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A Third Rail

by on April 27, 2014

A Third Rail

by Marco M. Pardi

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” John Adams (1735 – 1826) Letter to John Taylor, 15 April 1814.

“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” James Madison (1751 – 1836) Letter to W. T. Barry. 4 August 1822.

In the summer of 1970 I bought a home three blocks from the Central Florida State college at which I had just accepted a faculty position. The demographics of the area suited my needs; dense enough to suppress screams but porous enough to allow unremarked absences. An Anthropologist, after all, must travel to study people, and the things they do. Two international airports were within an hour’s drive. Although at a perilous 87′ above sea level, the climate was reminiscent of Bangkok; 98 degree days, 96 degree nights and 100% humidity without a cloud in the sky.

The yard and house, which had stood empty since the previous tenant had the bad grace to effect a flucht nach vorn by pistol shot to the head, were equally populated by elsewhere unknown species that scuttled, crawled, slithered or flew, or simply looked at you in curiosity that something so large would bother to move itself in that heat. To redecorate one had only to stamp one’s foot.

Settling in at the college I received the Dean of Instruction who confided in our conversation that I was fortunate the college president was away when I interviewed. Preferring to interview potential new faculty in the privacy of his office, the president began his interviews with, “Do you believe in Jesus?” I agreed I was fortunate.

Having just arrived from Washington University in St. Louis, I needed time to understand that Florida was still in the moribund grip of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, better known as “the Johns Committee” after State Senator Charley Johns, a rabid follower of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Johns was convinced that communists and homosexuals, as both students and faculty, had infiltrated the Florida university system. All incoming Freshmen and transfer students were given the MMPI (Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory) to ferret out such perversions. Suspected faculty were summarily dismissed.

My first year of teaching Anthropology in this environment brought me, perhaps, as many lessons as I gave out. I soon had to unlist my home phone due to telephoned threats to my wife that our infant daughter, she, and I would be killed if I continued teaching “thet EVILution stuff”. Episodes of vandalism at the house, including a concrete block thrown through the window of my daughter’s nursery, brought the erection of a 6′ high concrete wall around the property and solid gates across the driveway.

Moving forward into the socio-political structures of human society, I explained the egalitarian basis of the band level groups (still extant in some cases) from which modern societies developed, citing the academically accepted rubric of “primitive communism”. An example I used to elucidate “Equal access to power” as the foundation of both communism and democracy was drawn from the Christian bible; the apostles “gathered together, each giving as they were able and taking as they had need.” I cited Catholic monasteries as examples, inasmuch as each monk gives as he is able, be it as cook, carpenter, or abbot, and takes as he has need, the same sleeping quarters, food, and burial plot out back. While outsiders see the abbot as having unequal power, these outsiders miss the fact that the abbot is elected by the monks for his ability to “put in” administrative skills, just as the cook is chosen for his culinary contribution. One is no holier than the other.

This drew an unholy, some might say Hellish furor. Students commented they had never heard it put that way in high school. Exploring this, I found that the regional high schools required a course called “Communism versus Democracy”. I found this baffling. The “One man, one vote” democracy concept is fundamentally a statement of equal access to power, the basic principle of communism, communion, community, communication, etc. As Political Science professors I consulted agreed, the difference is an interpretation of economic system from political system. However, each is stipulating the right of the individual to contribute to and share in the common good.
What the high school students were being given, I found, was a contrast between a Totalitarian State (Soviet Union, China, Cuba) and a Republic (United States), neither of which was truly communist or truly democratic. In fact, there has never been an example of true and complete democracy (even Classical Greece) above the band level of social organization. When bands merge into tribes they are guided by Councils of Elders, removing equal access to power from the social equation.

Phone calls now impossible, Letters to the Editor appeared about that “communist, atheist perfesser”. Still, I was awarded tenure, perhaps in no small part from the college’s need to appear modern (it even had one of those).

In the ensuing years, career change not withstanding, I have taught at public and private universities and colleges in four “Red” (Republican) States. The experiences gained in doing so helped to overcome the notion that the central Florida college and community environment was an aberration. And, they heightened the concerns I repeatedly feel during election cycles, be they local, State or federal. The bar graph of classroom dialects may differ, the vocabulary may be richer or poorer, but the reservoir of understanding remains basically the same. Yes, there certainly are those students who, competent and able to benefit from the materials and the discussions say things like “I don’t discuss class with my family” or “Glad I’m not living at home anymore.” And there are those very few who are thrilled at the discussions now possible at the dinner table.

