Daily 5: Historical misinterpretations

November 25, 2016

A little political musing tonight. I was reading an article earlier, about how President Obama might be better able to affect change in the Israel/Palestinian conflict from outside the oval office. It’s an interesting read, but more interesting to me is a question I’ve long had, and one for which the world hasn’t yet found the answer.

If non-violent protest worked for American civil rights in the 1960’s, why hasn’t it worked for the Palestinians now?

There’s almost certainly no clear-cut answer to that question, and the answer could even be “it hasn’t yet.” From our lofty perch here in the future, it looks like the civil rights movement happened all at once, but it was actually the result of decades of incremental victories. (Ditto to the fight for gay marriage, and most other human progress.) It was, as most things are, a 10-year overnight success—or hundreds of years, in its case. And the fight ain’t over.

Yet I wonder if we don’t misinterpret some of the lessons of history, especially when we boil them down to platitudes. “Non-violent protest works” might be true to a point, but they might also be a useful lie—and not the type that leads us to better ourselves. It might be the kind of useful lie that keeps disgruntled people in their place, just as lionizing Martin Luther King Jr might serve to make him into a mythological hero, instead of the very real man he was—the kind of man (or woman) that any of us could become.

What if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has more to do with Malcolm X and the Soviet Union than Martin Luther King Jr?

It occurs to me, and I’ve read a few articles on this (though I read them long enough ago that I’ve lost the specific links), that Martin Luther King Jr’s non-violent protest might have worked because the federal government preferred to deal with him than the alternative, Malcolm X. Where MLK marched and organized sit-ins, Malcolm X advocated that black people should defend and advance themselves “by any means necessary.” Combine that with a world where the United State’s chief enemy was seen as the Soviet Union, and the civil rights movement could have been seen as a potentially disastrous distraction at best, a potentially fatal weakness at worst. I often wonder if Martin Luther King Jr would have been successful if it weren’t for Malcolm X serving as the stick to his carrot.

Then why hasn’t Hamas served that same role for the Palestinian Authority? I don’t know. My gut is that Hamas is too easily contained in Gaza, and that the reality of violence has been found more tolerable than the possibility of violence from black nationalists was at the time. I don’t know if that’s true though.

That’s kind of the point. Perhaps the lessons we think we’ve learned from history aren’t as correct as we think.

Here’s another one. I’m no fan of the electoral college, an opinion which is shared by a majority of voters. Certainly part of this is because the presidential candidate I just voted for lost, despite winning a majority of the votes. I don’t doubt that in the reverse situation (Trump wins the popular, Hillary wins the electoral college) I’d take the win, but it would be deeply uncomfortable. I feel like this is one of the (many) reasons for our current political disillusionment, when some people’s votes count more than others.

That’s an issue for another day. For now, it’s the reasons given for the electoral college’s existence that I find so puzzling. One argument is that the founders created it because of the speed of communication at the time (slow), but that’s unpersuasive. Why decouple votes from voters, when you could just have the guy on horseback take the votes to the capitol? Others say it’s so the electors can overturn the will of the people if needed, which has never happened. That doesn’t mean it never will, but since the electors are by this point chosen from party loyalists, it’s unlikely. Maybe that’s just another system the founders put in place that hasn’t worked terribly well, of which we’ve dealt with many. (They did their best.)

But what if it was another rotten decision the founders made that gifted us with the electoral college? Namely, the three-fifths compromise. Let’s not mince words: the electoral college could be yet another ugly remnant of slavery.

The three-fifths compromise was struck because the southern slave states would have been constantly outvoted by the more populace northern states, unless they were able to count their slaves. This was true in the House, but also in the electoral college, where the southern states received a third more electoral votes than if slaves had been ignored. It gave them outsize importance above and beyond their actual voters. Donald Trump might be our president-elect today because of slave owners.

And even that might not be correct. Everything we know of the constitutional congress does in fact back up that the framers thoughts electors would exercise independent judgment, and the electoral college seems to predate the compromise; it’s just that so much has changed since then that it’s not working well. But I’ve also read that the founders designed the system so that it would gridlock often, sending the election to Congress (i.e. them or people like them). That might be the real reason.

This post can probably serve as a followup to my post about assuming you’re wrong. It’s not necessarily that I think either of these positions are correct, though I do wonder about the MLK/Malcolm X one a lot—and that has especially troubling ramifications, because it might mean that violent civil unrest, or at least the threat thereof, might be necessary (or beneficial) to bring about massive societal change. It might also mean that the lionization of non-violent protest is a useful lie used by those in power to keep people from forcing them to change—and, you know, keep them from having to put down violent citizen revolts. Which is understandable, albeit still troubling.

The point is less about what’s true, and more about constantly reminding myself that I don’t have a damn clue about why most things happen like they do. The more I know, the more I realize how little I know. I’m good at feigning confidence—I’m employed as a salesman, after all—but that doesn’t mean I always know what I’m talking about.

