an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘democracy

US democracy: another problem

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Please Be Sensible, and fund public broadcasting properly

Jacinta: So we’ve long been wondering why things are so bad in the USA, why so many people believe such rubbish, and even act on it, to the detriment, it seems, of their democratic system. We’ve talked about their jingoism and their religiosity, but there’s so much more to it. For example, there’s a movement of the religious Right, the supposedly Christian Right, which seems to have nothing whatever to do with the supposed teachings of Jesus…

Canto: Or his example, since he clearly wasn’t much of a family man. Actually much of Jesus’s behaviour and speakings were contradictory, certainly nothing you could build a coherent moral framework from.

Jacinta: Yes the Christian Right is all about ‘old-fashioned family values’, men who are men, women who know their place, the corruption that is homosexuality, feminism and the pro-abortion crowd. And this stuff is prevalent in Australia too, but with nowhere near the force and noise. And the same goes for the conspiracy theories, the misinformation, the libertarian, anti-government breast-beating and so forth. In the USA it has threatened, very seriously, to bring down their democracy, which is clearly still under serious threat. But something I heard today on the SGU podcast (The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe episode 875) has helped me understand why so many United Staters are so loopy. Their public media outlets – as opposed to private media – have nothing like the presence that Australia’s ABC and Britain’s BBC have. Kara Santamaria, the SGU’s resident (but not token) female, presented research on this. Government-funded media (not of the Putinland or CCP kind of course) can be seen as ‘funding democracy’. The research comes from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, presented in a paper called ‘Funding Democracy: Public Media and Democratic Health in 33 Countries’. It’s behind a paywall, but the link is below, for anyone who ever reads this, haha. I’m basing my comments on an article about the research, published on the Annenberg website – and on Santamaria’s commentary.

Canto: My turn. From the abstract of the research article we get this conclusion:

Correlations and cluster analyses show that high levels of secure funding for public media systems and strong structural protections for the political and economic independence of those systems are consistently and positively correlated with healthy democracies.

The point being that the USA’s public media, such as PBS and NPR, is funded to the tune of about $1.40 per person per annum, whereas Britain, Western Europe and Australia spend orders of magnitude more. Less than half a per cent of the USA’s GDP goes to Public Media. The Australian government spends about $1.5 billion annually on its public broadcasting, compared to less than $0.5 billion by the USA, with a population about 14 times that of Australia!  These are quite mind-blowing figures. The funding in the USA has been decreasing over a long period, and this has correlated with the country being downgraded on The Economist’s ‘Democracy Index’ from ‘full democracy’ to ‘flawed democracy’. Now obviously the lack of a well-funded public media isn’t the only reason for the USA’s fall from grace – the January 6 insurrection and the growing insanity of the GOP are also factors – but it’s quite possible that the growing influence of unregulated social media, uncounteracted by reliable organisations such as Britain’s BBC, Germany’s Deutsche Welle and the ABC in Australia, is a major factor.
Jacinta: Print journalism, as we well know, is have trouble surviving, causing ‘news deserts’ throughout regional USA, not to mention Australia. And news monopolies are also a problem. I recently perused Adelaide’s ‘Advertiser’ for the first time in a v long time. It’s owned by Rupert Murdoch and is the city’s only newspaper. It was all right-wing stuff, criticising Labor throughout and not even mentioning the struggling Conservative government. It should be obvious that when the media is almost entirely privatised it will be owned by those who favour the status quo, as this is what has made them wealthy enough to buy into the media in the first place.
Canto: There’s no independent oversight with privately owned media – I think of comparing this to private prisons, and the destruction they’re causing. Publicly-owned media doesn’t encourage extremist views – the public outcry would be immediate, and understandable. It also covers a greater diversity of issues, and tends to be more educational. Think of ABC’s Landline, and even Gardening Australia. The public broadcaster here is essential viewing and listening for regional Australia, and is greatly appreciated. The private media tries to provide the public what they think the public wants, public media tends to focus on public need. It appeals to our better angels, while commercial media often appeals to our worst instincts.
Jacinta: More statistics, backing up your previous stuff:
In terms of its public media funding, [the USA] is almost literally off the chart for how little it allocates towards its public media compared to other democracies around the planet. It comes out to .002 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At $465 million dollars, 2020 federal funding of U.S. public media amounted to just $1.40 per capita. Meanwhile, countries such as the UK, Norway, and Sweden spend close to $100 or more per capita toward their public media.
Which is interesting considering the conservative attacks on our ABC. They so often seem to think it’s a tool of the left – that’s what I get from occasionally accessing twitter. I think it’s because it covers politics a lot, whereas the commercial networks are light on about politics, assuming an indifference from their audience, which becomes a self-fulfilling thing. Certainly the private media have no interest whatever in educational stuff such as Catalyst or children’s educational programming.
Canto: It’s not surprising that the findings from this research back the view that well-funded and regulated public media supports the development of ‘well-informed political cultures, high levels of support for democratic processes, and increased levels of civic engagement’. The counter-argument is always something about ‘state capture’ along the lines of the CCP and Putinland, but recent events have surely revealed the yawning gap between these state thugocracies and the WEIRD world.
Jacinta: But the worry is that some media moguls have as much money and power as many states. I’ll leave the last, lengthy comment to Victor Pickard speaking to the journalist Alina Ladyzhensky, on his public media research re the USA:
Since the market is no longer supporting the level of news media — especially local journalism — that democracy requires, there is arguably now an even stronger case to make that public media needs to step into the vacuum to address the widening news gaps as the commercial newspaper industry continues to wither away. News deserts are expanding across the country and around the world. This should be public media’s moment – an opportunity to revisit its core purpose and assess how it should operate within a democratic society and within an increasingly digital media system. Ideally, we would both restructure and democratize our public media system as we expand this critical infrastructure.
The USA need to turn a corner on this. But will it? It seems highly unlikely at the moment. The slow-motion train crash of US democracy grinds on…



Written by stewart henderson

April 22, 2022 at 4:27 pm

17th century perspectives, 21st century slaughter

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Vlady the Thug – returning us all to the glories of centuries-old slaughter

Canto: So much is happening, so much is being learned, so much of my ignorance is being brought home to me, and so much of my good luck is also being brought home, in that I’ve never had to live in or be brought down by a thugocracy. Then again, if you’ve come to this ‘lucky country’ be means of a leaky boat, trying to escape a foreign thugocracy by any means possible, you’ll likely have a very different perspective.

Jacinta: Haha yes it’s Writer’s Week here in Adelaide, and we’ve been sampling, generally by sometimes dodgy internet links, the thoughts of former refugees writers, investigative journalists on even more dodgy pharmaceutical companies, and words of wisdom from our intellectual elders. And of course many of these conversations have been clouded by the invasion of Ukraine by Vlady the Thug, and the consequent carnage.

Canto: Yes, it seems he’s trying to channel Peter the Great, but he’s 300 years behind the times, and hasn’t been told that warlordism just doesn’t fit with 21st century fashion. But Vlady the Thug, that’s good, it would definitely be helpful if all world leaders, including and especially Zelensky, started  addressing him as such. Vlady is extremely small-minded, with a narrow understanding of nationalism and glory, and with a huge sense of his own grandeur. The WEIRD world may not be able to unite to destroy him, given the protection racket around him and the vast nuclear arsenal he and his predecessors have been allowed to assemble, but I think that worldwide mockery, difficult though it might seem at this awful time, might unhinge him just enough for a rethink, or alternatively, might be enough to turn his thug underlings against him.

Jacinta: True, but I don’t think Vlady the Thug is punchy enough…

Canto: It’s a good start, certainly a far cry from Peter the Great (who was a bit of a thug himself of course). And don’t forget, world leaders have never been too good at comedy, they’re generally too full of their Serious Destiny. I doubt if they would come at Vlady the Thug, never mind Vlad the Tame Impala or Mr Pudding.

Jacinta: True, but Zelensky is apparently a former comedian, and he’s absolutely Mister Popularity on the world stage at the moment. If he went with this mockery, and encouraged his new-found fans to follow his example, it might be the best, and certainly the cheapest form of attack available at present. Though it’s true that I can’t imagine Sco-Mo or Scummo, our PM, managing to deliver any comedy line with the requisite aplomb.

Canto: Well, it’s an interesting idea, if only we could get Zelensky’s minders to take it up. Unfortunately he seems to have caught the Man with a Serious Destiny disease recently – for which I don’t blame him at all. And anyway, I have to check the internet on a regular basis currently to see if he’s still alive.

