I did say in my earlier post that I would be writing about Jürgen Habermas, himself writing about Democracy, just one or two generations after Thomas Mann. Well I will, or at least I still have the intention to do so, but it took me but a little research online to realize that I was stepping into subject matter already thought about and written about by thousands of others, for the most part hugely better equipped than I for doing so.
Imagine seeing raw gold for the first time and setting off with a pick and shovel to find more for yourself while paying little or no attention to the thousands who had preceded you in the hunt. Well that’s what I realized I was doing in respect to the gold, although in this case it wasn’t gold but democracy.
Isn ‘t this why most of us most of the time avoid looking for gold. We don’t know enough where to begin, to just enter the field, and we turn around and leave the field, this one, and in fact most fields, to those with the knowledge and requisite skills, and the reputation, all of which have escaped us, at least about gold, during our life times.
Yet gold comes in pieces, and there are always new pieces to be found. Well knowledge, in this case, knowledge of democracy, comes also in pieces and there are beautiful pieces to be found, even by those of us who know little or nothing to begin with.
I am ignorant about most things. If there is a truth that I could say about my own life it is that I have learned absolutely nothing well enough to, say, pass it on to someone else. Is that what it means to know something, to be able to pass it on to someone else? I’d say yes to that.
But I do enjoy talking (blowing off) about all sorts of things, exclaiming in my blogs my joy at having seized this or that lovely idea or story, not at all my own, not my own creation, but borrowed (rather than stolen) from someone else.
My borrowings from the great books, for example, are legion. As a result do I know the great books? Do I place myself at the same level of understanding with their authors? Of course not. Think Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, from all of whom I have grabbed, without asking, for myself bits and pieces. My greatest regret in this life, is that I have never taken more than that, bits and pieces, and not because I didn’t want to. Rather I took what I could.
So as of late I’ve been been picking up from the writings of others bits and pieces about democracy, as in my earlier blog when I cited de Tocqueville, Mann, and Habermas. Here now I might list a few more bits that I’ve jotted down in my journal since beginning all this online searching for democracy with Google. They will be in no particular order other than being put down as I locate them in my notes.
(Btw, does anyone of you have a reliable method of recording your notes of your ideas as they come to you from wherever you may be? I don’t, and that’s why it’s so hard to find them when I want them as now.
I have an iPhone that I carry about with me among other things to record my steps —averaging at the moment about 6500 daily, not enough I’m told. And on my iPhone I have some thousands of digital copies of books and articles that I’ve at least skimmed if not read, and can easily place them on my homescreen from wherever I might be, in the dentist’s chair, the doctor’s office (I’m almost 85 now and these places are becoming more familiar to me) or just waiting, for a green light, or for my wife who is shopping for clothes at Marshalls or for food at Publix, or for the grandkids to be done with their lap swimming, music lesson, or gymnastics meet, and all the rest…
But the bits and pieces I was going to list, here are a few while putting off my promised presentation of Habermas on democracy. The first from Robert Dahl, whom I’ve learned is, or was throughout my lifetime, the reigning expert on the meaning of democracy. Why hadn’t I known him, known of him. Another hole in my liberal education. Why hadn’t I read some of his best known woks, had them on my iPhone?
I read that Ronald Terchek’s Theories of Democracy build on Robert Dahl’s observation that there is no single theory of democracy; only theories. That certainly goes along with my own understanding. And there being many theories enables everyone to have his own including Donald Trump. For beyond a general commitment to majority rule democracy comes with endless sets of differences of opinion creating endless debates concerning the proper function and scope of power, concerning equality, freedom, voting rights, justice, fairness, brotherhood and the like, and the unlike.
Mann quickly grew disillusioned with the direction of American democracy after WWII. In 1951, his name was included on a list published by the House un-American Activities Committee, which regularly harassed his more radical children, Klaus and Erika. They’d also been under FBI surveillance for years. Mann and his family left for good in 1952, ending their days in neutral Switzerland.
(As early as 1938 “The Coming Victory of Democracy” was considered by one FBI agent “extremely Communist.”) When Mann was later invited by the New York Times to comment on the rise of McCarthyism and the “realities and danger in the current trend of American foreign policy toward restriction of entry,” he responded, “No thank you.” What would he say today if asked to comment on our president?
Then for Habermas democracy was that magic word that brought together otherwise disparate voices within his own postwar generation seeking a clean break from the Nazism of Hitler.
