—the majority of the world does not enjoy these rights.

It also might surprise you that much of the progress towards democracy came as late as the mid-20th century

An interactive look at the state of democracy around the world, and how it has evolved. From @OurWorldInData, via @VisualCap.

* H. L. Mencken

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As we ruminate on representation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933, the day after an arsonist ignited the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament in Berlin (and four weeks after Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of German), that Adolf Hitler attributed the fire to a conspiracy of Communist agitators.

Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch “council communist”, was the apparent culprit; but Hitler insisted on a wider network of villains. He used it as a pretext to claim that Communists were plotting against the German government, and induced President Paul von Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree suspending civil liberties, and to pursue a “ruthless confrontation” with the Communists. A court later found that van der Lubbe had in fact acted alone. But Hitler’s orchestrated reaction to the Reichstag Fire began the effective rule of the Nazi Party and the establishment of Nazi Germany.

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“We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do”*…

A logistical note to those readers who subscribe by email: Google is discontinuing the Feedburner email service that (Roughly) Daily has used since its inception; so email will now be going via Mailchimp. That should be relatively seamless– no re-subscription required– but there may be a day or two of duplicate emails, as I’m not sure how quickly changes take effect at Feedburner. If so, my apologies. For those who don’t get (Roughly) Daily in their inboxes but would like to, the sign-up box is to the right… it’s quick, painless, and can, if you change your mind, be terminated with a click. And now, to today’s business…

Historians across the country are criticizing Texas House Bill 2497—which, after Gov. Greg Abbott signed it on Monday, establishes the “Texas 1836 Project”—as yet another rhetorical volley in the culture wars, aimed at inflaming already-high tensions and asserting partisan political power. And they’re not wrong.

But as a historian, a Texas history professor, and a proud born-and-raised Texan, I applaud the new law’s call to “promote awareness” of the founders and founding documents of Texas. For teachers, this is an opportunity to read and analyze history with students. And speaking from my own experience, there’s one thing I can tell you: It’s not going to turn out how the politicians who applauded at the signing ceremony think it will.

H.B. 2497 mandates only two things. First, it calls for the creation of a nine-member advisory committee “to promote patriotic education” and Texas values. Second, it requires the committee to provide a pamphlet to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which will give an overview of Texas history and explain state policies that “promote liberty and freedom.” The DPS must distribute this pamphlet to everyone who receives a new Texas driver’s license. Another bill, H.B. 3979, which bars teachers from linking slavery or racism to the “true founding” or “authentic principles” of the United States, is now on Abbott’s desk.

The text of H.B. 2497 is itself relatively tame. It wants to promote history education—a cause that every history teacher would champion. But the context of the bill is much more troublesome. Abbott and much of the Republican-led Texas Legislature have joined a battalion of state leaders across the country who have declared war on ideas they believe aim to destroy society. They’ve identified two scapegoats: the New York Times’ 1619 Project and critical race theory, or CRT, a set of ideas coming from legal academia that is rarely directly taught in K–12 and college classrooms but has become a favorite dog whistle for the right. (If you’ve lost track of the many anti-CRT/1619 bills in play across the country, the situation is outlined in this New York Times piece from earlier this month.)

Enter the 1836 Project, and Greg Abbott’s rallying cry as he signed the bill: “Foundational principles” and “founding documents”! As a history professor, I say we take Abbott up on that challenge, especially the “documents” part. Time to start reading!

Let’s read Texas’ single most foundational document, the 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas. We will find several values familiar to present-day Texans: divided government, religious freedom, and the right to bear arms. But we will also find some “values” that don’t track very well in 2021. That it was illegal for either Congress or an individual to simply emancipate a slave. That even free Black people could not live in Texas without specific permission from the state. That “Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians” had no rights as citizens.

I know these historical documents are opportunities for education because I teach them all the time. Every semester that I teach Texas history at Southern Methodist University, we read these documents (and many more). And every semester, without fail, I have students respond in two ways: frustration and enlightenment. After reading the 1836 Texas Constitution’s enshrinement of racialized citizenship, they’re exasperated: “Why didn’t anyone teach us this before? I thought the Alamo was all about freedom.” When we read Texas’ reasons for secession in 1861, some can hardly believe it. They’ve always been taught Texans joined the Confederacy to defend their family or states’ rights, not because of an explicit devotion to maintaining a society based on racial subjugation.

I’m not an award-winning teacher. I don’t have any elaborate tricks up my sleeve, and I’ve never asked students to read any academic writing on CRT. And yet it’s my great joy every semester to watch students leave the class more aware of injustices, past and present. They’ve read for themselves. They’ve learned. They’ve changed.

