Category Archives: Unpopular Opinions

Equilibrium, Madness, and Utopia

Is it possible to have the good without the bad? Does beauty create ugliness and does love beget hate?

These questions are often explored in dystopian fiction, but Szathmári Sándor’s Voyage to Kazohinia is notable in its resounding answer. Yes, these opposites endlessly create each other, Szathmári argues, and thus is it better to have neither.

It is better to leave passion and madness behind in favor of the calm stability of reason.

Perhaps this seems like not such a bold claim. Reason is certainly favorable, and ugliness and hate should be gladly left behind.

Yet, it is not quite as simple as that. The premise of the question finds that to abandon hate is to give up love, that defeating all the ills of society can only be accomplished by relinquishing the passion and spirit we hold most dear.

The perfect society is the monotonous society. Ideal and unchanging.

In making this point, Szathmári introduces us to the Hins. Technologically advanced, the Hins suffer no hunger or conflict. They live in equilibrium and harmony, through the mathematical clarity of kazo. They have no need for police or money; no need for government institutions regulating behavior. They each behave perfectly and have, quite sincerely, a perfect society.

But there is, perhaps, something unsatisfying in their existence.

We meet the Hins through Gulliver, our proud English protagonist. And while we might join the author in snickering at his cultural absurdities, there is one element of Gulliver’s impression of the Hins which resonates.

It starts with small observations. The Hins, we learn, “have no expression for taking delight in something.” A crowded beach is bathed in silence; among the Hins, “everybody was a stranger; not a single greeting was to be heard. Each simply did not exist for the other.”

Our hero begins struggling against this dispassionate view. He is impressed by the technological advancement of the Hins, but distraught by their seeming lack of feeling and soul. He desperately seeks to explain his culture to his Hin acquaintance, Zatamon, who interprets his words through the core Hin concepts of kazo, mathematical perfection, and its opposite, kazi.

After Gulliver carefully explains a number of concepts – friend, hatred, wife, happiness, theater, art, and political parties – Zatamon expresses his disappointment:

In your country the kazo is considered to apply to certain groups only, which, however, already means that it is not kazo as you do not observe it where others are concerned. Because you imagine some persons closer to yourselves and favor them, this can only be done at the same time you offer less or nothing to others. That is, both the things you give your friends and those you do not give others bear all the marks of the kazi concept. These friends do not receive out of need, or on the basis of a general state of equilibrium – at least this is what I gather from your words – but purely because you have invented the kazi idea of ‘friendship.’

…And as for the word ‘love,’ it seems to me you wish to indicate with this that people outside an exclusive circle are to be treated beneath the merit of their existence. But why do you call the same thing hatred on other occasions?

The Hins have no love or beauty or friendship because the mere conceptualization of such things existing indicates the existence of their opposites. They throw society out of balance, bring disharmony where harmony would exist otherwise. This might seem a tragic loss to our own kazi sensibilities, but giving up the extremes in favor of equilibrium is clearly the logical thing to do.

It should be noted, of course, that the philosophy which Szathmári advances here is by no means unique to the fictional Hins. Consider this eloquent passage from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

“Practice not-doing,” Lao Tzu advises, “and everything will fall into place.”

That is kazo.

This way of thinking is in bold contrast to the conclusions of others who have pondered this challenge of duality.

In 1959 – eighteen years after Kazohinia, but before it was translated to English – American author Robert Heinlein comes to a different conclusion in his novel Starship Troopers.

Heinlein similarly sees a tension between an idyllic but mundane society and a passionate society of hardship and growth.

Writing in the early years of the Vietnam War, Heinlein imagines a paradise planet called Sanctuary. Life is easy on Sanctuary, a tempting home for weary soldiers. But, while Szathmári genuinely advocates for the lifestyle of the Hins, Heinlein is clear that he sees such an appealing ideal as a trap.

The descendants of Sanctuary colonists will not evolve. “So what happens?” Heinlein asks. “Do they stay frozen at their present level while the rest of the human race moves on past them, until they are living fossils, as out of place as a pithecanthropus in a space ship?”

For Heinlein, it is not problematic that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are inextricably intertwined – both are a necessary part of human existence. Indeed, it is the challenge of living which truly makes us alive. Life on Sanctuary is no life at all.

This is the view of our Gulliver among the Hins. While Szathmári seems to advocate for the ideal society of the Hins, he knows such a view is unlikely to be adopted easily. Becoming fully acquainted with the dull, effortless, efficiency of Hin life, our hero finds himself filled with despair.

A feeling of terrible powerlessness came over me. I was buried alive among the dead in this island in the suffocating atmosphere of which the life-thirsty lung panted in vain. And there was no escape. I was to wither away here, without air and life…

Thus finding the Hins to be efficient but lifeless automatons, and painfully deprived of the passions he deems living, our hero makes his escape. He goes to live amongst the Behins, those  beings which the Hins find to be incurably kazi. 