But Habermas didn’t go so far as the globalists. He rejected the idea of a world state or even a federal European Union. Instead, he proposed a three-tiered framework for global governance, with existing national governments to be complemented by new modes of what he describes as binding supranational (that is, global or worldwide) and transnational (regional or continental) decision-making.
While it seems unlikely that Habermas will win his battle to extend democracy beyond the nation state anytime soon, he has defined a path of intellectual and political engagement that others with similar commitments will—we can only hope—carry forward.
Here’s a final bit or piece that has little to do with what I’ve been talking about, the meaning of democracy, (and eventually the reason why with all its apparent failures democracy is still the most admired form of government.)
From David Benatar who believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion. “While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.” In Benatar’s view, as set forth in his 2006 book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence,” reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible—not just because a horrible fate can befall anyone, but because life itself is “permeated by badness.” In part for this reason, he thinks that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether.
What might one of our true democrats, a Dahl or a Habermas, have to say about that? What do you, what do I have to say?
Here I’m with David Brooks, with what he writes below in his column,
The Decline of Anti-Trumpism. Of course I’m not now and have never been with the President’s anti-immigrant, evangelical and bigoted base of sycophantic Republicans and white supremacists led by Hannity, Pence and their ilk.
Nor am I with the anti- and never Trumpists as portrayed in Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury, Inside the White House,
No. But I’m very much with David Brooks as he writes in today’s piece:
“…are we going to restore the distinction between excellence and mediocrity, truth and a lie? Are we going to insist on the difference between a genuine expert and an ill-informed blow hard? Are we going to restore the distinction between those institutions like the Congressional Budget Office that operate by professional standards and speak with legitimate authority, and the propaganda mills that don’t?”
There’s a hierarchy of excellence in every sphere. There’s a huge difference between William F. Buckley and Sean Hannity, between the reporters at this newspaper and a rumor-spreader.”
Brooks says that our struggle should be to maintain those distinctions, not to contribute to their evisceration.
What is one to make of the news today? On the one hand there is Trump who says, and yes in so many words, that he is a genius, defending himself from his attackers by charting his rise to the presidency, saying that one of his chief assets throughout his life was “being, like, really smart.”
On the other hand there are the voices of the president’s opponents in the Congress, but principally in the liberal media, led in particular by the writers and journalists of the Times and the Washington Post, who say that the president is totally unqualified for his job, and who by his ill-considered words and actions is seriously threatening the stability and well being of our democracy.
Just how real is this threat? Is our democracy under threat? Is Donald Trump undoing our democracy? And if the threat is real why is the Republican majority remaining with the president and not taking steps to remove the threat, that is Trump, from office?
As I think about all this I keep returning to the word democracy itself, the literal meaning of which is the rule of the people, that is, the demos.
Now in that literal sense there has never been a democracy, never been a “rule of the people,” other than what is usually referred to as, not people, but mob rule. So what would it mean to say that our democracy is threatened? And who wouldn’t be all in favor of undoing democracy if that was what it was. the rule of a mob?
(And from reasoning in this way there are many who would threaten, to undo in a heart beat our present government as being a kind of mob or tribal rule, having lost any connection it may have once had to the people.)
But we have neither the one or the other, not democracy nor mob rule. What we have, for better or worse, is a representative kind of democracy in which we vote to elect a few of us to represent us in government. Trump himself goes along with this. For he never gets tired of telling us that he was elected to be the president, or representative of all the people, even if, because of our electoral college system, he didn’t win the majority of votes cast. So is he a threat? Well not to democracy as representative government.
At the same time there have been no lack of admirers of our “democracy.” There was Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America, first published in 1835, who wrote in his introduction:
“Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions. I readily discovered the prodigious influence which this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society, by giving a certain direction to public opinion, and a certain tenor to the laws; by imparting new maxims to the governing powers, and peculiar habits to the governed. I speedily perceived that the influence of this fact extends far beyond the political character and the laws of the country, and that it has no less empire over civil society than over the Government; it creates opinions, engenders sentiments, suggests the ordinary practices of life, and modifies whatever it does not produce. The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.”
Here he doesn’t even mention democracy. Instead he says that the equality of conditions he found throughout his travels was “the fundamental fact from which all others seemed to be derived, the central point at which all his observations constantly terminated.” What did he mean by that?
Of course we don’t know exactly what he meant by “equality of conditions.” Other than that he perceived a certain equality in America that he found nowhere else, at least to the same extent. Could it be that when we hear that our democracy is being threatened, as now by Trump and his Republican base, could it mean that it is the equality of conditions that is being threatened?