Jacinta: Yes, I thought the imitation of Churchill in his address to the British Parliament was a bit cringeworthy, but I agree that it’s hardly a time to criticise Zelensky when Vlady the Thug is on the loose. Anyway, the WEIRD world is stuck in dealing with little Vlady. I listened to a long-form interview with Julia Ioffe on PBS today – she’s a Russian-born US journalist who has reported from that country for some years, and her depiction of Vlady was spot-on – that’s to say, it chimed exactly with mine. She feels that he will never withdraw or change his mind about Ukraine. He has stated often in communication with other leaders that Ukraine is not a ‘real country’.

Canto: Yes, unlike Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan and all those African countries. Russia on the other hand is a real country thanks to the wars of Ivan , Peter, Catherine and the rest. Thanks to all the slaughter, rape and suppression of alternative languages and cultures. Just like Australia and the USA are real countries thanks to the removal of previous cultures from their land – with associated slaughter, rape, and ‘white man’s disease’.

Jacinta: Yes, few countries – or maybe there are no countries whose national ‘development’ hasn’t involved a fair amount of bloody repression. Ukrainians, as Ioffe pointed out, have made it abundantly clear in recent times that they reject Vlady’s thugocracy, and their resolve has hardened as a result of the 2014 events. But Ioffe’s view is also quite bleak – due to Vlady’s complete inability to back down, in her view. And I’m pretty sure she’s right about that. And, according to her, his ‘inner circle’ has contracted considerably in recent times, and they’re all as crazy as himself, maybe even crazier. So this may mean the invasion will continue, until he becomes master of an almost uninhabited wasteland. Nobody wants to provoke him to take the nuclear option, which he’s quite capable of.

Canto: So the only real option would be to kill him. And he’s no doubt been guarding himself against that option for years.

Jacinta: It would most likely have to be an inside job. I’m sure there are negotiations under way, but Putin is very much a survivor. At the moment he’s cracking down on dissent like never before. But the world is seeing it, and this will ultimately be a victory for democracy. In the short term though, it’s a terrible tragedy.

Canto: If there is a silver lining, it’s the winning of the propaganda war, the worldwide condemnation will give the CCP thugocracy something to think about vis-a-vis Taiwan. At the moment they’re trying to blame NATO for the invasion, and of course they have blanket control over the media there, but people have ways of getting reliable information, for example from the massive Chinese diaspora.

Jacinta: So I’ve been listening to Julia Ioffe, Masha Gessen, Fiona Hill and others, but of course no amount of analysis is going to improve the situation, and even our concern seems more debilitating than anything. I imagine holding Vlady prisoner and then pointing out some home truths…

Canto: Very useful. But here’s a few arguments. As you say, he’s been fond of claimng over the years that Ukraine isn’t a real country. But what makes Russia a real country? What make Australia a real country? What make the USA a real country?  Presumably Vlady thinks that Russia’s a real country because the slaughter, rape and suppression of ‘minority’ languages and cultures occurred earlier.

Jacinta: Well, we don’t know what he would say. What if we didn’t tell him why he’s wrong, but allowed him to explain why he’s right? What would he say?

Canto: Well, we know that he’s a very ardent nationalist, so to suggest to him that all nations are artificial in an important sense would just incense him. But once he calms down (and we’ve got him all tied up and hanging upside-down so he can’t escape, and we’ve promised him that if he provides really cogent arguments according to a panel of independent experts, he’ll be given his freedom, with his thugocracy completely returned to him), what will be his arguments?

Jacinta: Well, we don’t have his views on the legitimacy of Russia as a nation, and I suspect he would scoff at the very idea of having to justify Russian nationhood, because I’m sure he believes that if Russia didn’t exist his life would have no meaning – which is about as far from our understanding of our humanity as one could possibly get – but we do have his essay from last year about why Ukraine isn’t and can never be a legitimate nation.

Canto: Yes, he harps on about Ukrainians and Russians being ‘a single people’, who shouldn’t have a border between them, but the very idea of any nations being a ‘single people’ is a fantasy. It’s of course where the terms ‘unAustralian’ and ‘unAmerican’ get their supposed bite from – the fantasy of individuals being united by their ‘nationhood’.

Jacinta: More importantly, he seems completely unaware, or prefers to be unaware, of the extremely repressive state he’s created, and that few people in their right minds, whether Ukrainian, Russian or Icelandic, would want to live under a jackboot when they have the opportunity to choose and criticise their own government.

Canto: Yes, he talks in the vaguest, most soporific terms of Ukrainians and Russians occupying ‘the same historical and spiritual space’, and  being ‘a single people’, and with ‘affinities’ created by Vladimir the Great, the ruler of Kievan Rus over a thousand years ago. As if.

Jacinta: Yes, the fact is that Ukrainian pro-European and anti-Russian sentiment has obviously grown since Vlady’s bloody adventurism in 2014. Ukrainians are wanting to survive and thrive in the here and now. I mean, it’s good, sort of, that Vlady takes an interest in history, as we do, but from a vastly different perspective. His potted history, like many, is about rulers – earthly or spiritual, and territories won and lost between the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Russians and so on. But these battles for territories from centuries ago bear little relation to the lives and thoughts of individual people today, people whom Vlady is completely disconnected from, just as Xi Jinping  and his fellow thugs are completely disconnected from the everyday freedoms of Hong Kongers.

Canto: The point to make here is that no amount of tendentious historical description will conceal the fact that Ukrainians, like Hong-Kongers, see that their best future lies in the arms of the WEIRD world, with all its messiness. Here’s a banner epigram – fuck our history, what abut our future?

Jacinta: Good one. Yes, Vlady doesn’t like that not-so top-down messiness. He prefers stasis and control, especially by himself. And if it means wholesale slaughter to obtain it, so be it. Mind you, I strongly suspect he was misguided in his perception of Ukrainian sentiment, for whatever reason. And the people who are paying for this misguidedness, by and large, (and horrifically) are the Ukrainians.


Putin’s new Ukraine essay reveals imperial ambitions


Written by stewart henderson

March 12, 2022 at 7:59 pm

not Russia, Putin

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The world’s fledgling democracies, or non-democracies, are prone to instability, just as monarchies were in the past, because they were so subject to the vagaries of fate, and of particular individuals and their circumstances. When England’s Henry V died of dysentery near Paris just shy of his 36th birthday he had, in less than a decade, stabilised his English estate and inflicted mortal blows on the old enemy across the channel. Had Henry survived his illness, he would almost certainly have been crowned King of France, and the ‘Hundred Years’ War’ between the two kingdoms would have been reduced to just under seventy. As it was, England was in its most powerful position, arguably, since William of Normandy dispossessed or killed off the Saxon nobility and established his vast fiefdom.

But with Henry’s death it all fell apart. His successor was a nine-month old child, who grew up to be extremely timid and completely ineffectual as a ruler. Though he was briefly crowned King of France (at age 10), England was plunged into the chaos of the Wars of the Roses, and soon lost all its French territories apart from Calais.

Democracy, for all its flaws – due largely to the crooked timber of humanity – is the only form of government that allows for, indeed guarantees, at least in theory, the peaceful transfer of power between successive ‘regimes’. Post-Soviet Russia has of course, no succession system in place. North Korea is essentially a monarchy. As to China, the succession will be up for grabs, fought out within a tiny, absurdly corrupt clique. Other tyrannies face their own unique uncertainties. And the people will be forced to suffer the outcome in virtual silence.

As a member of ‘the people’, the canaille, the peasantry, the great unwashed, the proles, the rabble, the riffraff, the parasitic masses, I feel fortunate to live in a democracy, because there’s just no realistic alternative for people who don’t want to be unexpectedly interfered with for no apparent reason. Democratic governments don’t generally go to war, and certainly don’t start wars, if they think it’ll lose them the next election, and since it’s obvious that most people want a peaceful, unchanging life, that tends to settle the matter.

Which brings me to Russia and its suffering people. For centuries they were subject to a succession of dynastic emperors or Tzars, much like those in the rest of the vast Eurasian continent. Interestingly, the best of them was the Empress Catherine, a ring-in from Germany, who had to get rid of her nogoodnik husband (by an arranged marriage), a dissolute sadist, before she could establish her right to the throne – to which she had no ‘right’ – since rights were essentially based on primogeniture after initial warlordy slaughter.