Life amongst the Behins is so mad as to be hardly worth relaying. Gulliver is relieved to leave the colorless world of the Hins, only to find his new home “the most terrible bedlam in the world.”

Of course, the Behins are hardly more mad than we are. They greet each other with meaningless phrases and useless physical contact. They follow a convoluted set of social norms which are constantly changing and entirely unpredictable. They divide themselves into constantly warring factions that fight over nothing more than whether the circle or square is a more perfect geometric shape. They create work that doesn’t need to be done in order to enforce an arbitrary system in which the rich earn more than the poor. They are embarrassed to speak of basic physical processes (such as eating). They use metaphors which don’t in any way relate to the actual objects they are discussing. Women pay to have their faces mutilated in the name of beauty.

Yes, the Behins are quite mad.

This then, is the price of accepting the extremes. Of taking in love, hate, joy, and despair. It does, indeed, disrupt the unchanging world of the Hins, but while Heinlein sees these extremes as the essence of life, Szathmári argues the opposite – such madness is not life at all.

And while you are pondering which type of life makes you more alive, there is one more element of Szathmári’s deeply amusing satire worth mentioning.

In Behinistic society, people who speak the truth, who exercise reason, are frequently burned at the stake. Therefore, as Gulliver explains:

If one wanted to say something particularly sensible and dangerous he put a cap and bells on his head and put his fingers into his mouth. And the Behins listened to him with great amusement…

These makrus, as they were known, are the only ones who are free to speak the truth; at the cost that they are laughed at and never understood.

While “some openly described how stupid and wretched the Behin life was,” listeners always believed the words of a makru to apply only to their enemies. “…It never occurred to them that all the vile words the makrus wrote also applied to their own lives.”

In fact, while living amongst the Behins Gulliver begins writing the travel diary which we are ostensibly reading. His friend discovers the text and, finding his own name frequently amid the list of mad occurrences, asks out loud who that name is supposed to represent.

Yet this same friend guffaws moments later finding distasteful but accurate descriptions of a local dignitary. The friend encourages Gulliver to publish his comical work, assuring him that he need not fear the dignitary’s wrath: “How do you imagine that he would recognize himself?”

Considering the opportunity to publish his work among the Behins, our Gulliver reflects:

The proposal was enticing but after some thinking I realized that for the very same reason there was no point in publishing it. How could it be imagined that reading it would make them even one iota cleverer or would render their lives one jot more endurable with such a lack of comprehension? Should I publish the account of my travels? It deserved a lot better than to be object of idiots’ imbecilic guffaws.


On Trolls and Dissenters

Community meetings of all types and topics are frequently endangered by a common complication: that guy.

The person who speaks longer than anyone wants them to, who raises concerns that are unpopular amongst the broader public, or who unfailing uses every public platform as an opportunity to promote their pet issue, whether it is on topic or not.

Many a meeting has been derailed by this character’s irrelevant ravings, and many a community member has been silenced – fearing that if they spoke up they might appear as mad.

But there’s an interesting dilemma in this portrayal: of the many actions, motivations, and outcomes which could be lumped into this category some of them productive and some of them not.

Manin persuasively argues that debate of conflicting views is a necessary condition for successful deliberation – with groups otherwise likely to default towards prevailing norms. Diversity of views is not enough; “disagreement in face-to-face interactions generates psychic discomfort” which groups will avoid given the opportunity.

Good deliberation, then, requires disagreement and debate as a core element – not as something which may arise or not as the context decides.

How, then, can one distinguish the actions of a counter-productive troll and a valuable dissenter? Many times, the unpopular thing needs to be said.

Rachel Barney’s excellent [Aristotle], On Trolling – written, as the name implies, in the spirit of Aristotle, lends some helpful guidance to this question.”Every community of speakers holds certain goods in common, and with them the conversation [dialegesthai] as an end in itself; and the troll is one who seeks to damage it from within.”

The troll, then actively seeks to destroy a community, to set “the community apart from each other” and introduce “strife where before there was scarcely disagreement.”

Barney/Aristotle is careful to note that the troll can be distinguished from the productive dissenter which Manin imagines:

One might wonder whether there is an art of trolling and an excellence; and indeed some say that Socrates was a troll, and so that the good man also trolls. And this is in fact what the troll claims: that he is a gadfly and beneficial, and without him to ‘stir up’ the thread it would become dull and unintelligent. But this is incorrect. For Socrates was speaking frankly when he told the Athenians to care for their souls, rather than money and honors, and showed that they lacked knowledge. And this is not trolling but the contrary, exhortation and truth-telling— even if the citizens get very annoyed. For annoyance results from many kinds of speech; and the peculiarity [idion] of the troll is not annoyance or controversy in general, but confusion and strife among a community who really agree.

Thus the troll takes the guise of a productive dissenter, whom a democratic peoples would do well to embrace, while actually seeking to destroy, not improve, a community through their dissension.

This may be a meaningful epistemic distinction, yet it can be challenging to define in practice. As Manin points out, a “community who really agree” may have simply come to agree through the processes of group dynamics.