Without addressing the issue of whether there had ever been anywhere equality of conditions, — In my opinion there never has been although we perhaps might find something like that in de Tocqueville’s America of the early 19th. c America. Where it seems he came closest to finding it himself.
But if it’s not democracy nor what de Tocqueville called equality of conditions what is it that needs protection, what it is that our country does possess of real value that might now be threatened by President’s Trump’s occupancy of the Oval Office?
And we might also ask at this point why it is that of all the forms of government democracy is the most admired?
A good place to begin our discussion might be with Thomas Mann’s 1938 Essay, The Coming Victory of Democracy, written 100 years after Tocqueville’s great work earlier. Mann had experienced up close both the founding of the first German democracy ever, the Weimar Republic, as well as its overthrow and failure just 14 years later. The Enabling Act of 1933 had brought about a state of emergency in the Republic that in turn wiped out constitutional governance and civil liberties and resulted in Hitler’s seizure of power (Machtergreifung) collapsing the new democracy and bringing the republic to an end, along with and most important, the founding of a single-party state, Hitler and the Nazi era (which in turn failed in even a fewer number of years, 12).
Here is Thomas Mann in his own words, now in America having fled from Hitler’s Germany.
“Democracy, whatever may be its conception of humanity, has only the best of intentions toward it. Democracy wishes to elevate mankind, to teach it to think, to set it free. It seeks to remove from culture the stamp of privilege and disseminate it among the people—in a word, it aims at education.”
These words alone make it clear why we’ve never had a democratic form of government, actually for the same reason that we’ve never had a valid public education for our children, making of them responsible and capable citizens of the nation. Parents too wish to elevate their children, to teach them to think, to set them free…. How many have ever achieved this?
Like so many others, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, Mann now in America like the others, joined Albert Einstein in Princeton.
Both of them were looking to America as a model for democratic governance, if not democracy.
Again here is Thomas Mann, his writing this time also from The Coming Victory of Democracy:
“The expression ‘to carry owls to Athens’ is a familiar humanistic expression in Germany. It denotes an act of superfluous effort, the transfer of an article to a place where such things already exist in abundance. As the owl was the sacred bird of Athena, owls were numerous in Athens and anyone who felt obliged to increase their number would have exposed himself to ridicule. In undertaking to speak on democracy in America, ladies and gentlemen, I feel as if I, too, were carrying owls to Athens. It looks as if I were not aware that I am in the classic land of democracy, where the mode of thought and the type of social structure which are characterized by this name are essentially at home and a universally ingrained conviction; where, in short, democracy is an all-prevailing matter of course, upon which the American needs no instruction—least of all from a European. On the contrary, Europe has had much to learn from America as to the nature of democracy….”
I will continue to write about the “threat to our democracy” when I return from a New Year’s walk with the family in Tampa. As I’m sure you’ve guessed there is no end to this sort of thing, pushing your understanding of a word or idea, in this case the supposed threat to our democracy of an ignorant man in the Oval Office.
And yes, I will be writing about Jürgen Habermas himself writing about Democracy nearly 100 years after Mann writing in Princeton.
How many of these books has President Trump read? Probably not one, and not only because he doesn’t read. Most of all because he only reads what is about him. And of these books not a one is about him.
17. Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1965) The groundbreaking collection, revolving around the poet’s fascination with her own death, established Plath as one of the last century’s most original and gifted poets.
20. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962) This classic of American advocacy sparked a nationwide outcry against the use of pesticides, inspired legislation that would endeavour to control pollution, and launched the modern environmental movement in the US.
31. The Great Tradition by FR Leavis (1948) The controversial critic’s statement on English literature is an entertaining, often shocking, dissection of the novel, whose effects are still felt to this day.
37. How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher (1942) The American culinary icon was one of the first writers to use food as a cultural metaphor, describing the sensual pleasures of the table with elegance and passion.
40. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (1937) Much admired by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Byron’s dazzling, timeless account of a journey to Afghanistan is perhaps the greatest travel book of the 20th century.
59. Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold (1869) Arnold caught the public mood with this high-minded but entertaining critique of Victorian society posing questions about the art of civilised living that still perplex us.
Zorba: Why does anybody die?
Basil: I don’t know.
Zorba: What’s the use of all your damn books? If they don’t tell you that, what the hell do they tell you?
Basil: They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.
Zorba: I spit on their agony.
(Michael Cacoyannis, —screenplay for Zorba the Greek)
At best Trump is a large fossil specimen, of what? an earlier Trump who while he may have had a life at an earlier time, manipulating the art of the deal and firing employees in the Apprentice, this Trump now does seem to be extinct, and if he somehow pretends to survive it’s as a fossil.