But allow me to digress again to Western Europe et al. The principles of government began to change over time in the proto-WEIRD world, with its beginnings going back, arguably, as far as Magna Carta and the first English parliament in 1215, and boosted by the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century, with its indecisive victory for the parliamentarian faction. A half-century later King James II was forced into exile, and the first ever constitutional monarchy came into being. Over time, British governments gained ascendency as the power of the monarch waned, the concept of Prime Ministership evolved, and the voting franchise widened. Across the Atlantic, a new experiment in democratic government was undertaken, and of course in France a revolution went haywire, resulting in a new despotism under Napoleon, followed by a stumbling and backsliding course that eventually led to democracy by the end of the 19th century. Other European countries also experienced traumatic periods following the end of traditional monarchical or quasi-monarchical systems. Spain’s long monarchical period was often turbulent, but it looked like it had come to an abrupt end when Napoleon forced King Ferdinand VII to abdicate in 1808. After this the Bourbon monarchy-in-exile became a focus of resistance, but it soon lost support after the fall of Napoleon, due its extreme conservatism. Spain became a constitutional monarchy in the 1830s, but there were ongoing battles between political factions until the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1868 led to the ousting of Queen Isabella, the first truly reformist government in the country, and the creation of a Constitution promoting citizens’ rights. However, there was still plenty of political strife, and a coup d’état in 1874 restored the Bourbon monarchy. However, the new Constitution created an alternating system of conservative and liberal prime ministerships, which was innovative, though not exactly democratic. The relatively liberal constitutional monarchy limped on until Spain erupted in civil war, followed by the long, lost years of the Franco dictatorship. ‘Permanent’ democracy wasn’t established until the early 1980s.

I could go on with a fulsome account of the slow emergence of something like full democracy in Germany, Italy, the Baltic States and so on, but the overall point is clear – the old absolute power systems were not easily killed off and democracy struggled to get a foothold and should by no means be taken for granted as an established feature of the political landscape.

Now to return to Russia. Their absolute monarchy began, always arguably, with the murderous warlord now known, aptly enough, as Ivan the Terrible. Of course, warfare was a way of life in those days, but some took this way of life to ridiculous extremes. Ivan won some of his wars and lost others, as is the way, and the expansion and contraction of territories generally continued under his successors. So are nations arbitrarily founded (and losted) under absolute rulers. One of the features of Ivan’s rule was a 24-year Livonian War – Livonia being the territory now covered by the Baltic States, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Successful at first, Ivan failed as various surrounding forces rallied against him and the war severely depleted his military forces. Still, these and and other adventures no doubt have convinced Russia’s latest Tsar that these territories are an eternal part of Sweet Mother Russia, soon to be renamed Putinland.

Which brings me to Ukraine – but it would require a half-dozen books to do justice to the messy history of that country and region, even if only going back to the ancient Scythian kingdom, which covered not only modern Ukraine but much of south-western Russia. I’ll briefly mention the kingdoms, duchies, khanates, empires, republics and assorted noms de guerre associated with the region. After Scythia, there were the Slavic hordes, the Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde (mainly Mongols, at least at first), the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the kingdom of Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Crimean Khanate, the Ottoman Empire, the Cossacks, the Tsardom of Muscovy, the Hetmanate, the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire, the Free Territory of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (fighting both the Nazis and the Soviets), and, in 1991, independence from (then semi-Soviet) Russia.

So from 1991 on, Ukraine has been what might be called a proto- or wannabe-democracy (but aren’t they all?), rife with corruption – no doubt a hangover from the long Soviet years (imagine how long Putinland would last under a free press tightly protected by law). It reached its nadir under the grotesquely corrupt Pupin puppet, Viktor Yanukovych, who was chased out of the country in the heroic Maidan Revolution, aka the Revolution of Dignity, in 2014, no doubt to the nappy-wetting fury of our Vlad. It was this humiliation dealt out to Putin’s pal in Ukraine that led to the attack on the country later that year, and continued aggression leading to the current invasion.

So why has Putin gone so ‘overboard’ as to invade a country that has become increasingly uninterested in its ties with Russia and increasingly hopeful of joining the European Union and even, possibly, NATO, an organisation whose raison d’être is arguably the containment of Putin’s imperialist ambitions?

Well, to me, the NATO issue is a red herring. More important for Putin is the horror of Ukraine’s increasing democratisation, and its increasing indifference to Russia. There may be economic motives that I don’t know about (economics isn’t my strong suit, which is why I don’t own any suits), but the fact is that Putin is fanatically anti-democratic, and loves to surround himself with puppet thugocracies, as can be found in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Chechnya, North Korea and even China – obviously not a puppet regime, but just as thuggish.

And of course, Ukraine has a special importance to this wannabe Tsar, as a nation or region that has been in Russia’s sphere of influence for some centuries. But Putin has miscalculated majorly with this old-fashioned offensive. Ukrainians are a proud and fighting people, as the Maidan Revolution proved, and the vast majority have zero interest in kowtowing to the new Putinland. It’s already clear that the Ukrainians will not be cowed by this attack, and will not negotiate in any way with the aggressors. Most international observers are at a loss as to how Putin could have made such a monumental miscalculation, as he is generally a smarter thug than most. If Putin has a victory here at all, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. He will not be able to install a Yanakovich-style leader, as nobody of any credibility, inside or outside of the country, will support him. And many men, women and children will die because of this folly. Basically, Putin has already lost this one. And, due to all the sanctions, which I don’t particularly support, he will face plenty of unrest on the home front.

How this will now play out is anyone’s guess. Putin seems to me like a usually astute gambler who has suffered a brainsnap and gambled much of his political reputation away. He can’t now back out, and he can’t win. No reputable nation is backing him, sanctions will make him increasingly unpopular domestically, and he actually now looks foolish. The worry of course is that he’ll play his hand to the bitter end, and lash out with maximum force at everyone who opposes him. It would be nice to think that we’re seeing the tragi-comic end of the era of naked despotism, but of course there’s nothing comic about Putin’s antics and their horrific consequences, and let’s face it, the timber of humanity is extremely crooked in some instances, and that has its appeal to an alarming number of people. But at least with democracy, the consequences of such crookedness aren’t quite so devastating. In Putinland, that’s another story. We’re all hoping this will be Putin’s last stand, but on the domestic front, he’s far more familiar with the terrain. We, the international community, must make every effort to keep him in his box, and to support those in the former and hopefully future nation of Russia, whose hope and ambition is to deliver the fatal blow.

Written by stewart henderson

March 1, 2022 at 11:33 pm

the world’s greatest democracy?

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forget about the kid, just get the t-shirt


Over the last 5-6 years, since Trump, to my great bemusement, began to emerge as a serious candidate for the US Presidency, I’ve been following US politics more than ever before, and more than I’ve ever felt inclined to. I try not to be prejudiced against the USA as a nation, and of course I’ve met individual United Staters who are as varied as individuals from other nations, but just as I’ve always had a special loathing for bullies and thuggish individuals, sometimes known, when they’re invested with some sort of official or tacitly accepted power, as ‘authoritarians’, I’ve also tended to harbour ill-feelings towards nations that like to throw their weight around on the international stage, or governments that do the same vis-a-vis the general citizenry.

Interestingly, as I observe myself, I find that my anti-authoritarian attitude has never led me to embrace libertarianism, as I’m too much aware of the hyper-social nature of humanity, and of many other species. So when I think of social evolution, I think of the social side above all, and of promoting awareness of this social side, and of enhancing the social situation for the individuals linked into it, which of course means all of us. And that ‘all’ needs to be as comprehensive as possible, not species-specific.

We humans have – at least most of us – organised ourselves (or have been organised) socially into political units known as nations, in recent centuries. And of course there have been up-sides and down-sides to this development. It surprises me, for example, how quickly nationalist fervour can be stirred up within these relatively recent entities – good for sporting competitions, but not always so good for those who want to leave the nation they find themselves in for a richer or safer one. ‘They don’t belong here’ is a chant I’ve heard more than once. And there are other, more subtle nationalistic tropes. Here in Australia, we poo-poo bad behaviour by calling it ‘unAustralian’, just as United Staters use ‘unAmerican’ (I suspect this is because the terms have a nice flow to them, whereas ‘unBritish’ sounds too clunky), as if Aussies or Yanks are generally better than other humans.

Which brings me to ‘American exceptionalism’, the idea that what they call ‘the American experiment’ is unique in human history. That’s to say, unique in some positively extraordinary way, for of course the formation of every nation or political system is unique. Since paying more attention to US politics, and the media that reports on it, I’ve heard a number of pundits – Maggie Haberman, Chuck Rosenberg, Adam Schiff and Joe Scarborough to name a few – mouthing terms such as ‘the American experiment’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and ‘the leader of the free world’, either with virtual puffed-out chests or a mantra-like blandness, as if they might’ve had such platitudes drummed into them back in kindergarten.

