Letters – Volume 39, No. 3

Matilda Joslyn Gage

I am a faithful reader (and subscriber) to Free Inquiry and was delighted to see Robyn Blumner’s article about Matilda Gage (“Resurrecting Matilda Joslyn Gage,” FI, December 2018/January 2019). I, too, had never heard of Ms. Gage even after reading lots about woman’s suffrage over the years. My question is not about the article but about the photo that accompanied the article (bottom of page 6). The description is that it was taken at the opening of the National Woman Suffrage Association Convention in 1876. That could not possibly be correct as women would not be dressed as these women are dressed until well after 1900. Women were still restrained by tight corsets and never showed ankles in public among other obvious differences. Note the woman who is sixth from the left: that is a definite twentieth century outfit! While it is likely to be from a Woman Suffrage Convention, it could not be 1876. Photos are an extremely valuable window into the past. They should be correctly identified.

Paula L. Prince, PhD
Assistant Professor, Jefferson College of Health Sciences
Roanoke, Virginia

Tom Flynn replies:

We obtained the photo from https://www.accessible-archives.com/2014/03/matilda-joslyn-gage-at-nwsa-convention-1876/. The item was posted by blog contributor J. D. Thomas. Under the circumstances, it is possible that the photo was misattributed by Thomas or by some source on which Thomas relied. It is also possible that the sixth woman from the left was wearing a Bloomer costume; she does appear to be wearing Turkish-style pantaloons beneath a skirt, the classic Bloomer style (though you are correct to note that the skirt seems unusually short for the 1870s). The original Bloomer phenomenon had run its course by about 1860 (see https://freethought-trail.org/causes/cause:dress-reform/). Still, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) attracted the most radical elements in what was then a divided suffrage movement; if one were to find a woman dressing in tribute to an almost twenty-year-old trend in radical reform dress—or even a variant on it racy by the standard of the times—it would be unremarkable to find that woman at an NWSA convention. It might be easier to date the photo conclusively if we could read the entire sign adorning the curved wall behind the banners. It might be a slogan or the name of some suffrage organization with its office in that building; in either case, it might narrow down the date of this photograph.

Truth Seeker

My thanks to Tom Flynn for introducing me to the world’s oldest freethought publication, The Truth Seeker (“Truth, Once Again Well-Sought,” FI, December 2018/January 2019). The latest edition includes a facsimile of the issue dated January 1874, which features a list of nine “Demands of Liberalism” made by Francis E. Abbot. His first proposition is “We demand that churches and other ecclesiastical property shall no longer be exempt from taxation.” Fast forward to Free Inquiry in 2012 when sociologist Ryan T. Cragun estimated that Americans subsidize religion “to the tune of about $71 billion every year.” Today the Church of England has assets of more than £22 billion, and its income is larger than the turnover of McDonald’s in Britain. Globally, the Catholic Church is probably the world’s largest nongovernmental landowner and continues to benefit from preferential tax treatment. In 1874, Abbot’s demand was endorsed “most cordially” by The Truth Seeker. Unfortunately, cordiality doesn’t seem to have gotten us very far in the intervening 145 years.

Martin Stubbs
London, United Kingdom

Tom Flynn replies:

Indeed. See my editorial “How Small Our Wants” (FI, February / March 2014) for a brief history of the Nine Demands – and a melancholy rundown of how few of them have been satisfied.

Law of Oligarchy

Issue after issue, I read Shadia Drury’s op-ed contributions, and I am left wondering the same thing almost every time: She seems to be against most everything, but what is she for? What is her vision of the way things should be? I still have no idea after years of reading her op-eds.

In the December 2018/January 2019 issue (“The Iron Law of Oligarchy?”) she writes, referencing Schumpeter, “… democracy needs to be redefined as the rule of elites competing for power.” Redefining something does not make it so, unless words have no meaning. But then again, Drury has suggested that the media and I suppose the rest of us should “affirm the post-truth world as an antidote to the childishness of … feel-good propaganda …” (Drury, FI, April/May 2017). Is this suggesting that we should embrace words having no real meaning and/or definitions changing reality/concepts? I think so, maybe. Democracy is not the rule of the majority after all, or something like that. I am not sure.

