(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘democracy

“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”*…

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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

“History, in general, only informs us what bad government is”*…

 

Government

 

In the early 19th century, less than 1% of the global population could be found in democracies.

In more recent decades, however, the dominoes have fallen ⁠— and today, it’s estimated that 56% of the world population lives in societies that can be considered democratic, at least according to the Polity IV data series highlighted above.

While there are questions regarding a recent decline in freedom around the world, it’s worth considering that democratic governance is still a relatively new tradition within a much broader historical context.

Will the long-term trend of democracy prevail, or are the more recent indications of populism a sign of reversion?…

More (including explanations of the methodology and categories used) at “Visualizing 200 Years of Systems of Government.” (For perspectives on the caution at the end of the quoted passage above, see here and here.)

* Thomas Jefferson’s harsh verdict, The Letters of Thomas Jefferson

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As we organize our thoughts about social organization, we might recall that it was on this date that President Millard Fillmore signed The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. One of the most controversial elements of the Compromise of 1850, it heightened Northern fears of a “slave power conspiracy” by required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Law”, for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.

Law-enforcement officials everywhere were required to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on as little as a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership.  In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work.

The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave.  Since a suspected slave had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations, the law resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery. (The film 12 Years a Slave was based on one such abduction– the kidnapping and bondage of Solomon Northrup.)

170px-Slave_kidnap_post_1851_boston

An 1851 poster warned the “colored people of Boston” about policemen acting as slave catchers

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all”*…

 

Voting2

 

In a simple democratic election with two candidates, every voter has the same probability of affecting the result of the election. In the United States, the electoral college ensures that this is not the case. Instead, the chance that your vote matters is dependent on which state you live in, and the political composition of voters who happen to live within that state’s borders.

Although Republican presidential candidates have benefited from the electoral college in recent years—2 of their last 3 election winners lost the popular vote—there is nothing about the electoral college that specifically favors Republicans. Its effects are largely random, and can be expected to change over time. One illustration of how arbitrary these effects are is that a state’s status as a swing state can often be eliminated by moving a few counties into a bordering state, instantly devaluing the value of its residents’ votes. It would only take a couple of these changes to shift the advantage of the electoral college to the Democratic party…

David Waldron’s eye-opening analysis: “Who benefits from the electoral college?

* John F. Kennedy

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As we exercise our franchise, we might recall that it was on this date in 1882 that nearly 10,000 workers gathered for a parade in New York City to celebrate the first Labor Day in the U.S.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Central planning didn’t work for Stalin or Mao, and it won’t work for an entrepreneur either”*…

 

Amazon central planning

 

Applying science to social problems has brought huge dividends in the past. Long before the invention of the silicon chip, medical and technological innovations had already made our lives far more comfortable – and longer. But history is also replete with disasters caused by the power of science and the zeal to improve the human condition.

For example, efforts to boost agricultural yields through scientific or technological augmentation in the context of collectivization in the Soviet Union or Tanzania backfired spectacularly. Sometimes, plans to remake cities through modern urban planning all but destroyed them. The political scientist James Scott has dubbed such efforts to transform others’ lives through science instances of “high modernism.”An ideology as dangerous as it is dogmatically overconfident, high modernism refuses to recognize that many human practices and behaviors have an inherent logic that is adapted to the complex environment in which they have evolved. When high modernists dismiss such practices in order to institute a more scientific and rational approach, they almost always fail.

Historically, high-modernist schemes have been most damaging in the hands of an authoritarian state seeking to transform a prostrate, weak society. In the case of Soviet collectivization, state authoritarianism originated from the self-proclaimed “leading role” of the Communist Party, and pursued its schemes in the absence of any organizations that could effectively resist them or provide protection to peasants crushed by them.

Yet authoritarianism is not solely the preserve of states. It can also originate from any claim to unbridled superior knowledge or ability. Consider contemporary efforts by corporations, entrepreneurs, and others who want to improve our world through digital technologies. Recent innovations have vastly increased productivity in manufacturing, improved communication, and enriched the lives of billions of people. But they could easily devolve into a high-modernist fiasco…

But this characteristically high-modernist path is not preordained. Instead of ignoring social context, those developing new technologies could actually learn something from the experiences and concerns of real people. The technologies themselves could be adaptive rather than hubristic, designed to empower society rather than silence it.Two forces are likely to push new technologies in this direction. The first is the market, which may act as a barrier against misguided top-down schemes. Once Soviet planners decided to collectivize agriculture, Ukrainian villagers could do little to stop them. Mass starvation ensued. Not so with today’s digital technologies, the success of which will depend on decisions made by billions of consumers and millions of businesses around the world (with the possible exception of those in China)…

That said, the power of the market constraint should not be exaggerated. There is no guarantee that the market will select the right technologies for widespread adoption, nor will it internalize the negative effects of some new applications. The fact that Facebook exists and collects information about its 2.5 billion active users in a market environment does not mean we can trust how it will use that data. The market certainly doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be unforeseen consequences from Facebook’s business model and underlying technologies.

For the market constraint to work, it must be bolstered by a second, more powerful check: democratic politics. Every state has a proper role to play in regulating economic activity and the use and spread of new technologies. Democratic politics often drives the demand for such regulation. It is also the best defense against the capture of state policies by rent-seeking businesses attempting to raise their market shares or profits.

Democracy also provides the best mechanism for airing diverse viewpoints and organizing resistance to costly or dangerous high-modernist schemes. By speaking out, we can slow down or even prevent the most pernicious applications of surveillance, monitoring, and digital manipulation. A democratic voice is precisely what was denied to Ukrainian and Tanzanian villagers confronted with collectivization schemes.But regular elections are not sufficient to prevent Big Tech from creating a high-modernist nightmare. Insofar as new technologies can thwart free speech and political compromise and deepen concentrations of power in government or the private sector, they can frustrate the workings of democratic politics itself, creating a vicious circle. If the tech world chooses the high-modernist path, it may ultimately damage our only reliable defense against its hubris: democratic oversight of how new technologies are developed and deployed. We as consumers, workers, and citizens should all be more cognizant of the threat, for we are the only ones who can stop it.

At the same time that science and technology have vastly improved human lives, they have also given certain visionaries the means to transform entire societies from above. Ominously, what was true of Soviet central planners is true of Big Tech today: namely, the assumption that society can be improved through pure “rationality.”  Daron Acemoglu— Professor of Economics at MIT,  and co-author (with James A. Robinson) of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (forthcoming from Penguin Press in September 2019)– explains: “Big Tech’s Harvest of Sorrow?

[Illustration above from “The Singular Pursuit of Comrade Bezos,” also worth a read.]

* Michael Bloomberg

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As we rethink “reason,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1894 (one year before Marconi’s first demo) that distinguished physicist Oliver Lodge achieved the first successful radio transmission of information via Morse Code in a presentation to the British Association for the Advancement of Science at a meeting in Oxford.  He sent a message about 50 meters from the old Clarendon Laboratory to the lecture theater of the University Museum.

Lodge continued to develop his approach, and patented several elements of it… running into intellectual property disputes with Marconi.  Finally, in 1912, Lodge, at heart an academic, sold his patents to the more determinedly-commercial Marconi.

220px-Oliver_Joseph_Lodge3 source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

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