Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Because Americans have the word “democracy” humming in our heads like a mantra all the time, we tend to see the entire world through majority-rule lenses. The common fly’s-eye view, in which judgments can be made only in multiple, makes us crazy to cast our ballots on everything. This accounts for the success of ridiculous pseudo-entertainments like "American Idle" and "Prancing with the Stars." Our democracy mania is laughable, but it's also dangerous. One of the threats that atheists face is the misconception among the rabble that all areas of human endeavor are subject to a vote.

But they're not.

This one should be obvious. No matter how the public feels, scientific truths are not subject to popular wishes. Yes, the morons in the electorate can vote to forbid any kind of public teaching that doesn’t suit them; they can spread officially sanctioned ignorance from sea to shining sea (that shine may be pollution); they can insist that a belief in the literal truth of Genesis be required for any researchers who want government funding; but they don’t get to cast a ballot on scientific knowledge. The god-crazed masses can lobby against “Darwinism” all they want, but they can’t stop the flu virus from evolving. Even among scientists themselves, there’s an understanding — although tacit at times — that consensus doesn’t necessarily reflect the way things actually are. Hey, maybe medical experts will find out that Hostess Sno-balls are good for you.

OK, it’s a field wide open to interpretation. As Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” (And the Winstons, too.) But I’m not talking about written history; I’m referring to what actually happened. You can’t call for a show of hands to change events of the past. Godpushers can continue to insist that America was founded as a Christian nation, for example, but it just ain’t so. There’s no historical evidence for that conclusion, and plenty of evidence against it (like, um, the fact that no deities are mentioned in the Constitution, and there’s not even one word of religious propaganda). Again, the majority can affect what’s taught in public schools; they can influence what idiot senators like John McCain have to say; they can forbid certain facts from being uttered. But they can’t hold a referendum to undo what actually happened. Sorry, folks: Elvis died.

Admitted: You can lie with statistics. But you can’t make two plus two equal five, regardless of what We the Innumerate People want. For instance: If the figures overwhelmingly show that abstinence education doesn’t work to stop teenage pregnancies, a voice vote — even led by the loudest, most pious throats in the country — won’t alter the calculations. Those girls are carrying real, countable babies. Get out your abacuses, fundies, you’ve got some adding to do.

The Arts
Hell, art isn’t democratic at all. What we call “art” is, of course, subject to the plastic ballots we carry in our wallets. But there are objective standards, for anyone who cares to apply them. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is objectively better than “Jingle Bells.” Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer is objectively better than those poker-playing puppies. Alice in Wonderland is an objectively better kids’ book than any of the Harry Potters. Hamlet is an objectively better play than Cats. And Double Indemnity is the best movie ever made. (Well, maybe that’s not objective.) There are real criteria for determining what is and isn’t art, although critics and aficionados may disagree about what those criteria are. But popularity isn’t one of them. And neither is eligibility for government aid. Most important, no polling-place mandate can determine what art isn’t. Oh, sure, when the hoi polloi’s nays outnumber the yeas, the authorities can step in to ban books from libraries, force museums to remove certain works from display, tell musicians what they may not perform in public. But, as long as there are objective standards — not “community” standards, mind you — art is art. I may not be able to define it, but neither can the guy who can't figure out how to punch a chad.

Democracy Itself
If U.S. citizens were asked to vote for or against democracy, as a principle of government and not just a word, they would probably vote against it. As they did in 2000 and 2004. The Bush administration has never followed the “will of the people.” Not about the Iraq War, not about abortion, not about stem cell research, not about the environment, not about stopping pork-barrel legislation, and not about refraining from out-and-out criminality. Fortunately, in a system like ours — where there are certain basic guarantees that trump the whims of the multitude — it’s not possible for democracy to be democratically rejected. Of course, that doesn’t stop the politicians and the theocrats from trying.

I suspect I’m going to be in the minority on some of the views expressed above. But you know what? This blog is not a democracy, either.


Anonymous said...

Good post.
I enjoy reading reading your stuff so keep it up.
Hopefully you'll allow me to disagree one point though.
Art is not objective. Grandma Moses' work is crap IMO as is Jackson Pollock's. Country/western sucks.
It truly is dependent upon the observer.

The Exterminator said...


You're right, of course, that taste is a personal matter. But whether or not something is art: Maybe that's not personal.

I'll give you some examples. I don't think there's a more boring writer than Hemingway. If someone gave me a Da Vinci painting to hang in my living-room, I wouldn't do it. I can't stand Tchaikovsky. Those statements are about taste. But do I think that Hemingway, Da Vinci, and Tchaikovsky produced great art? You bet. Their work meets all the criteria I use to distinguish art from non-art. I just don't happen to like any of it.

Grandma Moses and Jackson Pollack? I'm not sure, although offhand I'd be inclined to say no and yes.

Country music? It's about as artistic as the sound of cats meowing. Give me chalk scraping on a blackboard any day.

EnoNomi said...

The biggest problem with batting around the word Democracy is people believe democracy = mob rule, though in fact is seems to have degraded into just that. The founding fathers didn’t create a true democracy, they created a Republic. The idea should be that we vote for the person we believe will be the best one to rule and lead us and then trust their judgment even when we don’t agree with each and every little thing. Instead we have “leaders” that are merely mouth pieces and bludgeons for the mob that have the money to contribute to get them reelected. My vote doesn’t mean squat because I’m not going to get a chance to vote for the person I believe would do the best job. I’m left with choosing the least repugnant from a pool of pandering puppets that were able to kiss the most asses building their war-chests.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

You hit one of my pet peeves - Science. The whole idea that the truths of science could be put to a vote, just because they conflict with someone's religious beliefs, smacks of sheer stupidity.