Just as freshman debaters can over estimate their impact on an audience, college instructors who confidently enter classrooms to “change minds” see only what they expected: test results. I have several times talked with students after they did exceptionally well on exams covering the intricacies of general and human evolution and heard them say “Yeah, but I still believe in Adam and Eve. It’s the word of God.” What people know does not necessarily indicate what people feel, or believe.

And therein lies the infamous third rail, the electrified rail that kills at the touch. This rail is in the form of the question: Can a “democratic” society afford to award voting rights to people who place myth over science and belief over learning? Can such a society, in possession of weapons which could globally end life as we know it afford to extend decision making power to people who can barely find their own country on a world map, much less explain it in the context of world economic, political, religious, and social systems?

In a recent American poll roughly 40% dismissed the ideas, including the evidence, that the planet is warming overall, that the planet is 4.5 billion years old and that life developed and evolved through natural processes including natural selection. 51% could not accept the possibility of the “Big Bang Theory”. The common denominator among these deniers was the influence of their evangelical religion and whichever of the >1,900 different “Word of God” bibles they were exposed to.

I understand that America has come a long way from pure democracy, if it ever had it. Instead of personally voting on every issue, we elect echelons of representatives to do that for us. But looking back at the poll numbers above, and considering that for decades the most ardent voters have been the loudest voices against rational thought, meticulous inquiry, and “seeing where the science leads us”, how can we account for the success of those representatives in getting elected? Are they really thoughtful people, recognized for their wisdom? Are they just skilled and cynical panderers, playing to beliefs over knowledge? Do they actually believe what they are saying, the sanctimonious “values” image they are portraying? Are they, as many suspect, shills for the mega-cartel oil and gas industry, the military-industrial complex, the .1% who constitute the new American oligarchy?

Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, both political scientists, recently reviewed 1,779 policy disputes, for which there had been public polling, from 1981 to 2002. Ranking the American population by income, they found that each and every dispute resolution favored those in the 90th percentile of income or higher. Up to the 90th percentile may have opinions, and they may vote based on those opinions, but they are in effect powerless. The implication seems to be that the lunatic and irrational ravings of Sara Palin, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Dick Cheney, Lieutenant General William G. “Jerry” Boykin and others of their ilk are nothing more than the Morlocks summoning the Eloi to dinner. Dutifully filing into polling stations in answer to the call, the Eloi cast their votes for what they perceive is their best interest while the Morlocks fatten themselves through continued feeding on the fruits of ignorance.

It may be said then that the broad ignorance of the American people is not so dangerous as it appears. Yet, it is this ignorance that puts lunatics like the aforementioned in office or in positions of great power.

I have long been in the habit of scanning the lines at polling stations and wondering which, if any of these people has even the slightest idea of the issues they vote on, and the ramifications of their actions. These are the people, or their descendants, who vilified the statesman Adlai Stevenson as an “egg head”, an intellectual. These are the people who rejected George McGovern and re-elected Richard Nixon.

The third rail is more than just the foolishness of putting decision making power into the hands of the ignorant. It is the very system which itself encourages the ignorant to participate in a process which itself makes their ignorance manifest for all the world to see.

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  1. Between this article and the Bundy article, I really need to find another planet. I do love your description of the weather and creatures. I’m copying and saving in case I ever forget.


  2. Thanks, Mary. I thought you would be especially appreciative. Not going back, I take it.


  3. It is always intriguing to `discover` a part of your life and your life experiences through these posts.
    I thoroughly enjoy it and find it extremely intriguing.Please keep posting !


  4. Thanks, FOAL. Since I’m stopping my teaching activities this week, I’ll have more time to babble on. Daytime tv is a drag. Marco


  5. I was in High School in Florida in the early seventies, and I vividly recall the history unit which our teacher called “Americanism versus Communism”. It encompassed one grading period of an American History class, and to pass it was required for graduation. To fail the class was an option (assuming one had collected sufficient credits elsewhere), but to fail that unit was not. My teacher, being an intelligent man, taught the unit strictly from an economic viewpoint, refusing to compare ideologies.

