Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Posts Tagged ‘reform

Thank You for Protecting Me from Myself

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Two very helpful persons at the Brookings Institution, Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, have written a paper calling for more professionalism and less populism in American public life. The title of the paper claims, “voting makes us stupid.” Really?

Of course, Donald Trump is a walking testament to the stupidity of voters. But their argument goes beyond this. Let’s examine the points in detail.

More Participation Will Not Be Beneficial

The authors go back to, of all people, the Founders as a source of the idea that the Constitution was set up to limit participation. This is true. The Founders feared mob rule almost as much as government tyranny.

Drawing upon ample historical experience, they worried that democracies were vulnerable to demagoguery and prone to instability. Although they insisted that republican government required direct public input, they also constrained and balanced that input.
— Rauch and Wittes

So can we look forward to a shift in the policy of the Brookings Institution to call for a reduction in open primaries and restoration of the selection of Senators to the states?

The People are Incompetent

This is always going to be a seductive idea to a think tank that considers itself a repository of public policy expertise, but leave that aside for now.

This argument actually goes back to Walter Lippmann. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann attacked “the doctrine of the omnicompetent citizen.” Lippmann called for a structure modeled on his idea of the British foreign service, where disinterested and independent experts provide policy options to elected officials.

However, there is no such thing as a disinterested expert. The regime Lippmann visualized quickly degenerates into a system where the experts exercise political control because they control the menu of options under discussion.

In practice, the British foreign service wasn’t that great a model. It really worked out like this:

[Bernard] was concerned that the FO [Foreign Office] produces only one considered view, with no options and no alternatives. In practice, this presents no problem. If pressed, the FO looks at the matter again, and comes up with the same view. If the Foreign Secretary demands options, the FO obliges him by presenting three options, two of which will be (on close examination) exactly the same. The third will, of course, be totally unacceptable, like bombing Warsaw or invading France.
Yes, Prime Minister

That is what is going to happen when unelected experts are in control of the policy menu. Even Lippmann had lost faith in experts by 1925, when he wrote The Phantom Public:

[Government] is also subject to the same corruption as public opinion. For when government attempts to impose the will of its officials, instead of intervening so as to steady adjustments by consent among the parties directly interested, it becomes heavy-handed, stupid, imperious, even predatory.

There is really no such doctrine justifying public participation in politics as based on an “omnicompetent citizen.” The authority of the people is not contingent on them passing some sort of civics test. The legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed. It is not derived from the consent of that subset of the governed that those governing consider qualified.

We have the right to grant or withhold consent, not because we are omnicompetent, but because we have skin in the game. We live with the consequences of government actions. It’s our blood and treasure on the line.

  • In 1953, an Anglo-American effort in Iran instigated the ouster of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. This was undertaken primarily because Mossadegh wanted to extract more concessions from the British. The participants in the American government believed that the British economy was unable to withstand these concessions. However, the end result included both the breakup of the British monopoly on Iranian oil trade and a price increase to show the Shah was not a puppet of the west. Thus, for all the broken china, this foolish misadventure did not even accomplish its original intention. Did the American people really want what was done in their name?
  • In 2016, the Obama administration committed the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 18% under the Paris Agreement. This commitment was made by executive order, bypassing the Constitutional requirement for treaties to be ratified by the Senate. The commitment, which has been revoked by Donald Trump, would have necessarily increased energy costs for American citizens in order to comply with the targets. Why did we want this? The Obama administration knew we did not, which is why it evaded review by our representatives in the Senate.

The People are Irrational

Sure, they are. But the professionals are people, too. How are they not any less irrational than the public at large?

There is a reason that David Halberstam titled his history of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in Vietnam The Best and the Brightest. The best and the brightest can also go wrong. And when they do, the move in greater unison than the public at large. They largely drink from the same wells of information and have similar outlooks. Groupthink is particularly prevalent among professionals.

