prolegomena // musings of a wayward historian

applying to grad school: impetus

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

Last summer, I voluntarily became unemployment. It wasn't that my old job was particularly hard. Rather, i had graduated with my M.A. from North Texas earlier that May. Was I going to have a graduate degree and simply stay on in my tech support job? With a half-assed plan in place, and little-to-no savings, I quit after seven years there.

Through luck and the fortuitous friendship of my M.A. advisor and the person in charge of hiring me, I was able to find as an adjunct-instructor at a local community college. Was the pay good? Hah, no. But I figured it would be a good testing ground to see what I ultimately wanted to do with my life. Obviously I would teach history, but the question would be where and in what context. That is, do I want to continue on with my education to get my doctorate degree and brave the academic job market in a few years time? Or would I use my M.A. to finagle my way into a high school job and be content there? My heart wanted the former, while my brain told me to be realistic. At the very least, I could buy time with my adjuncting.

I wouldn't teach actual college students, by the way. I would instead teach high school students who wanted to earn college credit before heading off to a four-year university. Now I would actually interact with high schoolers and see if teaching high school would be something I want to do. 

Truth be told, I didn't know what to expect. But seven months in, I can say that I love my job. This is what I want to do with my life. And even if I "settle" to teaching at a high school, I can say that I would still be a happy man.

Except...except I still had that itch, that desire to get my doctorate degree. My experience as a M.A. student is not entirely analogous to others in that 1. I was a part-time student and 2. did not really partake into the clique of graduate students that predominated North Texas.* I wasn't able to graduate in two years on account of work-related changes and training. But despite the time constraint and the anonymity I felt with the department, I loved graduate school. It's simplistic to say if it was "hard" or "easy." It was challenging, but I love a challenge. I found a good topic to write about, and while funding from UNT was non-existent, I did the best I could to research my thesis. Researching topics, grappling with historiography, and writing are things I also loved. And I would not be able to do any of that in a professional setting if I went the high school or community college route.

My philosophy was this: I could either do this now, or live with the regret of not having tried. The worst-case scenario would be that I would be rejected from all the schools I've applied to. In which case, I transition from adjuncting to full-time teaching. I took the plunge and applied in the autumn of 2016. 

In the next post, I will expand on the application process. What schools I applied to, and what I learned (belatedly). I will also end on a very optimistic note. Stay tuned!



Totten: Eternal Enmity

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

In his Jan. 18 post “Iran’s Hostage Victory,” Michael Totten displays the same blindness typical of many hawks in their disdain and loathing of both Iran and the possibility of a détente with Iran.

Totten begins his post eye-rolling Bernie Sanders’ suggestion on restoring diplomatic relations with Iran:

During Sunday’s Democratic primary debate, Senator Bernie Sanders argued that it’s time to bring Iran in from the cold. “I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran,” he said.

If Iran had a representative government, if it wasn’t ruled by Ayatollah Khamenei, his dark theocratic Guardian Council and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the United States and Iran would restore normal relations almost as a matter of course.

Iran would, in all likelihood, take its proper place as one of America’s premier allies in the Middle East alongside the Kurds and the Israelis. The extreme and often fantastical anti-Americanism so endemic in the Arab world is far weaker among the Persians, Azeris and Kurds who make up the Iranian nation.

Iran right now is like Poland under the Warsaw Pact—a would-be friendly nation occupied and ruled by a hostile regime. Good and proper relations will have to wait until the government is overthrown or reformed out of all recognition like Vietnam’s current communist-in-name-only government.

Now, my response isn’t to defend Iran. It is beyond any doubt that Iran is the perpetrator of many human rights abuses: ranging from the persecution of Baha’is and homosexuals, to sponsoring Hezbollah, and liberal use of torture against prisoners of conscious. That can’t be denied.

But for the sake of consistency, why doesn’t Totten advocate ending diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Egypt? Those same abuses can be pinned on nominal American allies. But he doesn’t. And he shouldn’t.

Breaking diplomatic relations from other states is rarely a good idea. Yes, the circumstances behind the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis were unique. But Totten is not advocating the continued situation with Iran because of the hostage crisis of 1979. Rather, he’s angry (rightfully so!) that Iran is unjustly imprisoning someone today. And while his anger is warranted, you do not base your foreign policy on those concerns. 

The United States and Iran have shared interest in the region; namely, the destruction of the so-called Islamic State. And while the 2015 nuclear deal’s ramifications are yet to be seen, the upside is that Iran’s pursuit for a nuclear weapon has been stymied for the foreseeable future. In contrast to McCain’s infamous rendition of Barbara Ann to Bomb Iran, President Obama was able to accomplish the same goal without another disastrous war in the Middle East. 

The prospect that diplomacy may work and may be a force for good is frightening to Totten and the still-extant neoconservative punditocracy, where it is forever 1938 and Obama is another Neville Chamberlain. Iran is an evil and must be dealt with post-haste!

