The Down side of Democracy

History is the autobiography of a mad man – Alexander Herzern’


One of the hardest yet most interesting times in my life was my first year in teaching. I was thrown into a high school in Baltimore County where I was to teach mainly 9th grade government. Boring 14-15 year olds with a process they are far too young to participate in, let alone have me or any teacher walk a tight rope of how the American governmental system works in theory, while almost working in direct contrast in practice is not something I would wish on anyone but I did my best and I ended up not doing that bad.

One of the most memorable moments is when I was teaching about what democracy really means, and how it works (or doesn’t) in countries like North Korea and Iran and why it inevitably is the most preferred method of governance. We’ve all been taught this in school at some point or another? Communism/autocracy is bad and democracy/freedom is good right? However, some of my students weren’t buying it. This was in 2012 and despite being young many of my students (most of whom were liberal) were firmly against Mitt Romney becoming president. While the media may have teased about his faux pas like his “binders full of women” flub or his “48%” remark, for some students these were reasons enough to not support him. Even more, this was the year that rape faux pas like “rape is a gift from God” and “legitimate rape” coming from the mouths of some doomed senatorial want to be’s. My students also weren’t okay with the president’s drone attacks, the grid lock in congress, and other things that I didn’t bat an eye at, at that age. Many would were confounded of how candidates right, left, or center found their way into public office, or even got close to it. It all came back to voting. “Mr. Donnelly, why do we let stupid people vote?” I would be asked. “Yeah, won’t it hurt the country if enough of them do it?” Another chimed in. I stumbled for a moment and said well… that’s why you’re in this class…. to uh… understand the system, so you’ll be an educated voter. Of course that was a lie for several reasons. 1. It’s not an issue class or a debate class 2. Again, it’s how American government works on paper, not in the battlefield. 3. It doesn’t stop “stupid people” from voting now but hopes for a better voting block in 4 years.

Fast forward 4 years and we’ve come to a peak with stupid people voting, with Donald Trump having a real chance at becoming the GOP nominee. Oh what I would give to teach government now. I would just keep on the news for the whole class, since it gives great insight on how undemocratic our process is with super delegates, unbound delegates, open voting, closed voting, how just because you win a state, doesn’t mean you won the most delegates.

But perhaps this is what we deserve. The founding fathers, no matter what their ideological persuasion would all be rolling if they could see the dunce winning the nominee of the party of Jefferson. Of course they’d also roll in their grave to see a black guy as president, and a woman who most likely will take is place…but I digress.

When the founders were drafting the Constitution, there was lots of speculation of what type of government would form. Some thought a new monarchy would form, others thought the states would remain autonomous. A favorite story of mine is of Benjamin Franklin, who had to have men watch him at night because he would drink copious amount of alcohol and begin to talk about things that he shouldn’t have. Since the machinations of what specifically was going on were top secret, his peers knew he couldn’t be trusted to blab about everything they’ve been working on for so long. However, one woman asked him whether or not they are creating a monarchy or a democracy, and he did slip up a big and responded with “A republic ma’am, if you can keep it”

A republic, not a straight democracy. Electing people who knew what they were doing to make the decisions for the populace. The founders were petrified of a democracy. They were all aristocrats by either birth or merit and detested much of what the “riff raff” citizenry did. They thought governance was best left up to the educated. Many institutional blockers were put in place to make sure that even if you wanted to vote they couldn’t. First off you have to be a white guy, and you have to be at least 25, and you have to own a certain amount of property. This was the fewest amount of obstacles one had to hurdle to vote, in Georgia for example the only people that could vote for president were those elected to the state government; a body of about 23 men. Since most of the country were farmers, why burden them with learning about the issues at hand and educating them in some democratic process? If they spent their time doing that who would grow the food?

If America stayed east of the Appalachian mountains, this may have been the trend for much longer. But when Americans moved further and further west, there were no educated and well groomed delegations to cast ballots. Just dirt farmers and settlers. So under Jackson, universal white male suffrage was made and now every white guy who wandered into a polling station could cast a ballot. Things continued from there. Eventually African Americans, women, and 18 year olds could cast a ballot. Hell, now when you get your licensed renewed at the DMV you can register to vote in just a couple minutes. We’ve stream lined the process, even making an amendment so that we can vote for senators too, since before it was strictly the state representatives who voted.

