Off the Shelf: September 2021 (Two on Democracy)

I read several books in September, some just for fun; two in particular touch on Democracy1 in some unique ways. One is science fiction and the other a collection of essays. I find them both valuable in that they can enable the reader to imaging the “what if” that might not match our current situations.

Books can give the reader an opportunity to see possibilities, to imagine the “what if”.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

One of Heinlein’s best, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress tells the story of a small group of patriots and revolutionaries who join together to plot and execute revolution to gain independence for a futuristic Lunar colony. Of particular interest to many interested in AI today, Mike the AI2 might be the most intriguing character of Heinlein’s book, but the story of how he, Professor, Mannie, Wyoh and Stu stage a revolution to free the lunar colony from Earth is the real highlight of the book. Loosely based on the colonies’ revolt in the late 1700s, we are re-introduced to some ideas (mostly from Prof) on the subject of Democracy and government.

After independence is achieved, a committee is organized to develop a constitution. After reading the first draft, Prof responds with:

[L]ike fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom—if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant. Move slowly, be hesitant, puzzle out the consequences of every word. I would not be unhappy if this convention sat for ten years before reporting—but I would be frightened if you took less than a year.

He then covers various methods for creating congressional districts, how to form constituencies and how to avoid new tyrannies. He describes an idea for non-territorial districts including using petitions rather than elections—if a person were to obtain a certain number of signatures, then that person would represent all the signatories affirmatively, with no disgruntled minority.3 Others wishing to be represented by a different person would be likewise affirmatively represented by their chosen individual. While I’m not certain that the problem of the unrepresented disgruntled minority would completely disappear, this idea is certainly intriguing.

Prof also puts forth some ideas on how to slow down legislation (“the more impediments to legislation the better”), including ideas for making it easier to repeal a law than enacting it. He continues by exhorting them to list out vary long lists of things that the government “is forever forbidden to do.”

A good read that both helps us imagine what a lunar colony might look like as well as giving us a different backdrop for looking at our own systems of government.

On Democracy

E.B. White was a noted essayist during his lifetime and his daughter set out to collect some of his writings into a single volume “On Democracy”. I feel that it would be impossible to improve upon his own words and so I will post short quotes of his.

In 1943, when asked by the Writer’s War Board for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy”, he responded (in part) with “Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee.”

On the idea of unwavering allegiance to loyalties, he writes that “To pursue truth, one should not be too deeply entrenched in any hole. It is best to have strong curiosity, weak affiliations.” And later on, “The pesky nature of democratic life is that it has no comfortable rigidity; it always hangs by a thread, never quite submits to consolidation or solidification, is always being challenged, always being defended.”

On the subject of news, newspapers (remember those?) and news outlet ownership, he writes “a democracy cannot survive merely by being well informed, it must also be contemplative, and wise. We believe news should be readily available to all who seek it, but should never be imposed on any who are engaged in digging it out for themselves or who need sleep.”

And in 1975, in a letter to the editor, he wrote “there is only one decent and responsible way to decide something—let the people speak and then count the votes. But we should not . . . ever assume that the people, given a chance to vote, always come up with the best answer. Americans have a lot of common sense; they also make mistakes on occasion.”

E.B. White passed away in October 1985.

Read in September:

Aidan, P. (2017). An assembly such as this. A Touchstone Book.
Austen, J. (2020). Northanger Abbey. Mint Editions.
Green, E. (2021). Confessions of a curious bookseller. Lake Union Publishing.
Heinlein, R. A. (1966). The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Heinlein, R. A. (1985). The Rolling Stones. Ballantine Books.
Weir, A. (2020). Artemis. Cornerstone Digital.4
White, E. B. (2020). On Democracy. (M. White, Ed.). Harper Perennial.

Show 4 footnotes
  1. I generally strive to stay apolitical on these pages and so I will do my best to observe and describe.
  2. Mannie’s growing understanding of Mike’s self-awareness would probably serve as a useful class exercise in some CompSci class. Not the “how was consciousness achieved” question but how Mannie grew to understand that Mike was “alive”. Mike’s joke: “Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?” Answer: “Because neither one can whistle.”
  3. What an idea! An interesting solution to the gerrymander.
  4. I re-read Artemis largely because I wanted to see how Harsh Mistress influenced Weir, knowingly or not. I believe it did.
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