Category Archive 'Democracy'
11 Jan 2017

Left-wing Dutch Vegan Denied a Swiss Passport Because She is Too Annoying

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Daily Mail:

A left-wing Dutch vegan who campaigned against cowbells in the Swiss village where she lives has had a request for a Swiss passport thrown out after annoying the locals.

Nancy Holten, who was born in the Netherlands but moved to Switzerland at the age of eight, is a fluent speaker of Swiss German and has children who are Swiss nationals.

And she wanted a Swiss passport herself, but was refused after locals who were consulted about her request said they were ‘fed up’ of her challenging Swiss traditions by campaigning against the use of cow bells.

The campaign against cow bells by the 42-year-old vegan and animal-rights activist has made her unpopular in the Alpine confederation.

And now the majority of residents from Gipf-Oberfrick in the canton of Aargau have successfully blocked her second attempt to get a Swiss passport.

The resident’s committee argued that if she does not accept Swiss traditions and the Swiss way of life, she should not be able to become an official national.

She said of her situation: ‘The sound that cow bells make is a hundred decibel. It is comparable with a pneumatic drill. We also would not want such a thing hanging close to our ears?’

She also railed against the weight of the famous cow bells.

Nancy complained: ‘The bells, which the cows have to wear when they walk to and from the pasture, are especially heavy.

‘The animals carry around five kilograms around their neck. It causes friction and burns to their skin.’

The Dutchwoman, who describes herself as a freelance journalist, model and drama student, has also campaigned against a number of other Swiss traditions like hunting, pig races and the noisy church bells in town.
It’s a tradition for cows to wear bells in her Switzerland town. The bell is standard for alpine cattle when left to graze in alpine meadows.

In 2015 the villagers successfully stopped her application for naturalisation in a referendum.

While the town authorities wanted to give her the Swiss nationality, 144 out of 206 citizens voted against the plan.

This time her application was denied again, with locals especially angry about the increasing media coverage Holten seeks for railing against Swiss traditions.

Holten said she does not have anything against Swiss traditions but in the end only cares about animal welfare.

Local politician Tanja Suter agreed with the majority of the town’s citizens and said Holten had a ‘big mouth’, saying she did not deserve to get a Swiss passport ‘if she irritates us and does not respect our traditions’. …

The case has now been transferred to the Cantonal government in Aargau, which can overrule the decision and can still grant her a Swiss passport despite the objections of the locals.

Local residents in Switzerland often have a say in citizenship applications, which are decided by the cantons and towns where the applicants live rather than federal government.

About 20 per cent of the Swiss population is estimated to be foreign.

04 Oct 2016

What Prompted the Peasant Revolt in Presidential Politics?

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scaliaquote

Why did low-information, not-particularly-ideological Republican voters go loco this year, reject all the qualified and genuinely principled candidates in favor of a Reality TV clown and populist demagogue?

They were fed up and simply wanted to express their animosity toward, and contempt for, the holier-than-thou, we-know-better community of fashion elite that controls the national establishment and which, under Obama, has end run the democratic process and simply imposed its will on the larger majority it contemptuously ignores again and again.

Matthew Continetti explains that the nomination of Trump is the steam explosion that occurs when all the democratic pressure release valves on the engine of government have been sealed shut by its careless operators.

This is a moment of dissociation—of unbundling, fracture, disaggregation, dispersal. But the disconnectedness is not merely social. It is also political—a separation of the citizenry from the governments founded in their name. They are meant to have representation, to be heard, to exercise control. What they have found instead is that ostensibly democratic governments sometimes treat their populations not as citizens but as irritants.

The sole election that has had any bearing on the fate of Obamacare, for example, was the one that put Barack Obama in the White House. The special election of Scott Brown to the Senate did not stop Democratic majorities from passing the law over public disapproval. Nor did the 2010, 2012, or 2014 elections prevent or slow down the various agencies of the federal government from reorganizing the health care sector according to the latest technocratic fashions.

The last big immigration law was passed under President Clinton in an attempt to reduce illegal entry. Since then the bureaucracy has been on autopilot, admitting huge numbers to the United States and unable (and sometimes unwilling) to cope with the surge in illegal immigration at the turn of the century. In 2006, 2007, and 2013, public opinion stopped major liberalizations of immigration law. Then the president used executive power to protect certain types of illegal immigrant from deportation anyway.

