A silly little thing called ‘Democracy’

Few days back, posted the following on the Discuss Sudbury Model list on Google lists, in response to what I saw as an attempt to characterize Democracy as desperately needing a degree of benevolent nudging (or ham-fisted collectivist thought control, take your pick) in order to prevent the powerful few from dominating the disinterested many. Of course, it wasn’t put that way – that’s me trying to be funny. You should see my haircut.

Anyway,  thought it might be of interest to all those people out there not reading this blog:

You raise real issues that have gotten a lot of thought. Churchill’s quip about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others is applicable here as well, but:

The problems you describe have been apparent since the inception of democracy – surely, the Athenians were well aware of them, as were the founding fathers, as are the people involved with Sudbury schools. In more general terms, it’s a question of balancing the interests of the few against interests of the many (or, as your examples, the interests of another few). The counterbalances are also pretty well understood (my opinions here – there’s no magesterium for the Sudbury world, I’m sure other disagree):

1) natural, unaliable rights. There are certain things the democracy shall not do. Period. No voting on it.

2) subsidiarity. As Wikipedia puts it: an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.

An example that sprang to mind while reading your posts: US sugar producers, a tiny percentage of the population, have historically gotten laws passed which have the effect of imposing a sugar tax on everybody else, to the benefit of the US sugar producers. Absent these laws, we’d all pay a lot less for sugar (we’d import it all), and many if not all US based sugar producers would go out of business.

So, the questions become: are rights being violated? Is this decision being made at the appropriate level?

In the first case, I’d say yes, rights are being violated – effectively, one group of people is seizing the property of another group for their own benefit. In the second – since when is it a national level issue whether some local companies go out of business or not? Are we really going to agree that sugar production is some sort of national security issue?

Of course, there are counter arguments. But it’s telling that issues such as these are currently settled by weighing the wallets of the political contributors involved without any reference to principles at all.

In Sudbury schools, there are generally only three levels of Democracy – individuals, with their rights, groups with their goals and plans, and the school as a whole. The students, in the JC, school meeting and just in the rough and tumble of life, learn through doing that, in order for the school to run properly or even survive 1) everybody has rights which must be respected; 2) things work better if the ‘national’ level democracy (school meeting) leaves as much of the details as possible to the local level democracy (corporations and groups); 3) there are some ‘national’ level issues, such as adherence to the general laws of the land, that must be dealt with on a ‘national’ level.

So, I’d argue that, from a practical perspective, Sudbury students get far better training in the proper deployment of Democracy than any other students anywhere. They don’t get that weirdly abstract and rosy view of government I recall from ‘civics’ classes, a newsreel-like ‘progress marches on’ view of government fundamentally antithetical to functioning democracy. Instead, having experienced the work involved in a real democracy, they are less likely to mistake what goes on in America, at least at a national level, for any kind of real democracy.

This is a good thing, in my opinion.

Grand Sweep of History, part 1

Ever since I graduated, I’ve been frustrated by my lack of a grasp of history. Yet I get kidded (I think good-naturedly) about being the History Professor, since I tend to leap into some conversation or other with some story from history. This says way more about the general lack of historical perspective than it does about my level of historical erudition.

Anyway, barring a (not totally out of the question) return to academia, here’s my approach to history. Use it wisely, to dazzle your friends and baffle your enemies:

1) Get the big stories right. This could also be titled: Look at the Map, or even look at the pictures in a travel guide.

Examples: Chinese culture is really widespread. Not only are there 1.3 billion Chinese, but Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian and parts of many other cultures are offspring of Chinese culture, and Chinese influence continues to push outwards at the boarders. China is really, really big and important.

Islam is really widespread and – here’s the kicker – Islam has had effectively no positive influence on the lives of the people where it has held sway. Very politically incorrect, but also utterly historically undeniable. You can easily see this by the ridiculous lengths people go to to try to credit achievements to Islam. For comparison: vastly more useful, beautiful, and culturally positive things were produced by the about 50,000 5th century B.C. Athenians or the about 50,000 15th century Florentines  than have been produced by the millions upon millions of Muslims over the 14 centuries Islam has existed. All you have to do is look to see this.

There are really big mountains between India and China, but if you are willing to ford some rivers, you could walk from the Levant to Mumbai.

2) Get the big movements right. Mostly talking about where people are from and where they went.

Example: Americans tend to think that the native Americans have been almost eliminated. That’s somewhat true in the US, but almost completely untrue outside of some of the Caribbean islands. The blood of Native Americans runs strong in the populations of most of Latin America.

The Germanic tribes settled both France and Germany. The French and Germans are descended from the same peoples. The French Germans (so to speak) sort of learned Latin (“French is the most degenerate Romance language” – some professor or other), while the Germans Germans didn’t.

3) Atrocities are as common as dirt. Many peoples, when given the opportunity, have not hesitated to exterminate their enemies as far as possible – it’s not something only crazed dictators do (they just do it more efficiently) it is something regular people do. This adds needed perspective – what we should learn from  the Nazis is not that they were particularly monstrous, but that they were a lot like us. We should not be looking outward, but inward, if we wish to avoid more atrocities.

More later. Ciao.