It just solidifies in me a desire to read a lot, to read from all kinds of sources, so as to give myself the knowledge to occasionally get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes that’s realizing that what everyone has been saying is wrong. Other times, it’s realizing that they were exactly correct. Life’s messy like that.

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.


  1. Reply


    I’m not going to touch the question of protests because I think there are too many variables involved to make any general interpretation of the outcomes broadly applicable.

    On the electoral college though, I used to think it was an obsolete relic of distance and technology of the time. I’ve done some reading on the matter and come around to the other side since. This article summarizes the points well: https://www.creators.com/read/david-harsanyi/11/16/ignore-the-mob-long-live-the-electoral-college

    The short version is that the Constitutional Convention produced a republic, not a democracy. Many citizens have forgotten that, but the founders were very concerned about the possibility of mob rule and the tyranny of the majority.

    So they put checks at every level to distribute power and force those governing to consider the whole country, not just 51% of it. We’ve removed many of those checks over time, but given that they specifically placed many of those checks to prevent an unqualified populist from taking office, we all might do well to consider if they didn’t have the right idea after all.

    So what would we get if we ignored that this is the United STATES of America and took the electoral college out of the process? Probably even worse polarization and more explicit populism. That’s been the historical trend.

    There’s few enough swing voters that the popular vote would offer uncertain rewards to centrism and certain rewards to running up the total in each candidate’s most enthusiastic portion of the base. Population density would determine the efficiency of each campaign stop and 52% of Americans already live in the cities, so that’s where the campaigns would mostly be fought.

    That means that rural and suburban voter’s concerns either get neglected by both candidates or one goes all in on their issues while trying to hold a few percent of the city vote. One way ignores 90% of the country geographically and the other explicitly pits rural Americans against urban Americans. Both ways set the conditions for a well armed rural America to get fed up with coastal elites ruling over them and increasingly resisting federal authority. The end state on that path looks a lot like civil war.

    Embracing the popular vote requires ignoring that there are at least 13 distinct cultural regions in the US and instead letting CA and NY impose their standard on everyone else.

    It requires ignoring that Donald Trump won more than 3,000 counties and Hillary Clinton won all of about 57 counties.

    It requires ignoring that Republicans won complete control of 25 states at the local level and partial control of another 20, with only 5 states having Democrats win both chambers and the governor’s seat.

    It requires ignoring that many national issues, like agriculture, energy, and manufacturing, are geographically concentrated and would not be well represented under the popular vote, leading to key policies being set in accordance with the wishes of people who don’t have to live with their effects. Which again, we’ve already seen signs of in this last election.

    To sum, embracing the popular vote over the electoral college requires removing several of the safeguards built in to our republic and would worsen the very things most voters disliked about this election. That’s always been the problem with pure democracy; it’s two wolves and a sheep taking a vote as to what’s on the menu for dinner.

    To be blunt, there are four boxes to be used in self-defense: soap, jury, ballot, ammo, preferably in that order. Think very carefully before compromising the ballot box. Unless you’re willing to “deal with” the people you force to reach for that fourth box, it’s best to not to put 57 counties up against 3,000+ counties that very much disagree with your pick for President. Americans didn’t tolerate being controlled by one small country distant from them when it was Britain; they aren’t likely to tolerate it any better when it is CA/NY.

    1. Reply

      John A

      Yes, I was just about to write the same thing, although not nearly as well I think. The Electoral College was very well thought out and was put in place exactly to make sure that national popular vote was not the deciding factor in the election. The entire point of it was to give all states a say in who the president is.

    2. Reply

      Stephen W. Gee

      I’m not going to go into detail right now ’cause I have further posts planned on electoral reform, but you’re both making a critical mistake:

      I said I didn’t like the electoral college. I didn’t say abolishing the electoral college is the only change I’d make.

      The electoral college is a terrible system that allows small states to wield disproportionate power. It hinges on the assumption that states and counties are more important than people. It doesn’t even force politicians to pay attention to ALL small states’ interests—Iowa’s interests are not necessarily the same as Mississippi’s, Hawaii’s, Alaska’s, or Delaware’s, but only one matters come election time.

      The electoral college chooses tyranny of the minority over tyranny of the majority, which, ya know, not ideal. That doesn’t mean I’d straight flip to the other, though. The needs of ALL minorities—from racial to geographic to ideological to economic—need to be factored in and protected. There’s more that needs to be fixed than just how we elect presidents.

      Like I said, more soon. Not like the problem is going anywhere, unfortunately.

  2. Reply


    To put it another way: if you think it’s bad that presidential candidates currently spend most of their campaigning time in a dozen “swing states”… Take a look at the “electoral” map under popular vote.

    Only four states really count under popular vote and every last one of them has a coastline. Do you really believe they won’t treat the smaller states like mere colonies? That kind of political power differential looks less like the USA and more like the USSR and its “client states”

  3. Reply

    Nishizawa Mihashi

    Well, looks like I’m back to commenting at your blog as I found this one veeeery interesting.