Coal miners have no voice in deliberations over their futures. Only the courts stand in the way of the Clean Power Plan that will end the coal industry and devastate the Appalachian economy. Congress is unable to help. The president went over the heads of the Senate by calling his carbon deal with China an “agreement” and not a treaty.

There has been no accountability for an IRS that abused its powers to target conservative nonprofits, for Hillary Clinton who disregarded national security in the operation of her private email server, for the FBI that treated Clinton with kid gloves while not following up on individuals who became terrorists. The most recent disclosures in the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., show the terrorist Omar Mateen was clearly motivated by devotion to radical Islam and to ISIS. We are only finding this out now because of a lawsuit filed by a news organization. What is the FBI afraid of?

Progressives disregard constitutional objections as outmoded artifacts of a benighted era. Who cares how Obamacare was passed or implemented, the uninsured rate is down. Why should Obama submit a treaty to the Senate when he knows it won’t be ratified; the fate of the planet is at stake. The absence of comprehensive immigration reform isn’t evidence that progressives failed to marshal a constitutional majority for passage. It’s reason for the president to test the limit of his powers. Nor does government failure result from overextension and ineptitude. It is caused by a lack of resources.

Is it really surprising that our democracy has become more tenuous as the distance between citizen and government has increased? A large portion of the electorate, it would seem, is no longer willing to tolerate a bipartisan establishment that seems more concerned with the so-called “globalist” issues of trade, migration, climate, defense of a rickety world order, and transgender rights than with the experiences of joblessness, addiction, crime, worry for one’s children, and not-so-distant memories of a better, stronger, more respected America.

These concerns are often written off as racism, or resentment, or status anxiety—as reaction, backlash, atavism, obstacles to universal progress. The same was said of McCarthy in the 1950s, the New Right in the 1970s, the Tea Party eight years ago. But in every case, including this one, the populist upsurge signified a genuine and not entirely irrational objection of a part of the electorate to its dissociation from the life of the polity.

[F]rom ..“Donald Trump and the American Crisis” by John Marini:

    Those most likely to be receptive of Trump are those who believe America is in the midst of a great crisis in terms of its economy, its chaotic civil society, its political corruption, and the inability to defend any kind of tradition—or way of life derived from that tradition—because of the transformation of its culture by the intellectual elites. This sweeping cultural transformation occurred almost completely outside the political process of mobilizing public opinion and political majorities. The American people themselves did not participate or consent to the wholesale undermining of their way of life, which government and the bureaucracy helped to facilitate by undermining those institutions of civil society that were dependent upon a public defense of the old morality.

Marini refers to institutions such as the family, church, and school, institutions charged with forming the character of a citizen, of instructing him in codes of morality and service, in the traditions and history of his country, in the case of the church directing him spiritually and providing him a definitive account of the cause and purpose of life. These are precisely the institutions that have been brought under the sway of bureaucracies and courts heavily insulated from elections, from public opinion, from majority rule. And as the public has lost authority over decision-making in the private sphere, as the culture has become more alien, more bewildering, more hostile to “the old morality,” as President Clinton keeps saying rather fatuously that the fates of Kenya and Kentucky are linked, is it any wonder voters have sought out a vehicle for their disgust and opposition?

02 May 2016

Democratic End Point

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Plato
Plato, copy of a bust by Silanion, Musei Capitolini.

Andrew Sullivan is back, in New York magazine, telling us that the current election reminds him of something.

As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic. It has unsettled — even surprised — me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another. And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”

This rainbow-flag polity, Plato argues, is, for many people, the fairest of regimes. The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.

The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Patriarchy is also dismantled: “We almost forgot to mention the extent of the law of equality and of freedom in the relations of women with men and men with women.” Family hierarchies are inverted: “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.” In classrooms, “as the teacher … is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.” Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen.

And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.

He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time — given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class — and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess—“too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery” — and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.

Trump definitely scares Andrew.

17 Mar 2016

Don’t Be Shy, Daniel, Tell Us How You Really Feel

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TrumpPleased
Daniel Hannan is the British representative to the EU Parliament who is notorious for saying intelligent and true things. He is naturally appalled that so many Americans have lost their marbles recently.

