Time to dive into my when-I-feel-like-it Friday tradition and do some quick hits on interesting or random things I read this past week. Today’s gallimaufry is a little more all over the map than usual, but if you stick with it I promise you will come across something you might not have otherwise been exposed to.
First up is the New York Times, which ran an extremely odd feature in its Room For Debate segment yesterday on whether Islam presents an obstacle to democracy. Why do I call this odd? To begin with, six different people were asked to weigh in with opinions, and all six of them came to the same conclusion, which is that Islam and democracy are compatible with each other. Now, this is a position that I happen to agree with for a variety of reasons, but it seems strange to hold a “debate” in the world’s most influential newspaper in which all of the participants agree with each other and espouse the same view. Seriously, New York Times? You couldn’t find one credible voice to argue the opposing side? The entire world of scholarship and punditry is open to you and still you decide it would be interesting to your readers to solicit six short essays all making the same basic point?
What is perhaps stranger about this NYT feature though is that it is posing a basic political science question, but instead of asking even one political scientist about his or her views, it polls a former Islamist, a policy analyst, a professor of creative writing, an historian, and two professors of religion. I understand that part of this equation has to with Islam, on which some or perhaps even all of the experts the New York Times got in touch with have something credible to say, but the other half of the equation deals with factors that make democracy more or less likely to occur, and not one of the six people opining in yesterday’s NYT are logical choices to answer that question with any degree of expertise. There has been lots of research done on the question of whether democracy and Islam go together, such as this or this or this, and maybe getting in touch with someone who actually studies this question for a living would have been a good idea. After all, if the New York Times wants to ask me my views on whether there is other intelligent life somewhere in the universe because it is a topic that I love to read and talk about, I am happy to give an answer but it doesn’t mean that NYT readers should lend my views on the subject any particular credence as I am not an astrophysicist.
Continuing the theme of factors that affect political development, my friend Armin Rosen directed me to this piece of mad genius brilliance arguing that the galaxy created by George Lucas in the Star Wars films is largely populated by illiterates, and that this accounts for how the Empire was able to destroy the Republic and amass so much power. I want everybody to read this for themselves since it just ridiculously awesome and so I won’t go into all that much detail in the hopes of forcing you to click on the link and read the original, but the gist of the argument is that nearly all of the information in all six Star Wars movies is conveyed via hologram recordings, we never see anyone pick up a book or newspaper, there is no evidence of journalism or reporting of any type, and history largely seems to be of the legendary type passed down orally. The consequences of this are that it is easy for tyranny to flourish. As Ryan Britt, who is the guy who wrote this and whom I now want to meet, puts it:
Padme points out that liberty dies “with thunderous applause,” but really their liberty is dying because most of them can’t read and are powerless and disenfranchised. In fact most of the surviving characters at the end of the prequels are the bad guys, and they can probably read. The Jedi seem to be the most educated people in the prequels, but that changes when they all get killed. This would be like a real life Empire going and burning down all the colleges and schools and killing all the teachers. The academy, the keepers of literacy would be gone. And once that happens, it’s easy for a tyrannical empire to take over, to control the information. Maybe Padme should have said “this is how literacy dies…”
I say we start some sort of fund right now so that Ryan Britt can spend his days writing more of this type of stuff. I’m not joking.
Finally, while we are on the subject of once dominant republics that are now crumbling and whose citizens are powerless to remove the corrupt authoritarians running the show, I give you this great Charles Pierce reflection on the epic failure known as the 2012 Boston Red Sox. Pierce makes a fantastic point, which is that not only was this year’s team the worst in almost half a century in terms of wins and losses, but it was a true throwback Red Sox team that kind of makes you nostalgic. As Pierce says,
This was the way it was in my childhood. These were the kind of days that brought me back to my youth, the way all the baseball propagandists say the game is supposed to do. These were my Red Sox — overpaid and underachieving backbiters who ended up as comic relief. This was the Fenway Park of my youth — a rancid snake pit of venomous egos, and not a theme park. This was how I became a Red Sox fan before Becoming A Red Sox Fan became a piece of performance art. This was the way the season always used to end — with a discreet, but complete, collapse that hardly anyone noticed, because they were paying attention to other, real Major League Baseball teams that had not devoted six months to eating their own livers. The Red Sox went into Yankee Stadium and lost to a team that will not think about the Red Sox again until next April, or perhaps even later than that, if next year’s start is anything like this year’s start was.
When I read this, I was instantly transported back in time to being a kid in the 80s and early 90s watching mediocre teams populated by malcontents and managed by morons where the players all hated each other playing in a rundown dump. I remember going to Fenway Park as a little kid with my dad, and falling in love with the ballpark but being confused why the seats were so uncomfortable and the concourse so dark and why it was the only place in this country I had ever seen a giant trough in the bathroom in place of urinals. The old Fenway is gone forever, but the old Red Sox are back with a vengeance, and now that the unbelievable euphoria of 2004 has passed into the mists of history, I hate to admit that I kind of enjoy being able to bitch and moan about my dysfunctional team again.