Wikileaks Cablegate! Panamanians hope for a successful coup!

I was just peeking around Wikileaks’s Cablegate ( This looks like the real thing folks!

Take a look at this 1989 cable on Panama for example:


More analysis to follow…

Also there’s Haiti elections. Isabel’s article should help you get started.

Political theory interlude

Manuel suggested I read Norberto Bobbio, an Italian socialist writer on democracy. So I picked up his “Which Socialism?” In it, Bobbio argues that there’s no necessary connection between democracy and socialism. Contrary to what socialists would like to believe, democracy doesn’t automatically happen in a socialist economy. And also, democracies don’t automatically evolve towards socialism. He thinks that socialists should pay as much attention to democratic theory and practice as liberals. He thinks the socialist dismissal of liberal democratic theory as simply ‘bourgeois’ is too summary. And worst of all, it can lead to a certain contempt of democracy on the part of socialists. And why hasn’t socialist theory included more theorizing about the state and democratic arrangements? Probably because in socialist theory, the state is supposed to wither away, so why spend a lot of effort figuring out how something is supposed to work when it’s supposed to wither away anyway?

“Which Socialism?” had a few other interesting ideas, especially Bobbio’s 4 paradoxes of democracy. These are 1) that direct democracy is difficult in small organizations, but almost impossible in large ones. Pg.69 has this very interesting quote:

“Direct, or ‘Athenian’, democracy, which was revived by the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s, has almost always been deceptive: it consists, on the one hand, of an assembly whose function is limited, limited more severely in some respects than that of the worst parliaments, to ratifying (often by acclamation) the decisions of the executive as expressed in motions; on the other hand, of an executive, the basis of whose power is charismatic (in the technical sense of the word according to which ‘charismatic is contrasted with ‘democratic’), and whose power is far more immovable and irresistible than that of any executive of a representative body.”

The second paradox 2) is that a more comprehensive democracy requires a more comprehensive administration. “To extend democracy means extending bureaucracy” (pg. 70-71).

The third paradox 3) is the conflict between a technological society where decision-making power is based on expert knowledge and a democracy. This one has been troubling me a lot recently. Pg. 71: “Technocracy is the government of experts, i.e. government by people who are only competent in one area, but know this area well, or at least are supposed to. Democracy is government by everyone, i.e. by people who are meant to make decisions, not on the basis of technical expertise, but in the light of their own experience. The protagonist of industrial society is the scientist, the specialist. The protagonist of democratic society is the ordinary citizen, the man or woman in the street.”

I thought about this problem a lot as I read a book by a business writer named Douglas Hubbard called “How to Measure Anything”. In it, Hubbard argues that everything should be measured. He proposes that if it matters, it’s observable, if observable, it can be measured. Hubbard argues that decisions need to be made based on quantitative information – based on measurements. To those who have the objection to measurement that measurement is arbitrary and can be used to prove anything, Hubbard replies “what they really mean is numbers can be used to confuse people, especially the gullible ones lacking basic skills with numbers” (pg. 35). Answering Stephen Jay Gould (the famous biologist who wrote an amazing book about IQ testing called “The Mismeasure of Man”), Hubbard argues that IQ is measurable, and that since mercury poisoning reduces IQ, that its measurement, and public health decisions based on it, are important. Hubbard’s book is the ultimate example of Bobbio’s third paradox of democracy. If decisions are to be made based on solid numbers and measurements, where is the room for democracy? What decisions should not be made based on numbers and measurements, especially if everything that matters can be measured? No answer for now – I move to Bobbio’s 4th paradox.

The fourth paradox of democracy is 4) that mass society and democracy are in conflict. Pg 72: “The indoctrination characteristic of mass societies tends to repress and suppress the individual’s sense of personal responsibility which is the corner-stone of a democratic society. A highly efficient media machine aims to reduce to a minimum the area reserved for personal and rational choices, for convictions which do not rely on instant emotional reactions or the passive imitation of others.”

Bobbio asserts that any socialist society would have to deal with these paradoxes just like the liberal ones do, and possibly other paradoxes too.

I had a fun diversion reading Slavoj Zizek’s “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce”. I find Zizek a lot of fun, especially to watch in talks and debates. His argument in this little book, from what I can tell, is that it would be better if there was a left, and it’s too bad that there isn’t one. I agree. It kind of puts Bobbio’s ideas in perspective to remember that.

Speaking of which, I also read Chris Hedges’s “Death of the Liberal Class”. It’s laid out in a very similar way to “Empire of Illusion” which I also read (and liked). “Death” is pretty pessimistic, but also makes the point that things would be better if there was a left. Hedges takes it way back to the 1930s and before, arguing that the liberal class did its best work when there was an actual left. Then the liberal class made a deal with the corporate state to destroy the left, which kind of made it superfluous as well. He cited a couple of interesting books that I looked up: Russell Jacoby’s “The End of Utopia” and Ellen Schrecker’s “Many are the Crimes”. Schrecker’s book is about the destruction of the US left, specifically by McCarthyism, and the shambles that it left behind. Jacoby’s book is a real motivation for the kind of ParEcon ideas that you can find on ZNet – he argues that the left has given up on the idea that a better world is possible. Interestingly, he argues that multiculturalism is a sign of this giving up – the celebration of diversity is at least in part a failure to be prescriptive, as in ‘we don’t have any ideas in particular, so we celebrate all of them’. Meanwhile, I think of Bobbio’s book as motivation for the ParPolity project done by Stephen Shalom, Brian Dominick, and others – who have spent lots of time trying to think of political arrangements for a good society.

