The Problems With Democracy

Democracy has been almost universally lauded in the West since the Enlightenment as the most sophisticated, liberty-inspiring form of government in existence. This is, for the most part, true – but it is still not without its share of flaws. No system is perfect. We just have to choose a system we believe to be as ideal as possible, a system with built-in room to correct some of its errors. In my opinion, democracy fits the bill.

Representative democracy, the kind practiced by America, is characterized by free elections in which people are chosen to represent blocks of the population. These representatives are the ones who actually do most of the voting on large issues, passing laws, and any other work determined by them to be in their jurisdiction. This system has several inherent flaws.

First, representatives cannot be guaranteed to vote for the views held by the majority of their constituency. Although by winning the election, they are likely to hold beliefs similar to most of their constituency, there are often small areas of disagreement. In such cases, it would be a tough job for any human to rise above his own beliefs and vote purely based on others’ opinions, even if he really wanted to do so.

Second, and more importantly, people are irrational. In the fields of economics and politics, there exists the helpful idea that humans act based on their own perceived self-interest: they always do what they think will be best for them. However, in real life, this simply isn’t the case. For one thing, no one has perfect information available when making a decision. For another, few people apply logic or precision to their decision-making. Most people are overly emotional creatures who rely more on their feelings than on fact. This often leads to mistakes and miscalculations. People are often led to irrationally do things against their own self-interest by their emotions.

Another important consideration is the fact that corruption empowers. A common saying is, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This could not be further from the truth. People generally don’t change. If they were truly good and well-intentioned when they first took power, they very likely continued to be good and well-intentioned while in power. The truth is, those who are already corrupt have a significant advantage when it comes to gaining power. Just think about it logically. If a well-meaning candidate is unwilling to stoop to muckraking or remotely surveying the other, he will be defeated by a corrupt candidate who is willing to do these things. Corruption empowers, and absolute corruption empowers absolutely. (To learn more about this, you can watch this video.) The common misconception about power and corruption is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation.

Representative democracy is not the only form of democracy, although it is the most common form today. In Ancient Athens, democracy meant every citizen getting a vote on every issue or law passed. Each person represented only himself. The power truly did reside with the people. However, as a result, Athens was basically ruled by a mob. If you could get a simple majority (51% or more) to vote a certain way on a rule, that rule became law. And as we’ve already discussed, there are few purely rational human beings. Ancient Athens was a frightening place to live.

So, is democracy all bad? This isn’t what I’m saying. I like democracy as a form of government and believe it to be the least flawed system man has invented so far. However, it would be unfair to sugarcoat its flaws. Democracy does have its issues, but the great thing is, in a system like this, we can fix these issues by coming together to create solutions. Democracy only works if citizens cooperate and participate, working together to solve problems and keep elected officials accountable for their actions. Democracy is flawed, but we can constantly improve it and make it better. It has the built-in room for corrections and improvements that is so important. That’s why I love it so much.

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”   – Alexis de Toqueville

“Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”   – Thomas Jefferson

My Pick of the Week: May 1-6

My pick this week may show a little partiality. 😉 I’m choosing my own book, Your Ultimate ACT Prep Book. (Yay! It’s finally out!)

Book (1)

This book is an inexpensive alternative to many of the pricey ACT prep courses that are available. Not everyone has hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend trying to get their best score, so I priced my book at only $4 to make it accessible to everyone. I included some of my own test experiences and strategies, as well as others’, and as many free and cheap resources as I could find. In my own (totally not biased) opinion, this is a great resource for students trying to study for the ACT.

You can buy it from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0716BLD3C

Or you can check out my author page here: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B0718Z5XQR

A Really Messy and Emotional Poem

I’ve been really introspective this past week. It’s been a busy time of change and growth, and I’ve been reflecting more on the many important milestones in my life: the things that, together, made me who I am today. One of these important building blocks is poetry, some written by me and some by others throughout history. Poetry has always been an important way for me to share my feelings and to feel the beauty in the world.