    Some years later, I was given the opportunity to further my education at our local college, where I met and became a student of Marco. You could say that my father literally gave an arm and a leg for his children’s educations, since the money which paid for my classes was part of a severance package tended to my father by the United States government after he lost said limbs in Korea. But before that money could be approved for my use, I had to take a couple of tests. The second measured my general knowledge, but the first I believe was the MMPI which was mentioned in the blog above. That was a lot of years ago, so I can’t be certain, but I have a feeling I would not have been offered the second test if the first had been failed.

    In the earliest days of America, only landowners were given the right to vote. One may assume that they were probably the most educated men of their day, and certainly the ones with the most vested interested in which laws were passed. It seems that perhaps we have come full circle on this, with Koch and his ilk paying for the elections of those politicians most likely to protect the interests of the rich and powerful which helped them to attain their government posts.

    I truly despise politics, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make some attempt to understand the issues which effect the world in which I live. The uneducated masses must be properly educated or we are doomed to live in a world destroyed by their ignorance. My daughter, who considers herself to be an intelligent woman, rolled her eyes at me this morning when I mentioned climate change. (Do I need to add she is a Republican LOL). If this is the reaction we are can expect to get, we might as well put our hand on that third rail and let them have it. Rose


    • I do not mean to imply that the ignorant of the world should be left to run it, but make the sarcastic statement that when the intelligent refuse to understand, what hope do we have.


  6. A truly sad story, Rose. During those early years I was asked, since I had dual citizenship, why I did not move back to Europe where I had family or to Scandinavia where I had in-laws. I said the reach of America is global; better to stay here and try educating minds than to sit at a distance and wait for those minds to act. It is sad when a curtain comes down within a family. It can make one feel awfully alone. Marco


  7. When in St. Louis, I went to Catholic schools. I remember in the first grade being told about evolution and that many believe in it and that it is OK for Catholics to believe in it. In the third grade it was taught, though not much time was spent on it. Though many still do not believe in evolution in the catholic church. Religion and politics brings out the worst in everyone, it dumbs people down, and there is no end to it I believe.

    I am sorry you had to go through that nonsense my friend, there was no need for it. One problem, though not the central one, is that many ‘freethinkers’ show such contempt for all believers that reactions do set in bringing out the worst in both sides. So then people are lumped together. It is unfair but we each are representatives of any group, religion or political party we say we belong to.

    Even if someone believes that the earth is only six thousands years old, they can still be bankers, lawyers and yes some scientist, though I balk at the last category. So I believe that people who don’t believe in evolution, in other areas of their lives are rational and productive members of society, should be able to vote. People are attached to their world views, their politics and religion. Though the less they are thought about and studied, at least from my experience, the more loudly they will fight back. It would behoove all of us to bring a little agnosticism into our beliefs. There is much we don’t know, perhaps we don’t really know much at all, and by that I mean in all areas of life. That includes religion and science.

    When religion and science become ideologies, scientism or fundamentalism, all doubt has to be rejected and feared actually. All you have to do is show contempt for a group and you lose them, they become you enemy and nothing you say will reach them.

    In spite of it all, progress is being made, though lots of fighting along the way.

    Thanks for sharing this part of you life with us.



  8. Thank you so much, Mark for your reasoned and thoughtful approach. I, too, was well educated in evolution in Catholic schools and was never told it was anything other than the way God chose to bring humans into being – then breathing spirit into them at the transition.

    Your commentaries are always thoughtful and inspirational. I know most, if not all of us look forward to your further input. Marco


    • Mark, this is a remarkable piece of literature ! 🙂 so profound and insightful ! Bless you !


  9. Agreed. By the way, the Catholic church was the first institution to accept Darwinian evolution. And, it was Georges LeMaitre, a Jesuit priest and Ph.D. astro-physicist and mathematician who first proposed what Fred Hoyle, a British astro-physicist derisively called the “big bang”. The problem is the steady and powerful intrusion of science denying Fundamentalism into American life.

    There is precedent for this. The world would not now have the medicine we know, and the plethora of other sicentific fields, including mathematics, had not Islam preserved and developed these fields during the Dark Ages of Christian Europe. Yet, especially with the advent of the Salafist fundamentalism, the Muslim world has marched forcefully backward, just as the Christian fundamentalists would have us do now. Look at the result.


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