When facts express identity, what happens to democracy?

You can advance two broad arguments in favor of democracy. The first is that it is morally right, either because people naturally deserve a say in what their governments do or because God likes it. The founders made such arguments in the Declaration of Independence and elsewhere. The other argument is that democracy is the best way to solve problems. Sooner or later, this argument goes, aristocracy or a dictatorship will run into competence problems. With no mechanism to hold them accountable, aristocrats and despots will do a bad job.

I find both these arguments convincing, but the second one is probably more useful. The first one requires us to agree on values—either a supreme being that has ordained democracy as the best system of government, or a compassionate humanism that makes the rights of individuals inalienable. Those values can break down. The idea that we all face collective problems, and that the collective wisdom of the American people can solve them, seems more robust.

But in order for this construction of democracy to work, we have to agree on facts. We can argue about the best way to structure the tax code, but we have to agree that the government needs money and can collect it from people. Some people might argue that the government has no right to tax people at all, but they still agree that taxation is real. Its possibility is a kind of fact. Such agreements often seem so obvious that they are tacit, but it’s also possible for them to break down. Take climate change, for example.

The New York Times published a fascinating story Sunday about the difficulties of teaching biology at a high school in Ohio, where many students regard not believing in climate change as an element of their identiy. Although they don’t know much about many subjects, they know that people like them say global warming isn’t real. As a result, rejecting classroom teaching about how carbon works or what scientists agree on has become an expression of their identities. This poses a problem, not just in high school but in American society.

In order to participate in the democratic approach to solving problems, we have to agree on certain facts, e.g. our behavior is changing the climate. But agreeing with that premise makes some people feel like their democratic agency is being denied. Denying it has become their way of asserting themselves as free citizens.

That’s Republicans’ fault. The GOP has made itself the brand of cultural refusers. Even though it advocates for traditional social values and the economic agenda of the rich, it has come to represent defiance of the mainstream. It’s a reversal of the countercultural politics of the late sixties, and it probably came about because of them. Liberals won the culture war so completely that they made conservatism cool, at least among the people who buy into it. For that bloc, right-wing politics is defiance, and any act of defiance can be right-wing politics.

Call it the politicization of identity. Gun ownership is a political statement. Driving a big truck is a political statement. Working outside or having a goatee is a political statement. In the same way that capitalism steadily commodified the 19th century, turning previously homemade products like clothes and food into consumer goods, democracy has politicized the 21st century. This process is bad, because it’s a force for reification. It makes our problems more difficult to solve, because it makes people resistant to changing their minds.

It’s one thing to change your position on an issue. It’s another to change who you are. While many of us like to imagine ourselves as independents who are at least hypothetically open to changing our minds, nobody wants their identity to be flexible. We can see this phenomenon at work in the classroom from the Times story, where rejecting scientific consensus is not about policy or reasoning but rather a way for those kids to keep it real.

There are two promises of American democracy: that we’ll decide what to do together, and that outside those decisions each of us can do what we want. What happens when believing what we want short-circuits our ability to decide together? Does democracy retain its authority when substantial portions of us simply don’t believe in science? The system has always depended on an informed citizenry. What place can it make for people who define themselves by refusing to learn?

Who gets to overrule democracy?

Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina burns last night.

Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina burned last night.

Seven black churches in the South have burned down over the last ten days, although officials in Greeleyville, SC say that the fire at Mount Zion AME last night was probably accidental. It burned down during a storm, and “the accidental burning of churches is not uncommon across the US.” That’s one for Fodor’s. It seems possible that various white people in South Carolina, angry their legislature would have the audacity to take down a flag in response to the murder of nine black people, have set things right by terrorizing more black people. It’s a confident moral system that turns to arson. There’s no money in it. The people who do such things must be inordinately convinced of their own rightness.

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Friday links! Baller-garchy edition

by Thomas Nast—the cartoonist, not my rap name

by Thomas Nast—the cartoonist, not my rap name

Let’s say a witch transports you to a mythical country called, I dunno, Furmerica or Harmonica or whatever. The country is nominally a democracy, but everyone you meet agrees that Furmerican politics are a farce. The two major parties are operatively indistinguishable, both in their dishonesty and in their infatuation with rich patrons. The few politicians who sincerely hope to govern by their beliefs—the real Furmericans, if you will—are invariably dumb. The Congress of Furmerica is a long argument between liars and fools, and don’t even get me started on the Hexagonal Office. Ask any citizen, and he’ll tell you that they’re all a bunch of bums, which is why he doesn’t even pay attention anymore. Today is Friday, and we have pinpointed Furmerica’s second biggest problem. Won’t you skirt the root cause with me?

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What we can know from the internet

God bless Holy Taco, and check out holytaco.com for the full covers of Internet Commenter Weekly.

You should be listening to the Co-Main Event Podcast, hosted by my friends Chad Dundas and Ben al-Fowlkes. Even if you don’t follow mixed martial arts—which would be insane, like not following boxing during the 1920s—you can appreciate the funny segments, including MasterTweet Theatre with Sir Nigel Longstock. Sir Nigel is the world’s foremost theatricalist. He is also me, and as a Twitter account he is far more popular than my actual Twitter account. He may not have as many total followers yet, but in the time I spent writing the last two sentences he got three. Since yesterday, when Sir Nigel joined Twitter, he has accumulated 40 followers—a rate that far exceeds any acceleration @Combat_Blog ever achieved. Should I therefore conclude that Sir Nigel is a more successful endeavor than this blog? Obviously not, which tells us something about the internet as metric.

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Democracy steps on its dick in Harrisburg, PA

Harrisburg is a city famous for two things: it’s not the one chocolate comes from, and now it’s the one steel doesn’t come from, either. The 50,000-person capital of Pennsylvania used to be a center of making stuff, but it has since drifted into the vague purposelessness of post-industrial America. Harrisburg is one of many medium-sized American towns with no particular reason to exist: too small to be an urban center, too big to be quaint/farmy, it is a city because a bunch of people live there. It is also in fiscal crisis. Back in 2003, Harrisburg borrowed $125 million to repair a garbage incinerator. That project was delayed, but the city spent the money anyway, only to borrow millions more later because, oh shit, the garbage incinerator. Now the government of Harrisburg has $310 million in guaranteed debt, and a state-appointed panel has determined that it needs to cover that by selling its city parking system. Also their garbage incinerator, which is a real kick in the pants.

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