But what is truly mind boggling is that these well-meaning (if woefully wrong) pundits have their equals in the conservative inner-circles of the Islamic revolutionary vanguard of 1979. Ayatollah Khamenei and his ilk also have memories of the United States that mirror the boogey-men of Totten’s fevered imagination. From Mosaddegh to America’s support for the tyrannical Pahlavi dynasty and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran…well, you get the idea. 

It’s easy to imagine what Khomenei would think of making peace with the United States. Why would he support dealing with a regime that has openly talked about bombing his nation for the last three decades? That surrounds his country militarily? That could theoretically exterminate his population in half an hour? And that is complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iranians?

For all the faults Iran has done to the United States, it does not compare to what we have done to Iran.

But to Totten, while may think it’s Munich 1938 all over again, our past against Iran is irrelevant. Iranians will just have to get over ancient history.

The point is not that two wrongs make a right. Peace is not going to happen when one side completely capitulates to the other. That’s a fool’s errand. Instead, the first steps to peace are always tentative: one side gives, the other side reciprocates. Pride and reactionary factions on both sides would rather want war than admit their mistakes.

To their credit, both Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani have made those first steps despite the opposition. That the Iranians quickly released US navy sailors after their capture shows what diplomacy can accomplish. 

Diplomacy isn’t always going to work. And that’s okay. There are no easy answers, and peace is hard for both sides. But war is even harder. Totten may fret that Iran isn’t perfectly compliant with his image of what it could be. But as the saying goes, the perfect is the enemy of the good. And of course, good is better than our current situation.

One hopes that the future American and Iranian leadership continue the work accomplished this last year. Peace depends on it.

the idealization of pope francis

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

Last week, my father spoke highly of Pope Francis. He said "Me cae bien." (He's fine by me). Now, if you knew my father, this is extremely out of character. Since a child in rural Mexico, he was vehemently anti-Catholic and flirted with Evangelical and Charismatic Christian churches. And given the long history of the Catholic Church in Mexico, who can blame him for his attitude? 

My father was not impressed by Pope John Paul II, and much less by Pope Benedict. But Francis? He's fine by me. I thought hell had frozen over.

But Pope Francis has that effect on people. Many of my fellow atheists and liberals have been swayed and enamored with Francis. Unlike his predecessors, Francis hails from Latin America and brings in a new perspective on a euro-centric religious organization. The actions of Francis in the early days of the papacy showed a man more committed to the poor, vulnerable, and shunned than the pomp of Benedict's red Prada shoes. Instead of an insular body out of touch from the realities of modernity, Francis showed that he was at least listening. 

The amount of goodwill Francis had generated among skeptics and critics is astounding. And indeed, some of this is warranted. While the Republican party still clings to antediluvian denial on climate change, Francis's Laudato Si was a clarion call to all Catholics to combat climate change. That Francis has spoke critically on the pervasiveness of poverty was also welcomed by his nominal leftist critics. And let's us not forget his role in bridging US-Cuban relations.

Clearly, Francis is living up to the hype.

But let's be honest: has Francis change one doctrine, one tenet of Catholicism? Has Francis signal a change to redefine Catholicism stance on marriage?


But there is widespread disappointment over the meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis by many liberals, as exemplified here in Slate. There is a difference between giving the Pope credit in voicing concerns on issues like poverty and climate change, and idealization: the latter is inherently unstable as it ignores that Francis has never wavered from his view on religious liberty or same-sex marriage. So how can we be disappointed over nothing? 

Regardless of what you think of Kim Davis and the reactionary attempts to make her a martyr, one cannot claim that the Papacy had a position resembling that of the pro-SSM side in the US. Where would anyone get that idea? Or the idea the Catholic Church was going to break with centuries of tradition over this issue? Again, the idealization of Francis led to delusions of the reality of the Catholic Church. 

I do not say this to be harsh. As a former Catholic, a portion of me is still moved by Mass, by Catholic hymns, and the antiquity of the Church. I will admit that I am sympathetic to the Catholic Church, if I can never actually bring myself to believe again. Nonetheless, even my sentimentality doesn't cloud the reality of the church's stance on gay marriage, on divorce, abortion, contraception, and sex. These positions have not changed while Francis has been pontiff, and they are positions I reject whole-heartedly. 

Maybe Ross Douthat is correct in saying that the West is not entirely secular. Maybe that can go some length into describing why Francis has had such a hold on even nominal skeptics like myself or my father. But even if that is the case, and even if Francis is fine by you, do not be taken: the Church hasn't changed at all.


onwards and forwards

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

It took me long enough, but I finally have my Master's degree in History.

Now what? 

Find a job, that's what. I keep telling myself that whatever job I find will only be temporary, and that I will eventually complete my PhD in History. But I cannot predict the future, so a successful job search may mean that I will forever be a teacher. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. But it's just odd that, back in high school, I would have never imagined myself as a teacher. Funny how life leads us into strange and new directions.