So this article is going to be a little bit of a break from the usual. Instead of my usual five- or six- paragraph essay analyzing and critiquing, I decided to open myself up a little bit and share part of myself with you. This is a poem I wrote last fall when my family was fostering a few kids. Here it is, without further ado.

 

She’s just eight years old, and already she’s been through more in her young life than I can relate to

I don’t even know about half of it, but what I do know is she’s been severely hurt

Hurt by people she should’ve been able to trust

Hurt by people who probably told her at some point

“I love you”

But by their actions showed they meant none of it

“I love you”

So I made a promise to myself, before she came, that I wasn’t going to say that

I wasn’t going to use those words which might hold echoes of the voices of the people who hurt her

I wouldn’t say it

But one night, a few weeks after she came to us, I was putting her to bed

Sometimes I put my little brother to bed

It’s a familiar pattern

You hit the lights and say “I love you”

Those heavily charged words

Words which I would never say to her

They just slipped out

“I love you”

Once I had released them, I realized my mistake

I looked at her, tried to gauge her reaction

She gave a kind of fractional smile and passed over the incident, not addressing it

Why did I say that?

She’s loud, she’s messy, she’s always looking for attention

She annoys me

That’s not love, is it?

Why did I say that?

I knew the answer almost before the question

I did love her

Not the kind of love you read about in books and stories of perfect families and rose-colored glasses

Not the kind of love I had envisioned her parents thinking they had for her

She’s loud, she’s messy, she’s always looking for attention

She annoys me

But that night I realized that without knowing it, I had made a choice

“I love you”

I love you despite how loud and messy and

Different from me you are

Despite the fact that I don’t know you

Not the kind of love that comes effortlessly, with fanfare and fireworks

Not the kind you think of when you hear the word “family”

This is the kind of love that is just a whisper in the dark

A love you have to choose.

Free Will vs. Security: Fyodor Dostoevsky on Religion

The 19th century was a difficult time in Russia. The four czars who ruled the land during this time had widely different ideas about government, from Alexander I, who flip-flopped on policy and created massive instability for the Russian people, to Alexander III, a cruel tyrant who was short-lived. This era in Russia was filled with revolts, instability, and insecurity. The government and laws changed by the year, leaving Russians uncertain about the future of their country. The one stable foundation to hold onto was religion.

From ancient times, Russia’s main religion was Christianity – specifically the Russian Orthodox Church. This sect was similar to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. Orthodox Russians went to their local cathedral for a three-hour service in a language they could barely understand. They had to stand the entire time, although they could light candles and pray to the saints and to Jesus, all of whom were represented by icons. Icons were religious paintings depicting important figures in Christian tradition, and they were hung all over the walls of the cathedrals. These traditions are still continued to this day in Russia.

The Russian Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church at the time, was focused primarily on fulfilling ancient traditions. The priests used rote, memorized prayers that the congregation would follow along with and insert their parts at the correct times. There was no mention of a personal relationship with God, and people were encouraged to pray to the saints more than to God himself, since they were told their prayers would be heard faster this way. For generations, Russians accepted this form of worship – they didn’t know there was any other way. Up until the early 1800s, in the Napoleonic Era, Russia had been very sequestered from the rest of Europe, suspended in almost a Dark Age. After the Napoleonic Era, however, this began to change. The czars began to open up the country, initiating trade and modernizing Russia with new industries and technology.

It was during this period of enlightenment that Fyodor Dostoevsky lived. He was profoundly affected by the influx of new ideas during the 19th century, including new philosophies about religion. Dostoevsky was a very introspective and philosophical writer whose works, particularly his final work, The Brothers Karamazov, touched on sensitive themes such as government and religion. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky explored the idea of atheism or anti-theism through the character of Ivan Karamazov, the second of the four brothers. During a conversation with the third brother, Alyosha, Ivan recites a prose poem he has created called “The Grand Inquisitor.”

