Democracy: The Universal Solvent

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Updated: 19 Feb 2011

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This post is dedicated to the Egyptian Coptic Christians who participated in the protests in Tahrir square, largely ignored by the press, but claiming their ancient heritage as Egyptians, stood along side of their fellow Muslim citizens.

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In 8th grade science we were taught that water was considered the universal solvent. That is, given enough time, water would dissolve almost everything.  Water inexorably works its way into every crack, nook and cranny, saturating the soil, seeping through the dikes and dams built to try to hold it back.  In that sense, water will dissolve or penetrate any barrier it meets or finds a channel though which it can flow if given enough time.

In North Africa and the Middle East a new manifestation of that concept has appeared. The flowering of democracy and freedom among the populace to break the grip of autocratic and repressive theocratic regimes seems to be a gathering force that politically and socially is having the effect of a universal solvent against retrenched and decades long rule by dictators or monarchs. The water of democracy has not only found the cracks in the façade of those rulers who by force have imposed their will upon the people, but it has opened up channels and holes in those walls and is flowing with historically-unprecedented force.

First we saw Tunisia, which did not demand our attention immediately, although it should have. The success of the revolution, remarkable for its lack of violence, did make us sit up and take notice. The collapse of the government in a matter of days and the exile of the strongman ruler, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were accomplished without the revolutionaries possessing guns.  In an ironic contrast, according to the Gun Rights doctrine espoused by millions who practically deify the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution here in the United States, Tunisia’s gunless should have been inconceivable let alone successful.

Then came Egypt. For eighteen days we held our collective breath as the unarmed protesters daily came in waves into Tahrir Square demanding President Hasni Mubarak’s resignation, a new democratic government, a new constitution, and a reduction in soaring food prices.  Each successive day we watched entranced, despairing that night the hated police attacked the protesters, who had managed to conduct their demonstrations with virtually no violence. Then finally, with stunned disbelief we again allowed ourselves to hope the cause might succeed for the Egyptian people when the army began taking very visible action to protect the protesters and take the reins of power from Mubarak and his cohorts. Though many questions remain, Egypt was transformed into a proto-democratic state in just over two weeks. Once again a government was toppled without the people being armed to the teeth and having no equivalent to the U.S. 2nd Amendment in their constitution. Bringing down a government without a heavily armed populace is not supposed to be within the realm of the possible.

Jordan’s King Hussein, educated in America, saw the events unfold and voluntarily began to institute democratic reforms. Whether they will be enough to satisfy the force of the democratic waves pounding against the shore of an autocratic monarchy remains to be seen. But here we have a third instance where the true power of the ideals of democracy works into the hearts of the oppressed and the realization of that dream does not require an armed populace.

Now we are again holding our breath as we watch the protests and demonstrations in Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine, Libya, Algeria, and most importantly, Iran.  The regimes of those autocratic and theocratic states are resorting to using brute force in their attempt to make the price of protest and dissention too high and to preserve their iron-grip on the status quo. What will the final outcome be?  Only time will tell.  None of these countries have a 2nd amendment on the right to bear arms.

There are, in my assessment, two broad consequences regarding bringing down a government by force. The first, when the population has unlimited access to firearms, an scenario is set up that will either almost certainly be a protracted or bloody revolution, or worse, an even bloodier civil war.  In recent years we have seen the horrendous conflicts in places like Rwanda, the breakup of Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Somalia and Chechnya and East Timor, to name a few.

What we have witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt in the past few weeks is incontrovertible evidence that revolution by an unarmed populace does not require years but weeks, and does not require the blood of thousands. It also does not require that populace be armed with guns. Unfortunately the protests claimed the lives of a few dozen who were caught in the fringe of rage staged by the ruling regime’s police and their operatives.

But in recent history, this is not the first time we have seen a revolution succeed largely without violence. We watched two decades ago, transfixed, by the collapse of East Germany, and then to our greater astonishment the disintegration of our Cold War super-power adversary, the Soviet Union.  Poland and Czechoslovakia broke away from the Warsaw Pact and had their own versions of bloodless revolutions.  Czechoslovakia in particular separated into to two countries, The Czech Republic and Slovakia without a civil war.  Hungary voted to leave the Warsaw Pact with an 85% majority, as did Bulgaria, Estonia, and Latvia. Romania was the only Eastern European country to have a bloody revolution as part of its citizens overthrowing the government, ending in the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena.

