a uniquely american debate: democracy or republic?

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

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

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

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

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

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[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28lr5PRpKTY&feature=PlayList&p=B85097DCCDFAC7E9&index=0&playnext=1]

alone in kyoto

As with many things, I'm late in discovering the musical talents of AIR.  I'm instantly hooked to this vid.  Very beautiful imagery and music. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJ4Pm0N8s78&fmt=18]

it's about fairness, isn't it?

I understand the sentiment behind hate crimes legislation: I understand the well-meaning people who want to end the continuation of hate crimes

I understand the seeming high-minded and noble belief that we, as a society, must combat despicable human attitudes like racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia.

I understand.

Yet I cannot support hate crime legislation, despite the good intentions behind it.

Despite the good intentions, the "noble" idea of enacting hate crimes legislation, I believe the end result is not a solution of discrimination but rather a perpetuation of discrimination.

The most noblest, high-minded ideals, when enacted and legislated, can result in evil.

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sickening support for sterilization

A few weeks ago a story emerged that a Massachusetts woman, who was both a mother of nine children and was receiving welfare, was accidentally sterilized after requesting a contraception to be inserted to prevent any future unwanted pregnancies. You can read up on this story here:  http://abcnews.go.com/Health/mother-sterilized-lawsuit-claims/story?id=9474471

I will not comment on the litigation filed against the doctors who either botched the operation or purposely sterilized her.  No, I will write about the many people who have thrown their support to the doctors who sterilized the woman.  These people tend to pop up in comment threads on various news sites praising the medical mishap of the operation and moralizing against having 9 children while on welfare.

Now, before I go on, let me be clear that I have nothing against the notion of personal responsibility and I have nothing against saying that this woman should have been more careful as to protect herself from getting pregnant.  Birth control is readily available and cheap to buy, especially in comparison to the money to raise a kid.  There was no reason for this woman to get pregnant and give birth nine times.

That being said, my opposition is to those people in support of sterilizing this woman.

I might be someone on the fringe of society for saying this, but who has ownership of your body?  Society?  Institutions such as religion or governments?  Your spouse or family?  I'd figure most people would unequivocally say that the only person who has ownership over your body is you.  You have absolutely zero right to tell someone what they can do over their own body.  If society was to demand that you be sterilized, would you agree to this demand and peacefully comply?

You may counter,"this woman was getting welfare!  If she is accepting the public dole, then society has the right to demand a change in her lifestyle...or enforce it upon her."

On an emotional and visceral level, this may make sense.  This course of action feels right.  But it is not if something feels right, it's if that something is an anathema to the purpose of governmental institutions and is an inherent contradiction to highest ideals our society is built upon.

What do I mean by this?

The main argument that the supporters of the doctors who sterilized this woman point to the fact she gets welfare as proof that this woman was irresponsible and thus deserving of her misfortune.  This argument falls apart when you consider how much taxpayer money is drained up to support everyday activities that take a larger chunk of taxes than an irresponsible woman.  Our society is in love with automobiles and our highway system.  Tens of million of dollars are spent on the building of new roads and buying new cars...but also clearing up the mess when accidents occur.  Tens of thousands of people die every year on motorways.  Thousands more are injured and disabled permanently as a result.  The deaths and disability of thousands of people each year means that the productivity of these people they would have done during their lifetime is erased.  The cost to emergency responders to the wreckage of accident scenes is in the millions of dollars.  The societal costs of automobiles exceed the cost of welfare queens.

If it is okay to sterilize a woman because she got pregnant 9 times, then it follows that cars should be banned.  It's an idiotic line of reasoning, but if the infringing of a woman's right over her body is perfectly acceptable to save society money, then the banning of automobiles to all will also do the trick, right?

Same thing with alcohol: the societal and economic costs of alcoholism, liver disease, and drunk driving exceed that of welfare queens.  But no one in their right minds will respond to these costs by pushing forward another era of Prohibition.  But why not prohibition when it's okay to sterilize a woman against her will?

What I'm trying to get at is that when we pay taxes, we are already paying for other people's mistakes and fuck ups.  When we fund welfare, we ideally hope that we will support people who are down-in-there-luck.  But there are the people who exploit and leach off the system.  Likewise, we fund our fire departments and police force to not only protect the community, but to protect the community from the idiocy and mistakes of people in that community.

No matter what you may want and feel that you need, tax money will be used to fill in the costs caused by idiots and people who are socially irresponsible.  To try to infringe on the civil liberties of a person because you want to save a dime is akin to torturing people to prevent a crime.  It may "feel" right, but it is something easily said by people who cannot realize they will fuck up and leach off the system as well.

Civil Liberties are another part of this story.  I will not dwell on this too much, but I will say that I am someone who is pro-choice.  I feel that a woman has the right to end a pregnancy.  A woman has the right to her body, after all.  If a woman has the right to her body, she has the right as well to have as many kids as she wants.

You can't pick and chose what civil liberties you want to fight for and which ones you want to dismiss and ignore.  It's all or nothing.