Of course this has become a process that has had many fits and starts, and sometimes we owe our greatest progression to things that are not democratic at all. Slavery was technically ended by democracy…but only have 600,000 people died. The integration of the army was an extremely unpopular executive order by Truman, the integration of schools had to be made by a small judicial body, and enforced by the army, gay marriage was in the same boat…minus the army. In some states, if you made the right campaign and left it up to a straight vote by the population, decades of change would be erased.

These of course are all American examples. If I really wanted to I could get in to how the Nazi’s came to power because of democracy, and the Russian communist party, not to mention the powers that led the Rwandan genocide were democratic…but this post is already long enough.

And now… we’ve come to 2016. Even thing has led to a man, who says nothing substantive in every speech is going to become the nominee of a major party. I don’t know if this is a failure of the part of the Republican Party or if so many people are just blind with rage of being duped again and again by “career politicians” And what do you do about it? No one wants to go back to the days of poll taxes, or literacy qualifications. In theory you want as many people as possible to vote, and so many obstacles have been put in place to deny that opportunity…but usually for partisan reasons. Many people look at voting as a hassle. Would an education class about what the candidates have said and whether or not their statements were true or not be a better option, or would that be too much for the 21st century voter to care about? Or would it revolutionize the processes? I’m not sure about you but I for one am still all for benevolent despots.

The Problem with Being Colorblind

History is the autobiography of a madman – Alexander Herzen


One of my guilty pleasures as I’ve said before is online debating. It’s pointless in the end and can get me to lose my cool. But for the positives it does keep me up to date on the latest news, and controversies, and it’s nice to hear a variety of opinions on issues… unless they’re dumb.

Political topics usually run along broad categories of foreign affairs, domestic policies, economics, politicians, and… race. Race has seemed to become it’s own political category of it’s own though it can touch a lot of other categories. Sometimes there is manufactured outrage over some racial issue and sometimes it’s genuine. The latest racial “outrage” I couldn’t help but laugh at.

Michelle Obama, who I generally like, made the statement “Black girls rock” …that’s it. Not black girls are better than white girls, or black girls are smarter, or stronger or any other comparison. Just that they rock.

Ah… and oh the outrage that followed. “WHAT ABOUT WHITE GIRLS?!” “DOESN’T SHE CARE ABOUT ALL GIRLS?!” …obviously she does.

But I get it. If Lara Bush shouted “White girls rock” it would sound bad. So what’s with the double standard?

It’s historical and a numbers game. Black people represent a small percentage of Americans (about 12%) yet a disproportionate number of people in poverty, in prison, drop outs. Saying black girls rock doesn’t mean white girls, or any other type of girls suck. Though it is odd that it’s not Hispanics or Asians voicing outrage…

This is part of a larger trend. It is approaching “race” from different areas. Many who lean on the right want to be “done” with race. That race shouldn’t matter, we should all be colorblind, and everyone’s the same. This would be great..if everyone was there too. But we’re not. This approach cannot answer for racism, both subtlety or institutionally existing. So when confronted with facts like blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionate number of the prison population they can’t say that it was because of any institutional racism (because to them it doesn’t exist) so they must just be naturally bad…which is a racist argument.

It lacks a historical understanding and leads to ignorant questions like “Why is there a BET” “Why is there a black student union” Different races are just that, different. This is not to say that one is superior or inferior but there are different cultures that come with races. To ignore that is to ignore someone’s identity. To be color blind is to be blind to a part of someone’s identity.

Colorblindness sounds good though right. Let’s just treat everyone equally so no one will be racist. The treating people equally is right but for the wrong reasons. Acknowledging race doesn’t make you a racist, it makes you human. Talking about race doesn’t make you racist, it makes you informed.

If person A was born in a ghetto in the South Side of Chicago, and Person B was born in the Hamptons, who do you think has the greatest chance of being successful? What races do you believe person and A and B are? Probably, but not certainly Black and White respectively. Blacks, disproportionately are born into disadvantaged areas and whites are not. Whites have also run this country in terms of politics, business, religion, and owning other blacks for much of this nation’s history so when you say “White’s rock!” It has a stinging tone to it because white people are already at such an advantage and historically have been so it’s salt on historic wounds.

There’s also no real “white culture” in America. Some of our ancestors were fleeing famines, others came to start businesses, some worked their way to the top, some never made it rich. There are 10000 different stories of white immigration and status in America. There is 1 for blacks, enslavement. There’s Irish pride, or Italian pride, those are flaunted without the slightly thought that they would be offensive to blacks. There’s even a holiday dedicated to Irish pride, where it doesn’t matter if you’re Irish or not.