Shall I tell you the most depressing thing? It’s not that the party of Lincoln and Reagan will be fronted by a self-absorbed, foul-mouthed, thin-skinned, bullying, mendacious, meretricious, mountainous berk. It’s not the reputational damage that our most important ally will suffer in consequence: if I were Mexico, I’d be glad to pay for a sodding wall to keep Trump out. It’s not the prospect of another sleekit Clinton using Supreme Court appointments to ensure a full generation of left-wing judicial activism.

No, sadder than any of these things is what the rise of the Donald says about democracy. …

Ah, America. You deserve better. And we expect better.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Roger Kimball.

24 Feb 2016

Democracy

Democracia

Bloody Shovel explains the biological case against democracy.

Traditional power arrangements can be stupid and ineffective. They are by definition nepotistic, and often nothing gets done. But they have the important function of impeding the access of evil sociopaths to the highest reaches of power. You really don’t want those people up there; all they do is suck the coffers dry, and hurt everyone they fancy in order to satisfy their greed. Democracy, by opening the levers of power to free competition, all but guarantees that evil sociopaths will end up ruling everything. People who have no issue with giving sick men access to girl’s toilets, or bringing hostile barbarians to rape the women of their country. Monarchies can have a bad king. But Democracies always have a bad king.

Hat tip to Vanderleun.

01 Feb 2016

How Much Consent of the Governed Has Modern American Democracy Really Got?

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Leviathan
detail, frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651.

In Iowa today, we are beginning participation in ritual activities intended to persuade us that we are a free people electing our own government which governs with our assent. Jason Brennan, a professor at Georgetown, recently posted a short essay arguing that the degree of consent we actually have in a mass democracy is so limited as to be, in most real circumstances, practically non-existent.

In general, our relationship as individuals to our government doesn’t look much like a consensual relationship.

If you don’t vote or participate, your government will just impose rules, regulations, restrictions, benefits, and taxes upon you. Except in exceptional circumstances, the same outcome will occur regardless of how you vote or what policies you support. So, for instance, I voted for a particular candidate in 2012. But had I abstained or voted for a different candidate, the same candidate would have won anyways. This is not like a consensual transaction, in which I order a JVM and the dealer sends me the amp I ordered. Rather, this is more a like a nonconsensual transaction in which the dealer decides to make me buy an amp no matter whether I place an order or not, and no matter what I order.

If you actively dissent, the government makes you obey its rules anyways. For instance, you can’t get out of marijuana criminalization laws by saying, “Just to be clear, I don’t consent to those laws, or to your rule”. This is unlike my relationship with my music gear dealer, where “no” means “no”. For government, your “no” means “yes”.

You have no reasonable way of opting out of government rule. Governments control all the habitable land, and most of us don’t have the resources or even the legal permission to move elsewhere. Governments won’t even let you move to Antarctica if you want to. At most, a privileged few of us can choose which government we live under, but the vast majority of us are stuck with whatever government we’re born with. This is unlike buying an amp from Sweetwater.com, which, by the way, I highly recommend as a dealer.

Finally, governments require you to obey their rules, pay taxes, and the like, even when they don’t do their part. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the government has no duty to protect individual citizens. Suppose you call the police to alert them that an intruder is in your house, but the police never bother dispatch someone to help you, and as a result the intruder shoots you. The government still requires you to pay taxes for the protection services it chose not to deploy on your behalf.

So, in summary, it looks like in general our relationship to our governments lacks any of the features that signify a consensual transaction.

None of this is to say that governments are unjust or illegitimate, or that we ought to be anarchists. There are other reasons to have governments. Nor is it to say that democracies are not in some way special. Democracies in fact do a much better job than alternative forms of government of responding to their concerns and interests of most of their members. But it’s a stretch to say that democracy rests on the consent of the governed, or, more precisely, it’s a stretch to say that you consent to democratic rule.

Read the whole thing.

20 Jun 2014

Why the Redskins Trademark Ruling Matters

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WashingtonRedskins

Robert Tracinski explains what the Patent Office cancelling the Washington Redskin’s trademark shows about the state of American democracy.

This name-bullying has become a kind of sport for self-aggrandizing political activists, because if you can force everyone to change the name of something—a sports team, a city, an entire race of people—it demonstrates your power. This is true even if it makes no sense and especially if it makes no sense. How much more powerful are you if you can force people to change a name for no reason other than because they’re afraid you will vilify them?