Since everything dirty and clean that goes on in the world happens in the name of democracy, it’s worth thinking about what it means and why it’s so hard to really do.

I will leave with a random thought: Bobbio’s thoughts about direct democracy reminded me that I had a dream of some kind of ParEcon game, where you could see what kinds of proposals came back from people by putting in your own. Direct democracy games where people formulated and voted on anything and everything in a game world would also be interesting practice (these kinds of things were what appealed to me about Daniel Suarez’s fiction books Daemon and FreedomTM). It seems like doing one of these in Second Life or through Facebook or a custom platform would be technologically feasible, possibly fun, and very interesting to study, if a lot of people were to get interested in them.

Canadian democracy – procedural tricks to kill the planet

Canada’s weak climate change bill was killed by the Senate today (see the star article for example).

The Harper people’s vision for the country isn’t compatible with trying to stop climate change. This is known, and unsurprising. What is interesting to me is the procedural trick used to make this change. The Star story: “A snap vote in the Senate on Tuesday caught Liberals in the Upper House off guard, and not enough Grits showed up to save the bill from losing by a margin of 43-32.”

Continue reading “Canadian democracy – procedural tricks to kill the planet”

The Haditha Massacre in the Iraq War Diary

I did a query of the Iraq War Diary for all entries on November 19, 2005 (there were 179). Among them was this entry on the Haditha massacre. It has been seriously redacted, possibly more than other entries, as it appears quite incomplete, with no explanation of how the casualties came about:

Report Key: 0A491DB1-A4BB-4983-BE25-6140DB64BF38
Date: 2005-11-19 07:30:00

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The deities we create

Published by The Hindu, Nov 6 2010.

I recall remarking once to a colleague that if we as citizens were given a choice of belonging only to one or the other theocratic state, my vote would be for a Hindu Rashtra.

And for the simple reason that whereas a Christian or Islamic State would give me no more than a handful of holidays a year, a Hindu Rashtra would give me many more. Indeed, the Hindu archive being chokeful of gods and goddesses, even a full working year may not do justice to them all.

Continue reading “The deities we create”

Teaching: Jacques Ranciere and Sugata Mitra

A few months ago I was blown away by Sugata Mitra’s TED talk on child-driven education. Mitra’s thesis is that children can teach themselves. What they need is not teachers who know how to do what they are trying to learn, but materials, problems, one another (groups), and perhaps encouragement. Mitra put computers out and watched what children did with them. Groups of children would gather around the computer and teach themselves how to use them. Their “performance” teaching themselves ended up to be as good or better than those with teachers. What Mitra introduced in this talk that wasn’t in the previous TED Talk by him (also very good) is the “granny cloud”. These “grannies” just expressed enthusiasm and interest in what the students were doing, no evaluation, and it improved student learning immensely.

The other day I was at a friend’s house and saw a book by Jacques Ranciere called “The Ignorant Schoolmaster”. Ranciere tells the story of the 19th century version of Sugata Mitra, someone named Joseph Jacotot. Jacotot managed to teach a group of Flemish students to write a series of things in French, although he knew no Flemish and they knew no French (similar to Mitra at the end of the talk writing english questions on a blackboard with Italian students, who answered his questions reasonably quickly). Jacotot showed that you don’t need to know, to teach. What you need to do to teach is set a problem for a student so that the student must use their own intelligence to solve. There was no need for additional explanation of texts – the text was the explanation, there’s no need for a teacher to explain it. But current methods of teaching don’t serve learning or students, is Ranciere’s point – they serve the system, and the teachers. “Universal teaching”, in which students teach themselves, isn’t useful to the system, and won’t ever be adopted by it, because it has totally different objectives than the current system.

Another friend passed me a book by Carol Dweck called “Self Theories”, which contrasts an “incremental” theory of intelligence (that you can get smarter by working) versus an “entity” theory of intelligence (that you have a certain amount of a thing called intelligence and it won’t change). If you believe in the entity theory, your self-image will be fragile and you will avoid problems that might make you look or feel unintelligent – difficulty will elicit a “helpless response” from you. If you hold to the incremental theory, you will be persistent in the face of difficulty and show a “mastery-oriented” response to problems. Teachers and parents can generate “mastery-oriented”, “incremental” theories and responses by ensuring to never praise or punish “intelligence”, but always offer feedback on strategies. If a student is unsuccessful at a problem, offer another strategy. If a student is successful, praise the strategy and offer another challenge. If a student solves something easily, apologize for not offering a sufficient challenge and offer the next challenge. This is how to create mastery.

A long time ago someone (a writer), commenting on my lack of perfectionism in my writing, told me I wasn’t a writer, but a teacher who used writing. I’ve been thinking recently about what teaching (or, indeed, writing) is for. I have recently tried to introduce some of these ideas (problem-based, groups-based, open-ended problems, strategy-based feedback) in class, and I am finding that the pressure from the system – student anxiety about grades, the fact that the structural relationship is one where they are paying to be evaluated – works against these potentials. I might be tempted to conclude that real learning has to take place outside of class. The trouble is that what’s outside of class is more pressure – to work outside of school to pay for school and the student debt and the rent, to try to make arrangements and plans for a future that is so uncertain. It makes me think that the real problems of the world aren’t a lack of good answers, but the impossibility of implementing them. As in: we know how people learn, but we can’t create a situation where they can. We know how to solve the energy (or economic or climate or environmental or food or health) crisis, but we can’t do what it takes to make it happen.