The poem begins with Jesus returning to earth again as a human, performing miracles and healing the sick and teaching, as he did the first time. An inquisitor, or Orthodox priest, detains Jesus and lectures him. He accuses Jesus of burdening humans with too much free will for them to bear. He explains that by refusing the people signs and wonders – by refusing to come down from the cross – Jesus really overestimated mankind’s ability to seek God for his own sake instead of for the sake of his miracles. “Is it the fault of the weak soul that it is unable to contain such terrible gifts?” he demands of Jesus. “Can it be that you indeed came only to the saints and for the saints? But if so, there is a mystery here, and we cannot understand it. And if it is a mystery, then we, too, had the right to preach mystery and to teach them that it is not the free choice of the heart that matters, and not love, but the mystery, which they must blindly obey, even setting aside their own conscience. And so we did. We corrected your deed and based it on miracle, mystery, and authority. And mankind rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep, and that at last such a terrible gift, which had brought them so much suffering, had been taken from their hearts. Tell me, were we right in teaching and doing so? Have we not, indeed, loved mankind, in so humbly recognizing their impotence, in so lovingly alleviating their burden and allowing their feeble nature even to sin, with our permission?” The poem ends with the inquisitor sentencing Jesus to death, just as the priests and scribes of the Bible had nearly two thousand years before.

Through the character of Ivan, Dostoevsky prodded religious adherents to question their traditions. Jesus came and preached salvation by the free choice of the will, not bound by miracles but by devotion and love. Dostoevsky, through the poem, seemed to take the side of the Orthodox and Catholic priests, arguing that their simplification and distortion of Jesus’ message was out of sympathy for people’s desire to be “led like sheep.” However, it is obvious that he truly believed the opposite. Through “The Grand Inquisitor,” he demonstrated the absurdity of the church’s meaningless traditions and emphasis on mystery, and how unlike Jesus’ message they had become.

My Pick of the Week: April 24-28

My pick this week is Common Sense by Thomas Paine.

thomas_paine-720

This book was written as a pamphlet explaining to the early Americans why they should revolt against Great Britain’s rule. Thomas Paine was one of the most influential founding fathers of America due to the widespread reading of his pamphlet. Students today can still learn a lot from Paine and his beliefs about government and people.

On the Merits of Punching Nazis

I may be a little late to this game, but I still wanted to get my viewpoint out there. As I’m sure many of you have already heard, sometime in January, an alt-right speaker named Richard Spencer was punched in the face by an angry protester. This incident sparked many discussions and hot debates over whether the protester’s action was or wasn’t ethical. Quite a few people, particularly on the left, have argued that punching Nazis is not only okay, it is the moral thing to do. I think this issue is much more complex than people realize. First, let me break it down.

Richard Spencer claims that the neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups hate him, but this is clearly not true. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he is a neo-Nazi/white supremacist himself. I also want to make clear that I do not agree with his views or political statements. I believe America is a great nation in part because of its diversity and the free exchange of ideas. One of the fundamental freedoms Americans are privileged to enjoy is free speech: the right to express an opinion peacefully, without fear of violence – for instance, being punched in the face.

Nazism as a dominant force in culture is thankfully dead, for the most part. Yes, there will always be a few racists with fragile egos, but the culture of white supremacy has gone the way of the dinosaur. The Nazis we went to fight in World War II were evil, unethical killers who mercilessly slaughtered millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and orphans. The Nazis of today, I would argue, are mainly petulant children who live in their parents’ basements. However, even ignoring the distinctions between the two groups, I believe Nazi-punching is wrong.

My first reason for thinking this is as I stated above: free speech. In America, no one has the right to silence another person’s beliefs or ideas, so long as the one putting forth his ideas is doing so in a peaceful, civil way. This free exchange of ideas is a huge part of what makes America so special. If one group or ideology had the power to silence or eliminate another, we would be living under virtual fascist rule. No group or government has the right to dictate what people can believe. In order to have true free speech, no one should have to worry that his beliefs could bring a violent backlash from those who disagree. People like Richard Spencer and Bernie Sanders, who represent extreme ends of the political spectrum, have the right to not be punched.