Given the equivocal history of the term “redskins” and the differing opinions—among Native Americans as well as everyone else—over whether it is offensive, this was a subjective judgment. (One observer suggests a list of other sports names that could just as plausibly be considered offensive.) When an issue is subjective, it would be wise for the government not to take a stand and let private persuasion and market pressure sort it out.

Ah, but there’s the rub, isn’t it? This ruling happened precisely because the campaign against the Redskins has failed in the court of public opinion. The issue has become the hobby horse of a small group of lefty commentators and politicians in DC, while regular Washingtonians, the people who make up the team’s base of fans and customers, are largely indifferent. So the left resorted to one of its favorite fallbacks. If the people can’t be persuaded, use the bureaucracy—in this case, two political appointees on the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

That’s what is disturbing about this ruling. Our system of government depends on the impartial administration of the laws by the executive. In this case, executive officials declared that a private company doesn’t deserve the protection of the law: if the ruling survives an appeal in the courts, the federal government will stop prosecuting violations of the team’s intellectual property rights, potentially costing it millions of dollars.

This ruling isn’t a slippery slope. It’s a slope we’ve already slid down: bureaucrats in Washington are now empowered to make subjective decrees about what is offensive and what will be tolerated, based on pressure from a small clique of Washington insiders. Anyone who runs afoul of these decrees, anyone branded as regressive and politically incorrect, is declared outside the protection of the federal government.

That this is happening, and that we have no idea where it will stop, is what should terrify us—even if, like me, you don’t particularly care one way or the other about the Washington Redskins.

28 May 2014

Democracy

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FreeElections

05 Apr 2013

Cyprus Shows European Pols Are Ready to Eat the Rich

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Lars Seier Christensen, co-founder & CEO of Denmark’s Saxo Bank A/S, looks on at the destruction of Cyprus’s economy by the Euro Zone bailout and begins sounding like Tocqueville.

There are very few limits to what you can do to people in the modern interpretation of democracy. A version where only majority rule is required, but where there is no longer a respect for personal negative rights – as we know them from the American Constitution.

The easiest target will always be wealthy people, or even just working people and savers who did the right thing all their lives. As the bloated welfare states begin to collapse under their irresponsible promises, their crumbling value systems and their unsustainable demographics, it will be easy to convince more than 50 percent of voters that confiscating and stealing other people’s money is OK for the greater good. Boston Consulting Group calculated that 28 percent of ALL private wealth is needed to meet just existing debts – not future obligations , mind you – and the money can only come from one place… Your pockets. Beware.

A lot of things have gone wrong over the past few years, but the seeds were planted many years ago. In the form of pressure for more people having the “right” to own their properties, even if they did not fulfill the traditional mortgage criteria – hence subprime. In the form of enormous “entitlements” to not just poor, but also middle-class people in the welfare states – hence ballooning deficits and debt. In the form of a Euro, a grand, political project with no practical foundation – hence crisis after crisis, with the dominoes stretching far into the distance.

The United States has precisely the Liberal political tradition of well-established and legally-recognized Natural Rights protecting property, but we also have Barack Obama and a radical democrat majority in the US Senate sharing views identical to those of European Union socialists and caring absolutely nothing for the American Liberal political tradition, which they neither respect nor understand.

Via Tyler Durden.

09 Dec 2012

Belgian Sharia

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The election of Islamic Party municipal councilors in several towns in Belgian is provoking controversy, as the newly elected officials do not bother to conceal their intentions to use democratic means to overthrow democracy and turn Belgium into an Islamic state operating on the basis of Sharia law.

video: December 12, 2012

22 Sep 2012

Voting by the Dumb and Ill-Informed

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Beyond a certain point of negative understanding, of course, it is better for someone not to vote.

Joseph C. McMurray discusses the Marquis de Condorcet’s mathematical analysis favoring decision-making by larger numbers of people.

An interesting, if somewhat uncommon, lens through which to view politics is that of mathematics. One of the strongest arguments ever made in favor of democracy, for example, was in 1785 by the political philosopher-mathematician, Nicolas de Condorcet. Because different people possess different pieces of information about an issue, he reasoned, they predict different outcomes from the same policy proposals, and will thus favor different policies, even when they actually share a common goal. Ultimately, however, if the future were perfectly known, some of these predictions would prove more accurate than others. From a present vantage point, then, each voter has some probability of actually favoring an inferior policy. Individually, this probability may be rather high, but collective decisions draw information from large numbers of sources, mistaking mistakes less likely.