It more than smacks, it's just plain stupid. The Founding Father's fear of mob rule is justified, and the fact that we are a Republic, and not a pure democracy, is to our advantage.

If only we could get back to electing competent leaders. One of the problems is that in the 1700s it was hard to pander to the voter. The only information in a campaign was that set forth in a newspaper (nothing like the papers of today), pamphlets and the occasional personal campaign stop. People had to use their brains, actively, to get information about the election and the candidates. This continued for almost 200 years.

Television has radically changed the way we elect our leaders. I seriously think doing away with paid TV ads would be a good thing, the First Amendment be damned. Information is now passively digested. There is too much gullibility that can be manipulated by slick Madison Ave productions.

The Exterminator said...

Of course, the United States was not founded as a democracy, which actually pretty much does mean "mob rule." The founders set up a republic because they understood the danger of a "tyranny of the majority." That's also why so many of our greatest intellectual heroes insisted on a Bill of Rights.

In the early days of our country, cultured, philosophical, history-savvy, deep-thinking men like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison got elected to the presidency. They weren't all great leaders; but they were all worthy of respect for their past accomplishments and ideas. Today, we're being ruled -- not led -- by a criminal nitwit who never accomplished anything worthwhile, and whose entire stock of ideas could easily be voiced by any schoolyard bully.

I'm just not ready to damn the First Amendment. Maybe we ought to reinstate literacy requirements for voters.

PhillyChief said...

The older I get, the more I side with the elitist snob Alexander Hamilton. Ok, so maybe not so far as having a king, but damn it not every voice deserves to be heard, let alone counted. I'm not saying censor, but some people just shouldn't be invited to the table for discussion.

I'm tired of being a captive in my own country by people who are ignorant, less intelligent, have awful taste, can't drive for shit and are willing to put their whacky beliefs before all else.

1... 2... 3..... going to my happy place... going to my happy place....

Great post, btw.

Lynet said...

It's sort of tangential, but I just have to ask what your criteria for great art are, since you mention that you have such. I can react to art, but I wouldn't presume to define it beyond 'that which is constructed' (too broad, but what can I do?), and if I had to define what makes it good, I could speak of emotional power, intellectual cleverness, and I guess perhaps some uniqueness factor --

-- but to call that objective? No, I don't think I could. So, please, give me a clue as to how you come to the conclusion that the worth of an artwork is objective.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

And Damn! The Spanish Inquisitor, my, my.

Most people around here feel that "The Enlightenment" and Rennaisance effect people who can't scramble out of the way quick enough, so as I'm a cripple
(no PC out of me) they sort of forgive me my views.

A friend has Lyme disease, has had it for over a year. On the science side, they've given him the wrong treatment, told him that Lyme doesn't actually exist and he's just shamming, and in one case he'd get diagnosed as having it if he agreed to be part of a medication study and what he got might be a placebo. Some people in his church feel he shouldn't get treatment because it is interfering with gods plan.

History: it's sort of on a loop, I think. I've participated in it's making, here and there, and I actually have a friend (he's mad at me for setting him wise, so maybe he isn't anymore) who is an apologist for what's going on in "our" shennanigans. The problems are "unanticipated". I got him a copy of Taber's "WAR of the FLEA", he read it, and now he's mad at me. I also recommend reading Finley Peter Dunne's Mister Dooley articles. They were written a century ago, and you'd swear it was fresh news.

The arts...I am a musician and we all have our tastes. Yet, a while ago I was playing in a local art show and some people were gushing over the bold, daring, inspiring, original concept behind me. Took a glance back, an there it was: white rectangle with a big red circle in the center. Where had I seen its like before...? Yeah! The Japanese flag! So much for originality, the Japanese probably have millions of them. Copyright hell, I guess.

Democracy? Well, citizenship is what I'd think more of. I used to go to schools and give presentations but I don't anymore, it's too depressing. Things were pretty chicken shit when I was in (well, they had a generous, um, furlough policy where I was concerned)but now. It's a police state complete with armed goons. A long time teacher told me once that most of the security guards he saw in the halls today were the bullies when they were in, themselves.

We have (ahem cough) two parties in this 'republic'. The 'republicans' seem to know or care very little about such a thing as a republic, and the 'democrats' display the same about democracy or the idea of the 'demos'. It starts in school, you are graded like eggs, and separated into doers and watchers. You are to stand on the sidelines and cheer. You identify with the 'greater', it doesn't identify with you. What party or people who run it identifies with its voters here? Not a one.

The Exterminator said...


Well, I knew some skeptic like you (that's a compliment) would challenge me about my claim that there are objective criteria for judging whether something is or isn't art.

I think my response is worth a full post, rather than just a comment. I will warn you in advance, though, that there will be no mathematical formulas.

Anyway, thanks for asking, and watch for my answer soon.

C. L. Hanson said...

I agree with the Spanish Inquisitor, particularly about television. In a sense people had access to less information when printing was new and each sheet was costly. But that limited the top-down flow of information: You get a certain amount from your news source, then you go to the pub (or wherever) and discuss.

Now there is a constant stream of infotainment coming out of the T.V. (and countless reams of it being printed), and people have no motivation to get out of the lay-z-boy and do anything but absorb. Then after a few decades, the infotainment sources figured out that they can say anything at all and expect that it won't be held up to any kind of mass critical thinking.

As I argued in my post think for yourself! I think the Internet may help to reverse the one-way information flow trend, but it may be too little, too late.