My second reason for believing Nazi-punching is wrong is that once all restraint has been abandoned, no one is safe. Today, it’s okay to punch people you label as Nazis, but tomorrow, those “Nazis” will be punching you. When violence against outliers is permitted, culture descends into the pits of anarchy and chaos. No one will be safe. Everyone will label anyone they disagree with a Nazi and it will be socially acceptable to punch them. Violence breeds more violence – it’s almost a law of nature.

So what is the solution to this problem? How should we deal with Nazis and people we disagree with? The solution is pretty simple actually. If you disagree with a person’s thoughts, put your own thoughts out there. The world is becoming more and more egalitarian these days. On the internet, you have the opportunity to share your beliefs and ideas with thousands, even millions, of people. No longer is this privilege reserved only for the rich and famous. On the internet, everyone is equal and if you put out good ideas, people will listen. I promise. So don’t punch Nazis; write a blog post instead.

The Philosophy of Hipsters

We all have one of those friends. The kid who liked all the popular music before it went mainstream. The guy who likes all the old-looking clothes and dresses like a secondhand store mannequin. You may even be this person. They’re called hipsters, and they’re everywhere. Hipsters are a diverse lot, and I don’t like to generalize. However, they seem to have a few things in common: a distaste for anything popular, a love of all things “vintage”, and a sincerity to rival the most ardent fandom. As a style of fashion, “hipsterism” is actually pretty cool, but it’s the underlying philosophy of hipsters that I want to address today.

Where did hipsters come from? They haven’t been around very long, and yet they’ve already gained a cult following. Ironically, it’s extremely popular to be a hipster. To get to the root of this trend, we need to take a step back in time to the 1980s and the end of modernism. Modernism was a widespread philosophy in Western cultures that embraced technology, social structure, and traditional values of truth, family, and virtue. These beliefs stemmed from the great progress taking place in Western societies during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. It is hard to pinpoint an exact date when modernism ceased to be the dominant ideology in society, but many sociologists and philosophers point to the 1980s as the time period when postmodernism took over.

During the 1980s and leading into the early 2000s, a new movement began: the postmodern movement. This philosophy was characterized by its radical rejection of most or all of modernist beliefs. Instead of embracing traditional values, postmodernists started to question whether objective morality existed at all. This period of doubt and questioning is also called the deconstructionist period, because Western cultures had begun to deconstruct their previously held beliefs. Postmodernism was a reaction to the horrors of World War II and the slew of wars following it. Where modernism was characterized by optimism and the belief that utopia was just around the corner, postmodernism rejected this and was characterized by pessimism, nihilism, and the belief that the world could not be saved.

Of course, an outlook on life that rejects meaning and purpose is bound to turn its focus from virtues and underlying meaning to the fleeting and the superficial. Eventually, postmodernism fractured into several different patterns of thought. Relativism, or the belief that there is little or no objective truth, is still alive and well, and continues to influence much of Western culture. Nihilism, the belief in nothing, while not embraced by many, is still accepted by a subset of the population. But perhaps the most influential offshoot of postmodernism is “hipsterism.”

Hipsters have their roots in postmodern, relativistic thought, a reaction to the superficiality of 1980s modernism and its focus on wealth and material goods. Ironically, in their haste to get away from modernism, hipsters have returned to the superficiality they once despised. “Hipsterism” is not a real ideology, because it says virtually nothing about the world or truth or how one should live. Instead, it is focused on clothing, music, and looking trendy. But at least hipsters were focused on these things before they were cool.

My Pick of the Week: April 17-22

My pick this week is The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.

Machiavelli_Principe_Cover_Page

This book often gets a bad rap, and some even go as far as to call unscrupulous politicians and businessmen “Machiavellian.” However, I believe most people misjudge Machiavelli and his intentions in writing the book. Machiavelli wrote the book for a young Cosimo de Medici, hoping Cosimo would hire him on as a political consultant. Cosimo didn’t hire him, but he read the book. This book has some invaluable lessons to teach us about the way the world actually works; it is not an ethics book and does not pretend to be one. Keep this in mind, and I think you’ll enjoy reading it.