The authors quoted Lee Drutman: “Informed, individualistic rationality is a chimera.” Actually, rationality in public life in general is overrated. One of the most rational politicians of the past hundred years was Neville Chamberlain. It is perfectly rational to want to avoid going to war to interfere “in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” But history demonstrated it was a bad idea.

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
— G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

More Education Will Not Be Helpful

More than what? In 1918, the National Education Association completed Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. This report called for seven objectives of secondary education, including Civic Education:

For such citizenship the following are essential: A many-sided interest in the welfare of the communities to which one belongs; loyalty to ideals of civic righteousness ; practical knowledge of social agencies and institutions; good judgment as to means and methods that will promote one social end without defeating others; and as putting all these into effect, habits of cordial cooperation in social undertakings.
Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, p. 13.

Yet, here we are 99 years later. Every year students are reported to be in greater ignorance of civics, politics and economics than last. Rauch and Wittes cite a survey showing that most respondents cannot name the three branches of government, identify the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or locate the entity with the power to declare war. Moreover, they cite the common belief that the government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security or Medicare.

So how is this not an indictment of the existing education establishment? How has the education system delivered on the 1918 goals?

In Public Opinion, Lippmann famously wrote:

It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves. This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its traditions, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.

The education system has had a century to remedy the “preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important.” It has not done so, and we can only conclude that it does not want to. Better to keep people in their state of supposed ignorance, and then tell them to leave public policy to the professionals. This is a scam.

It is manifestly unfair to fail to educate people to be effective citizens and then tell them that they can’t participate in political life because they are living in civic ignorance.

The Return of Intermediaries

Rauch and Wittes make the case for intermediaries in public. Political intermediaries can be elected officials or representatives of political parties. What they call a substantive intermediary has specialist knowledge of a policy area, such as health care.

Political intermediaries are necessary. Here is one Rauch and Wittes omitted: states. The several states are a necessary counterweight to federal power. It is more than time to rediscover the role of states in our political process.

The specialist intermediary would be of value. No one without specialist knowledge is going to make sense of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; I tried. It would be great to have intermediaries who could help the citizen navigate the issues.

The first logical candidate might be the media. Try spending a little less time on having two groups of mouthpieces talk over each other, and devote that time to providing information on how a segment of the economy works. If that seems scary, put on segments at 4 in the morning, when no one is watching anyway, and let us record them.

Want to discuss pricing of prescription drugs? Go through the history of the FDA and the decisions that were consciously made to make sure that new drugs were introduced in the US first. Follow the economic consequences of those decisions. Discuss the new drug application (NDA) process that generates enough paper to fill a semi-trailer. Visit (I am not going to give them free publicity by using their real domain name), where people seeking victim status can be gathered into a class to launch a lawsuit.

Corporatism hated intermediaries and sought to get rid of them at every opportunity, leaving the individual citizens alone with the all-knowing, almighty federal government. We need intermediaries that Brookings hasn’t even thought of.

However, we also need to be able to trust the intermediaries. We require that they are giving us all the information, not just a limited and purposeful set of options (two of which are identical and the third totally unacceptable). We need intermediaries to watch the intermediaries.

Yes, the world we live in requires tradeoffs and choices from among the unpalatable and the disastrous. The belief that ordinary people cannot understand these issues in a nuanced way is a piece of received wisdom. Populism is a rebellion against this, an assertion that legitimacy derives from the consent of the people, whether or not the people express themselves in a way pleasing to those who would wield power over them. Thank God the American people have the sand to push back on the professionals who would undermine them.

An Election Every Day

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No matter how unsatisfying you think the 2016 election cycle has been or will become — and I think I have been quite forthcoming on how unsatisfying I find it — you can take some comfort in this observation. The election that really matters happens every day.

You vote in this election with your scarce resources: your time, your money and your attention. You vote with what you choose to give to withhold. You vote with what you choose to expect or to tolerate.

Everyone participates in this election. You can’t opt out. Even deciding not to decide is a decision.

The results of this daily election creates the national culture and political climate in which politicians and administrators have to operate. They can push the envelope, but they can’t take it where it doesn’t provide the flexibility to go.