I cannot predict the outcome of the current protests for democratic reforms in these other nations, but I have confidence in the universal solvent of democracy.  The tide has turned. Even against massive state violence, as has happened in Iran and Bahrain, where the protesters are beaten back for a while, the regimes’ blindness to the unequalled strength of the democratic ideal will ultimately be their downfall.

The right to bear arms as a part of the Great American Experiment, as guaranteed in the Constitution in the context of the power of Democracy and Freedom, is appearing more and more like one of our greatest failures when placed against these historical events. We endured the horrors of one Civil War, and I can see no rationale that excludes a similar nightmare and threat to the Union should a group of radically discontented  people decide it is their right to overthrow the legally elected government by force.

Such action would be treason because all the other parts of the Constitution, which are more important than the 2nd Amendment, are the solid foundation we enjoy as a nation of laws as well as providing for the orderly transfer of power every eight years at the most, ensuring that democracy and freedom remain the keystone of The Republic.

What we have seen in the events unfolding in Africa and the Middle East is that the true power of Democracy and Freedom comes from the hearts of their people and not from their having all the guns in the world.  It is a lesson we Americans, particularly at this moment in our own history, need to understand where the reality actually lies.

Dr John Bogen contributed to this post.

Swimming through Boiled Okra: The American Political Stew, 2010

Swimming through Boiled Okra:

The American Political Stew, 2010

Some Background:

I lived in Texas for three years while attending seminary at Texas Christian University.  Being a native of the Northwest, I was exposed to a whole new cornucopia of foods: great Texas barbecue, Tex-Mex, and Southwest cuisine. I learned how to eat grits the right way (butter and salt and pepper, or cheese—none of this milk and sugar over Cream of Wheat stuff).  To this day I love grits.

My one culinary defeat was okra.  For those of you who haven’t experienced this little vegetable,

Okra--Secret Dispenser of Slime. Photo: FowlerNurseries.com

Okra--Secret Dispenser of Slime. Photo: FowlerNurseries.com

it certainly looks benign enough in its raw form.  It’s also as popular as broccoli in more northern climes and a staple vegetable in numerous countries around the world.  You can see from the photo, it can look quite appetizing.  Okra can be prepared in many ways.  It can be breaded and fried (of course, most anything in the South can be breaded and fried—and usually is).  It can be boiled with all sorts of other foods.  Many people love it pickled.  It’s a popular ingredient in a wide variety of soups and gumbos.  That’s all fine and good, except…

Boiled okra is slimy.  For those three years I tried my best to sample okra in its various gastronomic manifestations.  I discovered, despite all this experimentation, that the only way I could handle okra was fried.  Fried okra is not slimy.  It just doesn’t have much taste for my palette, other than an oily breaded mushy…well…veggie-something-or-other. Take a look at the crosscut round of okra.  It looks a lot like a crosscut jalapeño pepper.  Only the jalapeño has both flavor and zing.

Okra Seafood Gumbo. One of a thousand ways to create vegetative slime.

In fairness to the otherwise popular vegetable, I selected two of my friends (completely non-random, and no intent to be so), on separate occasions, and who don’t know each other, and asked if either liked okra?  Their responses were identical to mine: Okra in soup is slimy and I don’t really like it.  So, what’s the point?  There are at least two other males in the United States who, without prompting as to reason, agree that okra in soup is slimy.  And none of us like it because of that particular quality.  And that’s important because of what comes next.

A Test of Your Gag Reflex:

Back to slimy.  Not just slickish slimy, but stringy and slimy.  As for stringy: A hundred times

Ultimate Alien Slime, Aliens, 1979, Photo Courtesty MGM.

worse than my grandmother’s over-cooked rope-strength stringy asparagus.  And as for slimy: pure gaggy slimy: You start to chew the spoonful of boiled okra, which just seems to release this gelatinous goo, resembling the stuff that drips off of your typical movie monster’s tongue or, uh, snout. As you try to swallow the bite the goo elongates itself so that by the time the first half of your bite has traveled the length of your esophagus, reaches your cardiac sphincter, and dumps into your stomach the other half is still trying to get out of your mouth and down your throat.

Gag.  Retch.  Get me something to wash down this uck!  Now!

An Analogy of the Absurd—But the Bridge to the Topic at Hand:

Imagine stirring a pot of okra the size of an Olympic swimming pool with that potential for such slimy viscosity.  Imagine swimming through a pool filled with such.  Michael Phelps wouldn’t be pleased.  Michael, whatever his other imperfections, would have the good sense to avoid such an Olympic sized pool of mucousity.

