Democracy: not so bad, after all

Despite my many misgivings about our prized political system, it did manage to elect Barack Obama to be the Democratic nominee. I’m pleasantly surpised at my fellow man. It’s not just his color, but also his calm, measured style, and obvious moral quality. But his color is, of course, highly significant. I can hardly think of a better thing for this country, and the world, than that he should be elected president. Political and moral progress is possible. Many blacks reported tears in their eyes when the announcement of his nomination was made; mine were damp too. This is a Big One. There’s nothing quite so gratifying as seeing a horrible prejudice smashed to pieces.

Relativism and Democracy

I am struck by this passage from Tocqueville: “I have previously stated that the principle of the sovereignty of the people hovers over the whole political system of the Anglo-Americans. Every page of this book will reflect certain fresh instances of this doctrine. In nations were it exists, every individual takes an equal share in sovereign power and participates equally in the government of the state. Thus he is considered as enlightened, virtuous, strong as any of his fellow men.” Toqueville’s point is that democracy presupposes that each person is as competent and virtuous as any other. But of course this is false: people differ widely in intelligence and virtue. Note that he says “considered” not “really”. So democracy rests on a lie. How, then, to defend democracy? Well, if truth, reason, virtue, etc are not objective qualities that people exemplify to varying degrees, but are rather relative to each person, we have a way out: everyone is as smart and good as anyone else to himself. Then democracy rests on no lie, since everyone really is cognitively and morally equal. Relativism steps in to save democracy from its noble lie. Thus relativism finds a foothold. But relativism is rubbish; so where does that leave democracy?

The Serve

I watch how tennis players serve with great concentration. They all do it pretty much in the same way. And this way is quite different from the way amateur players serve, even quite decent amateur players. Claudio taught me the finer points of serving a few months ago (now, alas, he is back in Germany). High toss, long reach, bring the feet together, use a throwing action, backhand grip, snap the wrist down, plenty of side and top spin. It was incredibly awkward for me at first (backhand grip?!), but I took to practicing it almost every day for several months–not just on the court with a hopper of balls but also in my living room (no ball, just air). Gradually, the pieces came together, with some striking breakthroughs. Now what seemed alien feels natural. I can’t serve any other way. It feels good to hit it just the way the pros do. There’s a moral here–but I think it’s too obvious for me to want to spell it out. Main point is: instead of fearing to serve, now I love to serve. Indeed, I can’t wait to get down to the court and hit some serves.

Enemies of thought

My son Bruno told me yesterday that he’d just been watching a video of me on Youtube. Eventually it became clear what this video was of: a discussion I participated in a few years ago at the Philoctetes Centre in New York about evolution, consciousness, and the meaning of it all. I hadn’t even remembered that it was being filmed, but it’s a mark of our digital times that it has now shown up on the internet to be accessed by my son 3000 miles away. But that’s not the point I’m most interested in making here; because Bruno observed that the scientists present were generally disagreeable and closed-minded (he actually used a much stronger word to describe them). And he’s a scientist himself–a doctor (ENT). This prompted me to ponder who is more deplorable among us: the superstitious zealots who limit their knowledge to what the Bible tells them or the scientists who are unable or unwilling to take any question seriously which has no scientific answer–which includes most of the questions I as a philosopher spend my time on. Specifically, several of those present hated my bringing up the point that we have no good scientific theory of how consciousness evolved in the first place (or how it arises in the brain of every human being at some point or another–and not just human brains). Why are people so incapable of stepping outside the narrow world-view of their specific range of expertise–either the Bible or their particular scientific discipline? Is it fear, narcissism, laziness, bloody-mindedness?

God disproved (yet again)

Just when you think that, just conceivably, you might be overdoing the anti-religious diatribes, you read something like the article I came across last Saturday in the New York Times, about a chap called Specialist Jeremy Hall who was systematically persecuted by his army superiors and fellow soldiers for his atheist views. Particularly odious was the pressure to pray with others when he declared his lack of belief (not to mention the physical threats he endured). Such, apparently, is the military mind (excuse the oxymoron). We know they are a conformist lot, but I had no idea that religious conformity is rigorously enforced, though not officially. Anyway, it made me think of yet another reason to deny God’s existence: surely if he did exist he’d come forward to denounce the actions performed in his name. I would, wouldn’t you? At least he’d send some sort of emissary, if not his son then at least some high-ranking celestial colleague or other–the angel Gabriel doesn’t seem to have been up to much for a while, lolling away up there. Send someone important to earth, put people straight about right and wrong, about what God really wants from us. But oh no, God just lets it all happen–even atrocities on a vast scale. A few words from him, convincingly stated, and we would know what’s what, but apparently he just can’t be bothered. More likely, the lack of divine corrective indicates a lack of divine existence. Specialist Hall, I’m with you.


As the Obama/Clinton wars drag on, I think of the malign effects of elections. We don’t have a pure participatory democracy, such as once obtained in Athens, no doubt for good reasons of practicality. We have a so-called representative democracy, which requires that we elect our leaders by something like popular vote. This requires those things dignified by the word “election”: money-driven, ad hominem, gotcha-loving, manipulative, mindfucking, demeaning, grotesque, corrupt, vicious, boring, fake, and so on. The candidates have to persuade the electorate to vote for them, and from this simple fact all the evils flow (combined with a full-blown capitalist-media complex). Imagine having to make yourself popular with everyone in order to be promoted in your job! I would never have got anywhere. I rather despise popularity, seeing it as the sure mark of a lack of integrity. Democracy is bad enough, but to combine it with the hunger for mass popularity is ten times worse. Down with elections!

Papal Tensions

The pope came and went. Two aspects of his proclamations stood out: on the one hand, his call for more authority and obedience, especially when it comes to the demands of the Catholic church; on the other hand, his condemnation of the sexual abuse inflicted by his priests. Did he not notice a tension between these two sentiments? He’s supposed to be logically astute, but it’s pretty obvious that the latter thing followed quite smoothly from the former: unquestioning obedience to the authority of the representatives of the church, i.e. priests, is what made possible the sexual abuse they so easily and revoltingly practiced on their “parishioners”. You would have thought the pope’s message might have been “Don’t blindly do what priests tell you!”. But then contradictions have never been much of an impediment to the skilled theologian (problem of evil and all that).

The Paradox of Democracy

In order for democracy to be acceptable, it needs to be combined with legal protections for the rights of minorities (gays, atheists, et al), or else there will be a tyranny of majority rule. But these protections cannot be made subject to the will of the majority or they lose their point and force. So, they must stay in place even if the majority opposes them–which is undemocratic. Therefore, democarcy is acceptable only if it is not absolute. A tolerable form of democracy cannot be consistently democratic. The problem is that democracy and individual rights are at odds with each other.