And large fossil specimens are, in his case, as we see here and below, beautifully detailed:
There remain at most only remnants of what Trump may have been at the earlier time (he still plays golf, certainly more than Barack Obama whom he accused of playing golf instead of working!).
When Trump talks about making the country great again, he’s really speaking about himself, making himself great again, at least like what he thought he once was, and what he’d like to be again.
Now the greatest irony is this, that Trump, a fossil himself, is ignorant of what the fossils tell us about our own history. While we don’t know how many species there are now, still living, and we don’t know the numbers of those that have gone extinct, although scientists tell us that 99.9% of those that have ever lived, the dinosaurs for example, are now extinct. Not how many are extinct, let alone how many are alive today, although probably numbering in the tens if not hundreds of millions.
Crinoids are unusually beautiful and graceful members of the phylum Echinodermata.
This is the phylum that brings us starfish, sea urchins, and sand dollars. The crinoids resemble an underwater flower while some, known as sea lilies, even have parts that look and act like roots anchoring them to the ocean floor. Crinoids are not just some of the oldest fossils on earth but are still alive and well today and probably living in an nearby ocean. The earliest come from the Ordovician Period, some 450 million years ago. Most of the early Paleozoic life forms died out during the Permian extinctions of 250 million years ago although the few species that did survive into the Mesozoic Era that followed thrived.
The echinoderms were at their height during the Paleozoic era. They could be found all over the world, creating forests on the floor of the shallow seas of this time period. There were so many in places, that thick limestone beds were formed almost entirely from their body parts piled on top of each other.
Crinoids of today tend toward waters more than 200 meters deep. Scientists can study living relatives of fossils that are 450 million years old. While these living crinoids are not the same species or orders as those of the past there are enough similarities to help us understand how these plant like animals lived.
We of course are only beginning to leave fossils behind us. For the oldest homos are only a few million years old, and homo sapiens, at most only a few hundred thousand. Still we are uncovering little by little a line of humans, teeth and bones if not yet fossils, that we can follow back into the time we shared with the great apes, our ancestors? some tens of millions of years ago.
Trump of course is a very late comer to the legions of fossils that are out there, those, probably a minority, not yet totally destroyed, but buried somewhere in the wet but probably mostly dry surfaces of the earth, waiting to be uncovered by fossil hunters, and then with our help telling us a bit about themselves. If Trump were the fossil of which I speak it would be a fine thing if he was content to stop signing and correcting what he calls the mistakes of earlier presidents, and just tell us about himself at an earlier time. Then we might listen to him. As it is we kind of turn him off as he speaks of things of which he knows nothing.
The great irony is that Trump probably could make himself “great again” if he were just to stop talking about what he doesn’t know— education, taxes, infrastructure, healthcare, et al. most everything, and simply begin to look at the earlier forms of life, fossils like himself, from the perspective of a fossil where characteristics such as nationality and skin color, to which Trump himself gives so much importance, have no importance at all, no place, no standing.
It would help too if Trump put aside such Biblical stories as the Garden of Eden, Noah’s flood, the Opening of the Red Sea, in fact the totality of the events of the Bible as well as those of the other sacred books, all of which when looked at in the context of the evolutionary history of the earth have little, if anything to say about the origin and meaning of life on the earth. Holding onto these stories is now in this Christmas season like holding on to Santa.
It does seem unbelievable that Trump could never have realized that the Bible was at best a source of tales, some beautiful and some not, some true and some terribly false, for children and the adult children of his base, for in regard to religion, especially the Christian religion, Trump goes on playing the role of a believer. Is he? Whatever he is he’s not a Christian. But he does believe, in as much as a fossil can believe in anything, in the power of religion to get him elected to the presidency of the United States. And no one, except maybe our fossil, saw this coming.
To the fossil evidence for what happened to the earlier forms of life on earth, representing hundreds of millions of years, not to the surviving literature of the earth’s religious traditions, representing tens of thousands of years at the most, is where we should look for both knowledge and understanding of where we came from and to where we are going.
Again, neither Trump nor his Republican and Evangelical base seem to have ever looked at the fossil evidence from the nearly 4 billion plus year old evolutionary history of life on earth. For these “leaders” of our country, unbelievingly, still look for answers to their important questions, not to science, but to the words of the Bible, in large part the words attributed to God (and what is the evidence for that attribution?) whereas they ought to be looking at the much more convincing large fossil evidence much of which is now readily available in our natural history museums.