So, to pick out one of these clichés, the USA as ‘the world’s greatest democracy’, let me explore its meaning and its truthiness. The term can be taken to mean two different things – that the USA is the world’s greatest country (militarily, economically or otherwise), which also happens to be a democracy, or that the USA has the world’s greatest (democratic) political system.

So let me take the first meaning first. Does ‘the greatest’ mean ‘the most powerful’ or ‘the best’? Or both, or neither? Or does it mean the greatest in terms of opportunity or well-being for its members? Whichever way you look at it, there are problems. A nation may be ‘great’ – that’s to say, full of well-fed, time-rich, intellectually productive members, because, through a whole set of complex circumstances, it has managed to exploit or even enslave its neighbours, or regions with resources that this nation knows how to profit from – as occurred in the ‘Belgian’ Congo under Leo Victor. That’s to say, look behind the self-aggrandising term ‘great’ and you’re likely to find exploitation – of resources and also of people. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans created profoundly hierarchical or slave states. The centuries-long feudal era was a period of massive intellectual and physical exploitation, often of women, nameless and forgotten.

Returning to the USA, its people have fallen for the same fallacy that the Egyptians, the Persians, the Romans, the Brits and the Japanese fell for – that their economic and military power entailed some sort of moral superiority. Often they learn their lesson too late. The term ‘savage’ was used to refer to African, American and Australian cultures by late arrivals from Europe, most of whom only came to understand the complexity and profound rootedness of their culture after it had been uprooted. And some are still clueless about these cultures. I spent some years teaching English to people newly arrived from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, whose experience of indigenous Australians was of drunken cadgers and brawlers in the heart of the city – their traditional meeting place for thousands of years before the British usurped them. How to even begin to explain, in a foreign language, the cultural devastation these people had experienced?

In the USA the problems of colonial expropriation are compounded by those of abduction and slavery, which, very obviously, are far from being solved. The ‘greatest’ in terms of GDP means little to the majority when the gap between the rich minority and the poor has widened massively in recent decades, and poverty levels for African-Americans and Hispanics have hit record lows. US ‘freedoms’ allow for workers to be paid lower wages than anywhere else in the WEIRD world, leading to obvious poverty traps. Australia’s minimum wage is almost three times that of the USA (though we have our own failings in other areas, such as the treatment of refugees). Joe Scarborough has more than once cited the USA’s top universities as proof of the nation’s greatness, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of United Staters have zero chance of attending these institutions.

So how do we measure a nation’s ‘greatness’ if we disregard GDP, or at least treat its status as a measure with skepticism? The answer, of course, is that there’s no objective measure. If science is your consuming passion, there are a number of countries that are world leaders in the field, depending on the precise field. If you’re deeply religious you’ll find a country to suit your spirituality, within reason. If money-making is your life’s purpose, there are a few nations that might fit the bill. Others might be better for a simple community life. Of course, not all of these countries will be democracies, but that’s a problem with democracies, they change from election to election. If you want to live in a democracy, you’re going to have to cope with these changes.

This brings me to the second meaning. Does the USA have the world’s best democratic system? I’m more confident about answering that one, and the answer is definitely ‘no’. But I’ve already given my reasons in previous posts – for example, here, here and here. To my mind great democracies don’t have to have nuclear weapons, a roll-call of billionaires, or super-guy Presidents with numbers attached. They don’t need to rabbit on about individual freedom as the be-all and end-all of human striving, when in fact no individuals have ever existed for long without a social network, into which they’re born and within which they will have to operate until the day they die.

Of course there are worse countries, and probably worse democracies, than the USA – and I do agree that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others, but it seems to me that one of the keys to an effective political system is an ongoing recognition of its weaknesses and failings, and an ongoing effort to bring about improvement. Rabbiting on about being ‘the greatest’ and the world’s natural leader has the opposite effect. Brilliant people are rarely big-heads. They just behave brilliantly. And are judged as brilliant by others, not by themselves.

Not that United Staters are ever going to listen to me!


Written by stewart henderson

February 24, 2022 at 10:27 pm

on voting and democracy in the USA: some history and some problems

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Congratulations, Germany wins

I try not to be anti-USA, but it’s hard sometimes. Lately I’ve been hearing that old chestnut, the American Experiment, being promulgated by Joe Biden among others. And the other day I was negatively energised by the lawyer and political pundit Jeremy Bash, who spoke of the US as the greatest democracy the world has ever known, or words to that effect. By ‘greatest democracy’ he also no doubt meant ‘greatest nation’, since we all quote the mantra that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others. But to describe nation x as the greatest nation in the world is just as puerile as saying that person x is the greatest person in the world. There are no objective measures for such things. Such remarks highlight what I’ve written before about ‘American exceptionalism’. United Staters are exceptional only in their religiosity and their jingoism, which doesn’t augur well for having exceptional self-critical capacities.

But to return to democracy talk. The ‘American experiment’ idea, never quite made explicit, is that modern democracy is a US invention, a form of Enlightenment that they’ve been trying to spread to a largely reluctant world. The facts tell a different story.

The US declared independence from Britain in 1776, but of course the new country was full of British ex-pats and Britain was still a major influence. I’ve heard more than one US pundit speak about their fight against a tyrant king, George III. Not quite true. Britain in 1776 had been a constitutional monarchy for more than 80 years, with a Prime Minister, Frederick North (Lord North), elected under an extremely limited franchise. Britain had executed a tyrant king, Charles I, in the 1640s, and had chased another one out of the country in the 1680s. The country experimented with the first parliamentary system in the 1650s under a Lord Protector (something like a Presidency), Oliver Cromwell. Anyone who has studied the British civil war of the 1640s will be aware of how politically savvy and committed the general populace was at that time.

The War of Independence ended well for the potential new nation, which was undeniably being tyrannised by Britain. Powerful countries or states tend to tyrannise smaller ones. This occurred, obviously, during Britain’s imperial period, and it occurred in the USA’s treatment of the Phillippines, Nicaragua and Vietnam. That is why we need more collaborative international peace-keeping, with no single nation being allowed to consider itself or to behave as the world’s police officer.

So when the potential new nation came to consider its form of government, it looked largely to the ‘mother country’, bad mother though it had turned out to be. Even Magna Carta, seen through an eighteenth century lens, had an influence on the US Constitution and state legislatures. However, the most important British reference was their 1689 Bill of Rights, inspired (to a much-debated degree) by the political philosophy of John Locke. This important document has provided a template for many national constitutions, including that of the USA. The US founding fathers were also much influenced by a contemporary firebrand, Britisher Tom Paine, whose 1776 pamphlet Common Sense became something of a sensation. Pressures against traditional tyrannies, such as absolute monarchies and aristocratic oligarchies, were growing throughout Europe in the late eighteenth century in response to ideas expressed in Rousseau’s The Social Contract and Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, among other works.

My point here is not to deny the experiment in modern democracy of the founding fathers and their collaborators. My argument is that this wasn’t the first experiment, nor was it by any means an experiment in full democracy. It was just one of many baby steps toward the full adult franchise that many democratic nations enjoy today. The 1789 election which brought George Washington, unopposed, to the presidency gave the vote to white property-owning men only – somewhere between 6% and 7% of the population. Women weren’t given the right to vote nationally until 1920, after decades of struggle. The Snyder Act of 1924 gave Native United Staters the ‘right to vote’, but left the final decision to state legislatures, leading to a fifty-year struggle to have that right fully established nationwide. African-Americans or ‘black’ men (I have serious issues with black-white terminology, which I present elsewhere – see links below) were given the right to vote by the 15th amendment of 1870, though voter suppression was endemic under ‘Jim Crow’ laws until the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, as we see today, that act has not prevented contemporary voter suppression by right-wing states.

The US voting and governmental system doesn’t seem to compare favourably with that of Australia, where I live. Australian governments are Westminster-based, as are the governments of the UK, Canada, New Zealand, India and South Africa, with obvious variations. That means the Prime Ministers of those countries are not elected directly by the populace, as occurs in the USA. They’re first elected by their particular parties, on the putative basis that they can best represent and promote that party’s policies to the people. The Prime Minister works in the Parliament – the Westminster version of Congress – and chooses her cabinet from other elected Members of Parliament, as opposed to the directly elected US President’s chief officers, who are personally chosen by the President, with no necessary experience in government. The Prime Minister (primum inter pares – first among equals) works inside the Parliament, shoulder to shoulder with her colleagues and within spitting distance of the opposition, whereas the US president is completely separated from Congress and is surrounded by his own personal staff and decision-makers, and so freed from direct confrontation with political opposition, or from defending his political actions and positions.

