Thursday, November 29, 2012

Protecting the Minority

I was very interested to find in Federalist 51, an argument for how the democratic set up would protect minorities.  A few passages to sum it up:
... it is of great importance in the a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights if the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by a creating a will in the community independent of the majority-that is, of society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as ill render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable if not impracticable.
Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and class of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights.
In other words, society will have so many different divisions that each one will be afraid to gang up on a different one for fear that they would suffer a similar fate.  This is roughly the history of religious tolerance in England and the low countries.  There were many different flavors and sects of Protestantism and each one was afraid that if only one gained dominance, it would stamp out all the others.  James Madison (who wrote #51) believed that a similar thing would happen in the United States.
Well, it obviously didn't happen in regards to slavery.  Enough parts of society were able to agree on that particular violation, that it persisted until taken apart by war.  But, sadly, the Founders of that time didn't really think of black people as being in the same category as the whites.  So let's acknowledge that big elephant and move on.
As far as I can tell, almost every wave of immigration brought about new bouts of discrimination.  And each of those was overcome in time.  So much so that, things like full blown discrimination against Italians, say, seems kind of wild today.
Full blown protection of minorities came about with the 14th Amendment and the 'equal protection' clause.  It holds that 'no state shall . . . deny to any person with its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws'.  This has been applied almost exclusively to minorities, which in my lights is a mis-reading.  I think that each individual is a minority of one, and that the law should be read solely in that way.  But what can you do?
Outside of law, there exists a strong and positive attitude in modern western culture that embraces toleration and protections for minorities.  I think that Madison would be very pleased with that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - Other Methods

One of my favorite Heinlein novels is 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress'.  The book concerns a penal colony (circa 2176AD) on the moon and their attempt to revolt and set up their own government.  I highly recommend it.  There is a passage deep in the book (Chap 22, page 241 of my paperback), in which one of the deep thinkers of the book addresses a Constitutional Convention.  It's a long passage, and worthwhile.  I found it online here, which saved me the trouble of typing the whole bit. 

“Comrade Members, like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom — if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant. Move slowly, be hesitant, puzzle out the consequences of every word. I would not be unhappy if this convention sat for ten years before reporting — but I would be frightened if you took less than a year.
“Distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional...for in the past mankind has not done well when saddling itself with governments. For example, I note in one draft report a proposal for setting up a commission to divide Luna into congressional districts and to reapportion them from time to time according to population.“This is the traditional way; therefore it should be suspect, considered guilty until proved innocent. Perhaps you feel that this is the only way. May I suggest others? Surely where a man lives is the least important thing about him. Constituencies might be formed by dividing people by occupation...or by age...or even alphabetically. Or they might not be divided, every member elected at large — and do not object that this would make it impossible for any man not widely known throughout Luna to be elected; that might be the best possible thing for Luna.“You might even consider installing the candidates who receive the least number of votes; unpopular men may be just the sort to save you from a new tyranny. Don’t reject the idea merely because it seems preposterous — think about it!
In past history popularly elected governments have been no better and sometimes far worse than overt tyrannies.“But if representative government turns out to be your intention there still may be ways to achieve it better than the territorial district.
For example you each represent about ten thousand human beings, perhaps seven thousand of voting age — and some of you were elected by slim majorities. Suppose instead of election a man were qualified for office by petition signed by four thousand citizens. He would then represent those four thousand affirmatively, with no disgruntled minority, for what would have been a minority in a territorial constituency would all be free to start other petitions or join in them. All would then be represented by men of their choice.
Or a man with eight thousand supporters might have two votes in this body. Difficulties, objections, practical points to be worked out — many of them! But you could work them out...and thereby avoid the chronic sickness of representative government, the disgruntled minority which feels — correctly! — that it has been disenfranchised.“But, whatever you do, do not let the past be a straightjacket!
“I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent — the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let the legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority...while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third minority. Preposterous? Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two-thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as one-third, is it not likely that you would be better off without it?“But in writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtue of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do. No conscript interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or involuntary taxation. Comrades, if you were to spend five years in a study of history while thinking of more and more things that your government should promise never to do and then let your constitution be nothing but those negatives, I would not fear the outcome.“What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing. Please remember always that the Lunar Authority was created for the noblest of purposes by just such sober and well-intentioned men, all popularly elected. And with that thought I leave you to your labors. Thank you.”“Gospodin President! Question of information! You said ‘no involuntary taxation’ — Then how do you expect us to pay for things? Tanstaafl!” [There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch! — Ed.]“Goodness me, sir, that’s your problem.
I can think of several ways. Voluntary contributions just as churches support themselves…government-sponsored lotteries to which no one need subscribe…or perhaps you Congressmen should dig down into your own pouches and pay for whatever is needed; that would be one way to keep government down in size to its indispensable functions whatever they may be. If indeed there are any. I would be satisfied to have the Golden Rule be the only law; I see no need for any other, nor for any method of enforcing it. But if you really believe that your neighbors must have laws for their own good, why shouldn’t you pay for it? Comrades, I beg you — do not resort to compulsory taxation. There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”