Although it is true to at least some extent that “the majority can be hoodwinked by the propaganda of demagogues…,” this is not exactly what has happened in the U.S. elections, which is the motivation, most likely, for her writing this column. A majority did not vote for the winner, and many and probably most of Trump’s votes were not the result of voters being “hoodwinked.” Many of his supporters were attracted to him precisely for his racist, bigoted, and misogynistic tendencies. Others overlooked these traits because they hoped to receive a tax cut. That many claimed to support Trump because of what he would do to help workers probably led to Drury being “hoodwinked,” if not having the facts straight actually matters in this post-truth world we are supposed to be embracing; they actually supported him because they knew exactly who he really was.

Another head-scratcher in this op-ed is this oft-told lie: “The differences between them (Republicans and Democrats) are minute.” Just a few paragraphs later she says Trump’s talent lies “in destruction of what the poor need most—healthcare, social security, environmental regulations, and the bargaining power of unions.” Is it me, or do I recall Democrats to be uniformly in favor of all these things Trump, as Drury claims, is trying to destroy? I suggest that we can ask any of the 25,000,000 persons who finally gained access to health care under Obama if “the differences are minute.”

Finally, she is critiquing democracy as a concept using the United States as an example when our actual federal-level voting system is extremely flawed, and is now being gamed and exploited. We do not have a majority vote (using the feel-good propaganda definition for democracy) for the presidency or Congress. The Electoral College is an incomprehensible method of choosing a president, and the Senate has almost no relationship to majority rule. Even the House of Representatives, with its gerrymandering and voter suppression, is not reflecting majority rule. I will now accomplish in the next sentence what Drury has not accomplished in years of writing for FI—I will tell you what I am for and how it should be in my opinion: There should be a direct popular vote for the presidency, a parliamentary style election for Senate seats, and an algorithmic system of drawing up House districts so that they are not gerrymandered, term limits of eight years for the executive branch, twelve years for the legislative branch, twenty years for the judiciary, along with public campaign financing for all elections, and an outlawing of all political donations above $100, which henceforth will be viewed as “bribes.” This is my one-sentence explanation of what I am for in reforming our democratic system of choosing our leaders.

What is Ms. Drury proposing? I cannot give a guess.

Gerry Dantone
Founder of Long Island Secular Humanists, cofounder of CFI Long Island and former coordinator
Long Island, New York

Thomas Paine would certainly disagree with Shadia Drury’s view that “there is no such thing as ‘will of the people,’” and that because citizens have conflicting wills, “the people cannot rule.” As Paine pointed out in Common Sense, while most large societies need representatives to make laws, a democracy merely requires representatives to vote “as if the people were present.” Yes, people in any Congressional district will have differing views, but as long as a member of Congress accurately votes in strict accordance with the majority opinion of people in his district (as measured, say, by an accurate poll), laws will be made democratically. To ensure that members of Congress maintained their fidelity to the people’s will, Paine recommended short terms of office and frequent elections. A Congressman who (in Paine’s words) “makes a rod for himself” will quickly be voted out of office.

In 1787, the Founding Fathers did not agree with Paine and wrote a Constitution that created a republic, not a democracy. In Federalist X, James Madison clearly stated that representatives would not be obligated to vote as the people wanted but could “enlarge and refine” the public’s views. Madison was not concerned that (in Drury’s words) “the majority can by hoodwinked”; rather, he worried that the (poor) majority might elect representatives who suppress rights of the (rich) minority, by proposing land redistribution, relief of war time debts, or other legislation that hurt their class interests.

As Michael Parenti demonstrated in Democracy for the Few, the U.S. Constitution is not democratic. Most of its provisions—six-year Senate terms, an Electoral College, letting states determine voting requirements, the difficulty of enacting amendments, to name just a few—all reflect the “republican” form of government envisioned by the nation’s anti-democratic Founders. Yes, amendments have expanded the people’s voting rights. But (in Drury’s words) “the United States is not a democracy” not merely because “the competition between elites … is a façade” and oligarchs now run the country. Rather, it is undemocratic because, from the very birth of the nation, our Constitution was constructed to stifle the will of the people.

