Acilius being long-winded


Printouts of my recent comments

I (Acilius) am a frequent commenter on Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For blog.  As regular readers of Los Thunderlads are all too well aware, I can get pretty long-winded, so I try to restrain myself.  I was doing pretty well on the current thread, until I broke down completely and left a multi-screen essay about The Nature of Democracy.  After the jump, an explanation of how I came to display such poor manners.

Alison’s post is a picture of a Jack o’Lantern carved to look like Mo, the central character in the Dykes to Watch Out For strip for most of its existence, together with an explanation of who carved it.  My first comment was a single line, praising the Jack o’Lantern:

Fantastic! That’s my favorite piece of DTWOF homebrew yet.

So far, so appropriate.  Then another commenter mentioned two violent incidents in the UK, one of which resulted in the victim’s death.  I asked if the victim of the other was likely to make a full recovery; the answer came back yes.  I asked if violence in general was becoming much more common in the UK of late; the answer came back no, probably not. 

Commenter “Kate L” mentioned the referenda on rights for same-sex couples that were about to be held in Maine and Washington state.  After the voters in Maine rejected marriage equality, Kate and others expressed the opinion that civil rights issues should not be put on the public ballot.  That’s the sort of question that gets me going at great length, so I kept myself from commenting.  Instead, I picked up a remark by Seattle-based commenter  “MC” announcing that Bailey-Coy, a bookstore in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, would be closing:

@MC: Sorry to hear about Bailey-Coy. Horizon Books on Capitol Hill closed this May (or was it April?), and now this. Is Spine & Crown still there? I suppose the Twice Sold Tales location on Harvard Avenue and the Half Price Books on Belmont are still in operation.

MC responded that those three stores are hanging on, and that Seattle’s jumbo bookstore Elliott Bay will be moving to Capitol Hill.  I replied to this:

@MC: Thanks for the update! I consider both parts of that to be good news. I avoid Pioneer Square, so I rarely get to Elliott Bay books. And Spine & Crown is my idea of the perfect bookstore. It’s tiny, cluttered, with an extremely idiosyncratic selection and a proprietor who is usually too engrossed in intellectual discussions with his regulars to bother you while you browse. I do have mixed feelings about the proprietor’s daughter’s habit of licking the logo on the Penguins, though I don’t know if she still does that. When she was three she used to lick every Penguin she could reach. I think she may by now have reached the ripe old age of four and outgrown such childish ways.

On the other hand, Bailey-Coy was my wife’s idea of the perfect bookstore- spacious, clean, with a very small but very well-chosen selection of titles in social science, and usually a number of children who gather round her wheelchair and ask politely to pet her assistance dog. More than once she ended up reading to a circle of little ones there. So I’d better be diplomatic when I break the news to her.

(Getting a little lengthy and a little personal, but still not multi-screen.) 

The idea that civil rights questions should not be decided by popular vote kept coming up, though.  I kept wondering what other procedure people had in mind for settling them.  It got very confusing, as commenters talked about “the political process” or “the democratic process” when they appeared to mean the particular process Maine had just gone through.”  So I broke down and wrote this:


I grant you that the electoral process in modern states is a very strange way of deciding important questions. Large numbers of people file into little booths where they will be briefly isolated from human contact. Alone in the booth, each person fills out a form expressing his or her preferences on various questions. Public policy is set based on a tabulation of these anonymous responses.

What I have to disagree with is the identification of this odd ritual as THE political process, as though any process for deciding questions of civil rights and public policy were not political. The deliberations of courts are political processes, and are usually reactionary political processes at that. When courts have been forces for social progress, as the US Supreme Court was from about 1954 to about 1974 and other courts have been here and there, it’s been because there were movements in civil society that pushed them in that direction. Left to their own devices, the judges give us Dred Scott, the Reconstruction cases, Plessy v Ferguson, Hopwood v Texas, Bush v Gore, Ledbetter, etc etc etc.

What is true of the judges is true of legislators, army officers, and all the other authorities various groups turn to when voting doesn’t produce good results. As of course it would be- those groups are all chosen by the elite and staffed by people who either belong to the elite or aspire to join it.

