Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tyranny of the Majority

American school children are taught many dry facts about the making of the U.S. Constitution.  Some of them appear rather historical, i.e. no longer relevant.  Only with time can we see that those apparently outdated issues somehow have never disappeared.  One example is the fear of the tyranny of the majority, meaning the need to limit what the majority party in a democracy can impose on the minority.

The American historical context was the dispute over approval of the new constitution, which gave significantly more power to the federal government than under the previous system, which required allowed one state to veto any action.  Since all the taxes that had driven the American colony to become independent had in fact been voted for by the English parliament, the American leadership understood that legitimate processes do not always make for legitimate decisions.  Alexander Hamilton wrote the famous Federalist Papers to persuade the delegates to approve the new system. In the end, the convention had to add the first ten amendments, which are all limiting provision, to gain the required approval. Thus, the American revolutionaries had a great fear of the actions of the majority.

As I see it, they were correct. Let’s put aside the fact that Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Mussolini, the 20th century’s leaders of the hit parade of murderers, were formally elected.  You can argue that the economic conditions and their gangster tactics tainted their election. More relevantly, too many of the today’s major world leaders have manipulated their political systems and majority voters to destroy true democracy, i.e. any limitation on action or protection of minority views. As an example, the Russian people have elected Putin many times (for both president and Prime Minister). He has destroyed the opposition parties, free press and any serious challenge to his power, even killing the opposing candidate.  His tactics must be convincing Stalin that democracy is not so bad after all. Almost in a similar manner, Erdogan has taken over Turkey, supported by the conservative population, imposing his view on more secular Turks.  Ataturk must be turning over in his grave seeing how things are turning over above his grave, not that his tactics were so much different. Israel, my country, still has a functioning democracy, but the press and opposition have been severely weakened by government policies.  Overall, it is very hard to find a healthy democracy today.

The basic causes, then and now, are twofold. It is natural for a person choosing to become a national leader to have an agenda, which by definition will have its opponents to one degree or another.  This inherent conflict creates obstacles, which any leader would like to reduce or eliminate in order to facilitate implementation of the policy. This power struggle, between majority and minority, is omnipresent and inevitable. On a more sinister note, power is the most addictive of drugs.  Few leaders willingly give up their position. It is extremely tempting for heads of state to guarantee your continuation of power by abusing the power of the majority and weakening institutions of criticism.  The best and most well intentioned have fallen in this trap.

Still, to see or, even worse, to live in a sick democracy is a sad sight. Once again, the American solution, albeit almost two hundred years later, seems the best one. No American president can serve for more than two terms, period. The best protection is one that de Tocqueville described in his book Democracy in America in 1840: educated citizens must not allow their leaders to deprive citizens of their rights, even if they disagree with the expression of these rights. Let’s hope for more tolerant people and a better world.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

John and Mary things

A name is a name is name, except when it is a thing.  Very few first names ever become common nouns but the process does occur occasionally.  In English, the major beneficiaries are John and Mary.

John is one of the most common first names in English, which is reflected in its appearance in standard dictionaries. For example, a john is a toilet, possibly due to Sir John Harringon, who wrote erotic risky poetry and improved the flush toilet of his time. It is also a customer of a prostitute, who is rarely ever mentioned by name. For the same reason, a John Doe is a nameless person while a Johnny Reb is a nameless soldier of the American Confederacy. John Bull is the symbol of Britain created by, surprise, John Arbuthnot, a pamphleteer of the 18th century. It is always unpleasant to receive a Dear John letter, informing you in a rather distant way that your girlfriend has decided to leave you, a World War II phenomenon that proves that distance does not always make a heart grow founder.  Finally, the new kid on the block is a Johnny come lately, probably based on old British military term.

Among girl’s names, Mary is the prominent representative. At a bar, you can drink a Bloody Mary or even a Virgin Mary, if you are the designated driver, that is a mixture of vodka and tomato juice and its non-alcoholic healthy cousin, respectively.  Every baker uses a bain Marie, which is a double boiler, to melt chocolate, a direct transfer from the French term, or can make a Mary Jane cake, a type of pound cake apparently dated from the 1950’s. Continuing that thread, being a plain Jane, i.e. having an unremarkable physical appearance, origin unknown, is a bit of a mixed blessing.