Mark Kolsen
Chicago, Illinois

Shadia B. Drury displays a distressing misunderstanding of American politics when she parrots the tired cliché that “The competition between elites—Republican and Democratic—is a façade. The differences between them are minute. Both parties serve the interests of their wealthy donors … .”

Even granting that she is Canadian and her column was written before the recent mid-term election, when an unprecedented number of women, minorities, native Americans, and Muslims were elected to Congress as Democrats, she had to be aware that Democrats advocate expanding health care, revamping our immigration laws, and revising the tax cut for the rich—issues that proved decisive in their victory. The predominantly white, male Republican candidates opposed these democratizing measures. Indeed, Democrats feared that if Congress hadn’t flipped, American democracy would have been endangered by Trump’s authoritarianism. And, regarding the existential issue of our time, climate change, the parties couldn’t be farther apart, with many Republicans even denying it is occurring.

She also asserts that Trump’s supporters harbor a resentment against elites that, after Trump, will lead them next to a “champion … daring enough to sweep away laws that serve the interests of the plutocracy along with any other restraints on the will of the majority.”

To the contrary. The resentment harbored by Trump’s white, racist, middle-class supporters is not against the elites above them but against the rising minorities and immigrants below them. Republicans are desperate to avoid succumbing to the will of the majority, which is why they labor mightily to suppress minority voting and to gerrymander Congressional districts to their own unrepresentative advantage. They don’t like to remember that Trump lost the popular vote and gained the presidency via the non-majoritarian Electoral College.

Lawrence I. Bonchek, MD, FACS, FACC
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

True believers on the left or right of the American political spectrum have no qualms about painting their opponents as threats to democracy and human rights. Shadia B. Drury is no exception. Oddly, Drury derives notions from a far-left perspective that disqualify the United States from the community of democratic nations: “Even by this minimal [good leadership] understanding, the United States is not a democracy.” The worthy concern that wealthy corporate interests sometimes control representatives, both Republicans and Democrats—“not the people who elected them”—calls for a vigilant electorate, not a fantasy of radical social transformation conjuring a utopian “majority” into power.

In the age of Trump aggravated by discontents over growing income inequality, Drury’s dialectical prophecy of a happy ending for all ignores the volatile social, economic, and political forces that intersect the domestic and global events of unpredictable times.

Fortunately, the evolution of American democracy, anchored in our constitution amended twenty-seven times over 230 years, has reached a progressive stage of maturity, fortified with prescriptions for broad civil and human rights, the guarantee of regular elections by universal suffrage, the rule of law, and a welfare state distributing an array of entitlements and human services. Electing controversial leaders or catering to moneyed interests in Congress stokes perennial conflicts to be mediated at the ballot box. Such contingencies neither institute oligarchy nor nullify our underlying constitutional democracy.

Jim Valentine
Woodland Hills, California

Shadia B. Drury responds:

I am sympathetic to those who find my political position mystifying. My political philosophy does not fit neatly into a definable category such as liberal democracy. I am a political pessimist who believes that political order is a fragile affair and living in a peaceful and relatively free society is a great stroke of luck. “What is she for?” Gerry Dantone asked in frustration. The best answer I can give is that I am a liberal without necessarily being a democrat.

I have written a great deal in the pages of Free Inquiry about the disjunction between the liberal and democratic traditions. This disjunction is the reason I have opposed the American military efforts to democratize the Middle East. These efforts have been a tragic failure for both the United States and the countries invaded; it is possible to make these countries democratic by imposing free elections, but it is not possible to turn them into liberal democracies. The latter requires a populace that is overwhelmingly liberal-minded—believing that freedom is the supreme political asset, understanding that the salvation of the soul is not the business of government, recognizing the sanctity of the private domain, acknowledging that freedom goes hand in hand with self-restraint, etc.