Last year my job search was, to be blunt, a failure. Looking back on it now I feel that there were many mistakes made during the interview processes. But I did discover a few things during all that about what principals are looking for at prospective teachers. 

I was confident given my good grades in History, and my performance on the TExES Social Studies exam. I don't think my knowledge of the subject is in doubt. Rather, what principles care about is on how to manage a classroom, how to deal with parents, how to make lesson plans. Not really the subject at hand.

On one level, this makes all the sense in the world: a teacher must do much more than simply lecture. We simply do not appreciate the entirety of what a teacher has to do. I wasn't at all surprised by these questions. Makes sense. But surely, you would have expected something about competency on the subjects, no? 

Whatever is the case, I didn't get a job last year. So the search continues again. This time I have a Master's degree, and more teaching positions to choose from.  And I have the added bonus of applying at community colleges!

We'll see what new opportunities come my way, but even with last year's troubles, I remain optimistic.

grad school - a couple of thoughts

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

So, I'm now into my third semester in graduate school, and so far I'm managing my own. Having a 4.0 is nice, and my work in my three study courses is coming along nicely.


However, this is the first time that I'm going full-time to school; the previous two semesters were part-time only. In taking these three study courses, I'm now able to appreciate the different styles (for lack of a better term) among my professors, regarding their assumptions in the study of history. 

My first professor (also my advisor) focuses on systemic institutions and assumptions that permeate all levels of society, even into the most innocuous aspects. People are trapped by these forces and assumptions, and by realizing our biases, we can come closer to understanding past decision making and the resulting consequences. In this perspective, the works of structuralism (especially of Foucault and Derrida) takes center stage as analytic tool in studying the past. As my advisor's focus is on Orientalism - the Western perception and assumptions towards the Orient - it isn't a surprise that this is the primary means to analyze the past. This includes trying to observe the historian's biases when analyzing texts and material from another society. It is not simply to let the text "speak for itself," but to also be vigilant toward's our own biases. I can say that studying under her has helped tempered my earlier, skeptic-influenced ambivalence towards post-modernist thought.  

In contrast, my second professor eschews the "systemic" notion of history, and looks at individuals. As a semi-famous military historian (and certainly one of the top military historians anywhere), he can appreciate trends and patterns - commonalities - in the history of European warfare. However, he tries to focus much more closely on individual decisions, individual factors that swing the entire course of history from one end to another. In studying WWI under him, the old notions I had of WWI - that the war was inevitable due to long-term trends - are being challenged. The more I read, the more I realize that a Bismarck or any competent leader would not have let war come at all. Rather, the leadership - political and military - fucked up. And fucked up a lot in institutions that did not promote merit or good ideas, in societies plagued by class antagonisms, in a ambivalent adoption of new technologies and falling back on old tactics, and on the contradiction of wanting a decisive victory in the face of trench warfare. Even with these trends, bone headed mistakes and hesitations led to this. So with this professor, the human factor looms large.

And there's the third course. This course deals with Mexican-American and Chicano history. As a Chicano myself, you would think that the style taught here would be to my liking. You'd be wrong about that. From my readings and my observation of the professor, the entire field of Mexican-American history is wrapped up with Chicano and Latin American activism. Now, in their defense, Chicano and Borderland scholars have shed a lot of light of systemic prejudices against Hispanics - from the use of quarantine in South Texas to the use of eugenics to sterilized "troubled" Mexican youths in California to showing that Mexican-Americans were lynched at a higher rate than blacks were. That anger is there, and that anger towards the past is actually justified, unlike the fears of conservatives towards something as tame as affirmative action. Nonetheless, when I hear from this professor that a writer should be more emotional and condemnatory towards an injustice, I feel uncomfortable. History should not be synonymous with polemics. While the course is interesting, I am better able to articulate why I'm unsettled by Chicano studies in genera.

If anything, I do find that the three courses have helped me understand the nuances and contradictions among these different threads. What am I to make of it? Or what am I to choose, I can not say.

egpyt's presidential elections and liberal activists

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

As mentioned in the New York Times, the presidential elections in Egypt have seen the Muslim Brother candidate Mohamed Morsi and old Mubarak-apparatchik Ahmed Shafik emerge as the two leading candidates; as a result, a runoff will be held to determine Egypt's first democratically elected President. More interesting (at least to me), is the reaction of the liberal wing of the Egyptian revolution who are piqued at the thought that either a Muslim Brother or Mubarak stalwart will lead the country.

Other moderate and liberal candidates like Amr Moussa, the Nasserite Hamdeen Sabahi, and the former Muslim Brother Aboul Fotouh did not gain enough votes to proceed to the runoff. Indeed, the two former frontrunners of the race, Moussa and Fotouh, are now out of the race. In the case of Fotouh, it seems liberal support for the candidate eroded with the Salafists endorsement of his candidacy. Thus, liberal support buoyed Sabahi's candidacy to propel him to be on par with that of Fotouh. And while the combined votes of Fotouh and Sabahi would put them in a clear plurality of the vote, the Egyptian voting system doesn't care for such ad hoc rationalizations.