    Back then I used to consider some things at face value, as there were legit fears and my knowledge base wasn’t vast and deep, but a few years since then, I’m definitely thinking that “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”, with a more existential and informational based tinge than the Assassin’s Creed interpretation.

    So yeah, while there are facts, to figure out the links and reasoning that led to said facts leaving an impact in physical and psychological history is extremely important.

    Personally, as a non-U.S national and citizen I have no idea why you people decided on the electoral college and frankly I just don’t want to know as my very ideas on government are just completely different.

    In any case Stilts, I’m currently trying to figure out the specifics of my setting for my first novel and one thing did occur to me and especially after I’ve read this particular book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari.

    And that one thing was that the biggest philosophical arguments, rationale and impetus that actually led to our current drives toward equality before the law and such lies within Christianity and Islam that we so wince at, in addition to their ‘negative’ as in negating or antithetical philosophies, like the ones espoused by Nietzsche and Marx. Not to say that it isn’t present in some other way or form, but their influence was phenomenal from direct appeal to the emotions whether forced or voluntary. The religious zeal led to some fervent calls for freedom and equality in various aspects as time progressed and various events played off and reacted to one another. This is in contrast to the other formal philosophies of their time as they mostly engaged the rational part instead of the irrational part, that is of the sensations and emotions.

    Right now, I’m trying to picture a planet Terra that is most heavily influenced by tribalism, nationalism, some forms of ethics and philosophies, Confucianism and other various religions like the various forms of paganism worldwide, animism and such. And you’d be hard pressed to find one that is capable of such widespread reach in similar vein to Christianity and Islam. Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and to some extent formal Greco-Roman philosophies and Confucianism may have such universal mass appeal though, and while perhaps North American native religion might have widespread appeal to other polytheists from the world over, the polytheistic route is extremely tied down to national and cultural sentiments, heck even the ones with universal appeal that I mentioned just now can be pretty stuck in their own little national and cultural bubbles.

    So yeah, that is one thing to consider. I’ll even say that we’d be a whole deal more sexist and patriarchal the world over by now if those two religions never came along, as we’d then be stuck with deeply ingrained cultural and nationalistic concepts even as the world might retain their liberal sexual conducts rather than obtaining equality of the sexes. Heck, racism, ethnicism and various forms of prejudice might even develop and flourish as long as there’s no philosophies, sub-cultures and religions to counter them regardless of the scale of their appeal, be it local or universal.

    Just my 2 cents for now. Right now, I need to get back to work and fast!

    1. Reply

      Stephen W. Gee

      Here’s a couple of things to think about:

      Christianity and Islam spread for a very simple reason: they’re designed to spread. You don’t need a mother who is Jewish like you do with Judaism. A quick ceremony and some rites and you’re good. That doesn’t mean there’s anything to their philosophies beyond those of, say, Stoicism or Zen Buddhism (my personal favorites). It just means they’re ideaviruses. They’re built to spread.

      Also consider that your conjectures of how history would have been had it taken another path are almost certainly wrong, and would likely require a radically different kind of human (for a radical change). Even so, to quote Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I believe that’s true, no matter the specifics.

      Unless we kill ourselves, that is. Nuclear annihilation was touch and go for a while there. Something similar could still happen.

      1. Reply

        Nishizawa Mihashi

        Which was exactly what I said bruh, Christianity and Islam were conceived from the get go to spread like a wildfire tsunami. I’m just pointing out that those religions were able to spread in such a way because parts of their messages had universal appeal that tapped directly into the emotions, while some of the others demanded more thought and contemplation from the masses. Other religions could perform the same function if they did the same which is why I say that Sikhism and Zoroastrianism has that emotional potential. Buddhism on the other hand only managed to spread the way it did as it became more syncretized the farther East it went.

        Anyways, even if it wasn’t for belief systems and philosophies, there’s always homo sapien agents. Cyrus of Persia and Mo Tzu were rather miraculous in that sense, I mean what were the chances? Perhaps there were plenty of chances except that people were simply uneducated or completely disempowered. At times, you need blood for change in such circumstances but homo sapiens being homo sapiens, mammalian instincts towards hearth protection can blind everyone into cycles of unending vengeance, not to mention being blinded by one’s fears and passions. On the other hand non-violence can win, but it needs a tremendous amount of faith and trust as well as the support of over 70% of the population willing to get put down as they march towards the epicenter of bad deeds in their region.

        Both are necessary, they only things that are needed are sacrifice and conviction.

  4. Reply

    Nishizawa Mihashi

    And oh yes, I forgot to mention Buddhism. Let’s add that in. Hmm, a Buddhist-centric world. That would be… Interesting.

  5. Reply

    Nishizawa Mihashi

    And oh yes, religious and philosophical interpretations as they move about from culture to culture, nation to nation, politics to politics. Other things to add into the mix. The day when Buddhist ideas are widely interpreted to subdue homo sapien females, that would be something.

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