To clarify Condorcet’s argument, note that an individual who knows nothing can identify the more effective of two policies with 50% probability; if she knows a lot about an issue, her odds are higher. For the sake of argument, suppose that a citizen correctly identifies the better alternative 51% of the time. On any given issue, then, many will erroneously support the inferior policy, but (assuming that voters form opinions independently, in a statistical sense) a 51% majority will favor whichever policy is actually superior. More formally, the probability of a collective mistake approaches zero as the number of voters grows large.

Condorcet’s mathematical analysis assumes that voters’ opinions are equally reliable, but in reality, expertise varies widely on any issue, which raises the question of who should be voting? One conventional view is that everyone should participate; in fact, this has a mathematical justification, since in Condorcet’s model, collective errors become less likely as the number of voters increases. On the other hand, another common view is that citizens with only limited information should abstain, leaving a decision to those who know the most about the issue. Ultimately, the question must be settled mathematically: assuming that different citizens have different probabilities of correctly identifying good policies, what configuration of voter participation maximizes the probability of making the right collective decision?

It turns out that, when voters differ in expertise, it is not optimal for all to vote, even when each citizen’s private accuracy exceeds 50%. In other words, a citizen with only limited expertise on an issue can best serve the electorate by ignoring her own opinion and abstaining, in deference to those who know more. …

This raises a new question, however, which is who should continue voting: if the least informed citizens all abstain, then a moderately informed citizen now becomes the least informed voter; should she abstain, as well?

Mathematically, it turns out that for any distribution of expertise, there is a threshold above which citizens should continue voting, no matter how large the electorate grows. A citizen right at this threshold is less knowledgeable than other voters, but nevertheless improves the collective electoral decision by bolstering the number of votes. The formula that derives this threshold is of limited practical use, since voter accuracies cannot readily be measured, but simple example distributions demonstrate that voting may well be optimal for a sizeable majority of the electorate.

The dual message that poorly informed votes reduce the quality of electoral decisions, but that moderately informed votes can improve even the decisions made even by more expert peers, may leave an individual feeling conflicted as to whether she should express her tentative opinions, or abstain in deference to those with better expertise. Assuming that her peers vote and abstain optimally, it may be useful to first predict voter turnout, and then participate (or not) accordingly: when half the electorate votes, it should be the better-informed half; when voter turnout is 75%, all but the least-informed quartile should participate. …

If Condorcet’s basic premise is right, an uninformed citizen’s highest contribution may actually be to abstain from voting, trusting her peers to make decisions on her behalf. At the same time, voters with only limited expertise can rest assured that a single, moderately-informed vote can improve upon the decision made by a large number of experts. One might say that this is the true essence of democracy.

His conclusion seems to accord with observed results. Ordinary people are surprisingly well able to correct the follies and delusions which too commonly afflict the experts and elites, but there are also people so clueless that they are always going to vote wrong.

29 Mar 2012

The Contradictions of Democracy

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Vladislav Inozemtsev, in the American Interest, argues that democracy has gotten far too democratic, and that over-extended democracy is inevitably going to prove to be democracy’s own worst enemy. He’s perfectly right.

It was therefore no coincidence that democracy developed in national contexts defined by, as noted already, a demos comfortable in its social skin. It is even the case, to take an obviously unsettling example, that American democracy might not have developed as it did had it not been for slavery and acute racial prejudice. Only by separating out of the democratic process those considered at the time not to be a part of the demos could American democracy unfold. That is the other side, so to speak, of the Jacksonian-era expansion of the franchise. …

[E]ven universal secondary education can no longer reliably produce a responsible citizen. Liberal democracy born in the Republic of Letters has to survive in the Empire of Television, where information flows in one direction and need not involve direct response. The civic dialogue that was once the very foundation of democratic decision-making has become a one-way process of convincing voters. The political dialogue of liberal democracies is not just degraded, as is widely acknowledged; it is qualitatively different.