If this were not true, if political leaders could successfully bend a modern industrial nation containing hundreds of millions of people to their will, there would still be a Soviet Union.

Yes, the country can get better or worse. We can go up or down on the Freedom Index, where we are already behind Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, the UK, France, the Czech Republic, Poland and Estonia. We can return to the rule of law or we can have less of it. We have national problems with entitlements and education. We can have politicians and administrators break the economy.

I am not saying the annual elections don’t matter. I am saying the perpetual referendum of 325 million people conducting their daily business matters more.

I never ruled Russia. Ten thousand clerks ruled Russia.
— One of the Tsars Alexander on his deathbed.

We can strive for equal justice under the law or continue to have corruption. But, to give an example, a nation that accepts the precept that “rank has its privileges” has already bought into having corruption. Corrupt public officials will get farther in such a nation than in a nation that demands transparency and accountability.

Here is a historical example:

The conviction that the subordination of the individual to the good of the community was not only a necessity but a positive blessing had gripped the mind of the German army, and through it that of the nation.
— Gen. Paul von Hindenburg, Out of My Life (1920)

At all historical evidence, Hindenburg was speaking accurately. Is it any wonder that Germany turned to the Nazis in 1933 when times got hard? The ground was already prepared for them. Hindenburg himself could and did object to the style of the Nazis, but could not effectively stand against their principles. Ideas have consequences.

Control the controllables. If each of us clean up our own corner of the country, the country would be cleaned up.

Written by srojak

October 30, 2016 at 1:17 pm

The European Age of Absolutism

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The Age of Absolutism is the period in Europe in which monarchs typically sought to wield unrestricted political power over the state and the people in the state. The period ranges from about 1550 to 1790.

The period is sometimes called the Age of Enlightened Despotism, but all of the states involved were too large to be controlled by a king and a small group of courtiers acting by themselves. They needed the assistance of large segments of the population to realize their plans. This would be an important limitation on what the monarchs could achieve.

The central fact in the 1500s is the arrival of cannon:

  • Feudal lords in castles are no longer safe from enemy armies. The cannon can batter down castle walls.
  • Cannon are a bleeding-edge technology and are frightfully expensive. The king must centralize government enough to pay for cannon if he wants to defend the nation.
  • The service-oriented economy of feudalism is no longer sufficient, because it cannot generate the funds to pay for this new military technology. However, the nobility is in no hurry to cede power to the king.

Different European nations experienced the age differently, leading to different outcomes. The age could be a formative period for a nation or the challenge that could not be overcome. With whom will the king make common cause to take the nation into the future? What will the crown’s relationship be to the nobility, the church and the developing middle class in the cities?


The Republic at the Zenith of Power. Golden Liberty. Election in 1573. by Jan Matejko.

The Republic at the Zenith of Power. Golden Liberty. Election in 1573. By Jan Matejko.

Poland is the example of how not to lead your nation forward. Poland fails to develop an effective monarchy with centralized power. The szlachta — the nobility — is able to keep the kings weak and even to control the succession through election. By 1700, Poland is in a state famously described as “anarchy tempered by civil war.” Powerful neighbors who have themselves resolved these issues, Prussia, Russia and Austria, can exploit the weakness of Polish politics and pick Poland apart. The neighbors conduct a series of partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Poland attempts to reform the nation with the Constitution of May  3, 1791, but it is too late. The Third Partition of Poland eliminates her as an independent nation.


Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790)

Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790)

His highest title was Holy Roman Emperor, but that office did not convey real power. The Emperor was also an elected king. The Habsburgs won the elections because of their power as the dynastic rulers of Austria. Charles V (1530) was the last ruler to be bothered with an Imperial coronation.

By the mid-1700s, the Habsburgs were noticing that their state was economically and militarily backward. They noticed this the way most monarchs noticed: they were being beaten in wars. Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia had helped himself to Silesia in 1740; although Austria tried different diplomatic combinations, she had been unable to retrieve it.