As for the 0-31 result of the state referenda on marriage equality, I’d call for some historical perspective. The losses keep coming, it’s true. But they get narrower and narrower, and the defeated measures are bolder and bolder. Five years ago, a measure like the one that barely lost in Maine on Tuesday would never have made it to the ballot- it would have been much too radical. Ten years ago, it would have been science fiction. Today, civil unions are the conservative position; when Bill Clinton was president, they were the most anyone involved in the issue thought we would see in our lifetimes. That progress has not come from the abstract rightness of marriage equality and certainly not from the benevolence of any group in power, but from the debates that have gone on around the country. Even people who have voted to discriminate against same-sexers have seen people standing up for their rights and asking why they shouldn’t be free to live their lives. The longer we keep that going, the more effect it will have. If we retreat to the courts or the academy, we may get some good results in the short term, but we will never build the social consensus that is the chief reward of political activity.

You can see that I was getting carried away, not only by the excessive length, but also by the over-the-top conclusion.  I would certainly not be able to defend the claim that “social consensus” is “the chief reward of political activity.”  In my defense, I would say that like all blog comments, it was a hasty composition, not rewritten.  

One commenter encouraged me by praising this contribution; another encouraged me even more by arguing intelligently against me.  That was the point at which I lost all restraint and wrote this monster comment:

@Feminista: “Brilliant”? I’m blushing. Thank you!

@Andrew B: Thank you for your thoughtful reply. For my part, the only part of the Anglo-American judicial system that I see as a defense against the tyranny of the majority is the jury system. If you put twelve randomly selected citizens in a room and insist that they sit down together and talk until they come to a consensus, you get far different and far more enlightened results than you would if you sent the same twelve people to file into little booths one by one. Not perfect results certainly, but how hard do you think prosecutors would have to work to prove cases against poor defendants if criminal verdicts were decided the way we decide elections for public office? Judges and prosecutors are no real defense against the tyranny of the majority, since they hold their positions by virtue of the ability of their sponsors to follow and manipulate majority opinion.

Also, I must say that the examples you give of influences on the Warren Court and the early Burger Court are also examples of civil society movements. The elites who were concerned about how the USA was perceived in the countries undergoing decolonization may not have been part of mass movements, but the perceptions people had in those countries were relevant to their government’s policies only insofar as they showed up in popular movements that made demands for or against alliances with the USA.

While the the NAACP and others presented fine arguments for civil rights and civil liberties in federal court in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, their predecessors had been making equally fine arguments in the same courts since the 1870s, only to meet with judicial rulings that upheld absurdly narrow readings of the Reconstruction Amendments. What changed was not the soundness of the arguments the lawyers brought to court, but the willingness of the judges to listen to those arguments. And that willingness in turn came from a recognition of political demands for equality.

Secret ballots may be the best way we’ve come up with so far to minimize voter intimidation and bribery, and for that reason may sometimes be necessary. But that doesn’t keep elections by secret ballot from being a bizarre way of making political decisions. Politics is about people, about relationships among people. It’s how we keep groups of people working together. So it is not intuitively obvious that political decisions ought to result from a process that requires individual people to be concealed from those around them and to interact only with an inanimate object.

And it isn’t just casting ballots in secret that is strange. Counting votes is strange too. Social scientists have studied groups that operate by consensus and contrasted them with groups that operate by majority vote. What they keep finding is that the groups that make decisions by consensus don’t take any longer to get things done than do those that make decisions by majority vote. Majority-vote groups may announce decisions more quickly, since all they need is 50% + 1. But after they’ve announced that decision, they have to spend as much time cajoling and wheedling and browbeating the minority into coming along with what they are supposed to do as the consensus-based groups had spent in open discussion.

Anyway, I grant that we are stuck with mass society, and bureaucratization, and vast inequalities of income, and other circumstances that make direct democracy impossible. So we are stuck with a choice between, on the one hand, doing a lot of voting and getting involved in campaigns preparatory to voting, or, on the other hand, becoming isolated from each other and letting the power elite do as it will.

Again, both the excessive length of the comment and its culmination in an indefensibly exaggerated claim show that I was getting carried away.  The discussion has returned to bookstores, with no additional remarks on the question of how we can best put rights into law.  I have apologized for being such a blowhard and have resolved to be less long-winded in the future.

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1 Comment

  1. cymast

     /  November 9, 2009

    It was all over when you read “Brilliant.”

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