So thank you, Greg Abbott. I know that you mean for the 1836 Project to manufacture a certain kind of citizen, one who joins you in the fight against the dark forces of CRT, 1619, and the very idea of “systemic racism.” But I can assure you—by insisting on a strategy that encourages teachers to read and discuss Texas primary sources, you have made a fatal error. You’ve charted a course to lead students of history to one destination, but the map will bring them straight to the places you’re trying to hide. Everything is right there in the documents, for everyone to see…

The “Texas 1836 Project” is a state-mandated effort to promote “Texas exceptionalism”– and counter CRT. But it may not work out as its Republican sponsors plan… A chance to teach Texas’ “founding documents”? This historian says, “Yes, please!” SMU professor Brian Franklin (@brfranklin4) explains why “The 1836 Project Is an Opportunity.”

For more background: “Texas’ 1836 Project aims to promote “patriotic education,” but critics worry it will gloss over state’s history of racism.”

[image above: source]

Margaret MacMillan 

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As we listen for the backfire, we might recall that it was on this date in 1215 that King John affixed his seal to the Magna Carta…  an early example of unintended consequences:  the “Great Charter” was meant as a fundamentally reactionary treaty between the king and his barons, guaranteeing nobles’ feudal rights and assuring that the King would respect the Church and national law.  But over succeeding centuries, at the expense of royal and noble hegemony, it became a cornerstone of English democracy– and indeed, democracy as we know it in the West.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 15, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Why is man alone subject to becoming an imbecile?”*…

 

carlschmittpurple

 

Donald Trump’s presidency has made the dominance of strongmen elsewhere only more vivid: in Russia, Thailand, Hungary, Brazil, Nicaragua, the Philippines and many other countries. Since around 2016, the question of where the strongman phenomenon comes from has been a constant issue for political theorists. What allows these men to rise? And why now? The answer is often wrapped up in some idea of ‘populism’. ‘The people’, so the thought goes, have gained control of ‘the elites’. This is a view of populism as essentially thuggish and anti-intellectual. The people are insurgent, and with great bluster and bravado the leader claims to speak for them.

But there is, in fact, a robustly intellectual foundation for strongman politics. Populism is not just a bull-in-a-china-shop way of doing politics. There is a theoretical tradition that seeks to justify strongman rule, an ideological school of demagoguery, one might call it, that is now more relevant than ever. Within that tradition, one thinker stands out: the conservative German constitutional lawyer and political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). For a time, he was the principal legal adviser to the Nazi regime. And today his name is approaching a commonplace. Academics, policymakers and journalists appeal to him in order to shed light on populist trends in the US and elsewhere. A recent article in The New York Review of Books argues that the US attorney general William Barr is ‘The Carl Schmitt Of Our Time’. The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt (2017) came out in print the year after Trump’s election. After decades as a political rogue, forced to launch his attacks on liberalism from the sidelines, Schmitt’s name has returned to prominence.

He was the great systematiser of populist thought, which makes him useful for understanding how populist strategies might play out in politics, as well as in the legal/constitutional sphere…

Demagogues do not rise on popular feeling alone but (as seen, e.g., in the advocacy for Brexit and in the opinions of Neal Gorsuch) on the constitutional ideas of Weimar and Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt: “Lawyer for the strongman.”

For an authoritative explication of Schmitt’s beliefs and arguments, see this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

And for an account of Schmitt’s impact beyond the law per se, on political theory and practice– his advocacy of “national greatness” and its centrality both to neo-conservatism and to the reactions against it– see “Carl Schmitt: The Philosopher of Conflict Who Inspired Both the Left and the Right” (from whence, the image above).

…for monarchy easily becomes tyranny, aristocracy easily becomes oligarchy, and democracy easily converts to anarchy. Thus anyone organizing a government according to one of the good forms does so for but a short time, because no precaution will prevent it from slipping into its opposite, so closely are the virtues and vices of the two related.    — Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses, Vol 1

* “…an animal, at the end of a few months, is what it will be all its life; and its species, at the end of a thousand years, is what it was in the first of those thousand years. Why is man alone subject to becoming an imbecile?”  — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

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As we grapple with “greatness,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1215 that King John affixed his seal to the Magna Carta…  an early example of unintended consequences:  the “Great Charter” was meant as a fundamentally reactionary treaty between the king and his barons, guaranteeing nobles’ feudal rights and assuring that the King would respect the Church and national law.  But over succeeding centuries, at the expense of royal and noble hegemony, it became a cornerstone of English democracy– and indeed, democracy as we know it in the West.

170px-Forest-charter-1225-C13550-78 source

 

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 15, 2020 at 1:01 am

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