Joseph II, who was sole ruler from 1780 to 1790, sought to impose changes to lead Austria to become a more idealized enlightened nation. These changes included religious toleration, rights under the law for serfs, reduction in restrictions on the press and centralization of power in the empire and its bureaucracy.

However, these changes threatened to deprive powerful and influential groups of power, such as the nobility and the church. They actively opposed Joseph’s reforms. For his part, Joseph seems to be under the misunderstanding that, since he was the Emperor, he could merely issue decrees and his will would be obeyed.

Convinced to my core of the integrity of my intentions, I have the strength to hope that after my death posterity will think of my deeds and examine my aims more favorably, more impartially and consequently more equitably than my contemporaries.
— Joseph II to State Chancellor Kaunitz

His aims were high, but he completely failed to understand power. He was a living example of the Impotent Potentate. He could decree all he wanted but, opposed by interest groups with political clout of their own, he was unlikely to realize his goals.

Joseph’s successor, Leopold II, was forced to rescind many of Joseph’s reforms. By the time Napoleon appeared as a force in Europe, he was describing Austria as “always one year, one army and one idea behind.”


King Louis XIV of France (1639-1715)

King Louis XIV of France (1639-1715)

The Bourbon kings of France would gain the reputation as the most stellar and powerful of the absolute monarchs of the age. However, like many aspects of France in the period, there was some degree of stagecraft and illusion masking what was really going on at the time.

Louis XIV, often called “the Sun King”, was believed to be the highest refinement of the Enlightenment absolute monarch. As is typical of the time, Louis believed that he was God’s representative on earth. Yet he was unable to take on many challenges directly. Instead of curbing the power of the nobility through legal means, he set up a court at Versailles that was dazzlingly expensive. A nobleman who wanted to maintain his social position would have to build his own palace nearby and appear with the king. All this was staggeringly expensive and diverted time and resources of nobles away from building power bases in the countryside. Yet, it did not establish the precedent of the true subordination of the nobility to the central power of the nation. Much as in Austria, the nobility was a force somewhat outside the government, opposed by the bureaucracy acting in the name of the king. The nobility retained its privileges, most notably the exemption from taxation.

We now believe that Louis never actually said, “L’etat c’est moi.” If he had, he would have had to eat his words by 1709. The endless wars were bleeding France dry and the Allies were coming in for the kill. They had attempted to dictate peace terms that would have required Louis to throw his own grandson off the Spanish throne. The winter had been the coldest in memory; seeds froze in the ground and livestock died in the fields. Facing famine at home and defeat in war, Louis appealed directly to his people.

I have come to ask for your councils and your aid in this encounter that involves your safety. By the efforts that we shall make together, our foes will understand that we are not to be put upon.
— Royal Proclamation, 1709

The people responded, contributing both money and men. Louis was able to extricate himself from his difficulty and obtain an honorable peace. But one cannot be an absolute monarch when times are good and a man of the people when one’s back is to the wall. The two do not go together. Eighty years later, the people would hand Louis’ successors the bill for their support, in the form of the French Revolution.


The Bill of Rights Ratified at the Revolution by King William, and Queen Mary (1689). By Samuel Wale.

The Bill of Rights Ratified at the Revolution by King William, and Queen Mary (1689). By Samuel Wale.

By contemporary standards, the British monarchy was not a success. Charles I had been executed by his own subjects, who then went eleven years with no king at all. After they thought it over and brought the king back, they still did not get this absolute rule business. One of his sons, James II, was chased out of his realm when his subjects conspired with the Dutch to invade England. Then, to top it all off, the subjects interfered with their new king, producing a Bill of Rights that restricted what he could do as king.

Charles had gone to the scaffold maintaining that he, as a king, was not accountable to his subjects, but, one severed head later, there was the proof that he was wrong. This is really the point here. Absolutism was practically unworkable. Both Louis XIV and Joseph II found out that they needed not just the compliance but the active support of their subjects.