Moderate and liberal voices were overshadowed by the organizational skill of the Brotherhood should not come to anyone's surprise. As mentioned by this special from Al Jazeera, this Muslim Brotherhood has had organizational success in parliamentary elections since the beginning of Mubarak's regime. And they are the most organized and largest non-state actor in Egypt. And while the revolution itself was led by liberal and leftist activists, the inability of these activists to speak in a single voice like the Brotherhood doomed their candidate(s) of choice.

However, the success of Shafik may come as a surprise since the revolution sought to remove the ancien regime of Mubarak. But this is not that surprising once you think about it. It was never clear if the majority of the Egyptian people actually supported the revolution. Not to mean they thought Mubarak was awesome, but that they were neutral with regards to the revolution. The revolution has had an economic and social cost to Egypt: the lost of tourism has sunk an already beleaguered economy, and the constant protests, clashes, and riots of the past year and a half has created a yearning for "normalcy" on the part of many Egyptians. They want security and jobs, and the revolution-as-a-phenomenon has created a situation counter to that. This is the situation that Shafik tried to tap into by stating that the "revolution is over". The chaos of the revolution has ended.

Of course, the dictates of the second-place candidate does not end a revolution. It'll be interesting to see how far Morsi goes if he does win the run-off vote. If so, the Muslim Brotherhood will now control the presidency and parliament, able to pass any legislation they will wish to pass. How they interact with the military (much less the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) is to be determined.

So what's next of Egypt's liberal activists? Well, the defection of many Fotouh supporters to Sabahi has led to Shafik being the second-place winner. Assuming that this election fosters a new era of Egyptian democracy, and not a continuation of autocratic rule, liberal and leftist activists should follow the example of the Brotherhood and do a better job at organizing at a political level. Yes, the liberal activists were at the forefront of the revolution, with the Brotherhood joining the protests once Mubarak's power became untenable. But as seen in the parliamentary elections, liberals and the left could not even hope to compete against the Brotherhood. And the decision to boycott the election proved to be disastrous. Yes, they showed their displeasure at Islamists controlling the legislature, but they don't have any say in the matter. What did that accomplish?

Let this election be a lesson to the Egyptian left. Hopefully, next time (if there is a next time), some semblance of unity can emerge to actually shift the course of the election. In the meantime, they will need to decide if either Morsi - the Islamist - or Shafik - the face of the old regime - is the lesser to two evils.

on writing

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

I try to post here more often, but I feel that I don't have much to say. I have ideas, I have opinions, but when I start to write them down here, I second-guess myself. Do I actually know what I'm talking about?

At the same time, I'm astounded as to how often I read the opinions and thoughts of pundits that are worthless. They know very little, they fail to fact-check, and they are so damn sure they are right. How can they be so confident despite being wrong so often? And they get paid for it? It's mind-blowing.

You can chalk this up to the Dunning-Kruger effect, but I feel that what makes people so enamored to the writings of know-nothing pundits is that these pundits are so confident. The whole industry of political blogging feels like some large echo chamber, where people reinforce their beliefs day in and day out.

"Damn learning! I want to read more on how I'm already correct, and how they are wrong!"

Maybe this is why, despite my liberal proclivities, I am turned off by the liberal blogosphere. I am more fascinated with the ideas of anarchists, communists, and the marginalized left than I am with those loyal stewards of the Democratic party.

Another problem I find in updating this blog is that I have a hard time maintaining my focus on my writing. I may have an idea in mind, but I then go about making outlines to organize my ideas around. It seems I need to forgo that entirely and just write from the top of my mind. Edits can come later.

So I'll try to update this more often. But who knows.

an ode to the optical disk drive: or why blu-ray is doomed

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

Engadget: Apple's officially over the opti cal drive, for better or worse

A common theme I notice about the lamentations over the removal of ODDs from the Mac Mini is the desire for Apple to install Blu-Ray ODDs into Macs and MacBooks. But what percentage of people actually play movies on Blu-Ray disks?

I would imagine that many more people peruse the DVD selection of a Redbox than buying the latest Blu-Ray movie from Best Buy. Maybe I'm letting my own personal anecdotal experience affect my outlook on this "controversy" as I don't have a big screen TV, much less a blu-ray player. But I feel that Blu-Ray was a moribund format on arrival, doomed for failure as a result of the convenience of online streaming.

Sure, the engadget editiorial is correct: downloading a 50gb rip of a Blu-Ray disk is going to take a while, even on the best ISP network in the US. But how many people actually download (legally or illegally) a Blu-Ray film versus a standard DVD rip or standard definition flick?

I can see Blu-Ray living on as the go-to format for installing games, especially in next-generation gaming consoles. But the fact that Apple more or less succeeded in distributing their new OS without a physical delivery system, I see the removal of ODDs from the Mac Mini not as an act of hubris on Apple's part, but simply stating the obvious: the Optical Disk Drive's days are numbered.

idealism and human nature

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

How do you describe human nature to be? Is man intrinsically good or evil?

