The American government’s Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) has forced some hospitals to halt a program that threatened to save thousands of lives (and millions of dollars) annually. Why? Because it was, allegedly, an unethical experiment, done without the approval of the patients. To the uninitiated, this might seem to be an interesting conflict between doctors who want to carry on doing dangerous experiments, and government officials who try to bind the doctors to the rules of a democratic society.
The good people at “story of stuff” make an interesting mistake glitch, though.
The presenter, Annie Leonard, correctly ascribes consumerism, that plague that makes us violate the earth, to post-WWII American politics. As she describes it, the US government (followed suit by the rest of the western world) developed consumerism because it was “a means to boost the economy”. That is a gross understatement, and a historical misunderstanding. I agree wholeheartedly with most of what she says in that short movie of hers. But this is one point I would like to correct. It is a rather interesting one. If you want all the gory details, go and read Tony Judt’s excellent PostWar. Here comes the shorthand:
The consumer-goods economy isn’t a matter of governments sucking to big corporations. It’s really a political issue of a grander scale. In fact, it is about fighting (and winning) the two most important political wars of the 20th century: the war on communism and the war on fascism. Continue reading →
In the first entry I tried to show that many of us have some intuitive notion of Democracy that goes beyond the “majority rules” principle. In this and the following few entries I intend to dismantle that principle altogether.
In this post I’ll give the essentials – a short description of the claims which I intend to convince you of. Continue reading →
A few years ago, a friend of mine was working as a teacher, filling in for a sick colleague on a “citizenship” class. The teenagers in class had very little interest in the subject, as expected in normal schools. The substitute teacher found the class impossible to teach. “We know everything there is to know” they told him. “Israel is a Democratic state. That’s all there is to it, really”.
“And do you know what democracy is”? He demanded.
“Sure we do: it’s the rule of the majority”.
“Ok”. said my friend. “As you already know it all, we won’t study today. However, your teacher asked me to make sure you don’t leave the classroom a mess. So we thought maybe we’ll make a simple arrangement. I propose this: as of today, and throughout this year, all pupils sitting in rows 1-2 will stay a few minutes after school is over, to clean the classroom. Next year it will be rows 3-4, and the year after that it will be rows 5-6”.
Naturally, rows 1-2 were vehemently resentful. So he proposed a vote. Democracy, right? The class agreed, and naturally enough rows 3-6 were for, rows 1-2 against, so the proposal won by 2/3.
Rows 1-2 were now very upset. They declared the result “undemocratic”. “But the result passed by a majority!” claimed the teacher. So a discussion ensued, in which rows 1-2 spoke and the others had very little to say. Eventually they agreed that the vote violated the right for free speech, because they didn’t have a chance to discuss it properly.
He gave them 10 minutes. The second vote was identical to the first. Rows 1-2 were baffled. It seemed awfully undemocratic to them, but they couldn’t spell out the reason.
Neither could most people.
This blog is mainly about that reason. What exactly is Democracy? What is it good for? What can it do for you and how can you use it and improve it?