Importantly, this type of agreement is not intrinsically related to issues of power and oppression. That is, while one may argue that agreement arrived through coercion is not really agreement at all, Manin is primarily concerned with instances where a group can be genuinely said to agree. The root of this surface agreement may not be coercion at all, but rather an unfortunate result of the fact that individuals tend to be biased and, worse yet, “groups process information in a more biased way than individuals do.”

That is, without some gadfly perturbing the system, groups tend to systematically shift toward consensus, “regardless of the merits of the issue being discussed.”

If we, like Barney/Aristotle, are to take trolling as inherently bad, more productive forms of dissent, exhortation, or truth-telling must then be distinguished. Therefore, following Manin, I’d be inclined to push back on defining a troll as one who sows discord amidst a community which agrees. If agreement was achieved through systematic social processes, perhaps a little discord could be good.

One then might seek to capture trolling through a broader definition of motivation: a troll seeks to destroy while a dissenter seeks to improve.

Importantly, though, destruction is not intrinsically beyond a dissenter’s concern: indeed, a dissenter may seek to break corrupt institutions and social structures. To smash context rather than settle for reformist tinkering, as legal scholar Roberto Unger would say.

More accurately, then, a dissenter can be seen as seeking to improve the human condition, apart from the specific context of political structures, while a troll – like Eris – seeks solely to sow discord.

In his 1992 address to Wroclaw University Václav Havel argues in favor of breathing “something of the dissident experience into practical politics.”

“The politics I refer to here cannot be enshrined in or guaranteed by any law, decree, or declaration,” Havel says. “It cannot be hoped that any single, specific political act might bring it about and achieve it. Only the aim of an ideology can be achieved. The aim of this kind of politics, as I understand it, is never completely attainable because this politics is nothing more than a permanent challenge, a never-ending effort that can only in the best possible case leave behind it a certain trace of goodness.”

This permanent challenge is the noble undertaking of the dissenter, whether in the form of sweeping revolution or more mundane provocations.

In the mundane world of practical politics, then, this leaves us still with the problem: how do we distinguish the permanent challenge of the dissenter from the wanton destruction of the troll?


Is Diversity Enough?

I’ve been reading Manin’s critical Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion.

At the core of his argument, Manin complains that liberal theorists traditionally conflate “diversity of views” with “conflicting views.” Holding that a necessary and sufficient condition for good deliberation is “that participants in discussion hold diverse views and articulate a variety of perspectives, reflecting the heterogeneity of their experiences and backgrounds.”

To be clear, Manin isn’t suggesting that diversity of thought isn’t critical to deliberation – rather, he argues, it is not sufficient.

“Diversity of views is not a sufficient condition for deliberation because it may fail to bring into contact opposing views,” he writes. “It is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity.”

There are many ways in which the mere presence of diversity may not result in the articulation of divergent views. Social psychology research has well documented the challenges of confirmation bias, where people “systematically misperceive and misinterpret evidence that is counter to their preexisting belief.” Or even avoid conflicting evidence all together.

To make matters worse, Manin points to research which further finds that “groups process information in a more biased way than individuals do, preferring information that supports their prior dominant belief to an even greater extent than individual people.”

More broadly, diverse experiences and views may not always translate directly into divergent opinions or perspectives on a given topic. Manin asks us to imagine a community facing a very reasonable and rational fear: say, a serial killer is on the loose. Discussing a proposal to expand police powers at this time of crisis, “the variety of perspectives and dispersion of social knowledge among them will ensure that many arguments, each deriving from the particular perspective, experience, or background of the speaker, are heard in support of expanding the prerogatives to the police.”

That is, the diverse reasons may all support the same view.

And finally, in a large heterogenous society, diverse opinions and experience may become polarized as fragmented, separate communities. That is, “a variety of internally homogeneous communities will coexist, each ignoring the views of the others.”

And, of course, there is the deep problem of power. Divergent perspectives will often go unspoken in situations where one group or groups have been systematically oppressed and silenced. Where even explicit invitations to freely share their views are rightly perceived as hollow or out-right disingenuous. This is a dynamic which John Gaventa documents powerfully in his study of poor, white, coal miners in the Appalachian Valley.

The damaging impact of this dynamic cannot be understated, as Gaventa argues, “power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness. Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining.”

Finally, there is the simple social challenge that “encountering disagreement”, as Manin writes, “generates psychic discomfort.” People don’t really like to argue.

(Of note here, there is little cross-cultural consideration in Manin, so while mainstream America’s distaste for argumentative discourse is well documented in numerous places, I’m not sure how broad a claim this properly ought to be.)

The solution to this seems simple: argue more. Take “deliberate and affirmative measures” to ensure lively debate and critical discussion. Don’t just assume that if diverse people are present, diverse voices will be heard. Seek out divergent views and conflicting arguments. If no one else says them – argue for them yourself.

