How a democracy starts to suck

Supporters of Mississippi's Proposition 26, including women past childbearing age, a couple of kids, and several dozen dudes.

Let’s say that you believe abortion should be illegal, in part because you have carefully considered the civic and cultural ramifications and in part because that’s what they said at your church, where you go with the kids you already have and the spouse who is the only person you will have sex with ever again. I’m messing with you—you’re not going to have sex with your spouse again. Anywhom, you are strongly committed to your anti-abortion position—which you call pro-life, although you are also for the death penalty—but you just can’t get enough people to vote for it. The Supreme Court said that abortion is legal, and even though they’re clearly the most bullshit branch of government, we still have to do what they say. The best alternative is therefore a constitutional amendment, but every time you get the words “abortions will be illegal” onto a ballot, a bunch of people vote against it. They’re mostly college kids and secularists and sluts who live in cities—clearly the most bullshit portion of American society—but, again, their votes somehow count as much as yours. You can’t make abortions illegal because the majority of Americans don’t want that. You must therefore figure out how to make them operatively illegal by passing laws that people don’t notice or care about, so that everyone else in America will abide by what you know is obviously right. For example, you can make a law that says any fertilized egg is, in fact, a person.

That is the furtive, inexperienced thrust of Mississippi’s Proposition 26, which would make all such eggs legal persons and, presumably, render any procedure that destroys them murder. Abortion, for example, would totally be murder. The morning-after pill would be murder. Getting pregnant because a homeless man raped you in a parking garage would not be murder, but doing coke after you got the test results back and having a miscarriage: murder. Certain types of IUDs that prevent fertilized eggs from attaching to the uterine wall would be murder. Treating an ectopic pregnancy would be murder, although allowing an ectopic pregnancy to come to term might also be murder. But the woman usually dies in that one, so justice is served.

Stem cell research? Those frozen embryos are people, so even though they are not in uteruses and lack the necessary biological material to grow, they are probably murder victims. In fact, since an estimated two thirds of conventionally fertilized human eggs fail to implant, most sex is murder, or at least involuntary manslaughter. Because as anyone can plainly see, the picture at right is a person. Go ahead; show it to Coco the gorilla, and she will say “person” before demanding to pet that stupid cat again.

Here is my complaint about democracy as currently practiced in the United States: no reasonable person would identify those two cells as a human being. They just aren’t. I recognize that is a terrible argument from a logical standpoint, but you can easily gather support for what we viscerally know is true. For example, there are way, way more living human cells in an embalmed corpse. And the two cells at right have zero chance of survival outside another, fully-grown human being. They only have a 35% chance inside another grown person, for Chrissake. From the standpoint of participatory democracy, which seeks to decide what we as a society should do based on our given circumstances, that is not a person is a given.

Yet we have decided, in our present democracy, that we can vote on circumstances too. A large portion of the Mississippi electorate believes they can pass an amendment to the state constitution saying that right there is a picture of a person. Maybe they will. It will absolutely not change the world we live in one whit, however, any more than would an amendment saying God loves us and everything will be fine from now on.

Democracy as originally conceived—in Athens and in 18th-century Virginia, and probably among whichever nomadic mammoth-hunters did it without naming it—focuses on actions. It is a way to decide what we will do. Never in human history has it been considered a legitimate method for deciding what is true. When Newton set out to determine which principles govern motion, he did not conduct a poll of English gentlemen. What we call a thing is a different type of knowledge from physical laws, but these epistemological truths are independent of our democratic will, too. We could all vote that a cat is music, but it would not change what we recognize as true.

Proposition 26 is a vote for profound bad faith. It takes the given circumstance that most Mississippians don’t consider a microscopic cluster of four cells a person and declares it unreal. In this way, it seeks to undermine a foundational principle of American democracy: agreement upon the validity of reason. From a legal standpoint, it declares the common perception that you’re not a person until you’re born null and void. The difference between democracy and mob rule lies in respect for reason. Once we start voting on what’s true, there is no limit to what enough like-minded people can do. If that’s what we want, one wonders why we would need a government at all.

Combat! blog is free. Why not share it?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Reddit


  1. I was just reading about Prop26 (I’m Canadian so I’m a little slow on Mississippi news). It must be so frustrating as an American to repeatedly come up against this kind of problem. Issues that have scientific explanations, but are interpreted through misconception, misdirection, and misinformation.

    I immediately thought of this quote after reading your post (which was excellent btw)…

    “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” ― Isaac Asimov

    It makes no sense that some people are included in the conversation. The moral theorist Sam Harris also addresses this point in his reaction to similar situations in American civil/moral/ethical discourse. To paraphrase….

    “What would happen if I showed up at a physics conference and physicist Edward Witten was speaking. And I walked in, while one of the most respected physicists in the whole world was presenting, and I said, “Your theory is bogus. It doesn’t resonate with me. Its not how I choose to view the universe and I’m not a fan.” Well, nothing would happen because I’m not a physicist. I don’t understand physics on the same level. I don’t have the knowledge base. I wouldn’t want to belong to any physics club that would have me as a member.

    But this is the point. Whenever we are talking about facts certain opinions must be excluded. That is what it is to have a domain of expertise. That is what it is for knowledge to count.”

    So where do you start in the US? Critical thinking classes? Overhaul the education system? America needs to change the way it thinks about intellectualism, that much is clear. So do many parts of the world. But for a superpower with the influence of the US its even more integral.

    But where do we start? How the fuck do you fix a problem like this?

  2. I feel like the crux of your argument is that we shouldn’t use democratic instruments to define things, we should only use them to decide decisions. Culture should define things? That seems like a poll deciding what is true.

    “For example, there are way, way more living human cells in an embalmed corpse.”
    I believe this, but do you have a source?

    Re: Kyle’s post about expertise, I read this article recently which was interesting:

    Sometimes expert confidence exceeds certainty. When they do, we are benefited by democratic debate. And, since we can’t know when the experts are themselves wrong, there isn’t much of a fix. We just have to embrace democratic values more deeply and have faith that what is right will prevail.

Leave a Comment.