The case of Trump underlines many of the problems of the US system. United Staters boast that ‘anyone can become President’, but this isn’t such a great idea. There needs to be a basic proficiency test that, at the very least, separates adult contenders from children. Trump took advantage of this complete lack of vetting, and as such, took advantage of the major flaw in democracy that was pointed out nearly 2500 years ago by the likes of Plato and Aristotle. Unabashed anti-democratic elitists, these philosophers personally witnessed the damage that a populist demagogue, a person who promised everything but delivered nothing, could do to their state. The rise of Trump, always an object of contempt to the political elite, whether right or left, essentially repeated this 2500 year-old trick – appeal directly to the people, pretend you are one of them, and don’t stint on vague elaborate claims – drain the swamp, build the wall, make the state great again. The Republican Party was initially very reluctant to embrace Trump, but finally embraced his fanatical popularity among ‘the base’, with disastrous consequences for both the party and the nation.

How will the USA dig itself out of this hole? In the short term, there needs to be consequences for a person who has lived a whole life, from childhood, without consequences. Honestly, this doesn’t seem likely to happen. United Staters blindly worship their Presidential system, and remember their Presidents by number – something which will never be emulated by other nations. Recent events – including two impeachments -have shown that there are no clear laws or procedures for dumping a criminal President. The US President appears, for all intents and purposes, to be above the law, apparently due to the importance of is position. One would think it was self-evident that with great power comes great responsibility, including legal responsibility, but it has now become clear that in the USA, the President can act as a dictator between Presidential elections. I see no serious legislative activity to change this ludicrous situation. Gentleman’s agreements don’t cut it.

Voter suppression just isn’t a thing in Australia, New Zealand and other Westminster-based countries. In Australia, voting is mandatory, all Australian citizens over eighteen must vote in federal and state elections, or incur a fine. This includes all those in prison for sentences of three years or less. All ex-offenders must vote. Very few people object to these requirements. And of course, all voting takes place on a Saturday, to inconvenience as few working people as possible. The USA’s Tuesday voting system harks back to its agrarian past, and also its religious attitude to ‘days of rest’. It’s frankly too depressing to go into further detail. Needless to say, a Tuesday voting system acts against the needs of the working poor. The USA has the lowest minimum wage of any developed country. Australia, incidentally, has the highest. I point this out as a non-nationalist (though not an anti-nationalist).

No voting system is perfect (Australia, like the US, has problems with gerrymandering) but some are more perfect than others. A voting system that has a multitude of state laws for voting in a federal election is clearly disastrous. The USA seems overly governed in this regard. There is also too much voting – major national elections every two years means that the nation is almost perpetually in election mode. There also appears to be little oversight with regard to the vast amounts of funds spent on campaigning and lobbying, which obviously tilts votes in favour of the moneyed class in a nation with the largest rich-poor divide in the world.

I’ve pointed out just some of the problems facing ‘the world’s greatest democracy’. Many of its other problems are social – failures in the basic education system, massive incarceration rates, especially for victimless crimes, the intensification of partisan politics exacerbated by social media and the absence of a multi-party political system, and out-of-control gun and armaments ownership, to name a few. All of this requires root and branch reform, which I don’t see happening. It’s a shame. Europe now seems to be emerging as our best hope for the future.


Australia had the highest minimum wage in the world in 2019

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2021 at 6:49 pm

getting wee Donny 1: 2016 campaign finance violations

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one of wee Donny’s ‘reimbursement’ cheques – a smoking gun?

Canto: So we both agree that free will is a myth, and that this has major implications for crime and punishment, but we’re also both human – at least I am – and we want to see nasties being punished, and in fact we delight in it. As a person with a lifelong loathing of bullies, I’ve too often fantasised about bullying those bullies, even torturing them endlessly. And I do wonder if my sudden interest in US politics from the time wee Donny looked like he might bullshit his way into their presidency has more to do with gunning for his downfall than anything else.

Jacinta: Yes we think similarly but we have the capacity also to step back and be more analytical and curious about a system that allows such an obvious scammer to take up the very top position in what so many ‘Americans’ – and I put that in quotes coz I’ve heard quite a few inhabitants of that double continent getting annoyed that these ‘Americans’ refer to themselves in that exclusivist way…

Canto: But what should we call them? Yanks? Uessians? United Staters?

Jacinta: Yeah, good, let’s call them United Staters from now on. So many United Staters think they have the world’s greatest nation…

Canto: As the Brits did in their days of glory in the 19th century…

Jacinta: True, the myth of economic power entailing moral superiority dies hard, and jingoism is a major barrier to national self-analysis. So we, as outsiders and non-nationalists might be better equipped to examine why it is that wee Donny, with his so obvious incompetencies, manipulations and deceptions, has gotten so far and damaged so much, with so few consequences. What does it say about the USA, are these deficiencies shared by other nations (leaving aside the out-and-out dictatorships and undemocratic oligarchies), and can the USA redeem itself by imposing some sort of justice on this character, for the first time in a long lifetime?

Canto: Yes, so this series, ‘getting wee Donny’ will look at his crimes, at the system that allowed them, and how the system might reform itself, or transform itself into something more respectable, so that nothing like wee Donny can arise again. And this means not only looking at their criminal justice system, but the anti-government ideologies that have supported wee Donny’s destruction of responsible and effective government. There’s a malaise in that country, which might prevent wee Donny from facing justice, for fear that the malaise turn into a pandemic of self-slaughter. Are we facing the downfall of the USA?

Jacinta: Unlikely. Too many WMD for a start. And the nation has a lot of smarts, in spite of all the morons.

Canto: Morons with guns, and lots of them. And enough brains to make plans…

Jacinta: Yes, there are a lot of obstacles to getting wee Donny, but first I want to look at the plans to get him, now he’s unprotected by infamous and absurd claims to presidential immunity, unworthy of any decent nation.

Canto: Actually, I’d like to look at how Australia and other Westminster-based nations, and other democracies in general, deal with crimes committed by political leaders while in office. I agree with you that immunity for those in the highest political office is absurd, they’re the last people to be given immunity, and should have a whole panoply of laws applied to them, but look at Israel, where Netanyahu appears to be getting away with all sorts of dodgy behaviour. We can’t go blaming the US without checking out any possible beams in the eyes of others, including ourselves.

Jacinta: Haha well I wouldn’t describe the USA as having nothing more than a mote in its political eye, but point taken. We’ll look at the legal accountability for Australian and other political leaders as we go along, but wee Donny is now a private citizen, and I recall that one of his first crimes in relation to the whole presidency thing occurred when he was a candidate, and he paid off a couple of women to remain silent during his campaign. His then lawyer and ‘fixer’ Michael Cohen was sentenced and imprisoned for a range of crimes, including campaign finance violations at the behest of ‘individual one’, known to be wee Donny. This was confirmed by Cohen in congressional testimony, and two cheques signed by Donny, reimbursing Cohen, were presented as part of that testimony. Six other reimbursement cheques were shown to the New York Times, but it seems none of these cheques provide details of what these reimbursement were for, if indeed they were reimbursements at all.

Canto: Mmm, so far, so weak. It would be worth having a closer look at that part of Cohen’s charge sheet that includes, from memory, two charges of campaign finance violations. Also, did his sentencing go into detail about what part of it was specifically for those violations? Clearly the fact that he was convicted of of campaign finance violations makes some sort of evidence in itself. Cohen wasn’t the one running for office, he did it for Donny, as the charge sheet presumably states…

Jacinta: There’s a press release from the Southern District of New York from August 2018 stating that Cohen pleaded guilty to, among other things, one count of ‘Causing an unlawful corporate contribution’ and one count of ‘Making an excessive campaign contribution’, each of which could incur a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment. But here’s the thing – Cohen pleaded guilty, and wee Donny would never do that. And another problem is that, according to Stephen Weissman, writing in the Washington Post, there’s a legal requirement for campaign finance violations to be ‘wilful’, that is, done with knowledge that they’re illegal.

Canto: So in some cases, ignorance of the law is an excuse.

Jacinta: Well, yes, perhaps because some kinds of law, like these, are intricate and complex, and it might be easy to break them in all innocence.

Canto: Innocent wee Donny, sure. I think you could make a case stick here.