There is a lot to digest there, but I'd like to focus on the proposed methods of picking representatives.  The speaker, Professor Bernardo de la Paz, suggests that 'where a man lives is the least important thing about him'.  I first read this book more than twenty years ago and have thought about this passage many times since then.  I've come to agree with the good Professor on this point. 
It made sense in the 18th century to group people by area.  Communications were greatly limited by distance.  It was much harder for people to organize in order to advance their policy goals.  This isn't true today. 
I especially like the idea of electing members at large.  And also the idea of allowing a sufficiently popular representative to have more than one vote.  I currently live in a large city and have virtually no chance of electing a representative that reflects my values.  As Prof de la Paz points out, my minority viewpoint has no chance of being fairly represented here.  Millions of other people are in the same place.  These methods would also be harder to game and gerrymander.  Unfortunately, our modern parties have become expert at cheating the commonly recognized intentions of our democratic representations.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Federalist Papers

(This is after reading Federalist #'s 1-10, 15, 31, 47, 51 and 68-71.)

I'd never read the Federalist Papers in any serious way before.  I'd pecked at a few and read quotes from them, but never really went after them.  And I don't know that they would have meant nearly as much to me if I hadn't read some of the pieces that went before them.  Not only, the other founding documents of the U.S., but also works from Locke and Rousseau. 
The Constitution is a very forthright attempt to build an Enlightenment era social contract.  The Federalist Papers are an extended argument for the various pieces and parts.  But they are also an argument for some specific policies that wouldn't translate well to other countries.  I'm thinking of the arguments regarding how the states would settle disputes over claimed territories. 
I had an idea some time ago that I would love to see come to fruition.  I have a book that collects the counter arguments to the Federalist Papers.  I would absolutely love to see a long concerted attempt to work through each of those speeches and papers and the Federalist papers themselves, in a chronological manner.  I told this to my wife and I could see her tense up at the thought that I would be starting another project.  No, I won't.  I don't have time to add that particular one right now. 
But I'll be done with the Great Books project in 2022.  That would give me time to set things up for something before the 250th anniversary...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Donne - Poetry

For our seventeenth poem, we have some John Donne with a poem called 'Go and Catch a Falling Star'.

GO and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

The first stanza and most of the second one seem to be instructions, maybe to someone very young, to go out and seek wonders.  But then we have the focus on 'a woman true and fair'.  Donne seems very certain that any such woman would lose truth and fairness before he met her.  Which is a wee bit dark.
And it casts a different light on the first parts.  Instead of saying 'go out and seek wonders', it is now saying 'you can search the whole wide world but never find an honest woman'.  And it's harder to think of that as going out to a young someone.
What an amazing little poem.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

December Reading

Two things for December

  • Adam Smith - The Wealth of Nations, Introduction and Book One link
  • Marx, Engles - Manifest of the Communist Party link

Monday, November 19, 2012

United States Constitution

Back when we were reading Hamlet, I raved about how much attention people pay to it.  Well, it since occurred to me that there are two pieces in this years reading that positively dwarf it, in terms of recent scholarship.  The first is the Bible, which has entire networks of colleges dedicated to studying it.  The other one, is the US Constitution and everything that has come from it.
I won't go through it in detail, as much of the Constitution is the nuts and bolts stuff for how the new government should work.  It should be remembered (and is too easily forgotten!) that the idea of a Republican democracy was radical in the age of monarchy.  Scholars had talked about it for some time, and they had focused on how it went awry back in Greece and Rome.  The Founders were well versed in this and worked hard to avoid the same pit-falls.
The Articles of Confederation were an early stab at non-Monarchical gov't but only in a proto form.  They resemble the Constitution in the same way that scaffolding resembles the building that it is put up around.  I wanted to do a series of posts comparing how the Constitutional Convention fleshed out the weakness in the Confederate model but I really doubt that I'll have time.  (November is a very busy month in my house!)  I will say that for anyone who is curious, it isn't hard to match up the articles and compare for yourself.
I do want to highlight the preamble of the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This is the mission statement of the entire Constitutional endeavor.  The Founders hoped that this document would bring the states together into one nation.  They hoped that it would bring about a just and peaceful nation.  One that could defend itself ably and create conditions where men would thrive.  They also hoped that they would ensure the Pursuit of Happiness to themselves and all of their decedents forever.
I should, of course, mention that they were not bringing about a libertarian paradise.  The Constitution enshrined slavery and denied votes to women, to mention two large flaws.  You can argue that it carried the ball as far as it could really be carried in the 1780's and I think that's a reasonable view.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Shakespeare - Poetry