Buy on Amazon

Read my article about Machiavelli, The Prince, and virtue

What in the World is Worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is the process by which an author introduces a reader to the world of his novel. All novels have some elements of worldbuilding – they must explain how the world in the story works and what its laws and limitations are – but some genres are heavier with this exposition material. In particular, science fiction and fantasy tend to have more complex or larger worlds which are often very different from our own. So in these genres, the author typically must spend more time introducing his readers to the world and familiarizing them with how it works.

Some literary critics and readers take issue with the idea of worldbuilding as a separate idea from the general craft of storytelling. These people claim that a good grasp of worldbuilding is essential to telling a good story, just as being able to craft story elements is an important aspect of worldbuilding. They argue that worldbuilding is really just a part of writing well, and that authors whose worlds are not as fleshed out or believable are simply bad at writing. I disagree.

Many writers attempt to build fictional worlds that “work”: that is to say, they make sense in their own context and within the framework of the story. Many fail at this, but this doesn’t automatically make them bad writers or indicate a poor grasp on the concepts of storytelling. Just look at one of the scores of YA fantasies on bookstore shelves. You’ll likely find that many of the authors seem to have a good understanding of of storytelling conventions – how to make the characters compelling and the plot well-paced – but they often lack skill in the area of worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is extremely complex. Some key elements writers should be aware of when creating a world include history, language, culture, traditions, lineage, and level of advancement. In fantasy, for instance, the society in the story often has a very limited understanding of science and technology, while in science fiction, the society is usually fairly advanced in technology. I can go into more detail in the best ways to write each aspect of worldbuilding in future articles if requested.

Perhaps the best way to learn worldbuilding is to read many books whose authors have mastered this skill. Lord of the Rings, Dune, 1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, and Fahrenheit 451 are all excellent examples of books with very distinctive worlds which are set up well in the context of each story. In general, learning how to build fictional worlds is part of learning to write well, but it is only one of many important skills.

Tragedy and Catharsis in Literature and Film

Throughout history, poets, playwrights, novelists, and screenwriters have all made use of tragedy in their work. Some keys that distinguish tragedy from other forms of drama include themes of darkness, death, or sadness, as well as a main hero who has a “tragic flaw” which will lead to his downfall. From death to financial ruin to the corruption of moral character, we can look back at the themes of great tragedies from every age. Tragedies come in several forms, made popular by different writers.

In Ancient Greece – the earliest developer of tragedy as a distinct form – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were some of the greatest playwrights. They based their plays on myths and epics, and it was Sophocles who popularized the use of actors instead of a chorus to give exposition. Aristotle wrote about the art of tragedy in his books, and was the first to lay out the rules. He believed plays should have unity of time, place, and action. He also wrote that the main role of tragedy was to provide the audience with catharsis, an emotional cleansing.

What exactly is catharsis? Scholars remain divided over Aristotle’s use of the term. Some believe it simply means a fulfilling and emotionally satisfying conclusion. Others say it provides an education for the emotions. Overall, though, scholars agree that by watching tragedies, people can see their darkest thoughts realized and dealt with in the confines of the play. This provides the “emotional cleansing” Aristotle spoke of, where the audience comes away from the experience more inclined to think about the deeper meaning in the story.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle, we are introduced to a hero who, through fate and unhappy chance, fulfills a prophecy he has been running away from his whole life. In Macbeth, audiences can see the results of unchecked ambition and madness. In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller reflects on the loss of identity in modern life and man’s inability to accept change. In Breaking Bad, a recent TV show, the audience can see the main character descend into chaos and moral corruption by following a noble ideal in an immoral way.

Pure tragedy is often overlooked in society today in favor of drama or “tragicomedy”, but there are still many valuable lessons it can teach us. In addition to providing catharsis and cleansing for the emotions, tragedies can also be a way to express humanity’s deepest fears about itself and its most violent tendencies in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone. Tragedy can teach us much about the nature of man and how to deal with tough situations and emotions.