This last point, I think, is particularly critical in looking at deliberation through a power-lens. If you are a position of power you are responsible for ensuring that diverse view be heard. This can mean working to create a safe space where people genuinely feel welcomed to share their views – or it can mean saying the unpopular thing yourself, putting it out there as a valid idea, worthy of further consideration.


Reasoning and Absurdity

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates describes the human soul as consisting of three parts, which he describes through allegory: “two horses and a charioteer.” Furthermore, “one of the horses was good and the other bad.”

More precisely, one horse “is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory,” while the other, a “crooked lumbering animal,” is “the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.”

This tripartite image captures an understanding the soul which has continued to permeate Western thought. The good horse is man’s noble spirit (thymos), the other his wild appetites (epithymia). The charioteer, tasked with the difficult task balancing the instincts of these two beasts, has the most crucial role: this is man’s reason (logos) itself.

In this struggle, “if the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail, then they pass their life here in happiness and harmony – masters of themselves and orderly.”

Aristotle seems to invoke a similar argument when he comments in Nicomachean Ethics, “as sight is in the body, so is reason in the soul.”

Reason, it seems, is fundamental to who we are as human people – and, perhaps more importantly, is essential to what it means to be a good person.

As with many things, though, this Greek ideal is complicated by the realities of modernity.

This classical Greek understanding goes beyond finding the act of reasoning to be good. Reason is not merely a process through which unique people may come to unique conclusions, rather it is the tool through which we may ultimately uncover Truth. Singular, universal, Truth.

This is problematic in a pluralistic world.

While there may be some moral stances on which all reasonable people could agree, asserting the existence of Truth – whether or not you claim to have discovered that Truth – amounts to the harsh assertion that some people are right and some people are wrong; that some religions are right and some religions are wrong; that some cultures are right and some cultures are wrong.

Such a position is untenable.

Thus, perhaps, we are plunged into despair. Holding diversity of thought and belief in high esteem means abandoning any pursuit of Truth and relinquishing the reins of reason. There is not one Truth that can be discovered through the scholarly art of reason; rather reason is little more than a mantle to drape around whichever views fit our fancy.

This is the challenge that Nietzsche refers to in On the Genealogy of Morals when he quotes the secret motto of the Order of Assassins: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

The destruction of Truth, the dispersion of reason – while so very valuable in our pluralist, modern times – muddies the question of what is right and what is wrong. Where do cultural differences end and moral imperatives begin? How do you balance one person’s religious freedom with another’s personal freedom?

Nietzsche sees this an inescapable cycle, arguing that “all great things bring about their own demise through an act of self-sublimation.”

Thus reason must ultimately destroy itself – as reason will reveal that there is no Truth.

“What meaning does our being have, if it were not that that will to truth has become conscious of itself as a problem in us?” Nietzsche writes. “Without a doubt, from now on, morality will be destroyed by the will to truth’s becoming-conscious-of-itself: that great drama in a hundred acts reserved for Europe in the next two centuries, the most terrible, most questionable drama but perhaps also the one most rich in hope…”

“Rich in hope” is not the expression most people would use for this terrible drama. If nothing is true, everything is permitted. Only anarchy and nihilism can follow.

I myself am more drawn to Camus’ take on things. With his dry, French wit he sees the conflict but dismisses it as conflict. Yes, the world is absurd, he reasons. That’s not license to do as you will.

You are free, perhaps, to be a terrible person, but that doesn’t mean you ought to let yourself follow that path. You still need to steer your horses.

This is the message I get from much of Camus’ work: the world is absurd, life is meaningless, and with that freedom some will permit themselves to fulfill the worst of human nature. But we also have a choice to be good. And without any reasoning, without any truth to justify it, that’s the choice we ought to make.

In The Stranger, Meursault is rightfully punished while others’ every-day callousness goes shamefully unchecked. In The Plague, our heroes – faced with the absurd, seemingly certain result of death, continually choose to fight for life. In The Fall, our unnamed, damned narrator wistfully declares, “But let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!

The absurd is no reason to stop fighting for what’s right.

And yet, in much of his writing Camus is indirect with his moral claims; perhaps he finds little ground to judge the morality of others.

So I was struck this morning by the unwavering moral claims Camus’ makes in his 1946 speech “The Human Crisis:”

Yes, there is a human crisis because in today’s world, we can contemplate the death or the torture of a human being with a feeling of indifference, friendly concern, scientific interest, or simple passivity. Yes, there is a human crisis, since putting a person to death can be regarded with something other the horror and scandal it ought to provoke. Since human suffering is accepted as a somewhat boring obligation, on a par with getting supplies or having to stand in line for an ounce of butter.

There is a human crisis, because in a world where nothing is true, we foolishly assume that everything is permitted. We reason away our responsibilities, occasionally decrying perpetrators only to accept bystanders neutral. It’s not our responsibility, it is not our concern.

But Nietzsche is wrong; there is no death of morality and there is no death of truth. We may not always know what’s best, but Camus’ feels it in his bones: we still have an imperative to do what is right.