Jacinta: Hmmm. We’ll have to wait and see – until after this empêchement shite has failed – if SDNY goes ahead on this front. Meanwhile there are many other trails – and possible trials – to follow.


Written by stewart henderson

February 12, 2021 at 11:09 am

covid-19 – on civil liberties and death in the USA

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Canto: So, in the USA, according to today’s Worldometer figures – and it’s not unreasonable to say that these figures are only as reliable as the reporting agencies, and are probably understated – there have been slightly more than 203,000 deaths from covid19 – that’s almost 250 times the number of deaths in Australia, which has one thirteenth of the US population. This is a stark illustration of the USA’s failure to protect itself against this virus, in comparison to some other countries. Maybe this is an unfair comparison, though I honestly don’t see why it would be, but we can make an even more stark comparison. The liberal democracy that is Taiwan, the world’s gold standard in terms of response to covid19, with its population only slightly smaller than Australia’s, has experienced seven deaths so far. So, to compare with the USA, that’s a fourteenth of the population, but the USA has suffered almost 30,000 times more deaths from the virus. Such are the almost unfathomably various degrees of success in dealing with this pandemic. I’ve chosen these more or less opposite ends of the spectrum – and, to be fair, the USA isn’t the shit standard (in comparison to gold), as Brazil’s performance is even worse – in order to reflect on how best to save lives, which is surely what we want to do above all else, as a matter of common humanity.

Jacinta: And our discussion will be based on a statement made by the US Attorney-General, William Barr, who described the current lockdown in the USA as the greatest erosion of civil liberties in the country since slavery. But maybe, as an outstanding humanist, and a follower of the meek and mild Jesus, a supporter of the downtrodden, who told his followers that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19: 23-26), Barr was speaking positively about the lockdown as a sacrifice that must be made to save lives – especially those of the poor, with whom he so strongly identifies as a follower of the aforementioned Jesus.

Canto: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, but I think the more straightforward one is that he thinks people should be free to mix and mingle, in spite of the pandemic. In any case I’ve not heard of him wanting to impose any restrictions of any kind, in spite of the covid19 death rate in the country. It would be interesting to know what he makes of the fact that covid19 is disproportionately affecting the poor as well as African-American and Latino communities. He himself is a multi-millionaire, unlike Jesus, and Euro-American, also unlike Jesus. Yet he calls himself a Christian and believes that Judeo-Christian values, whatever they may be, are the basis of civilisation, at least in the USA. I’m not sure if he’s ever sampled any other society. 

Jacinta: Which brings us to Taiwan. What is it that has made Taiwan the gold standard in dealing with this pandemic? Is it Christianity, of a different kind from that which the multi-millionaire Barr espouses, in spite of Jesus’ teachings? Or is it a very different, but equally, or more, effective tradition? Did Taiwan even experience a lockdown, of the type that Barr seems to have such strong feelings about?

Canto: So let’s explore Taiwan. in fact it has had a complex and very turbulent history, especially over the past century or so, one that, I’d say, would have made its citizens value their hard-won freedom rather more than those of most nations, including the US. I can’t imagine that these people, who’ve undertaken rebellion after rebellion, would allow their government to take away their ‘civil liberties’ without good reason. They just wouldn’t stand for it.

Jacinta: Could it be that they’re just more educated than ‘Americans’, as to their national interest? And even as to what’s required in dealing with a pandemic? It certainly seems that way.

Canto: In fact last month the US federal health secretary (I didn’t know they had one) was over in Taiwan praising the country’s covid19 response. That was a good thing to see. 

Jacinta: Yes and many prominent nations are warming in their relations with Taiwan, not before time, and it’s annoying the Chinese government no end. But on covid19, I suspect many ‘Americans’ will dismiss Taiwan’s success as typical of Asian nations and their collective, ‘sheep-like’ mentality. Clearly, collective pro-community action trumps selfish individualism when it comes to pandemics, but I’m sure Taiwan’s success can’t be explained in such simplistic terms, as the Taiwanese have fought long and hard, against the communists, the Japanese and the Kuomintang, suffering massacre after massacre, to achieve multi-party democracy. So the idea that this is about tough-minded, risk-taking ‘sovereign citizens’ who won’t be pushed around by so-called health experts versus namby-pamby obedient puppets of the state who’re prepared to sacrifice their freedom just for the sake of their lives – well, this is surely a furphy. 

Canto: So what do we make of this Barr character? He attacks ‘lock-downs’ – which are simply a needed response to the refusal by so many to wear masks and to practice physical distancing. Sometimes authorities need to clamp down, when so many lives are being lost. Every government, regardless of their place on the political spectrum, has done something to try to reduce the spread of this virus. As would be expected. And this has necessarily impinged on ‘civil liberties’, because there are obviously other priorities. So, again, what point is Barr trying to make?

Jacinta: I can’t honestly say, but it does appear that he’s opposed to lock-downs, so presumably he has other ideas for saving the lives of ‘Americans’, but I’ve no idea what they may be. He’s also said recently that ‘scientists aren’t seers’ and that ‘free people make their decisions through their elected representatives’, which is a little incoherent, because when it comes to epidemics, sensible people should obviously listen to the advice of epidemiologists, especially those who are expert in the disease, virus or pathogen in question, rather than to politicians. You don’t even have to be an adult to realise that.

Canto: Yes, people are free to decide on their own science by popular vote, but if they did, we’d still be living in caves and believing that the earth is flat. Such are the limits of democracy.

Jacinta: So in times like these, the politicians should work with the experts, which is exactly what’s happening in all those countries that have handled covid19 most successfully. It’s notable that when he talks about these freedoms and civil liberties he makes no mention of all the suffering and the deaths in the USA. It somehow doesn’t seem to be relevant to him. What a bizarre, creepy character. 

Canto: Well, as a multi-millionaire – and I didn’t realise that politics was such a lucrative business – he very likely lives in one of those gated communities (with the emphasis on the gate rather than the community). Covid19 is disproportionately affecting African-Americans, Latinos, the poor, factory workers, prisons, aged-care facilities. Not really the sort of people you associate with gated communities. So I can only suppose he’s out of touch with much of the suffering. Lock-downs affect people universally – though obviously in different ways, depending on whether you’re in a mansion or a hovel – but the financial elites naturally don’t feel equal to the poor, and their ‘inequality’ is a matter of great pride to them. Barr is being a spokesperson for these types, I think. They’re having to suffer lock-downs because the less privileged are dying. It’s just not fair. 

Jacinta: And I just want to add something here about scientists. I’ve met a few of them, and I wish I was one of their number. They don’t pretend to be seers – my experience is that they tend to be nerdy, self-effacing types, not power junkies as many politicians tend to be. They generally tend not to display all the knowledge they have – it often has to be dragged out of them, whereas the worst politicians often claim knowledge they don’t have and like to belittle the knowledge or understanding of their rivals. In this respect, Barr is very much the politician, and little else.

Canto: Yes, and meanwhile the deaths keep piling up in the USA, and at the federal level the scientists are being sidelined by the politicians, the CDC is being stifled, and the world watches on with alarm, disgust and sometimes a smug sense of superiority. It isn’t of course the end of US ascendancy – the states with the most massive weaponry will always be the most powerful – but as to moral authority, that’s fast disappearing. If you leave aside the many non-democracies, which nation is less worthy of respect and emulation than the USA? I can’t think of too many.

Canto: Well, on a more hopeful note, there’s an election coming, and the country may start to redeem itself. But it will take far more than an election to do that, IMHO.

Written by stewart henderson

September 21, 2020 at 10:47 pm

some thoughts on fascism and American exceptionalism

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Fascism isn’t compatible with democracy, that’s the common view. Yet we know that fascism can utilise democracy to get started, and then toss it aside, when it, fascism, gets itself sufficiently established. It happened in Germany, of course, and in modern Russia Putin has trampled upon the seeds of democracy that were just starting to take root after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now his brand of fascism has managed to prevail for the foreseeable.

Also, fascism, though somewhat limited, can occur between democratic elections, if the elected person or party is given too much power, or leeway to increase his power, by a particular political system.

Fascism is a particular type of popularism, generally based on the leadership rhetoric of particular, highly egotistical individuals, almost always male. Other current examples include Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Phillippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Kadyrov in Chechnya, Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and Orban in Hungary. There are certain features of this political brand. Ultra-nationalism, militarism, ‘law and order’, control of the media and persecution of opposition are all essential elements.