Moreover, as the capacity of citizens to grasp policy issues has eroded from one side, the percentage of citizens expected to grasp them has risen from the other. In Western countries today there is far more inequality within electorates than ever, simply because, as was not the case during the 19th century, everyone above age 18 can vote. …

Democracy was the optimal form of government when voters were capable of making rational choices through an understanding of what was at stake, when they were ready to bear the responsibility for the consequences of their choices, and when the right to vote was understood to be a privilege, or the result of a struggle still remembered. Nowadays it is difficult to shake the impression that democratic societies are rapidly turning into ochlocracies, where the vast majority of citizens, seeing their rights as given and their responsibilities not at all, are easily addled by propaganda, distracted by spectacle and either unable or unwilling to invest the time and energy required to be a responsible democratic actor.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Claire Berlinski.

24 Sep 2011

Reading Mark Steyn in the Light of Ortega

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Jose Orgetga y Gasset

Mark Anthony Signorelli turns his review of Mark Steyn’s After America: Get Ready for Armageddon into an essay supplementary to Steyn’s book, arguing the author’s view of cause and effect can be improved by reading a much earlier (1930) attack on the same forces of dissolution by the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset.

Throughout his book, Steyn catalogues the demoralizing effects of unlimited government upon the American citizenry. No one can ignore the power of the case he presents. But as much as government overreach erodes the character of a people, the debased character of a people manifests itself in arbitrary government. Bad institutions make bad people, but bad people also make bad institutions. Our ugly politics is every bit a reflection of our cultural failings as are our worthless schools. Steyn is not unaware of these facts; one of the passages I found most compelling in his book was when he argues that the truly horrifying thing about the rise of Obama was the fact that the majority of the American people had been duped by such an evident buffoon. Our folly created his administration, and all of its works. So Steyn clearly understands the way a people’s faults can manifest themselves in inept government. Still, the obvious emphasis of his book is on the causal relationship which runs opposite, on the way that inept government debases the character of a people. I think that emphasis is misplaced; I think the effects of a people’s character on the character of their government are more fundamental, more decisive to their happiness, and more subject to reform than the effects which flow from a corrupted government upon the citizenry. Or, to put the point in a different way, I believe that culture is far more consequential for the maintenance of a well-ordered community than politics. Steyn himself advises that, “changing the culture is more important than changing the politics,” but since the emphasis of his book is on the way that bad politics has changed our culture for the worse, he actually seems to undermine this bit of advice.

The book that most effectively delineates the ruinous social mechanisms of liberal democracy is The Revolt of the Masses, by the early twentieth-century philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. For Ortega, modern western society was marked by the rise to power of the “mass-man,” the unqualified or uncultivated man, who, lacking all necessary intellectual and moral training in the duties of civic life, had nonetheless asserted his immutable right to impose his own mediocrity of spirit upon society: “The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.” The mass-man is not bound by any traditions or maxims of prudence; he cares only about having his own way in the world. And when he is taught (as all modern political theory teaches him) that the state is a manifestation of his own will, he freely grants it an unlimited scope of action, just as he (theoretically) grants himself a perfect freedom of action: “This is the gravest danger that today threatens civilization: State intervention, the absorption of all spontaneous social effort by the State…when the mass suffers any ill-fortune, or simply feels some strong appetite, its great temptation is that permanent, sure possibility of obtaining everything – merely by touching a button and setting the mighty machine in motion.” The consequences of this trend are catastrophic:

    The result of this tendency will be fatal. Spontaneous social action will be broken up over and over again by State intervention; no new seed will be able to fructify. Society will have to live for the State, man for the governmental machine. And as, after all, it is only a machine whose existence and maintenance depend on the vital supports around it, the State, after sucking out the very marrow of society, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more gruesome than the death of a living organism.

Exactly as Steyn describes it in his book, some eighty years later. But what Ortega makes us see is that “big government” results from the prior moral corruption of the people, in particular from their unbounded self-love and self-assurance. It destroys them in the end, but at the first, it was their creature.

Read the whole thing. This one is a must-read.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

27 Feb 2011

Political Prospects For the Middle East

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Historian Bernard Lewis discusses the causes of unrest in the Middle East and is pessimistic about long-term prospects for democracy. His take on all this makes quite a contrast with the kind of naive optimism we read in conventional news sources in the West.

The Arab masses certainly want change. And they want improvement. But when you say do they want democracy, that’s a more difficult question to answer. What does “democracy” mean? It’s a word that’s used with very different meanings, even in different parts of the Western world. And it’s a political concept that has no history, no record whatever in the Arab, Islamic world.