The sixteenth poem in the book is a sonnet from William Shakespeare.  Sonnet 18, for those keeping score at home.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
I like it.  I mean, that isn't surprising that I like it.  Shakespeare is one of the greatest poets in English history and I've already gushed about him in the past.  This is probably his most well known sonnet, but I prefer #130, the one that begins, 'My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun...'.
In this one, Shakespeare begins by finding a near perfect thing, a summer day, and comparing his love to it.  Or rather, he makes the comparison and immediately discards it.  His love is better than that and he goes on to list why that is.  The point that sticks with me is that no matter how good summer is, the year keeps going. Those warm golden days eventually turn to cold winter.
The last six lines are particularly interesting when you reflect that we really don't know to whom the poem is written.  Most scholars believe it is written towards a man, though there is some question as to whether Shakespeare is writing about his romantic attraction to the man or if he is writing for someone else.  In any case, the beauty and virtue of the subject most assuredly did not outlive the death.  The beauty of this sonnet far, far overshadowed him.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why the Articles are still Useful

This is the post that gave me the idea of including the Articles of Confederation in the project.  This teacher was doing a course comparing ancient Rome with the US Constitution and he found that he had an extra day to fill.  He thought that the Articles would make a good bridge. 
Now I don’t know about you, but nobody in my classroom (including me) had ever read through the A. of C., and it turned out to be a damned interesting experience.  [You can try it here]  To begin with, it’s good to remind oneself from time to time that our first experiment with “republican government” was a colossal failure – a self-proclaimed “perpetual Union” (!) that lasted for less than a decade.
But beyond that bit of humility inducement, on the substance of it it’s pretty easy to identify –  in hindsight! – the many flaws of the government of the United States of America as they appeared in, say, 1787 or thereabouts.  You read through the A. of C. and you realize, as one of my students nicely put it, that it has “no provision for executive power,  legislative power, or judicial power.”  The trifecta of constitutional deficiencies.  It doesn’t really set up a “government” at all – it’s more like a “league” of sovereign States, in which those States promise each other certain things (mostly, to treat an attack on one as an attack on all and to contribute men and money to the common defense at the direction of the Congress).
He goes on to compare the difficulties faced by the United States in the 1780's to those faced by the EU today.  While rereading some of this, it seems like 'of course' that won't work or 'of course' that's the way you should do it.  But governing is hard and settling on the rules to govern with is extremely hard.  It certainly has not been perfected.  It's still useful to try and go back and work through the thought process that brought us the liberal democracies that we live in today. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Articles of Confederation

This isn't actually part of the reading list but I thought it made sense to add it in since this is the document that covers the period between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Plus, I'd never really studied it before and this seemed like a good opportunity. 
The most striking thing about the Articles is just how spare a document it is.  It doesn't set up a government at all, it merely sets up a mutual defense and free trade area.  It also provides a way for the various states to settle disputes that happen between them.  (The process for selecting a court is kind of wonderful.  I'd love to see it adopted in some form and televised at regular intervals.)  And . . . that's about it.
The image that kept coming to my mind was that of NATO.  There are member nations that have pledged to come to each others defense.  They have generally good relations with each other but are of very different governance. 
I've seen insinuation that the Articles represent the kind of limited government that the small government types want.  Now that I've read through the actual documents, this is a wholly unfair comparison.  That's especially true since the small government people are very fond of the Constitution, which replaced the Articles.  I don't expect this tactic to go away, because a very small number of people have any feel for what the Articles actually entail.  Before this month, I certainly didn't. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Declaration of Independence

On July 2nd 1776, the Continental congress voted to become independent of Great Britain.  They decided that they should give their reasons and drafted the Declaration of Independence to do so. 
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
This is pure Enlightenment, isn't it?  I especially like the idea that 'a decent respect for the opinions of mankind' means giving a full explanation.  That's a phrase that should make a comeback.  The second sentence is a biggie:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
 These are things that are 'self-evident' and require no more proof.  All men are created equal, so no more kings!  (Yes, there was a huge blind spot here in regards to slavery and women.  But this was still a step forward.)  All men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.  Non-religious types can easily read this sentence as saying that rights are not granted, but are inherent.  That is, we start off with these rights, regardless of what tyrants and despots may say and do.  Among those rights, are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  I love the 'among' there.  This is not a full list of rights, just a partial one. 
Let's take a moment to look at that partial list.  Sometimes governments are put into categories about what is allowed and what is compulsory.  The Declaration makes an enormous sphere of allowable actions to its citizens.  Their life is not cheap and must be safe-guarded by the state.  They have liberty to do what they will, without undo constraints.  And the part I love most, they have the right to pursue Happiness in whatever way they choose.  They aren't guaranteed to catch it but they can pursue it all they want.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
The state must have the consent of the people to whom it rules.  And when they lose that consent and become destructive, the people can change or even abolish the government.  Not that they would do this lightly, but they have the right to do so.  And once having done so, they will work hard to make sure that liberties are well protected in the future.
What follows is a full list of abuses that were committed against the colonists.  And then the signatories commit their lives, fortunes and sacred honor towards the revolution.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