Or is man a thinking capable of so much wonder and idealistic virtue...but also a creature of flawed thinking and vices?

I ask this since the political debates that plague the blogosphere and society all boil down to what is is the true nature of man. In studying history, there are those you read about who have an idealistic - almost utopian - vision of society. With their theories on a given economic/political/ethical philosophy, these dreamers and thinkers have the plan and solution to lift man up to something new and better.

Traditionally, the term "liberal" was used to describe this lot; those who believe that the creation or modification of institutions can be use to change the condition of man. But the term has the obvious connotation of lumping all idealists into the center-left of the political spectrum, when this is clearly not the case.

When we talk of idealists in the political context, this include disparate groups ranging from the Moral Majority of the 1980s to the Anarchists of the 1890s; from the Progressive activists in the turn to the 20th century to the Tea Party activists of the turn of the 21st century. Idealism knows no boundaries and knows no political party - idealism is a common part of every ideological faction we know of.

Idealism is not universal, and there are those "realists" who have the view that human nature is unchanging and eternal. To Realists, the way man behaves is hardened over generations and generations - to the point where the action of most people is predictable and repetitive.

Whether you consider yourself an Idealist or Realist depends heavily on your take of human nature - is man a flawed and defected creature? Or can man be bettered and reformed?

Can the ills plaguing the world - whatever you think they are - be ended if those problems stem from the innate nature of man?

For most of my life, I had the view that someone can change the world; I hoped to change the world. But in reading history and current events over the years, my idealism has been tempered and my cynicism sharpened. What's that saying from Socrates? "The more one learns, the less one knows"? I don't know of an adequate way to change the world without changing human nature itself. And can that be done?

I think it boils down to the scope of "changing the world": can world peace be achieved, or hunger be eliminated? I don't think so, at least, not yet. But can I do something to help another person and change their life for the better? Absolutely.

While I still fee some hopelessness for our future, I still think doing something is better than nothing; at least we can say we tried. Right?

idealism and reality: rand paul's troubles

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

After winning the Republican primary to be the party's Kentucky Senate candidate, a series of interviews - one with NPR and another with the Rachel Maddow Show - left Rand Paul in a bit of trouble. The issue concerned his views on a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In summation, his views are that the federal government does not have the constitutional right in legislating who a private business may or may not choose as patrons - if the business owner decides to refuse service to a person of another race, it was within his right as the property owner to do so.  This is in keeping with the libertarian view that a key function of government is to protect the rights of property owners and the right to free speech of its citizenry.

In theory, the community at large (leveraging their collective might as consumers) could boycott the discriminatory business owners and hurt him economically as a protest against his opinions. In the libertarian viewpoint, this is a self-correcting mechanism that does not require governmental involvement and zero infringement on the property rights or freedom of speech of anyone theory, at least.

The problem with Paul's (and libertarians') view on this issue is that it makes several assumptions:

  1. Government is an entity separate from the wider society that has a set (if arbitrary) role in protecting "natural rights" - rights that include the protection of private property and free speech but not freedom from unjustifiable discrimination or injustice; essentially,  government has no right to protect the welfare of a minority group due to an arbitrary demarcation of responsibility and duties libertarians adhere do.
  2. The notion the wider society would actually be opposed to the discriminatory actions of the hypothetical business owner and be bothered to actually boycott the hypothetical business. For example, we all know that many goods on sale at your local discount store are made in sweatshops that abuse the rights of their workers - how are the boycotts against these sweatshops and Wal-Mart working out? They're still in business (and thriving) despite years of knowledge of these practices.
  3. The notion that property rights are more important than the right of a citizen from being discriminated against.

While these views may seem reasonable to Paul and his ilk, these ideological views are completely out of touch from reality. It is easy to say that people will unite and protest against unfair business practices if these practices are known in the open; but when the situation emerges, how many people will actually partake in the boycott? And what is to be done when nearly every business in the hypothetical community are also discriminatory as well? Who will protect the minority group from this?

It is easy for an idealistic libertarian to tout how, if given the chance, he would march along side Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement in condemning racism...only after the fight for equal rights has been mostly won already. An idealistic libertarian does not have the burden in having an internal debate over the rampant racism and discrimination against blacks and other minority groups pervasive throughout the entire country and the rights of business owners in choosing whether or not to discriminate. When faced with a situation that causes this type of conflict between one's ideals and one's common sense, it is always troubling. Fortunately for most libertarians, they do not have to face history in their day to day lives.

Unfortunately for Rand Paul, he now needs to balance his idealism and reality. It will be interesting to see how he proceeds from here.

a uniquely american debate: democracy or republic?

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

No matter where you hear it – be it a ranting posting on a forum, a podcast by a know-it-all, an editorial in a newspaper, or the rhetoric of self-righteous politicians – the expression "America is a republic, not a democracy" is used to show that the United States was not founded on the principal of majoritarian rule, but on the principals enumerated in the Constitution. The writings of some of the Founding Fathers seem to point towards this view.