A few other names have also entered general language. Everybody knows that Uncle Sam is not a relative but instead a synonym for the U.S government. Likewise, a lazy Susan does not lack character but instead is useful for serving food on a large table.  Once again, the origin is unclear.  In these cases, every Tom, Dick and Harry will understand what the words mean, which is the point of the matter.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Rice Worship

One way sociologists divide the world is by religion. In other words, they identify the dominant religious belief in an area and analyze its way of life.  Of course, monotheistic religions are distinguished from “pagan” religions.  Even among the same set, such as Christian or Muslim, the faithful and researchers find different branches, which of course argue among themselves on which is the most correct version of the Truth.  Yet, by defining religion only as a belief in out-worldly figures, sociologists miss unofficial religions, those formally not recognized as such but whose presence triggers worship-like behavior.

One of these is rice, the simple grain grown in paddies throughout the world.  Of course, the world has its pagans, who think that rice is a uniform white grain that you cook in water with a bit of a salt or, even worse, a starch packed in a bag that you put in pot of water or, blasphemy,  a microwave.  These pagans, not knowing better, are happy in the ignorance and don’t think twice about the matter.

However, in civilized locations, such as Iran, Iraq, Japan and China, rice defines a person’s approach to life. All rice is not created equal. Various varieties exist, each with its own personality, cooking characteristics and taste. The form of the rice can vary, from unshelled brown to processed short white, with many nuances between them. As for the cooking, an entire theology exists. For example, my ex-Iraqi mother-in-law thoroughly cleaned the rice, lightly fried it and only then boiled it, with the aim, almost never achieved, to have each grain fluffy but separate. Chinese and Japanese, because they use chopsticks, aim for starchy rice that sticks together. Whatever the ideal, properly brought women must master the art of preparing rice as it should be or face family ridicule.  Of course, good sons and husbands, not to mention daughters-in-law, must promptly and sincerely praise the rice each and every time it is served, not an easy feat for someone that didn’t grow up in the culture.

As in theology, praise of your own rice leads to criticism of others.  Faults can involve the selection of rice, the seasoning, the cooking or just the feeling that  “we do it better.” Also as in religion, mothers gain great pleasures seeing their daughters-in-law learn to cook it right, i.e. their way. Converting can be so satisfying. Finally, rice even serves a purpose in death.  Some people are remembered for their cookies (even on tombstones!), but how can that compare with the memory of the taste of your grandmother’s rice? Nobody made rice like her!  Even the bravest fear to contradict that.

So, while extremists in some religions may call  for “death to the unbelievers” and act on it, rice worshippers never call for starvation to potato heads or pasta freaks.  The faithful may disapprove of the atheists but do not become violent.  Rice worship is indeed better than god worship. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Movie Language

As a popular mass media, movies have had a considerable impact on language.  For example,many famous lines from cinema classics from years ago are still remembered if most people have never seen the actual movie.  In some cases, the movie title or its star is transformed into a standard English term with a meaning derived from its source.

A recent example of such is a description of a terrorist event as a “Rambo attack”, meaning a brave but foolish assault by a lone individual.  One of solutions proposed for solving such attacks was a “Terminator” approach, meaning a tactic allowing for no mercy. An older but still relevant use of movie titles for actual warfare was Reagan’s famous “Star War Defense”, which involved using lasers in space to stop ICBM’s.  Armies worldwide are still trying to design effective Star War, i.e. laser, guns.

Yet, movie names do not only have violent connotations. While also a famous play and ballet, everybody knows why a couple is called a real “Romeo and Juliet.” Watching nature programs with captive animals sometimes evokes Free Willy comments, referring to the movie about the release of an orca back into nature.  

Sometimes the actors themselves gain a linguistic identity. Despite their being in the grave for a long time, everybody envies a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodger on the dance floor, i.e.  beautiful dancers. Fading in recent years, a Lana Turner has beautiful long legs, still an ideal of feminine beauty.

So, movies not only give immortality on the silver screen but also occasionally a permanent record in the dictionary.  Live long and prosper.