Okra Stew--Imagine an Olympic Pool filled with this.

Now to the Main Dish:

On the other hand, that exact unpalatable characteristic makes for a good analogy of the current state of American politics.  The so-called melting pot of America has been emptied of its finest ingredients, civility, respect, loyalty, etc, and filled to the brim with okra soup.  The blogosphere is boiling over with okra slime, from both the right and the left, but all too often the temperature of rhetoric coming from the right is higher.  In this context, characters such as Limbaugh and Beck, Palin and the Miz Liz of Cheney are but spices in an otherwise noxious recipe of political okra gumbo.

Last summer, we were caught off guard by the sudden rise to the boiling point of the Town Hall Meetings held in August during the Congressional Summer Recess.  But this year, the pot is already bubbling resembling those gloppy mud pots in Yellowstone National Park, and it’s still over seven months until the November mid-term elections.  Itsa bubblin’, like they say.  I think.

This year there will be no surprises.  Members of Congress in both Houses and from both sides of the Aisle may find it best to attend their town hall meetings dressed in a heatproof full-body firefighter outfit.  The political okra soup pot likely will reach a rolling boil even before summer.  The slop-slinging will probably be fierce.

The question is can it be sustained?  My observation last year was that the Sturm und Drang of the Tea Party’s birth and its rapid rise to an ear-shattering keen burned out before the end of the month.  Part of that, in my opinion, was it was “newsed” into numbness.

Numb News—It’s the American Way:

The success of cable/satellite/internet news with its around the clock accessibility very quickly has habituated Americans (and most of the world, undoubtedly) to a very short news cycle.  Inside of two weeks last August, people at the Town Hall Meetings screaming the same rant over and over lost its punch if not its volume. Though the opponents of everything Obama were taking great delight in the attention and media coverage they were receiving, they missed an unintended consequence of that saturation.  They unwittingly became passé. Almost with the predictability of an autonomic response, the polls shifted subtly, but the shift was critical.  It was pro-reform.

Inside the shift was the data that kept Health Care Reform alive, passing the House in November and the Senate on December 24. Despite the loss of one senate seat in January messing up the Senate Democrats’ supermajority of 60 seats the rhetoric of the opposition from the elected officials, the right-wing pundits and the “angry” right-wing citizenry did not shift.  Their message, although loud, consistent, and vitriolic, became less and less influential as each day passed.

That message also offered nothing: the “Let’s start with a blank piece of paper gambit” failed, not because the Republicans were united but because they had nothing to counter with.  If at the great Health Care Summit, the Republicans had shown up with a bill that could have been plopped down beside the one that had already passed (since December 24th, remember) that was half the height of the Democratic bill, Americans’ attention would have been riveted to know what was in that piece of legislation.  Instead the Republicans brought a blank piece of paper and kvetched for seven hours about the size of the already passed bill.  The three best words for this colossal error are: stupid, stupid, and stupid.

The opponents did not recognize their strategic error. They thought they were being consistent and united.  The president and the Democratic leadership, on the other hand, correctly interpreted the message as dragging itself down: that the public sentiment in a shift of even one or two points in favor of reform was far more important than the actual percentage of support or opposition was being rolled out weekly by the multitude of pollsters.  TV, Internet, Radio, newspapers, magazines along with pundits of all stripes missed that nuanced reality, their focus locked on a depth of field most conducive to seeing their ratings and profits and not the meaning of the changes.

Health Care Reform passed, astonishing and infuriating the Republican leadership and all sorts of right-wing groups.

Elections 2010: Jump in, the Okra’s in Prime Slime!

What’s next?  More of the same: A big pot of slimy okra political soup we will be forced to swim around in between now and November.  The Republican formula of Stupid3 remains the strategy they are taking into the Fall under the illusion (or delusion) it will be different this time and they will snatch the majority status from the Democrats in a great uprising of voter rage, or a groundswell of secessionist sentiment threatening the fabric of the Republic, whichever comes first.

I almost hesitate to write this next section for fear of tipping off the Republicans and the Tea Party supporters to the actuality of the situation that the colossal error they made attempting to kill health care reform remains a colossal error as they plan for the mid-term elections.