In the West, we tend to get excessively concerned with elections, regarding the holding of elections as the purest expression of democracy, as the climax of the process of democratization. Well, the second may be true – the climax of the process. But the process can be a long and difficult one. Consider, for example, that democracy was fairly new in Germany in the inter-war period and Hitler came to power in a free and fair election.

We, in the Western world particularly, tend to think of democracy in our own terms – that’s natural and normal – to mean periodic elections in our style. But I think it’s a great mistake to try and think of the Middle East in those terms and that can only lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are simply not ready for free and fair elections.

One of the most moving experiences of my life was in the year 1950, most of which I spent in Turkey. That was the time when the Turkish government held a free and genuinely fair election – the election of 1950 – in which that government was defeated, and even more remarkably the government then quietly and decently withdrew from power and handed over power to the victorious opposition.

What followed I can only describe as catastrophic. Adnan Menderes, the leader of the party which won the election, which came to power by their success in the election, soon made it perfectly clear that he had no intention whatever of leaving by the same route by which he had come, that he regarded this as a change of regime, and that he had no respect at all for the electoral process.

And people in Turkey began to realize this. I remember vividly sitting one day in the faculty lounge at the school of political sciences in Ankara. This would have been after several years of the Menderes regime. We were sitting in the faculty lounge with some of the professors discussing the history of different political institutions and forms. And one of them suddenly said, to everyone’s astonishment, “Well, the father of democracy in Turkey is Adnan Menderes.”

The others looked around in bewilderment. They said, “Adnan Menderes, the father of Turkish democracy? What do you mean?” Well, said this professor, “he raped the mother of democracy.” It sounds much better in Turkish…

This happened again and again and again. You win an election because an election is forced on the country. But it is seen as a one-way street. Most of the countries in the region are not yet ready for elections. …

I can imagine a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations of the same kind obtain control of much of the Arab world. It’s not impossible. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s not unlikely.

And if that happens, they would gradually sink back into medieval squalor.
Remember that according to their own statistics, the total exports of the entire Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, one small European country. Sooner or later the oil age will come to an end. Oil will be either exhausted or superseded as a source of energy and then they have virtually nothing. In that case it’s easy to imagine a situation in which Africa north of the Sahara becomes not unlike Africa south of the Sahara. …

There’s a common theme of anger and resentment. And the anger and resentment are universal and well-grounded. They come from a number of things. First of all, there’s the obvious one – the greater awareness that they have, thanks to modern media and modern communications, of the difference between their situation and the situation in other parts of the world. I mean, being abjectly poor is bad enough. But when everybody else around you is pretty far from abjectly poor, then it becomes pretty intolerable.

Another thing is the sexual aspect of it. One has to remember that in the Muslim world, casual sex, Western-style, doesn’t exist. If a young man wants sex, there are only two possibilities – marriage and the brothel. You have these vast numbers of young men growing up without the money, either for the brothel or the brideprice, with raging sexual desire. On the one hand, it can lead to the suicide bomber, who is attracted by the virgins of paradise – the only ones available to him. On the other hand, sheer frustration. …

There was a little Arab boy whose arm was broken by an Israeli policeman during a demonstration and he appeared the next day on Israeli television with a bandage on his arm, denouncing Israeli brutality. I was in Amman at the time, watching this. And sitting next to me was an Iraqi, who had fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and he looked at this with his jaw dropping and he said, “I would gladly let Saddam Hussein break both my arms and both my legs if he would let me talk like that on Iraqi television.” …

The sort of authoritarian, even dictatorial regimes, that rule most of the countries in the modern Islamic Middle East, are a modern creation. They are a result of modernization. The pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant. You can see this from a number of contemporary descriptions. And the memory of that is still living.

It was a British naval officer called Slade who put it very well. He was comparing the old order with the new order, created by modernization. He said that “in the old order, the nobility lived on their estates. In the new order, the state is the estate of the new nobility.” I think that puts it admirably. …

In the Western world, we talk all the time about freedom. In the Islamic world, freedom is not a political term. It’s a legal term: Freedom as opposed to slavery. This was a society in which slavery was an accepted institution existing all over the Muslim world. You were free if you were not a slave. It was entirely a legal and social term, with no political connotation whatsoever. You can see in the ongoing debate in Arabic and other languages the puzzlement with which the use of the term freedom was first perceived.

They just didn’t understand it. I mean, what does this have to do with politics or government? Eventually, they got the message. But it’s still alien to them.

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