If I see president Trump as an extinct vertebrate fossil, it’s because of what I see of him in the media. He is always the same, saying always the same things to different people and on different occasions. He is unoriginal and boring, and in order to become interested you’d have to read him as we read fossils, in terms of what they once were. Now there are only the predictable and repetitive words and movements of the three-dimensional spacial volume that we call Trump, be this seated in the Oval Office signing his name while gloating and undoing the signings of his predecessor, be it while swinging a golf club on a links at Trump National in Bedminster, NJ, or at Trump International at West Palm Beach.
His movements are those of the fossil Trump, his having never in spite of being president become a part of the real movements of history, those movements unseen by him, but going on about him. and mostly without him. While fossils may have before becoming extinct contributed substantially to the movements of the life about them, extinction means just that, no longer do they have a part to play. This is Trump’s case.
Tell me have you ever seen the president change in response to the constant changes about him? Have you ever seen him by his own actions change anything of real substance?
But what got me thinking about all this was something I read just yesterday from Live Science.Com.
When I read, “certain large fossil specimens are beautifully detailed in their preservation…”
I did think of Donald Trump. He does seem to be mostly working at his own preservation and in great detail.
And I thought that Trump is probably bothered by the fact that microbe fossils, though neither structurally complex nor large, are unrivaled when it comes to age. To be beaten in anything at all, and by the tiniest form of life existing, this should also be humbling, but in Trump’s case he would be early morning tweeting against the microbes, describing them not unrivaled in regard to their age (some 4 billion years) but as merely specks of dust on a photographic plate. But the microscopic fossils tell us most about the origin of life on earth.
Queensland scientists devise a novel way to make fertiliser.
Liquid gold, apparently.
Researchers from the University of Queensland and Queensland Urban Utilities in Australia have struck gold in the most unlikely of places — the toilet. Two years of intensive research has shown that macronutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as certain micronutrients, can be extracted from urine in situ.
The technology, dubbed UGold, uses microbial electrochemical systems (MESs) to convert the chemical energy trapped within biodegradable substances into usable chemical components. In this case, MESs up-concentrate and extract the nitrogen and phosphorus within urine, for potential use in fertilisers.
Nitrogen and phosphorus make up an integral part of agricultural fertilisers, and are in high demand. The current processes involved in separating them from waste water require vast amounts of energy and are damaging to waterways.
A nine-month pilot trial is on the books, to test the feasibility of this novel technology with UQ chemical engineer Stefano Freguia at the helm. It will take place at the Queensland Urban Utilities Innovation Centre. Waterless urinals will work as the site of collection, and will be connected to an adjacent laboratory, where the magic will happen. A garden will be nourished with the fertiliser produced using the UGold technology.
If successful, this could lead to similar on site treatment plants being installed in places like offices, apartment blocks and shopping malls.
while Trump and his base go on reading the stories from the Bible.
Will the millions who voted for Trump, at best Evangelists or followers of the Evangel or the Christian Gospel, ever discover for themselves the true history of the earth, and of the evolution of life on the earth?
What we’ve learned, or what has to be the greatest story ever told, might begin something like this:
Wouldn’t Alabama be a totally different place from what we saw during the recent election if the people had been at all aware of what was happening, not in Alabama but in the real Heaven up above, in the stars?
If the people of Alabama were to take just the first steps to understand that it’s not religion, not Christianity, not even the Supreme Court and the Constitution, but science and in particular evolutionary science (and especially what Ed Wilson, an Alabamian like Roy Moore and Doug Jones, calls Consilience), that has the most to teach us about ourselves, and ultimately how we might best live together.
An exploding supernova:
The supernova remnant Cassiopeia A is the aftermath of a stellar explosion. These explosions – and other astronomical cataclysms such as neutron-star collisions – are responsible for creating the elements that are essential for life in the universe.
The image above, taken by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, shows the location of different elements in the remains of the explosion. Each element produces produces X-rays within narrow energy ranges, allowing maps of their location to be created.
From COSMOS Magazine, December 15, 2017
A “burning bush.”
While tending his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep in the land of Midian, Moses saw a baffling sight on Mount Horeb. A bush was on fire, but it did not burn up. Moses went over to the burning bush to investigate, and the voice of God called to him.
God explained that he had seen how miserable his chosen people, the Hebrews, were in Egypt, where they were being held as slaves.
Moses was terrified. He told God he was not capable of such a huge undertaking. God assured Moses he would be with him. At that point, Moses asked God his name, so he could tell the Israelites who had sent him. God replied,
“I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you. This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.” (Exodus 3:14-15, NIV)