Poster Advocating Revolution. But What Kind? Photo: Menifee Tax Day Tea Party

The emerging rhetoric calling the administration a “regime” accompanied by repeated less than veiled threats of revolution and civil war, marches with guns in plain sight are not the next phase they believe it to be; it is rather an escalation of the same message.  TV and the other media again will create the opposite intended consequence the Right Wing wants to convey.  Their agenda, antics, and demonstrations will be covered ad nauseum, giving them all the coverage they desire, but dulling the impact of their effort: Why?  Very simply, Americans want “new” news.  Every day.  That is what we have been habituated to expect from the media.  It’s not a matter of how it’s slanted or editorialized, or punditized.  It has to be new.

This is an essential lesson the Democrats must keep in the center of their political radar screen, locked on like the Space Shuttle launching toward the International Space Station.  They have to remain disciplined in their own rhetoric as the campaign heats up.  The key: New talking points must be rolled out every week or so of what Obama and the Dems have accomplished and what they plan to accomplish after the polls close.  They don’t even have to counter what the Republicans are saying.  The Republicans will continue to tighten the trap they set for themselves in the broken record scenario they initiated upon Obama’s election in 2008, and the contrast between a constantly renewing fresh message and the broken record message will quickly create a gulf between the two in the Democrats favor.

Guns and Bombs Belong in the Movies and TV, Not in Real Life:

Why?  People crave the status quo.  The vast majority of U.S. citizens do not want revolution or civil war or any other highly disruptive political or social action.  We’re not talking about changes to health care—we’re talking about being able to go shopping or out to eat or on vacation, Friday night football, going to worship, school plays, and a thousand other everyday things we routinely do.

Domestic tranquility is what Americans want.  The news video of the bloody revolt and possible regime-changing coup in Kyrgyzstan is exactly the opposite of what Americans believe political change should be.  The more violent that situation becomes and the more coverage it will get because of American military interests in the country, the more nervous the typical American will be about the language in the okra soup.  They see suicide bombers belonging in Baghdad and Kabul, not valiant freedom fighters, 21st Century Minutemen here in the U.S. claiming they are wresting their constitutional rights from an oppressive and socialist government.  Regardless of how dissatisfied they may be about their taxes, Americans do not want bombs and blood flowing down the streets of their community.  The reason is straightforward: Americans make political change through ballots, not through bombs and bullets.

Tea Party Protester Advocating the use of Guns. But to Shoot What or Whom? Photo: TalkingPointsMemo.com

Swimming in the Soup of the Statistically Illiterate:

We can be certain that the media will continue to misinterpret the polls because they do not understand how to correctly interpret them to begin with.  Most political groups will continue to misinterpret the polls because they are always looking for an advantage for their side and a disadvantage for their opponents.  “Spin” is a set of heuristic blinders. Here’s why: Raw percentages are a flawed indicator of support.

We quote percentages as if they mean something absolute.  They do not.  Percentages provide information, just not what we typically believe it is.  The fundamental error in interpreting poll percentages is equating a final percentage of a vote with a pre-vote percentage.  The two are not equal indicators of support.  The better pollsters understand this and couch their questions with very precise language and report their results with statistical caveats that, for the most part, the media and the public ignore, and then they are surprised when the results don’t match the polls.  They blame the polls (some justifiably) instead of having the insight to realize they didn’t correctly read the data in the polls. We will see a lot of this in the next seven months.

Central Limit Theorem: One reason calculating percentage trends is complex. "In probability theory, the central limit theorem (CLT) states conditions under which the mean of a sufficiently large number of independent random variables, each with finite mean and variance, will be approximately normally distributed (Rice 1995)." Source: Wikipedia

Should we not believe the polls?  No, but be cautious about reading into the number what you want it to mean, rather than looking at the gap and vector of the differences between the two percentages.  That is where the real information is.  And understand there are ways to use the percentages that sound valid but are really nothing more than concoction and spin.  Second, don’t make the mistake of treating a final vote result with a pre-vote survey.  Even if the final outcome numbers are identical, they are two quite different metrics, almost to the point of being two separate statistical species.

Understand the spin-meisters of all the political parties and their various PACs are not going to give you the slightest bit of help in understanding any of this.  They are paid to convince you the numbers are always favoring their party or candidate, even if the most accurate interpretation suggests disastrous defeat.  They want the political okra pot to be as slimy as possible to confound your ability to squeeze the slightest bit of truth from the numbers.  No, it’s not pretty, and never will be, apparently, until the pot is emptied and a new recipe of soup, sans okra, is placed on the stovetop.

Is it November yet?  I can’t stand okra.

Okra: Abelmoschus esculentus. Photo: digthedirt,com