The Stuart kings may not have been successful as absolute monarchs, but the British government proved an unqualified success at bringing the country into the modern world. Britain had steered between the extremes of anarchy and excessive centralization of power. The great noble families of the late feudal era — Beaufort, Neville, Mowbray — were gone by 1550. Power was held by the minor nobility and the gentry, who gradually became the government. Instead of a bureaucracy attempting to force the king’s will on a recalcitrant upper class, the British upper class was the government and was fully vested in the success of policy.

Britain would avoid being pulled down by external competitors like Poland or slow decline like Austria. Britain would not be convulsed by revolution and terror like France. The next constitutional crisis for Britain was after 1830, and was precipitated by competition for power between town and countryside. Which is another story entirely.

Why Do We Care?

All this is great history, but what does it mean? The stories of the period illustrate that, already in the Enlightenment, the ruler needed the active participation and support of the ruled. The kings did not have the means to issue orders contrary to the will of the subjects and force changes on a nation that did not want them.

This also shows a test issued by history, with a narrow gate through which the successful nation must pass. Miss on the side of decentralization and be overwhelmed by the neighbors. Miss on the side of centralization and provoke either rebellion or ossification.


The July Crisis

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The diplomatic crisis that began World War I played out 101 years ago this month. On 28 June, the casus belli occurred, when the Austro-Hungarian heir and his wife were murdered by Serbian nationalists. By 31 July, Austria-Hungary and Serbia were at war and Russia and Germany were mobilizing.

One of the most interesting features of the crisis was that, reading the accounts of the various participating governments, no one believed that they started the war. Everyone spoke as if they had no choice to do what they had done:

  • Austro-Hungarian leaders believed they could not allow their neighbor to instigate assassination without reprisal;
  • Russian leaders believed that they could not abandon their brother Slavs without losing credibility;
  • German leaders had predicated all their plans on the slowness of the Russian mobilization, and therefore believed that they could not allow it a head start.

People went to war saying, “Home before the leaves fall.” They were cavalier about the risks of the actions that they were taking. Few had any notion of the character of the war they were beginning.

I do not expect the current July crisis, centered on the Greek economy, to result in a shooting war. But what it will result in is serious enough. Like its forerunner a century ago, it features people who don’t understand the consequences of their actions and who see themselves as having no choice but to do what they are doing.

The Greek voters have not helped matters. While poll results had been predicting a close result, the actual vote was a thumping 61-39% result in support of Alexis Tsirpas and his hard-line approach. One ray of hope appeared in the form of the resignation of his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who had made ill-considered remarks comparing the Greek creditors to terrorists last week. But the horse is out of the barn now, and Tsirpas can be sure of his political backing as he resumes negotiations.

Many of the Mediterranean countries are shot through with corruption and clientelism. Favored political groups have become dependent on state handouts. The fact that the state can no longer afford them doesn’t enter into their reckoning. Under these conditions, attempts at reform from above are political suicide missions.

Greece was able to gain admission to the Eurozone in 1999 by showing data meeting the European Union targets, including annual budget deficits below 3% of GDP and public debt below 60% of GDP. By 2004, it had become apparent that the Greek government had cooked the books and these targets had not been met in reality. However, there was no framework in which to handle this.

The Eurozone had been dedicated to expand for expansion’s sake. The dream was of a unified economic entity of 500 million people — larger than the United States — with a single currency and free movement across internal political borders. The European Central Bank would prevent the politicians from inflating the currency in order to hand out candy to their clientele. Within this structure, each country could pursue its own political preferences, but their politicians would have to take the heat for economic consequences of those preferences.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Since 2008, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece have all gone through debt-driven troubles. Greece is the worst of the lot, but Spain is not in great shape either. Spanish voters are watching what happens in Greece with great interest.

The referendum now looks like a shrewd calculation by Tsirpas. He now can be sure of his political situation at home as he attempts to shake down the IMF and Germany for yet another bailout and a debt haircut. Tsirpas can point to the result and say that he has no choice; he is only doing what his voters want him to do.

