Monday, July 24, 2017

Confucius and the John Birch Society: Rectification of Names and Modern America

Recently I did an experiment where I used two social media sites---FaceBook and Quora---to ask why so many Americans say that they don't live in a "democracy", but instead a "republic". That is to say, why do many Americans believe that there is a contradiction between the two words---that a country can be a "democracy" or a "republic"---but not both at the same time

I ask this because if you look up the Google definition of both terms, you will find the following:
a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives
a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch
If anyone knows much about systems of government, it is obvious that these two terms are orthogonal. That is to say, they refer to fundamentally different issues---which means that they aren't the sort of concepts that can contradict each other. An example of two orthogonal concepts are the class of an vehicle and the company that made it. So two classes of vehicles are "car" and "pickup truck", and, two companies that make them can be "Datsun" or "Ford". That is, a car can be either a Datsun or a Ford, and, either one of these companies can produce both cars and pickups. It simply isn't a case of "either it is a Datsun or it is a pickup", or "either it is a Ford or it is a car". So, China is a republic, but not a democracy. Canada is a democracy, but it is not a republic. And, the USA is both a democracy and a republic.

If you try to explain this in an American context, you get a bunch of responses. One of the more common ones is to suggest that the only real meaning of "democracy" is "a government without any form of elected representation". That is the word "democracy" for them means "a system where every single issue is decided directly through popular referendums". Another popular statement that they make is that in a "republic" there are constitutional laws that protect the rights of individuals against the capricious will of the majority.

When I try to work through the implications of these idiosyncratic definitions of both terms, I find that there are lots of strange results. For example, what is a "representative democracy" if you simply define "democracy" as only being exercised through referendum? Does that mean that all the nations of the world that have elected representatives aren't really "democracies"? Wouldn't arguing this case be committing tremendous violence to the common understanding of the concept?

In addition, the idea that only a "republic" has legal protections for minorities against the fickle decisions of the majority is also a bizarre reading of the term. Nations that specifically say that they are not republics---such as Canada, Sweden, Great Britain, etc---do have things like constitutions, Supreme Courts and so on that protect individuals from bad legislation.  In contrast both the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China---both of which call themselves republics and fit the dictionary definition---have terrible reputations when it comes to protecting the rights of individuals when they annoy the powerful. Moreover, what exactly is it about the difference between popular referendums and elected legislators (if we accept that this is the distinction between a republic and a democracy) that ensures protection of minorities? Surely it is just as possible for elected legislators to deny individual rights as the general public in a referendum? The Jim Crow laws in the Southern US that kept blacks under the thumb of the white majority were not passed by popular referendum, but rather by elected representatives in a state legislature governed by a constitution based on recognized law.


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Most of the responses I got from my question were of the sort mentioned above. I found this interesting, but the real issue I was trying to deal with was "why do so many Americans believe this?", not "how do they justify this way of thinking?". As far as I know, no one outside of the US uses the words "democracy" and "republic" in these ways. They use the standard dictionary definitions that I gave in the beginning of this essay.

When I asked one person why his definition was so different from a standard dictionary one, he replied that the new dictionaries are wrong, and it is necessary to check older ones. When I went on to ask him where specifically he got this idea from, he said that he got the info directly from the "Founding Fathers", although he didn't suggest a specific document. Another woman simply said that America has a different "culture" than other nations, and she likes it that way---. Several others just agreed that it is an idiosyncratic definition, but it helped people understand the limitations of extreme democracy, so it is a good way of understanding the terms.

One person who understood what I was trying to learn from the question said that these odd definitions come from the Republican party because it wants to justify ignoring the opinions of the majority of voters. Another said that this is a distinction dreamed up to encourage people to think the names of the two major parties represent really different ideas about how the country should be run: Republicans support the rule of law, and, Democrats support mob rule.

Finally one fellow suggested that "point zero" for all of this can be traced to a video tape put out by the John Birch society. He provided me with a link that ended in a pay wall, but a little more effort and I found this which seems to get to the heart of the issue. (I'm going to be discussing a lot of what goes on in this video, so take a good look at it. What follows isn't going to make much sense without having seen it.)

Let me start by stating that the above is a piece of very effective propaganda. And like all very good propaganda, it doesn't work by telling the viewer absolute falsehoods, instead, what it does is manipulate the way people think about issues by leaving out crucial issues while at the same time suggesting that they have completely explained the state of affairs.  Propaganda is often most effective by what it doesn't say, instead of what it does. To understand this point, consider one of the first ideas introduced in the video.

At about the 0:45 point, the narrator discusses what people routinely call "the political spectrum"---communism on the left, fascism on the right---and suggests that it is all wrong. He suggests at about 1:15 that people who call NAZIS and fascists right wing "never define their terms", and instead argues that the key issue in left versus right is the amount of power that a government has over an individual.