There’s nothing wrong in being proud of who you are or your heritage…provided that heritage wasn’t based on racial supremacy. Black girls can “rock” without hurting white girls chances of “rocking.” Race isn’t a zero sum game. If blacks gain whites that whites have, white’s don’t lose those rights. Treating people equally is great. Treating people equally by being blind to our differences is not. Diversity and differences don’t have to be bad. In fact they should be acknowledged, and celebrated, they help us understand each other and the world we live in.

Rewriting History

History is the autobiography of a madman – Alexander Herzen


Being active in one’s community is the greatest way to enact change. We love to hear stories about a “concerned mom” who got the community together to save a local landmark. Or the kids who fundraised their own way for a school, athletic, or religious trip. People getting involved and caring about their communities are what makes them thrive.

…But what happens when the change isn’t good? When the change hurts most of the people in the community? When people who are not qualified or affected by the change they make, are in positions of power? These usually surround issues on education. Stories like this seem to be all too common now days. From a group of Hasidic Jews who overtook a school board in New York and began selling public schools for Yeshivas (Jewish private schools) to textbook and curriculum changes about history.

Recently, a group of concerned parents decided to make a change by running to be on their local Bored of Education, won, and started to make changes to the schools’ history curriculum. It didn’t take long for school’s to take notice of some “peculiar” and extreme changes and staged a walkout comprised of parents, students, and teachers. This is just the latest in a series of stories of a new slant being added to K-12 history education. Why the protest? Some highlights of the new changes include: “promoting citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strike or disregard of the law.”

So basically this is white washing American history. The absurdity of this is easy to see. But it’s not just in Colorado. Texas is doing the same thing but on a massive level. Texas, at the state level has a school bored with an agenda similar to the local one in Colorado. One that wants Christian values to be mirrored in historical textbooks, promoting citizenship, patriotism…etc but for those of you saying, well that doesn’t effect me, I don’t live in Texas or in Colorado that doesn’t mean you or your kids are above these decisions.

Texas, being a big state, is the standard that textbook manufacturers look for to mass produce their textbooks. So as goes textbooks in Texas, so goes the textbooks in many other states. So if there is a textbook that talks a little too much about MLK’s marches and protests, not enough Christian dogma, and doesn’t downplay slavery… then that’s not a book to use. It doesn’t get mass produced and will probably not see a classroom.

As a history teacher I see this as a frightening trend. While I try to use the textbook as least as possible it still would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Textbooks have come a lot from the 50’s where they were basically propaganda but they still aren’t the best way to learn but still need to be opened and used. I could be lost in the irony of having a history class that downplays protest when protest and civil disobedience since that is how America was founded. It would be an interesting to try and teach the American Revolution without the protests that preceded that. How would that even go?

Well there was this French and Indian War, there was some taxes because of that, then we told Britain that we were free. Wrote the Declaration of Independence and our own Constitution and here we are! No Boston tea party? No Boston Massacre? No tar and feathering? Even the Revolutionary War was an act of disobedience itself.

How would we explain the civil rights act, voting rights act, and the equality we see in society today with out the civil rights movement, which featured lots of ugliness but ugliness that was necessary to make changes. Boycotts, marches, and sit ins are a part of American history and a reason that my students can look around and see people of many different races and ethnicities.

At the University of Colorado in the 70’s the History department gave our brochures to the new history majors in an attempt to calm there parents down from assumed anger and disappointment that would come when their kids would tell their parents they decided to be a History major. With the pamphlet titled “So your child has decided to be history major” The idea being that many parents would see this major decision as a bad major because there isn’t a lot of importance placed on an extended historical education and getting a career.

And as someone who earned a history degree I can admit that there aren’t a lot of career perspectives for history majors. It’s either a teaching job (which is the majority of them are and what I went for) or working in a museum or national park. Other than that a history degree isn’t really needed…for a career anyways.

What an advanced historical education is needed for is a for a tool to gain context to situations of the past, as well as context for situations one will encounter for their lives. It encourages gathering different perspectives on issues, thinking critically, acting as a detective to investigate historical puzzles, and again gaining context for why things are the way they are.

This is what history classes are used for. They are NOT used to drum up some kind of deranged white washing patriotism. They are NOT used inspire some kind of conservative and inaccurate nostalgic view of history. And they are especially not used to give nice and tidy answers to historical and political questions.

History is not nice, and it is not tidy. History is dirty and complicated. History is full of death, destruction, heroism, philosophical debates and questions that are still argued to this day. It’s full of depictions of humans acting like humans and for all the good and bad things that come with that. It’s history and if taught correctly and be not only very exciting but can help you answer the questions that have plagued historians for centuries.