I note that historians would mostly disagree with the ‘fascist’ moniker being used today – they like to restrict it to the early-to-mid 20th century, generally being quashed as a ‘coherent’ political movement by the second world war. Even the term ‘neo-fascist’ is generally grumbled about. I think this is false and ridiculously so. The elements of fascism described above have been used by states not only in the 21st century but since the origins of the state thousands of years ago, though of course no two fascist states are identical, any more than their leaders have been.

Every state, even the most democratic, is susceptible to fascism. The USA’s susceptibility is worth noting. To me, its ‘soft underbelly’ is its obsession with the individual. Perhaps also an obsession with worship, saviours and superheroes. Of course, Americans like to describe themselves as the most democratic people on earth, and the world’s greatest democracy. In fact, having listened to more US cable news shows since 2016 than is good for my health, I find this declaration of America’s top-class status by news anchors, political pundits, lawyers and public intellectuals to be both nauseating and alarming. It betokens a lack of a self-critical attitude towards the USA’s political system, which lends itself to populist fascism more than most other democratic systems. Few other such nations directly elect their leaders, pitching one heroic individual against another in a kind of gladiatorial contest, two Don Quixotes accompanied by their Sancho Panzas. Their parliament, too – which they refuse to call a parliament – has become very much a two-sided partisan affair, unlike many European parliaments, which feature a variety of parties jostling for popularity, leading to coalitions and compromise – which to be fair also has its problems, such as centrist stagnation and half-arsed mediocrity. There are no perfect or even ‘best’ political systems, IMHO – they change with the personnel at the controls.

It’s unarguable that the current administration which supposedly governs the USA is extremely corrupt, venal and incompetent. It is headed by a pre-teen spoilt brat with an abysmal family history, who has managed to succeed in a 50-odd year life of white-collar crime, due to extraordinarily lax laws pertaining to such crime (the USA is far from being alone amongst first-world nations in that regard), and to be rewarded for that life, and for the mountain of lies he has told about it, by becoming the president of the world’s most economically and militarily powerful country. Unfortunately for him, the extremely high-profile status he now has, and which he revels in, being a lifelong, obsessional attention-seeker, has resulted in detailed scrutiny and exposure. Now, it may be that, even with the laying bare of all the criminality he has dealt in – and no doubt more will be laid bare in the future – the USA’s justice system will still fail the simple test of bringing this crime machine to book after he is thrown out of office. Then again, maybe it will be successful, albeit partially. And the crime machine is well aware of this. And time is running out.

The USA is in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, and suffering terribly. On this day, July 24 2020, the country suffered over a thousand Covid-19 deaths in the past 24 hours. The USA has approximately 14 times the population of Australia, where I live, but has suffered more than 1000 times the number of Covid-19 deaths. It is a monumental tragedy, with hubris, indifference, blame-shifting and deceit at the highest government level, and heroism, frustration, exhaustion and determination at many state levels and especially at the level of critical and general healthcare. And there’s a presidential election in the offing, an election that the current incumbent is bound to lose. He hates losing and will never admit to losing, but there is more at stake for him now than for any other previous loss, and he knows this well.

Which brings us back to fascism. It has recently been tested, on a small scale, in Portland, and it’s being threatened elsewhere, but to be fair to the people of the USA, their civil disobedience, so disastrous for getting on top of Covid-19, is a very powerful weapon against fascism. It remains to be seen whether it will be powerful enough. The next few months will certainly absorb my attention, happily from a far-away place. I’m sure it’s going to be very very messy, but I’m also interested in 2021 in that country. How will it ensure that this never happens again? Serious reform needs to occur. Greater restrictions on presidential candidature must be applied. Not financial restrictions – wealth being apparently the only vetting criterion Americans seem to recognise. How is it that a person is allowed to become the leader of such a powerful and dominant country on the world stage without any of the kind of vetting that would be the sine qua non for the position of any mid-level CEO? Without any knowledge of the country’s history, its alliances, its laws, its domestic infrastructure and so forth? To rely entirely on the popular mandate for the filling of such a position is disastrous. This sounds like an anti-democratic statement, and to some extent it is. We don’t decide on our science by popular mandate, nor our judiciary, nor our fourth estate. We have different ways of assessing the value of these essential elements of our society, and necessarily so. The USA now suffers, via this presidency, for many failures. It fails to vet candidates for the highest office. It fails to provide any system of accountability for criminality while in office. It fails to ensure that the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins office. It fails to ensure its electoral system is secure from foreign and/or criminal interference. It permits its elected leader to select a swathe of unelected cronies without relevant experience to positions of high domestic and international significance. It permits its leader to engage in extreme nepotism. It fails in dealing with presidential emoluments. The current incumbent in the ‘white palace’ may not be able to spell fascism, but his instincts are fascist, as shown by his absolutist language, not necessarily the language of an adult, but neither is the language of most fascist leaders, who share the same brattish love of insult, thin-skinned intolerance of opposition, and lack of common humanity. These are precisely the psychological types who need to be vetted out of all political systems. This isn’t 20-20 hindsight. Vast numbers of people, in the USA and around the world, saw Trump as the mentally deficient liar and con-man he’s always been. It’s up to the USA to ensure that such a type can never rise to anything like this position of power and influence again. It requires far more than soul-searching.

Written by stewart henderson

July 25, 2020 at 11:53 am

there’s no such thing as a fair election 2: Australia’s systems, and the real value of democracy

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Canto: So let’s talk about varieties of representative democracy, because I’ve never been clear about them. Looking at the Australian experience, this government website has a summary which starts thus:

The Australian electorate has experienced three types of voting system First Past the Post, Preferential Voting and Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote).

The first-past-the-post system hasn’t been used in Australia since the 19th century. All our elections now use forms of preferential and proportional representation voting. Australia, incidentally is one of only three countries in the world that uses preferential voting in major elections. Under full (as opposed to optional) preferential voting, each candidate on the ballot must be given a preference, from first to last. This tends to favour major parties, whose candidates are recognisable, but it can also lead to a local election being won by a candidate with fewer votes than her major opponent.

Jacinta: Yes, this can occur when no candidate gets a majority on the first count. A second count is then held and the candidate with the least votes is excluded. That candidate’s second preferences are distributed amongst the remaining candidates. This may give the second most voted-for candidate the lead, with over 50% of the vote. Or it may put the most-voted-for candidate over the 50% line. Or neither, in which case a third count occurs, until one candidate scores over 50%.

Canto: Yes, as this shows, minor party candidates need to score highly in the first count to have much chance, as second preferences are more often than not directed (by how-to-vote cards, which they may not choose to follow) to the more high-profile major party candidates. This is why minor parties almost never win a seat in the House of Representatives, which, unlike the Senate, uses the preferential voting system. And overall, there can be a problem with this type of voting in single-member electorates, in that one party may win a few seats by large margins, while another wins many seats by a small margin, and so wins more seats while losing the popular vote. That’s of course why governments often engage in pork-barrelling to swing marginal seats.

Jacinta: Some of the concerns raised by full preferential voting can be alleviated somewhat by an optional preferential system, but that brings its own problems which we won’t go into here. Let’s look now at proportional representation, which in the Australian context is described thus on our government website:

Proportional Representation is not a single method of election, for there are a number of variations in use, including the Single Transferable Vote, two variants of which are used in Australia. One is used in Senate elections, and the Hare-Clark version….. is used for elections to the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Senate model for elections is described thus:

Each state and territory acts as a single, multi-member electorate in Senate elections. In half-Senate elections six senators are elected from each state, and two from each territory. In full Senate elections, which follow a dissolution of both houses of the Parliament, 12 senators are elected from each state and two from each territory.

To be elected, a candidate must achieve a quota of votes. Without going into detail, the system provides a greater likelihood of minor parties gaining a Senate seat, and so a greater diversity of voices tends to be heard in that chamber. This also helps the Senate’s function as a ‘house of review’ as the governing party has difficulty in gaining a majority there.

Canto: In ‘Choices’, a chapter of David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, proportional representation is described even more negatively than other options, as it tends to result in watered-down, compromise solutions which end up pleasing nobody and, more importantly, don’t actually solve the problem at hand. But the real issue is broader. We can try to invoke mathematics and social-choice theory to make political systems more representative, but even if this was ‘successful’, which various no-go mathematical theorems show can’t be done, the question arises as to whether the most ‘truly’ representative system will be the fairest and best. As Deutsch points out, all this argy-bargying about voting and representational systems is about input to the system rather than output in the form of good decision-making – the institution of good policy and the removal of bad policy. The creation of pathways to good policy.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth quoting what Deutsch, partially channelling Karl Popper, is aiming for here:

The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections. And elections are merely one of the many institutions whose function is to allow such ideas to be created, tested, modified and rejected. The voters are not a fount of wisdom from which the right policies can be empirically ‘derived’. They are attempting, fallibly, to explain the world and thereby to improve it.