In the absence of these liberal attitudes, democracy may well be the worst form of government. Think of the tragic results of the Arab Spring, where idealistic young people thought that democratic elections would bring them liberty. In Egypt, it brought the Muslim Brotherhood and an Islamic constitution. This was so oppressive that the same young people who fought for democracy begged for a return to a secular dictatorship. Where the overwhelming majority favors the execution of apostates, the stoning of adulterers and homosexuals, and the genital mutilation of girls, representatives who share these values are bound to be elected, which is the death knell of liberty.

There is less liberty in Iraq under the democratic government installed by the United States than there was under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. As long as you did not get involved in politics or threaten the dictator, you could have a good life. If you were a Sunni, you were free to marry a Shiite and vice versa; you were free to live in any neighborhood of your choice. There were video stores and discos, and if you were a woman, you could walk down the street with your head uncovered without fear of being assaulted.

The alliance of liberalism and democracy is a function of the unique history of the West. It is not rooted in logical synergy, so it cannot be taken for granted. The evangelicals are a threat to American liberty. Thankfully, they are not yet a majority. Nevertheless, they have managed to elect a president willing to do their bidding and a vice president in their own image. They have stacked the federal courts and the Supreme Court with judges who share their values.

Even though I am suspicious of democracy, I believe that it is a useful tool to check the rise of tyrants. But it is a tool that comes with its own inherent dangers—as the American Founders recognized. This is why they tried to create a system of government where democracy was used to prevent tyranny without threatening liberty—which is not an easy task. In the age of Donald Trump, Americans have become more critical of the anti-democratic sentiments of the Founders than ever before. They blame the Electoral College for the election of Donald Trump. They also find the Senate extremely undemocratic because all the states are given equal representation, despite great disparities in population—disparities that were not anticipated by the Founders and should be remedied.

I suspect that the unbridled enthusiasm for democracy on the side of the Democrats is fueled by the fact that the “blue states” are more populated and more liberal-minded. But if the evangelical population explodes and the tables are turned, then the idea of representing the sentiments of the majority may not be as appealing to these Democrats.

As to concrete reforms, removing the influence of money in politics is necessary if the United States is to be a democracy and not a plutocracy. However, I am opposed to the direct election of a president by majority rule. The Electoral College is a sham—not because it is anti-democratic, but because it does not work as it was intended. The popular election of an individual with so much power is even more dangerous today than the Founders imagined, because our world is replete with technologies of intellectual control and manipulation that did not exist in the eighteenth century.

I believe that the popular assumption that a world of truth and freedom has been superseded by a “post-truth” world of lies and illusions is naive. Any pretense of media impartiality was destroyed when Ronald Reagan abolished the “Fairness Doctrine” that governed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which made the rise of Fox News possible. The idea that a free media rooted in truth has been replaced by a world of deception rooted in fiction ignores the groupthink of the corporate media—just recall the unison with which the radio, TV, and print media cheered the invasion of Iraq.

I am not suggesting that the two political parties are equal. The Republicans are definitely more corrupt, which is to say that they are more beholden to the moneyed classes and to the religious Right. However, both parties are equally responsible for the state of the nation that led to the election of Donald Trump. After all, it was Bill Clinton who continued the Republican dismantling of the social safety net; it was Bill Clinton who further undermined the FCC, which led to corporate monopolies in radio and television; it was Bill Clinton who destroyed the firewall between commercial and investment banking; it was Bill Clinton who expanded the prison system with its institutionalized racism. And it was Barack Obama who bailed out the banks but did little for the working people devastated by the recession of 2008.

Finally, the divide in the nation cannot be bridged if we assume that most of those who voted for Trump were bigots, racists, and misogynists. I may be wrong about why people voted for him, but I am just imagining why I would have voted for him—in the absence of Bernie Sanders. What a sucker I am!

