Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Not all democracies are equal

One of the defining myths of the second half of the 20th century, and the start of the 21st, is that by slapping the label "Democratic" on a system of government, it magically becomes good.

It's part of the lazy thinking that judges books by their cover, the self-satisfied idea that because we live in a democracy we can do no wrong, and of course it is cynically encouraged by the Bad Guys who know damn well that democracy just means you get to vote, not what happens either before or after the vote. People voted for the late, unlamented Saddam Hussein, and by memory he won 98% of the popular vote.

Saddam was a strong man who didn't feel the need to be subtle in his stealing of elections. In the West, we have a long tradition of quietly subverting the popular vote, from gerrymanders to super-delegates to outright ballot-stuffing. As Boss Tweed said, "I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating." Or for that matter, counting the votes. And if that fails, well, it's nice to have some friendly Supreme Court judges rule against the need to actually bother counting the votes. (In the words of Justice Scalia, counting the votes fairly and carefully would threaten "irreparable harm" to Bush "by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election." Got that? Actually having a fair election is a Bad Thing, because that would challenge Bush's public claim that he won in a fair election.)

But generally, despite the flaws, Western post-WW2 democracy manages to mostly be good, at least compared to dictatorships and faux-democracies in the developing world. More or less -- mostly more, with occasional less.

But the illusion that democracy implies goodness is dangerous. Over in Iraq, one of the former members of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), John Agresto, was tasked with rebuilding the country's education system. (Sadly, the CPA neglected to actually give him any money to do it with.) Agresto bitterly wrote:

America's been so successful at being a free and permanent democracy that we think democracy is the natural way to rule--just let people go and there you have it: Democracy. But all the ingredients that make it good and free--limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, calendared elections, staggered elections, plurality selection, differing terms of office, federalism with national supremacy, the development of a civic spirit and civic responsibility, and above all, the breaking and moderating of factions--all this we forgot about. We act is if the aim is "democracy" simply and not a mild and moderate democracy. Therefore...we seek out the loudest and most virulent factions and empower them...

We, as a country, don't have a clue as to what has made our own country work, and so we spread the gospel of democracy-at-all-costs abroad. Until this country can find a Madison, it would be far better off with just a good ruler.

[Emphasis added.]

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dissecting an apologist

Avram Grumer from Making Light has written about yet another abuse of power by sad, angry little Hitlers. The details aren't terribly unexpected: young people meet at the Jefferson Memorial to celebrate Jefferson's birthday; humourless cops overstep their authority by ordering them to disperse for no reason; one young woman asks why; the cops rough her up and arrest her.

Grumer observes that "the primary mission of authority is to preserve authority", and notes that "knowing that almost anyone could be holding a video camera and their actions could wind up on YouTube, cops will still bully and assault people for refusing to instantly defer to arbitrary authority". But what's really interesting is Grumer's dissection of the apologist mindset:

[Megan McArdle's] comments section quickly fills with forelock-tuggers and knee-benders justifying the actions of the Park Police, even if they have to make up facts to do it. It’s practically a catalog of dishonest argumentation and propaganda. In fact, I think it’s useful to dissect the examples so that we can recognize them when we see similar arguments on the nation’s editorial pages. [...]

For example, a commenter named Jeff asks “If the Memorial is closed and people refuse to leave, why NOT arrest them for disorderly conduct?” — not aware that the memorial is open 24/7, too lazy to spend ten seconds on a Google search to check his facts, too lazy even to read the earlier comments where this had already been pointed out. When his mistake is rubbed in his face, Jeff adopts a faux-polite writing style and moves his goalposts. He argues first that the memorial is closed to certain kinds of events, of which group dancing might be one. (It might not, but hey, he doesn’t know, it might.) He later argues that since DC is a high-crime city, the Park Police have a legitimate concern, and even though it isn’t immediately clear, we need to grant them the benefit of the doubt. Of course, that’s totally ignoring the actual facts of the case — that the police didn’t arrest all the dancers, but merely the one who questioned their orders, and that the police offered no explanation for their actions. In Jeff’s mind, it’s only the authorities who get the benefit of the doubt. Ordinary citizens just have to obey orders.

Then we’ve got MarkG, who blames the dancers for appearing “odd”, and claims that “the police have to make a snap judgment about what to do”. Why exactly the police should need to make snap judgments in cases where no violence is occurring and no weapons or threat to life or limb are evident, that’s beyond me. Apparently, the fact that authorities sometimes unfortunately need to make snap judgments to preserve the lives of themselves or others means, in MarkG’s mind, that all judgments made by cops should be granted this same life-or-death importance.

There's a lot more:

  • The argument that if you're relying on society to provide you with safety, you shouldn't complain when it fails to do so.

  • The "they found you in contempt of cop -- no reprieve" argument.

  • The "only in this country" argument:

  • Only in this country can one march in the streets of the capital obnoxiously protesting “the oppression inherent in the system” without fear of retribution.

Grumer says:

I want to admire that paragraph. One sentence of not even thirty words, and it packs at least three propagandistic payloads. Let’s unpack them:
All of these tactics — the use of your ideals to overturn your trust in facts, the assertion of nebulous threats that justify arbitrary authority, the portrayal of protesters as lunatics, the claim that an all-encompassing bureaucracy has legitimate authority over our every breath and step, that you’ll be fine as long as you don’t “make trouble” — these tactics can be seen and heard every day wherever political discussion takes place. They’re the words with which once-free people talk themselves into tyranny.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A steampunk night out

Steampunk evening out

(Click image for full view.)

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Water water everywhere

Via Les the Stupid Evil Bastard, another article debunking the myth that people are chronically dehydrated and need to drink at least eight glasses of water a day.

Myths have consequences, and this myth leads to an absolutely enormous market in bottled water: $7.7 billion in the USA in 2002. In Australia, consumers bought 520 million litres in 2004, and at a growth rate of 20%, that's probably passed a billion litres this year. The water has to come from somewhere: often it's merely tap water stuck in a fancy bottle, but it's often shipped great distances, increasing the environmental harm done by the manufacture of all those billions of one-use-only throw-away plastic bottles. And it frequently doesn't make economic sense either: the water companies have enough muscle to distort the market. For example, in the middle of a long-lasting drought in Victoria, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola has a permit to buy aquifer water at one quarter of one percent of the market rate for water: $2.40 per megalitre, compared to $960 per megalitre for tap water.

The Sydney Morning Herald wrote:

The 750ml size remained the same - people want a big drink these days. And as many people say they find it hard to drink the recommended two litres of water a day, Frucor brought in flavoured - but still colourless - waters to relieve the monotony.

Here's a hint folks: if your body is telling you "No more water please!", that's a sign that you should stop.

On a related note, with Australia in a state of essentially permanent drought, a British House of Commons report on the state of water treatment in Australia makes fascinating reading.