Thomas Jefferson – the oft used source in discussion on the structure of American governance – wrote:

A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.

The framers of the Constitution (excluding Jefferson) sought to limit the idea of mob rule from forming in the nascent United States.  James Madison, instrumental in crafting the Constitution, wrote in Federalist #10:

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

Similar ideas written John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other figures crucial for the formation of the United States show that the idea of a direct democracy, in the minds of the founders, would devolve into mob rule, where the majority will undoubtedly strip away the innate rights of the minority.  In this context, we need to keep in mind that the government of the United States was idealized to be a bulwark against the return of tyranny.  It did not matter if the tyranny came from the King of England or from the majority rule of Americans.  Democracy was a slippery slope towards authoritarianism.

The founders used the term “republic” to describe the governmental structure of the United States. Instead of direct democratic rule, this republic would instead be governed by elected representatives and appointed leaders that would guide and manage the United State in an enlightened manner. With the exception of local congressmen, major offices in the government were either appointed or elected by bodies independent of the federal government (e.g. the electoral college and state legislatures).  Of those who could vote, only property-owning men of English or Scottish origin could.  Needless to say, the percentage of eligible voters was small compared to the entire population of the United States.

The constitutional structure of the federal government - with its enumerated definition of powers - is contrasted with simple majority rule. At the end of the day the founding fathers sought to emulate republican Rome, not democratic Athens.

I guess this settles the debate:  America is a republic, not a democracy!

...except that it's not over.  Two centuries have passed since the revolution and the drafting of the constitution; many things have changed. Suffrage has been extended to all American citizens; Senators are now elected by the citizens of their states, and Presidents, while still elected by the electoral college, campaign across the country for the millions of votes needed to win the Presidential elections.  With a wider electorate, the US has become much more democratic.

A thing to consider is the definition of what is a "republic" versus a "democracy" has changed in the intervening two centuries. Political scientists argue over the exact definition of the word "democracy", but they agree that democracies share similar traits with one another: free, multi-candidate elections; the ability of voters to punish elected representatives by voting for someone else into that office;  and the institutional constraints on executive control.  We can argue over the meaning of what is a "true" democracy, especially argue over a definition that fits our opinions of that definition.  But if we to place the United States as either a democracy, an authoritarian state, or an anacracy (i.e. without an government of some import to the state), the United States is considered a democracy.  This poli-sci definition doesn't make everyone happy, but it does seek to be as free from ideological biases and as objective as possible.

Then, what is a republic?  The term originates after the ousting of the Tarquinii dynasty from ancient Rome and the establishment of a government free from monarchal tyranny. This res publica - "thing of the people" - was named as the power of the state did not lie with the kings of Rome but on the Senate and the two consuls elected every year by the citizens of Rome.  It's perfectly understandable the American revolutionaries, fighting against monarchal tyranny, would hark back to Rome for inspiration in setting up the government. The term "republic" was naturally appropriated by the early Americans to signal a disdain towards monarchy; a repudiation of the "divine right" of rule; and an appreciation for a government based on the concept of natural law and the rights of man.  The fact that a government based on high-minded principals was not democratic - democratic as we define it - was noted with irony by the early American leaders. We need to remember that the federal government was meant to be anti-tyrannical and not pro-democratic.

The hoopla this debate incites is also political in nature.  A typical debate follows as such:

  1. The more leftist/liberal side of this debate will argue for a particular policy position and cites polling and mass opinion to show popular support for this position.
  2. The more right-wing/libertarian side would then argue that the United States was founded as a republic and not a democracy; essentially, damn public opinion.
  3. The right-winger would then look at the befuddled face of the leftist and elaborate that the republican nature of the United States is designed to prevent rash, popular ideas from being implemented to prevent the "mob" from imposing their will on the minority(i.e. the right-wingers) and stripping away the freedom and liberty of the minority.
  4. The leftist would then argue that the terms "republic" and "democratic" are not mutually exclusive...
  5. ...and the right-winger would then use his own definition of the word to argue against the lefty.

I admit, this is a vast oversimplification of the debate, but tends to be true. What is revealing in this debate is how self-serving the leftist and the right-winger are: the leftist and the right-winger will conveniently abandon their definitions if popular opinion or constitutional constraints are in contrast to their ideological view point.  But - more important on the topic on-hand - is that both sides are arguing over two different sets of definitions and misconceptions of the founding of this country.

The United States is, by every objective definition of the word, a democracy.  But this definition did not exist in 18th century America.  The term "republic" is now meant to be used as short-hand for "representative democracy" - but this term was also not a construct of the 18th century.  The United States was not founded as a democracy, but the United States has changed, as have the words we use to assign what America is.  As long both sides of this debate are completely unaware of the differing definitions each has, the debate will be a futile, aggravating experience for all involved.