Canto: Interesting that Deutsch is careful not to say anything negative about democracy here, but he’s actually underplaying the role of democracy in decision-making, because we all know, I think, that new and important and worthwhile ideas aren’t created by democratic process, but by intellectual elites of one kind or another. These ideas are often carried forward by elected officials who have either helped to create them or have been persuaded by them. It may be that they don’t work or ‘their time hasn’t come’, but if there is a kernel of truth or real benefit to them, as for example with renewable energy and electric vehicles, they will, with modifications and adaptations, succeed in the end.

Jacinta: Yes, and what this sort of progress has to do with democracy is that there really is no political system that nurtures innovation and improvement in the way that democracy does, even if it does so with what sometimes seems frustrating slowness, and with the blockages by vested interests that so often infect politics, democratic or otherwise. Patience, I suppose, is a virtue.

Canto: Yes, democracy is in some ways a politics of persuasion, an invitation to try and discuss and dispute over new ideas, with accepted rules of engagement, trial and error, modification, exchange and respect, grudging or otherwise. And of course, with ongoing elections, it’s also a politics of renewal and revision, and that’s the fairest way of going about things as far as I can see it.


David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 3:34 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 1: the apportionment issue

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Canto: So we’ve been talking about how politics have been interacting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and came to the tentative conclusion that strong centralised governments, collaborationist and respected by their citizens, were faring better at managing the situation than right-wing quasi-dictatorial anti-government governments like Trump’s USA, Putin’s Russia and Bolsonaro’s Brazil…

Jacinta: And those three countries just happen to fill the top three places in Covid-19 cases, though to be fair, they have very large populations. Anyway, the Scandinavian countries we looked at all seemed to have coalition governments of some kind, and from our great distance we preferred to assume that they operated through some kind of more or less happy consensus – but maybe not.

Canto: So we’ve been reading David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, and there’s an interesting chapter, ‘Choices’, which looks at voting systems and what we want from government…

Jacinta: Or perhaps what we need, or should expect. What is objectively best, something which Deutsch, being a progressivist optimist, believes we’re converging upon – what he calls, in the political sphere, ‘advancing from misconception to even better [i.e. less damaging] misconception’. Deutsch considers first the ‘apportionment problem’ in the USA, a problem that many electoral polities have, as they attempt to represent particular electoral regions, with their different populations, fairly within a federal electoral system. The USA, like Australia and many other countries, has a House of Representatives, to indicate the aim of representative government. There are 435 US House seats, and the Constitution requires that these seats be apportioned to the states according to their populations. For example if state x has 5% of the nation’s population, it should get 21.75 House members. This is of course impossible, so the obvious thing to do is round up to 22, right?

Canto: Obvious, maybe, but brimming with controversy, because this rounding up, or down, will affect states’ representation, often rather more than was ever suspected. Deutsch imagines a more simplified House with 10 seats, and 4 states. One state holds a little under 85% of the population, the other three have just over 5% each. Rounding will mean that the large state gets rounded down to 8 seats, the three smaller states get rounded up to 1. This means that you have to add an extra seat, but it also means that the smaller states are over-represented, population-wise, and the large state is under-represented. And if you don’t add an extra seat, and the rule is that all states must be represented, then the larger state is reduced to a grossly unrepresentative 7 seats. You could of course add two seats and allocate them to the large state, giving it 9 out of 12 seats, but that still under-represents that state’s population, while enlarging the House to a questionable degree.

Jacinta: In fact a quick calculation shows that, to provide that large state with 85% representation, while giving the other three states a seat, you’d have to add 10 more seats, but then you’d have to add more seats to make the other states more representative – unless I’m missing something, which I probably am. And so on, the point being that even with a simple model you can’t, just from a mathematical perspective, attain very precise representation.

Canto: You could, on that simple model, take a seat way from the least populated state, and give it to the most populated one, thereby keeping the state to ten seats, but having no representation at all seems grossly unfair, and in fact the US Constitution explicitly states that ‘Each State shall have at least one Representative’. The aim, of course is to have, as near as can be, the right measure of representativeness. Having no representation at all, even in one small region, contravenes the ‘no taxation without representation’ call-to-arms of the revolutionary American colonists and the founding fathers.

Jacinta: Yet all the argy-bargy that went on in the USA in the 19th century over apportionment rules and quotas – and it was often fierce – overlooked the fact that black peoples, native Americans, the poor, oh and of course women, were not entitled to be represented. As Deutsch points out, the founding fathers often bandied about the concept of the ‘will of the people’ in their work on the Constitution, but the only ‘people’ they were really talking about were the voters, a small fraction of the adult population in the early days of the nation.

Canto: Nevertheless the apportionment issue proved the bane of election after election, eminent mathematicians and the National Academy of Sciences were consulted, and various complicated solutions were mooted but none proved to everyone’s satisfaction as the system kept chopping and changing.

Jacinta: Of course this raises the question of whether majority rule is fair in any case, or whether fairness is the right criterion. We don’t decide our science or our judiciary by majority rule – and good science, at least, has nothing to do with fairness. Arguably the most significant weakness of democracy is the faith we place in it. In any case, as Deutsch reports:

… there is a mathematical discovery that has changed forever the nature of the apportionment debate: we now know that the quest for an apportionment rule that is both proportional and free from paradoxes can never succeed. Balinski and Young [presented a theorem which] proved this in 1975.

Deutsch calls this a ‘no-go theorem’, one of the first of which was proved by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow more than twenty years before. Arrow set out five basic axioms that a rule defining ‘the will of the people’ should satisfy:

Axiom 1: the rule should define a group’s preferences only in terms of the preferences of that group’s members.

Axiom 2: (the ‘no dictator’ axiom) the rule cannot designate the views of one particular person regardless of what the others want.

Axiom 3: if the members of the group are unanimous in their preference for something, then the rule must deem the group to have that preference.

These 3 axioms are expressions of the principle of representative government.

Axiom 4: If, under a given definition of ‘the preferences of the group’, the rule deems that the group has a particular preference, this remains the group’s preference if some members who previously disagreed with that preference now agree with it.

Axiom 5: If the group has some preference, and then some members change their minds about another matter, then the rule must continue to assign the original preference to the group.

These all seem like unproblematic axioms, but Arrow was able to prove that they were inconsistent, and this turns out to be problematic for social-choice theory in general, not just the apportionment issue. According to Deutsch at least, it reveals the mythical nature of ‘the will of the people’.

Canto: Did we really need to be told that? There is no ‘people’ in that sense. And I’m not talking about the Thatcherite claim that there’s no society, only individuals. I’m talking more literally, that there’s no such thing as an indivisible national entity, ‘the people’, which has made its preference known at an election.

Jacinta: Agreed, but that rhetoric is so ingrained it’s hard for people to let it go. I recall one of our prime ministerial aspirants, after losing the federal election, saying ‘graciously’ that he would bow to the ‘will of the people’ and, what’s more, ‘the people always get it right’. It was essentially meaningless, but no doubt it won him some plaudits.

Canto: In fact, voting doesn’t even reveal the will of a single person, let alone the ‘people’. A person might register a vote for person x mistakenly, or with indifference, or with great passion, or under duress etc. Multiply that by the number of voters, and you’ll learn nothing about the soi-disant will of the people.

Jacinta: Okay, we’ve talked about the problems of apportionment under the US multi-state system. Next time we’ll look at the different electoral systems, such as proportional-representation systems and plurality or ‘first past the post’ voting. Is any system more fair than another, and what exactly does ‘fair’ mean? Good government is what we want, but can this be described objectively, and can this be delivered by democracies?

Canto: Well, here’s a clue to that good government question, I think. I walk into my class and I’m faced with twenty students. If I’m asked ‘who’s the tallest person in the class?’ I can come up with an answer soon enough, even if I have to make a measurement. But if I’m asked ‘who’s the best person in the class (not the best student), I’m very likely to be lost for an answer, even if I’ve taught the class all year….

Jacinta: Interesting point, but we’re not talking about the best government. There might be a variety of good governments, and you might be able to point out a variety of students/persons in the class who’ve positively impressed you, for a variety of reasons. Good government is not one.


David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

The Institutional Design of Congress

Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2020 at 10:08 pm