The video is correct to a limited extent. It is true that some people often throw around the words "left", "right", and, "fascist" without really clearly defining what they are talking about. But the John Birch solution is no answer either. The idea of "left" versus "right" comes from a specific moment in the French revolution where the representatives of various political factions were seated either to the left or right of the President of the Assembly. As such, it has continued as a very rough way of articulating where a specific individual or party sits in relation to others. The problem that arises, of course, is that politics is so complicated that it is impossible to accurately map any particular political system on one single axis. Indeed, I'd suggest that it is probably impossible to accurately map all human political tendencies in any specific sort of two-dimensional map.

The left/right spectrum that is introduced in the video suggests that communism should be on the left and fascism on the right. But it is important to understand that this only deals with one or two variables: nationalism and corporate ownership. The major Axis powers of WW2 gave great power to the major corporations in their countries:  for example, Krupp, Fiat, and, Mitsubishi. In addition, all three were tremendously involved in an extreme nationalist agenda: Lebensraum for the Germans, recreating the Roman Empire for the Italians, and, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere for the Japanese. In contrast, communism believes in state ownership of the means of production, which means elimination of all privately-own corporations. It is also internationalist in orientation, which means that it doesn't support the creation of empires specifically for the benefit of one particular nationality.

The spectrum that video introduces is based on a totally different set of criteria: relative power of the state versus the individual. This is a perfectly legitimate move---but only if you understand that you are switching what is being measured. What makes this video propaganda is the subtle move to suggest that the first spectrum is wrong and the second one right, instead of saying that they each measure something totally different. Political scientists are quite aware of the problems of the left/right way of measuring different tendencies, which is why they have attempted to come up with various other ways of encapsulating differences in easily understood graphics.

Another way of mapping political tendencies
Image by Liftarn, c/o Wiki Commons
This map separates out the role of ownership in differentiating Marxism from Fascism on one axis, but on another one it brings them together on how each deals with personal freedom. Please note, that this particular graphic doesn't deal with the relative role that nationalism plays in various political tendencies. That's the problem with these sorts of things---no matter how hard someone tries, they end up leaving something really important out. The problem with the video's depiction of this spectrum isn't that it says anything particularly wrong, it just leaves out an enormous amount of complexity and implies that what has been said pretty much exhausts the issue.


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The video goes on to make an argument in favour of the radical split between democracy and republicanism that brings in several similarly wildly over-simplified descriptions of reality. But I hope that I've already shown how the John Birch society is manipulating the naive into believing something false in order to promote their agenda.

I've put forward this modern example to illustrate a point from Confucius' Analects that has direct bearing on modern society. In Chapter XIII, part three, of David Hinton's translation we read:
Adept Lu said: "If the Lord of Wei wanted you to govern his country, what would you put first in importance?"

"The rectification of names," replied the Master. "Without a doubt."

"That's crazy!" countered Lu. "What does rectification have to do with anything?"

"You're such an uncivil slob," said the Master. "When the noble-minded can't understand something, they remain silent.

"Listen. If names aren't rectified, speech doesn't follow from reality. If speech doesn't follow from reality, endeavors never come to fruition. If endeavors never come to fruition, then Ritual and music cannot flourish. If Ritual and music cannot flourish, punishments don't fit the crime. If punishments don't fit the crime, people can't put their hands and feet anywhere without fear of losing them.

"Naming enables the noble-minded to speak, and speech enables the noble-minded to act. Therefore, the noble-minded are anything but careless in speech."
Chapter XIII, part three, Analects, David Hinton trans.

To a certain extent, I've tried to do a little "rectification of names" on this post with regard to the terms "democracy" and "republic". I'm concerned about the confusion that surrounds these words, because how ordinary people understand these two concepts has tremendous impact on what they expect from their society. If people associate "democracy" with mob rule, they are not going to be as upset if the influence of ordinary people declines in society. And if they believe that the existing legal structure trumps the aspirations and needs of common folk, they will be easier to convince that they shouldn't expect help from society-at-large for their problems. The John Birch Society definitions ultimately support an elitist vision of society where the legal right of the wealthy to own property effectively trumps every other value that people support. If they can control the definition of words that people use to understand politics, they will have already won half the battle to convert the USA into a Plutocracy.

Confucius wouldn't be a fan of the John Birch Society!
Engraving c/o Wiki Commons


Galen Pearl said...

Wow, you are not kidding about researching your posts! This was quite educational. I also read your last post about tai chi sword practice, which I do myself and really enjoy. Watching Game of Thrones does make me wonder how my sword skills, such as they are, would serve me in battle. I think I would rather have a dragon!

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Thanks for your kind comments. I suspect dragons are very expensive to feed, so I'd pass on having one myself.