On the Absurd and Daily Living

Albert Camus finds all lives to be absurd.

In his masterful The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus uses this tragic, absurd, hero to illustrate the absurdity of every day life.  Sisyphus’ ceaseless labor, rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, is futile and hopeless, and yet – “the workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd.”

This is a bold claim. Are we each, indeed, as absurd as Sisyphus?

As an initial reaction, one might grope first towards the long view. If you find, as Camus does, that life itself is inherently meaningless; that there is no greater, higher, or broader purpose, then, perhaps, indeed, you may find, too, the peculiarities of daily life to be absurd.

In this sense, all of life, all choices of action, are absurd. Facing the inescapable fate of oblivion, we too find our “whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.”

Of course, one may take the merrier view that such absurdity is not our undeniable fate; that life does have purpose after all.

Much of Camus’ argument seeks to counter this claim; such hope in higher purpose is the hasty conviction of fools. There is little doubt that hope is comforting; but it ultimately betrays the greater cause of consciousness. The tragedy of Sisyphus, the tragedy of our lives, comes from our consciousness, Camus argues, but this consciousness is also our greatest strength.

For Sisyphus, Camus’ conclusion is clear: “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.”


Thus he urges each of us to be conscious of our absurdity; to embrace the meaninglessness which pursues us as we plod through our daily lives; to scorn the idols which proffer their empty hope; and to proudly find ourselves stronger than our rock.

Yet, amidst his towering prose, Camus fails to confront a core claim: Are we each, fundamentally, as absurd as Sisyphus?

The tragedy of Sisyphus lies not only in his consciousness, not only in his total exertion towards nothing. Rather, his tragedy lies in the dreariness of his setting; in the repetition of his existence.

Consider Camus’ account of the sins which earned Sisyphus his doom. Not only was he found to have a “certain levity in regard to the gods,” his real sin was to live. Following his death, Sisyphus obtained permission from Pluto “to return to earth in order to chastise his wife” who had disobeyed his final order to “cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square.”

But once returning to life, Sisyphus refused to give it up. “When he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, lead him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him.”

This was Sisyphus’ crime. He lived too much; experienced too much. The punishment of the gods ensured not only his futile labor but his continued existence in a state of non-experience. All he would ever know again was his rock and his mountain; his mountain and his rock.

In this story, we are not, perhaps, the laborer, working everyday in his life at the same tasks. Rather, we Sisyphus, returned from the underworld. Unabashedly enjoying the beauty and experience that comes with every miraculous day.

Or, perhaps, this is exactly what the story is supposed to remind us. We can live with the vibrancy of Sisyphus on earth or share in his quiet scorn from the underworld. We can work on our big, important, projects, laboring ceaselessly towards some absurd end – or we can laugh and take whatever life throws at us; loving the harsh and extraordinary experience of simply being alive.

In the end, it doesn’t matter which fate we choose. Indeed, this is Camus’ most remarkable lesson: our fates are our own. No darkness or decree can strip us of that.  We are each the master of our days. Fully free to contemplate “that series of unrelated actions” which become our fate. And thus, like Sisyphus, despite our burdens, despite our labors, we too may conclude that all is well.


Education, Democracy, and The Establishment

Last week, drawing on the work of Walter Lippmann, I raised several concerns about the about inclusion of popular voice in democracy.

In some ways, these concerns seem at odds – what is democracy if not the free governing of the people by the people? To reduce the voice of ‘the people’ in any political system is to draw it away from democracy and, perhaps more critically, to violate democratic ideals.

It cannot be denied that there is a tension here. A tension between the noble goal of empowerment of every day citizens and the truly hard work of governing itself.

What good is allowing the people to govern if ‘the people’ are not truly fit to govern?

At its core, this debate boils down to one of education versus problem solving. Myles Horton, educator, organizer, and long time director of the Highlander Folk School, spoke about this debate through the lens of organizing:

If the purpose is to solve the problem, there are a lot of ways to solve the problem that are so much simpler than going through all this educational process…But if education is to be part of the process, then you may not actually get that problem solved, but you’ve educated a lot of people. You have to make that choice.

If you’re a community organizer whose goal is to solve a problem in the community, you may need ‘the people’ in the sense that you need the strength of their support; you need the power that comes from numbers. Any good community organizer would also want the identification of the problem and definition of a solution to come from the community; but this is still a somewhat shallow form of engagement.

An organizer, working in partnership with the community they are organizing, guides the direction of action; provides professional feedback and support on what strategies and tactics are most likely to succeed. This type of organizing is more empowering than what community members might experience otherwise and can lead directly to much-needed positive outcomes in the community.

But it is not education.

Horton describes a particularly memorable scene in which, gun to his head, he refused to tell a community member what action to take. “Go ahead and shoot if you want to, but I’m not going to tell you,” he recalls.

In recollecting the moment, Horton explains his reasoning. If he had told what to do “all would be lost.”

He saw himself not as an organizer, trying to work towards a just system, but rather as an educator, developing citizens capable of building their own just systems.