Now we will see what the real consequences of the Eurozone are. Did they leave the central bank in charge of the currency, forcing the elected officials to face the music for their policies? Or did they change the central bank into a fire brigade, committed to do whatever it takes to save the Euro?

The choices now faced by the creditors are all bad. Caving in to the Greeks will encourage the other Mediterranean countries, who don’t want reform either, to push back all the harder. Angela Merkel will face all kinds of heat at home; the Germans are not eager to prop up these other nations at their expense.

However, a hard line position by the creditors has problems of its own. It could force Greece out of the euro. While that in itself might seem desirable, it opens a door in what was meant to be a solid wall. Given the expansive nature of the intent of the euro, there was never a plan to have countries leave. No one knows how it would work. Worse for its proponents, it is a move in a direction opposite to their goals. What becomes of the euro if it is not a permanent arrangement?

Meanwhile, what happens to Greece outside the euro? They would be free to inflate their own currency at the expense of pauperizing themselves in real terms. Exporters would gain, but anyone on a fixed income would lose, as would anyone with money in the bank. The worst-case scenario is a Zimbabwe on the doorstep of Europe.

Events of July 2015 will go far to decide how this mess will play out. Your grandchildren will be reading about this in their history books.

Written by srojak

July 6, 2015 at 8:32 am

Absolutely Backwards

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While I was researching something else, I came across this quotation:

We must reform society before we can reform ourselves.
— G. B. Shaw, preface to Misalliance.
I noticed this quote because it is completely backwards. Reforming society becomes reforming other people, and only when that is done can we be expected to reform ourselves (i.e., never). Irving Babbitt challenged this sequencing, and it is not coincidental that he quoted this poem in a chapter of Democracy and Leadership titled, “True and False Liberals.”
Justice in the outer world must, in the last analysis, be only a reflection of the harmony and proportionateness that have resulted in certain individuals from the working of the spirit upon itself.
— Democracy and Leadership, p. 223.
Collectives are not moral agents. Only the persons who constitute the collectives can exercise moral imagination, initiate action and shoulder moral responsibility. A corporation, community or nation can only be as moral as the persons who act on their behalf. A community of unjust, shallow and thoughtless persons will necessarily be an unjust, shallow and thoughtless community. It cannot be otherwise.
A society of persons who are evading the hard work of each reforming themselves cannot be reformed. A society of persons who are reforming themselves will spontaneously experience reform out of necessity.

Written by srojak

February 23, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Ethics

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Simon de Montfort and His Good Idea

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Even in the Middle Ages, kings did not give the orders and have everyone just obey. The powerful nobles who provided service to the king — the earls and barons — had their own ideas about what ought to happen. The nobles believed that the king should consult them in the tradition of the Great Council (Magnum Concilium) that had been established by the Norman kings. When the king tried to ignore them and rule through court favorites, which happened often in medieval England, the nobles would rebel.

Simon de Montfort (c. 1208-1265) was the 6th Earl of Leicester. Originally, he had been a favorite of King Henry III, but the two fell out. Simon shifted his position and made common cause with other disaffected nobles. By 1258, de Montfort had become a leader of the nobles who opposed the king. Henry attempted to assert his authority forcibly, the nobles fought back and a civil war called The Second Baron’s War began.

Simon was initially successful against the king. However, he wanted to consolidate his own power base. Unlike the king, who was anointed, Simon was just another noble among many. He needed a political counterweight to the various other barons in order to establish his own power and to attempt to keep his coalition together.

Simon hit upon the idea of bringing the voices of people outside the nobility into governance. Along with the nobles  and bishops who were customary members of a Great Council, de Montfort invited ordinary knights and representatives of important towns to a Parliament. This opened on 20 January 1265. It was the first time that commoners were invited to participate in governance.

Simon had mixed motives and his actions to feather his own nest helped tear his coalition apart. Before the year was out, the son of Henry III — the future Edward I — defeated and killed de Montfort in battle.