*On a side note, it doesn't help matters when Republicans (i.e. the GOP) are more likely to use this debate not only to invalidate the positions of Democrats, but the basis of the Democratic party.  Republican = defenders of the Republic VS Democrats = advocates of democracy

Get it?  Partisanship sucks, doesn't it?

a few words on the texas textbook controversy

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

The problem with any "debate" about the Texas textbook controversy is the illusion that there needs to be "balance" in the way history is presented; that the goal of the education system is to present "both sides" of any given issue. In all cases of history, there is not a liberal historiography or a conservative historiography, but simply history itself.  The idea that we need to "balance" history is absurd.  The goal, rather, is to strive for a general, objective overview of world, national, and state history that will be taught to kids in our education system here in Texas.  This not only applies to conservatives who wish to gloss over inconvenient facts that conflict with their political ideology (e.g. the secular nature of the Constitution), but also to post-modernist/deconstructionists who wish to impose a world-view hostile to empiricism and replace it with the notion of relative truths.

We need to get outside this frame of mind that celebrates the balancing of two mutually exclusive "truths" and instead focus on the idea that history, even inconvenient histories, should be taught to students despite the inevitable cries of protests of special interests groups and stiffing parents.  Likewise, educators do not have the right to make moral or political claims about historical events because ideological groups will always try to indoctrinate children to support their own viewpoint on a given matter.

As a scientifically minded individual, I am always in favor of teaching kids critical thinking skills.  Critical thinking, however, is always endangered when ideologues try to influence not only what is taught, but how one should think and feel about a historical matter.  If given the mental toolkit in order to think critically, we need to trust kids to learn history and interpret the causes, the effects, and the morality of those events on their own and amongst themselves.  If we cannot trust them to think for themselves and instead feel the need to teach them the "proper" histories, then this paternalism negates the purpose of teaching critical thinking.

In the end, however, the children and teens of Texas (and other states) will get a stilted textbook that is devoid of any interesting history that will lead most students to disdain any future references of historical matters.  This bothers me more than anything else about this whole controversy.

impact of the austin terrorist attack

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

It's not news to anyone about what happened in Austin this past Thursday. The crashing a personal airplane to an office building housing an IRS bureau was a blatant act of terrorism. This is an act of violence by a man disgruntled with the government. In the aftermath of this terrorist attack, a manifesto of Joe Stack emerged on his personal website. Suicide notes are not unusual to find, especially ones after a terrorist attacks; one only has to see the videos of "martyrs" from Palestine and Iraq to know this. Political manifestos are not unusual to find after terrorist attacks. The manifesto of McVeigh after the Oklahoma City bombings and the manifestos of Ted Kaczynski come to mind.

In the case for McVeigh and Kaczynski, their "manifestos" tended to be incoherent screeds in protests of society and their hope their attacks would precipitate a societal change. Kaczynski railed against the industrialization of civilization, while McVeigh hoped to avenged the siege of the Branch Davidians at Waco and to start a race war, a la the "Turner Diaries". In both cases, the general public (at least those who bothered to read the manifestos) were at best perplexed and bemused by the thought process that went into writing incoherent, self-righteous nonsense.

When Joe Stack's suicide note/manifesto came to light, I, the masochist that I am, decided to read a cached copy of his website. I was fulling expecting yet another illogical and nonsensical rant. The logical conclusions that Stack makes, namely that violence is the only way to enact change, is absurd. However, the gist of his argument is so emotional and filled with passion that I think will lead people to sympathize with his situation, even his actions against the federal government.

The words Joe Stack writes do not seem illogical. I don't mean that I agree with him; my own interactions with the IRS have been painless and easy to deal with thus far. But I know full well that his words have struck a cord with many disgruntled Americans. The anger against this government, especially during this economic recession, will lead to copycat acts inspired by Stacks' actions.

In surfing Twitter, I see many people posting this excerpt from Stacks' suicide note:

*The communist creed: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.*

*The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.*

In reading many more comments online, many people are essentially saying "I don't agree with Stack's actions, but he has a point". How many of these people are thinking along Stack's reason? Of the hundreds of people joining Facebook groups in memory of this terrorist, how many will be inspired and follow in Stacks' footsteps? These same people are calling Stacks a patriot and a hero!  If they admire this man so much, then one would fathom to think that people will emulate him.

Many right-wing pundits are now backtracking from their calls of "revolution" against the "tyrannical" and "communist" policies of the Obama administration.  Even though Stack shows no sign to being a part of the Tea Party movement (he showed disdain for Republicans in his message), the mere fact he attacked the IRS for "robbing" him will resonate to many of the "Taxed Enough Already" movement.

I think Stacks is just the first of many more to come.