From this, I find that theorists such as Lippmann are right: if we want a political system which most fairly distributes resources, which is just and thoughtful in its approach, the broad and unfiltered inclusion of the mass of public voices is not the best way to accomplish that goal.

But such a concern overlooks a critical point: is that indeed our goal?

If instead we want a political system which empowers every person to participate; which truly believes that all people – all people – have a right and responsibility to engage in public work; if we want a society that truly values the input, insights, and voice of every single member – that is a different goal to work for.

And, indeed, such an educational approach is not the best way to achieve immediate political goals.

If you want to change policy, engage the people; if you want to change systemic structures, educate the people.

Of course, all this hardly settles the debate: if no amount of education and preparation could prepare ‘the people’ to govern, such efforts would find long-term as well as short-term failure.

As a matter of practicality, one can argue this course without degrading the people too much. That is, to say that ‘the people’ are unalterably unfit for the lofty task we set them to is not intrinsically to claim that commoners are too stupid, lazy, or uncaring for this task.

The world is a complicated place. With the constant influx of information and the deep histories that have brought us to the societies we have today, no individual person could hardly be expected to have all the knowledge and expertise needed to justly rule.

Considering that this task would be deeply challenging for even an idealized world leader, whose sole task is to consider such issues and whose efforts are supported by a staff of experts – you can hardly expect an average person, whose time and worries are reasonably devoted to other matters, to be up to the task.

Arguing this path isn’t an insult to the common man; it is rather a recognition of impossible goal society’s ideals have set for them.

The challenge that I see is that we find ourselves caught between these two paths. It is a sort of pseudo-democracy, in which we comfort ourselves that we, the people, are the ones to govern, but in which we each deem the majority of our peers as unfit for the task.

In this way, we can always blame the “them”: if political engagement were only restricted to those who are correct (like us), than we could have the ideal government we long for. Such disenfranchisement would be the most efficient way to achieve our ends, but – knowing how unjust it would be if “they” were to disenfranchise “us” – we instead settle into a deep melancholia for the world.

And, if one thing is certain, such political ennui fulfills its own unfortunate goal – to maintain the status quo and cement the standing of those with the most power; effectively disenfranchising both the “us” and the “them.”


Populism and Democracy

Yesterday, I discussed some of the concerns Walter Lippmann raised about entrusting too much power to “the people” at large.

Such concerns are near blasphemy in a democratically-spiritual society, yet I consistently find myself turning towards Lippmann as a theorist who eloquently raises critical issues which, in my view, have yet to be sufficiently addressed.

At their worst, Lippmann’s arguments are interpreted as rash calls for technocracy: if “the people” cannot be trusted, only those who are educated, thoughtful, and qualified should be permitted to voice public opinions. In short, political power should rightly remain with the elites.

I find that to be a misreading of Lippmann and a disservice to the importance of the issues he raises.

In fact, Lippmann’s primary concern was technocracy – the governing of an elite caring solely  for their own interests and whose power ensured their continued dominion. Calling such a system “democracy” merely creates an illusion of the public’s autonomy, thereby only serving to cement elites’ power.

I do not dispute that Lippmann finds “the public” wanting. He clearly believes that the population at large is not up to the serious tasks of democracy.

But his charges are not spurious. The popularity of certain Republican candidates and similarly fear-mongering politicians around the world should be enough to give us pause. The ideals of democracy are rarely achieved; what is popular is not intrinsically synonymous with what is Good.

This idea is distressing, no doubt, but it is worth spending time considering the possible causes of the public failures.

One account puts this blame on the people themselves: people, generally speaking, are too lazy, stupid, or short sighted to properly execute the duties of a citizen. This would be a call for some form of technocratic or meritocratic governance – perhaps those who don’t put in the effort to be good citizens should be plainly denied a voice in governance.

Robert Heinlein, for example, suggests in his fiction that only those who serve in the military should be granted the full voting rights of citizenship. “Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part…and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.”

Similarly, people regularly float the idea of a basic civics test to qualify for voting. You aren’t permitted to drive a car without proving you know the rules of the road; you shouldn’t be allowed to vote unless you can name the branches of government.

Such a plan may seem reasonable on the surface, but it quickly introduces serious challenges. For generations in this country, literacy tests have been used to disenfranchise poor voters, immigrants, and people of color. And even if such disenfranchisement weren’t the result of intentional discrimination – as it often was – the existence of any such test would be biased in favor of those with better access to knowledge.

That is – those with power and privilege would have no problems passing such a test while our most vulnerable citizens would face a significant barrier. To make matters worse, these patterns of power and privilege run deeply through time – a civics test for voting quickly goes from a tool to encourage people to work for their citizenship to a barrier that does little but reinforce the divide between an elite class and non-elites.

And this gives a glimpse towards another explanation for the public’s failure: perhaps the problem lies not with “the people” but with the systems. Perhaps people are unengaged or ill-informed not because of their own faults, but because the structures of civic engagement don’t permit their full participation.