After this, it would have been typical for any rebel innovations to have been discarded and forgotten. However, Edward I summoned Parliament in 1295 to fund his plans to invade Scotland. Edward also included representatives from outside the nobility in his summons, but separated them from the nobility. This became the Model Parliament, so called because it was the model for the organization of future Parliaments. The nobles and bishops formed the House of Lords, while the others formed the House of Commons.

Today, the House of Commons is marking its 750th birthday. It is an historic milestone for an institution that is an important part of our Anglo-American political heritage.


UK Parliament

2015: Parliament in the Making


Democracy Day

Simon de Montfort

Memorable Speeches from 750 Years of Parliament


Written by srojak

January 20, 2015 at 2:03 pm

He Who Is Not Against Us

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After the Rose Bowl, where Oregon defeated Florida State, several Oregon players were chanting “No means no” in the cadence of the cheer Florida State uses. You can see a clip of it here:

In an article on ESPN, Kate Fagan takes a dim view of this, saying:

In that context, the Oregon players seem to be using rape, and consent, as the fuel for some trash talking against a beaten opponent. In that context, the moment no longer seems like a strong stand by a few socially conscious athletes. In that context, the chant seems tasteless, further trivializing sexual assault, which is actually a very serious problem on college campuses, including at Oregon. In that context, “No means no” is being wielded as a joke, a way to gloat.

I respectfully disagree that the chant trivializes sexual assault. And I should also note that the Florida State player in question was never charged, which is why his name does not appear here.

I do agree that it is a way to gloat. But think about that for a minute: An opponent is being called out for his reputation for sexually predatory behavior. That reputation is seen as a weakness, something to exploit. Isn’t that a step in the right direction? Isn’t that better than having it seen as something to brag about to his friends?

To get social norms turned around so that everyone knows having a reputation for sexual assault is Not OK, we need more than a few socially conscious athletes. We need the vast middle who are not socially conscious to buy into the not-OK-ness of being known as a sexual predator. It’s a fundamental difference in how one believes social change comes about.

Discussing the reactions to the video, Fagan writes:

Some people felt the athletes were bringing awareness to consent, while others pointed to the spirit in which the players were chanting — the words were not used to offer support and solidarity with victims but rather to mock an opponent.

The Oregon players absolutely were mocking their opponent. But five years ago, would it have even been thinkable that a player could be mocked for his reputation as a sexual predator? The fact that this is seen as something to mock, something to call someone out on, seems like progress to me.

In the stumbling, three-steps-forward-two-steps-back way that humans achieve social progress, this looks like a good thing to me. This looks like a social norm moving away from “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” and toward “this is not OK.”

Fagan complains:

In that context, it is not social activism. Those Oregon players are not contributing to a solution. As nice as it would make us all feel if our beloved football — the sport didn’t have the best 2014, after all — was helping to make positive social change, that’s not what happened here.

But it is, in its own clumsy way, social activism. It may not have motives that Ms. Fagan — or even I — would consider pure. But when you want to create social change, you can’t depend on the people whose motives are pure. They are too much of a minority to move the needle. You need to penetrate into the perceptions of people whose motives are impure and mobilize them to change everyday behaviors. You have to create a coalition of people who don’t necessarily share your motives but still see the issue at hand the way you do.

If all the colonies had to have the right reasons to vote for independence, there would never have been an American Revolution. If all the soldiers who fought for the Union had to believe that slavery was an injustice, we would have had a very different outcome in the Civil War.

The Oregon players, in their eagerness to taunt a defeated opponent, are actually saying the words: No means no. Whatever their motivation, they are buying in. They are accepting the premise that sex without consent is rape. They are publicly spreading the word. This is helpful.

No, rape is not a joke. But if a reputation for committing rape is cause to mock someone, rather than something to just not talk about, I believe that will be a factor in causing men to refrain from forcing themselves on women. For my money, that’s an advance. That’s society getting better.

Written by srojak

January 5, 2015 at 12:09 am

Posted in Ethics, Politics

Tagged with , ,