It's certainly a rough time for our Republic.

jesus denial

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

In the atheist/"freethought" movement, there exist a growing subset of activists who voice the belief that Jesus (aka "Christ") never existed. The proponents of this idea make arguments, that, on the surface,  appear to be valid to ask:

  • There are no documentation to suggest Jesus existed up until the writings of the Gospels
  • The divine characteristics attributed to Jesus (e.g. the virgin birth, resurrection, his miracles) are found again and again throughout the mythologies of other people in the Near East and the wider Greco-Roman world.
  • The imagery used to depict Jesus during early Christian era varies depending on the culture Jesus is worshiped in: as Apollo-like in Greece, to a black man in Ethiopia, to the bearded man we know emerging from Byzantium
  • The myriad of contradicting texts that does not give a clear picture on the life of Jesus

I will admit that when I first became an atheist (which is more me leaving the Catholic church than anything else), I was kinda swayed by these arguments.  Thinking back on it now, I was so enthused about discovering I was not alone  in having non-beliefs that I jumped right into the exact counter of what I used to believe: from believing in the divinity of Christ to the rejection of the existence of Jesus.  People tend to over indulge on a new found belief more out of validation and insecurity than anything else...

But enough of that tangent, back on topic:

These arguments against the historicity of Jesus, as I said, sound good, at first blush.  In fact, most of these arguments are true.  The deities worshiped in the ancient world did have many of the attributes that Jesus is said to have had. Not only that, many so-called "prophets" went around preaching their own ideas and wowing audiences with supposed "miracles". Much of the arguments and rationalizations of Jesus deniers is true that it is kind of hard to disprove them wrong.  And there lies the problem with the premise of the jesus deniers.

The deniers do not contend that he is not divine or endowed with supernatural powers; rather, they insist that Jesus/Yeshua never existed.  That's the claim they make, not that he was a mortal, but that the idea of Jesus as both a man and as the messiah were concocted by the leaders of the early church.

Let me just get this out of the way: I do not believe that Jesus is the messiah or a prophet from God.  Rather, he was just one of many apocalyptic preachers roaming around Roman Judea foretelling an end of the Roman occupation and the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel on earth.  Obviously, I believe that Jesus was a historical person, if not a deluded person.  But a person nevertheless.

The Jesus deniers will respond to any criticism of their views by asking for evidence of the existence of a person called Jesus.  It seems like a reasonable proposition to make; the burden of proof lies on the claimant, right?  Yes, but only insofar as the claim is beyond belief.  For example, if I claim I saw a cat running across the street on my way home, no one would ask me to prove my claim, as it is not much of an extraordinary claim to see a random cat.  However, if I claim instead that I saw a pride of lions chasing an emu on my drive home, then yes, it is perfectly reasonable for someone to ask me for evidence.  It is the degree of ridiculousness of my claim that warrants proof.  So it is perfect admissible to ask for evidence and proof on the claim of the divinity/sanctity of this Jesus fellow; however, the fact we know that there were many self-proclaimed prophets in Judea during the rule of Augustus is not far fetched at all.  There really is not reason to deny the existence of this Jesus fellow, especially when the initial followers of Jesus would interact with historical documented individuals like Saul of Tarsus, not to mention the accounts of Tacitus and Josephus on the existence of the Jesus movement spreading around the Roman world as early as the reign of Nero.

As for Josephus' documentation during the First Jewish War (circa 70 CE): while it is popular for Jesus deniers to claim that Josephus' writings on the "followers of Christus" is a medieval forgery, there is no actual debate among classicists and historians as to the validity of this claim. In this case, the burden of proof does lie with the Jesus deniers to prove.

The insistence of the Jesus deniers to ask for proof of Jesus' existence is spurious.  If I were to ask for proof of Socrates existence, then other than the writings of Plato and a handful of writings from other Athenians, there is no physical evidence that Socrates existed.  Hell, if I want to ask for proof of Phillip II of Macedon's existence or the existence of Scipio Africanus, then you'd be hard pressed to find any physical proof of the existence of these persons.  Rather, such pressing for evidence would seem absurd and paranoid; why would I doubt the existence of these ancients figures to begin with?

My own personal opinion is that many proponents of Jesus denialism do so out of a sense of vindication of their newly found non-belief and non-theism.  If Jesus never existed, then the rejection of a long-held belief is even more justified.  The uncertainty of leaving a previously held worldview is diminished if the central figure of that worldview is just a myth.  The anger in believing in a falsehood can be directed at the creators of the Jesus myth rather than one's own incredulity for believing in the divinity of a jewish carpenter.

Jesus denialism, then, is more about combating one's own insecurity with their newly found conversion story rather than any meaningful or substantive historical debate.

"lost to the west" lecture series

Added on by Miguel Chavez.

One of the first podcast I ever listened to was "12 Byzantine Emperors" by Lars Brownsworth.  The podcast tells the history of the reign of 12 different emperors (and empress) of the Eastern Roman empire, starting with Diocletian and ending with Constantine XVI.  This podcast series is, without a doubt, one of the best history series out there today. Fortuitously, I stumbled upon this lecture series by Brownsworth himself on Youtube.  Very interesting.

Lecture playlist at Youtube