US Founding Documents Timeline

Normally I'd do a bio sketch of the author but that doesn't quite work here.  Instead I thought I'd run through the time line of the documents and the era here so that it's easier to understand the full context.  I'll cover the actual history of each in separate blog posts.

  • The Revolutionary war begins on April 19th 1775, as fighting begins in Lexington, Massachusetts.
  • Declaration of Independence - Famously signed on the 4th of July 1776, the declaration explains the vote for independence that was taken on July 2nd.  And to make matters more confusing, the signers actually put their John Hancocks on it on August 2nd.  
  • In June of 1776, drafting begins on the Articles of Confederation.  In late 1777 they are sent to the various states to ratify.  This is completed in early 1781.
  • The Treaty of Paris is signed on September 3rd 1783, bringing an end to the war.  
  • On February 21 1787, a Constitutional convention was called.  On May 25th 1787, they began drafting the United States Constitution.  On September 17th of that year, they adopted the finished work and sent it off to the states to ratify.  It went into effect on March 4th 1789.  The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.  
  • The Federalist Papers were published between October of 1787 and August of 1788.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day!

It's a nice coincidence that the November reading matches up so well with a general election here in the U.S.  After reading so much over the last few months about the relationship between the state and the citizen and getting into the mental process that designed our current system, it works out well to then exercise that citizenry power.  This cycle I'm much more mindful than I ever have been of just how long a history goes into this practice of democracy.  Today I'm thinking of the Greeks and their various styles of government.  And I'm thinking of the Romans and their evolution from Republic to Empire and oblivion.
I'm also mindful of the thinkers of the 17th and 18th century who could tell that a post-monarchy time was coming.  They thought long and hard about how that time should be.  Of all the people to whom we owe a debt, they may be one of the most forgotten.  Where would be without them?
Good luck to us all and may we all make fine choices.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Villon - Poetry

For more on my attempts to better understand poetry, click the 'Poetry' link at the bottom of this post.

Our next selection is from Francois Villon, sometimes called the father of French poetry.  The work is called 'The Ballad of Ladies Past' and was translated by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia, and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,-
She whose beauty was more than human?...
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Where's Heloise, the learned nun,
For whose sake Abeillard, I ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?
(From Love he won such dule and teen!)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen
Who willed that Buridan should steer
Sewed in a sack's mouth down the Seine?...
But where are the snows of yester-year?

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaiden-
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,-
And that good Joan whom Englishmen
At Roen doomed and burned her there,-
Mother of God, where are they then?...
But where are the snows of yester-year?

That ending question has some punch, doesn't it?  The 'snows of yester-year' are gone, never to return.  The same is true of all these lovely (and formidable!) ladies.  Time has swallowed them up and nothing is left but memory and reputation.  The question is whether the author is lamenting their loss or telling people to move on.  I think either reading works.
Of the eleven ladies mentioned here, I recognize only four.  No doubt an educated Frenchmen of 15th century would do much better.  I'd be interested to see a modern version.  What ladies of legend would we remember today?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Author Timeline

Author Timeline

Aristophanes 446 - 386
Plato 424? - 348?
Aristotle 384 - 322

Plutarch 46 - 120
Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
St. Augistine 354 - 430
Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
Rabelais 1494 - 1553
Montaigne 1533 - 1592
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
Locke 1632 - 1704
Rousseau 1712 - 1778
Gibbon 1737 - 1794
Declaration of Independence - 1776
The Constitution of the US - 1787
Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
Smith 1723 - 1790
Marx/Engles 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

Thursday, November 1, 2012

November Reading

The calendar page turns again and we move on.  This month we're reading several of the founding documents of the United States.   The fact that we're having a general election here next week is simply good luck timing. 
I've added the Articles of Confederation to the reading.  I've heard of it but never read it before now.  I hope it will be useful to compare it with the Constitution that followed it. 

  • Articles of Confederation (link)
  • Declaration of Independence (link)
  • Constitution of the United States (link)
  • Federalist Papers #s 1-10, 15, 31, 47, 51, 68-71 (link)