It’s not weird to think that a school bored would try to use a history curriculum to enact their twisted kind of social change. History, if taught a certain way can indoctrinate kids with whatever view they want and most teachers are good not to editorialize, or to make sure when they do share their opinions that they make sure to stress that those are only their opinions and not facts. However, if what is being taught has an agenda, how it’s taught won’t make much of a difference.

So no, it’s not surprising that school bored would try to slip their distorted, and at times ironic cherry picked views in history curriculum. But it is sad, and it’s just another way teachers are being disrespected in this country. But this is not tragedy, nor a cautionary tale of citizens getting involved in their community. This is a story of what happens when an entire community comes together to fight for what is right and what is good for them. It could be, a story of redemption.

Laughing Gas

History is the autobiography of a mad man – Alexander Herzen


Ever hear the saying “laughter is the best medicine”? I don’t know if I’d ever surrender myself to say the “best” medicine but it certainly can cure what ails you. What is laughter anyway? It’s a mystery to most people. No one can pinpoint and say “this is universally funny” some people have hacky humor, some have dark humor, some have a sexualized view on humor. What’s funny to you may not be funny to your friend and that’s okay, but also kind of weird…

What kind of things do we laugh at? Everyone laughs at something but no one laughs at everything. If you see an elderly person fall in the street, is your first instinct to laugh or to help them? If you read Shakespeare’s MacBeth’s scene with the guardsman, do you chuckle or do you fall asleep? (Did anyone even get that reference?)

To me humor is a coping mechanism. What we’re coping with, is usually awkwardness. How often is humor based off a misunderstanding, a mismatching or words, or daily/societal weirdness? The reason why Jon Stewart and Colbert are successful satirists are because they target the absurdness in politics. (Which is hugely absurd) 

When there is an awkward pause or silence what is the natural inclination? To crack a joke right? Maybe to comment on the awkwardness in a half joking way, or to say something humorous on whatever was previously said. We don’t like awkwardness or silence so it’s only natural to try and kill those moments with laughter.

It’s more than just awkwardness though. We enjoy laughing. A laugh is a smile + x. No one can describe x or knows what it is. However, we definitely know when we see it. And some people know it better than others at an early age. These are our class clowns. They made later turn into great stand up comics or just your normal smart asses but they understand humor more than your average Joe. They use it to gain notoriety among their peers and can turn it into a career. The number 1 thing a girl usually looks for in a guy is if he can make her laugh. We love funny people. They are usually easy to get along with and we love companionship.

We even take drugs to make us laugh easier. Marijuana and alcohol are two of the most commonly used drugs in America. Is is any coincidence that they also make us laugh the easiest? Someone who is drunk or high will more likely have less inhibitions that can help laughter be more easily released. It also gives meaning to shows like “Adventure time” and a slew of Adult Swim shows. Laughter is something we crave just for simple pleasure.

Then there is a third reason for laughter. It’s where laughter really is the best medicine because there are not other alternatives. As WWI began to get into full force all the countries involved realized how much the death toll would be. 600,000 – 700,000 Americans died in the entire American Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history. That was exceeded by just the first year of WWI, and exceeded every year after. No one in the world had ever seen a death toll of a war in the millions. No one had ever seen what we now know was post traumatic stress disorder, in the numbers that they had at the time. People would go mad from the constant drumming of shells, the horrid stench of death and feces from their trenches, and the sights of their fellow comrades being blown to bits. The only way soldiers made it through those dark days was comedy. When building a trench they often used body parts, and say things like “oh, here’s Bill’s arm, ah we’ll fill a sand bag here with his feet, oh and here guys, I found Bill’s ugly mug! Hahahaha” …As they would throw his decapitated head around. It was dark and it was macabre but it was the only time the soldiers found a retreat from the hellish reality they had to gabble with on a daily basis. 

I once knew a woman who would go to chemo therapy when I would visit her she wouldn’t want to talk about her life, or the cancer, or how she might die…she just wanted a good conversation and a good laugh. Laughter is what helped her threw it. Even laughing at her cancer and talking about how lazy she was for not going to work, worked for her. Some may take that as heartless but everyone takes things in different ways. She found it funny so we stuck through that and eventually she beat the cancer. Was it because of laughter? Probably not, but who’s to say it didn’t help her get through her treatments?  

Humor is how we deal with things where all hope seems to be nonexistent.

Because sometimes, whether you’re on an awkward date, looking for a cheap thrill, and even when your world is falling apart… the best thing you can do it laugh.