No Answer to Intercessory Prayer

Yesterday I received the latest issue of Free Inquiry, and at first I was dismayed to think that more testing of prayer had occurred but was relieved when I saw the “RIP” and that the issue had been settled in 2006 as I remembered it (“Have Christians Accepted the Scientific Conclusion that God Does Not Answer Intercessory Prayer?,” Brian Bolton, FI, December 2018/January 2019). Today, whenever a disaster or mass murder occurs, all we hear is “thoughts and prayers” as a solution. Most Christians have never read the Bible, or they would know that praying didn’t work for Jesus so why would it work for them?

In Matthew 26, Jesus is so distraught and sad that he prays and begs to be saved from his fate but is crucified anyway. Again, in Mark 14, Jesus is sad and distraught, praying and begging to be saved. In Luke 22, Jesus is in such agony that angels have to comfort him and his sweat falls like great drops of blood, but he is still crucified.

Jim Osborne
Jacksonville, Florida

Why does anyone waste time conducting studies to determine whether prayer works? Anyone who has taught college chemistry knows it doesn’t. Thousands and thousands of college freshmen prove that even the most ardent prayers fail at final examination time every fall.

Thomas L. Isenhour
Professor Emeritus
Suffolk, Virginia

Riddle of the Sphinx

There are too many fundamental historical errors in Adrian Ashwah’s column in the December 2018/January 2019 issue of Free Inquiry (“The Riddle of the Sphinx”) to be worth counting. To begin with, religion has always been a social institution, whether within the family, within the community, within a larger political unit, or in the context of a cult or sect within that larger unit. The basic Darwinian function of religion is to unify the individual members of such a group around common beliefs and common rituals, so that they will cooperate, care for each other, and be loyal to the group. Religion thereby promotes the group’s fitness to survive and multiply in competition with other groups. Needless to say, this unity within the group is also functional for the fitness of the individual, who could not survive alone in the world, much less reproduce. The only way that large numbers of people within a society can be weaned away from the supernatural religions of their groups is to provide them with an alternative secular religion that, in Ashwah’s words, offers “hope to the hopeless, help to the helpless, and alms to the needy. But above all, [that secular religion] must offer a cohesive meaning to life and turn [its] back on pure materialism.” The major secular religion that offers these things in the modern world is socialism, which is based on the religious ideal of everyone working willingly for the common good and supporting each other instead of aiming at individual material advancement. Socialism can take almost as many forms as religion, from extreme versions such as communism, which has proven totally unworkable, to more moderate versions such as social democracy. The flaw in the socialist ideal is its failure to recognize the Janus-faced character of human nature. Human individuals evolved to be both group-ish, helping their group to survive, and individualistic, striving to enhance their own fitness within the group. It seems to me that social democracy best accommodates both aspects of human nature.

Homer Edward Price
Sylva, North Carolina

Tom Malthus, King Hubbert, and Me

Thanks to Free inquiry for publishing Ron Gibson’s “Tom Malthus, King Hubbert, and Me” in your December 2018/January 2019 issue. Such bracing, welcome truth is hard to find these days, and to learn that M. “King” Hubbert was telling folks more than fifty years ago of the brutal reality of our on-rushing ecological calamity makes the deafening silence all around us even more eerie.

Martin White
Salem, New York

Tim Tebow

I enjoyed Craig Foster’s dry humor in his article, “Is God No Longer Willing to Give Tim Tebow a Hand?” (FI, December 2018/January 2019).

It reminded me of a joke about a priest and a rabbi who were boxing aficionados. Before the bell rang at a boxing event they attended, one of the adversaries knelt and crossed himself. The rabbi then turned to the priest and asked him what that was supposed to do.

“It doesn’t do a damn thing,” the priest replied, “if you don’t know how to box.”

David Quintero
Monrovia, California

Matilda Joslyn Gage I am a faithful reader (and subscriber) to Free Inquiry and was delighted to see Robyn Blumner’s article about Matilda Gage (“Resurrecting Matilda Joslyn Gage,” FI, December 2018/January 2019). I, too, had never heard of Ms. Gage even after reading lots about woman’s suffrage over the years. My question is not about …

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