Lippmann, for example, documented how even the best news agencies fail in their duty to inform the public. But the structural challenges for engagement run deeper.

In Power and Powerlessness, John Gaventa documents how poor, white coal miners regularly voted in local elections – and consistently voted for those candidates supported by coal mine owners. These were often candidates who actively sought to crush unions and worked against workers rights. Any fool could see they did not have the interest of the people at heart…but the people voted for them anyway, often in near-unamous elections.

To the outsider, these people seem stupid or lazy – the type whose vote should be taken away for their own good. But, Gaventa argues, to interpret that is to miss what’s really going on:

Continual defeat gives rise not only to the conscious deferral of action but also to a sense of defeat, or a sense of powerlessness, that may affect the consciousness of potential challengers about grievances, strategies or possibilities for change….From this perspective, the total impact of a power relationship is more than the sum of its parts. Power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness.

In the community Gaventa studied, past attempts to exercise political voice dissenting from the elite had lead to people loosing their jobs and livelihoods. If I remember correctly, some had their homes burned and some had been shot.

It had been some time since such retribution had been taken, but Gaventa’s point is that it didn’t need to be. Elites had established their control so thoroughly, so completely, that poor residents did what was expected of them without hardly a thought. They didn’t need to be threatened so rudely; their submission was complete.

Arguably, theorists like Lippmann see a similar phenomenon happening more broadly.

If you are deeply skeptical of the system, you might believe it to be set up intentionally to minimize the will of the people. In the States at least, our founding fathers were notoriously scared of giving “the people” too much power. They liked the idea of democracy, but also saw the flaws and dangers of pure democracy.

In Federalist 10, James Madison argued:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

To give equal power to all the people is to set yourself up for failure; to leave nothing to check “an obnoxious individual.”

Again, there is something very reasonable in this argument. I’ve read enough stories about people being killed in Black Friday stampedes to know that crowds don’t always act with wisdom. And yet, from Gaventa’s argument I wonder – do the systems intended to check the madness of the crowd rather work to re-inforce power and inequity; making the nameless crowd just that more wild when an elite chooses to whip them into a frenzy?

Perhaps this system – democracy but not democracy – populism but not populism – is self-reinforcing; a poison that encourages the public – essentially powerless – to use what power they have to support those crudest of elites who prey on fear hatred to advance their own power.

As Lippmann writes in The Phantom Public, “the private citizen today has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row …In the cold light of experience he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern…”


On Public Opinion

Walter Lippmann was notoriously skeptical of “the people.”

The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist was all too familiar with the art of propaganda, with the ease with which elites could shape so-called “public opinion.”

In 1920, Lippmann – who had worked for the “intelligence section” of the U.S. government during the first World War – published a 42-page study on “A Test of the News” with collaborator Charles Merz.

“A sound public opinion cannot exist without access to the news,” they argued, and yet there is “a widespread and a growing doubt whether there exists such an access to the news about contentious affairs.”

That doubt doesn’t seem to have diminished any in the last hundred years.

Civic theory generally imagines an ideal citizen to be one who actively seeks out the news and possesses the sophistication to stay non-biasedly informed of current events. But debate over the practically of that ideal is moot if even such an ideal citizen cannot gain access to accurate and unbiased news.

Lippmann and Merz sought to empirically measure the quality of the news by examining over three thousand articles published the esteemed New York Times during the Russian Revolution (1917-1920).

What they found was disheartening:

From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all. Yet on the face of the evidence there is no reason to charge a conspiracy by Americans. They can fairly be charged with boundless credulity, and an untiring readiness to be gulled, and on many occasions with a downright lack of common sense.

Whether they were “giving the public what it wants” or creating a public that took what it got, is beside the point. They were performing the supreme duty in a democracy of supplying the information on which public opinion feeds, and they were derelict in that duty. Their motives may have been excellent. They wanted to win the war; they wanted to save the world. They were nervously excited by exciting events. They were baffled by the complexity of affairs, and the obstacles created by war. But whatever the excuses, the apologies, and the extenuation, the fact remains that a great people in a supreme crisis could not secure the minimum of necessary information on a supremely important event.

And lest we think such failures are relegated to history, consider the U.S. media’s coverage leading up to the Iraq War. Here, too, it seems fair to say that whatever the motives of media, they were indeed derelict in their duty.

Such findings gave Lippmann a deep sense of unease for “popular opinion.”

“The public,” he writes in The Phantom Public (1925), “will arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who the villain of the piece.”

The public makes its judgements on gut instinct and imperfect knowledge. Most do not understand a situation in full detail – they know neither the history nor the possible implications of their views. They are consumed with the details of their own daily lives, raising their eyes to politics just long enough to briefly consider what might be best for them in that moment.

Such a system is sure to end in disaster – with public opinion little more than a tool manipulated by elites.

As Sheldon Wolin describes in Political Theory as Vocation, such a system would be ‘democracy’ in name but not in deed:

The mass of the population is periodically doused with the rhetoric of democracy and assured that it lives in a democratic society and that democracy is the condition to which all progressive-minded societies should aspire. Yet that democracy is not meant to realize the demos but to constrain and neutralize it by the arts of electoral engineering and opinion management. It is, necessarily, regressive. Democracy is embalmed in public rhetoric precisely in order to memorialize its loss of substance. Substantive democracy—equalizing, participatory, commonalizing—is antithetical to everything that a high-reward, meritocratic society stands for.

This is the nightmare Lippmann sought to avoid – but it also the undeniable reality he saw around him.

In elevating “the voice of the people” to “the voice of god,” our founders not only made a claim Lippmann considers absurd, but paved the way for a government of elites, by elites, and for elites – all in the hollow, but zealously endorsed, name of “the people.”


Jessica Jones and the Banality of Evil

Most of the characters in Marvel’s Netflix show Jessica Jones are not very Good – in the deeper, capital-G sense of the word.

They’re not very good people.

Some are certainly worse than others, and some are even moderately good, but few, if any, stand out as paragons of virtue. Indeed, the main villain of the story – Zebediah Killgrave, who uses his powers of mind-control to manipulate people for his violent and disturbing ends – is hardly the tale’s only bad guy.

He is simply the most powerful.

Early on in the season, Jones’ friend Trish Walker laments Kilgrave’s egoism: Men and power, it’s seriously a disease.

Kilgrave is dangerous not because he’s a depraved, disturbed individual – but rather it is his power which makes him dangerous. Another man with the same power might be just as villainous, and Kilgrave without his powers would be just another unremarkable man.

Indeed, over the course of the season we see this transformation to power take place in Officer Will Simpson, who spirals out of control as he becomes increasing reliant on a drug that boosts his adrenaline.

It’s not just the drug that makes Simpson a menace: his personality had always veered towards anger and violence. Rather the addition of a superhuman ability transforms him from unremarkably disagreeable to near-supervillian status.

Yes, all women, the whole season seems to scream.

In many way, these themes remind me of Hannah Arendt’s famous reflections on the “banality of evil,” from Eichmann in Jerusalem.

While in no way defending Eichmann – who was clearly immoral and depraved – in the end, Arendt finds him wholly unremarkable – a bureaucratic man whose terrible acts were driven by his own uncaring quest for power. In the setting of Nazi German, Eichmann unleashed great evil – but without the power of his position and context, he would have been just another, unremarkable, power-hungry man.

As Arendt writes:

In the face of death he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows his memory played him the last trick he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral. It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.


Exit, Voice, and Presidential Elections

In spring 2003, I was living in Japan.

That’s where I was when the Unites States invaded Iraq for “Operation Iraqi Freedom” as it was colorfully named by my government.

Throughout the months I lived abroad, I tried to keep up on the news from home; daily scouring reports from the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. The flavor of news coming out of each country was markedly different – the U.S. blindly patriotic, the U.K. supportingly reserved, Japan politely disapproving.

The details and word variation between articles told remarkably different stories, and I hoped, I suppose, that by reading multiple accounts I could somehow triangulate the truth.

The news coming out of the U.S. was particularly disturbing.

It was as though the whole nation had gone mad.

Other countries reported stories of schools being bombed by U.S. troops; my country was on some tear about Freedom Fries.

This was in the infancy of the blogosphere, so apart from the few people I kept in touch with over AOL Instant Messenger, my only sense for public opinion back home came from the sycophantic mainstream media. A media which has, in fact, somewhat reformed in recent years in response to its catastrophic failure of that time.

And perhaps this is why I’m inclined to sigh whenever someone declares that they will move to Canada, or, perhaps, the moon, should someone they strongly dislike be elected President.

I heard that a lot when President George W. Bush won reelection, and I’m hearing it a lot now.

It’s hardly a solution.

I hardly mean to imply that the Iraq War would have played out differently had I not been abroad; but it seems fairly certain that such warmongering tendencies would only be worse should all progressives decide to leave.

At the very least – I have to say – let’s not leave the nuclear launch codes behind.

In Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert O. Hirschman outlines the three ways in which a person might interact with an organization, community, or state. As you may have guessed, the options are: exit, voice, and loyalty.

A person might stay loyal to an organization and support it’s views and actions; a person might exit an organization, leaving its undesirable policies in search of greener pastures; or a person might exercise voice: speaking up and fighting to make the organization the way they’d like it to be.

There are, of course, many instances throughout human history where people have been forced to exit for fear of their lives and wellbeing. One report estimates that there are nearly 60 million refugees in the world today. Theirs was not an exit taken lightly.

But the situation in the United States – while disheartening – is hardly so harsh.

I know most people are joking when they speak of plans to move away, and yet – it is a troubling sign of resignation.

We may not be the unparalleled superpower we might fancy ourselves to be, but we are still a nation which wields the potential for great harm or good.

If elections don’t go the way we like, it shouldn’t be cause to flee, but rather a call to action: our voices would be needed more than ever.