The Unpredictable Nature of Our Actions

While I want to believe Walzer’s theory claiming that we stand up for justice whenever we see oppression in the world, I think it contradicts a lot of the other compelling literature we have read throughout the semester. While it might be nice if Walzer’s claims were true, I believe he over-generalizes and over-ascribes people’s actions to their morals and beliefs. Walzer suggests, “It’s not the case, however, that people carry around two moralities in their head, two understandings of justice, for example, one of which is brought out for occasions like the Prague march while the other is held in readiness for the debates soon to be joined on taxation or welfare policy.” I would suggest that people’s actions in the situations are less dependent on a constant, unchanging set of morals, and instead, more dependent on the context and what they themselves have at stake in the situation.

In The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran and in Shah of Shah’s, we are shown that small events like a newspaper being distributed sparked key moments in the Iranian Revolution, and we are introduced to the concept of viability, which explains why people were wary to join protests or demonstrations until they could imagine the revolution actually achieving its goals. Similarly, when Professor Malekzadeh asked in class which of us would participate in a revolution, most students needed more information before being able to even try to predict their behavior in such a situation. Along the same lines as Kurzman’s argument in The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, I believe our beliefs and preferences are constantly changing, and it is impossible to predict exactly how we will respond to any given situation.  While our actions might suggest a shift towards universal trust in liberal democracy, which might seem to confirm Walzer or Fukiyama’s theories, I think our actions in any given situation cannot be explained or predicted to the extent Walzer suggests.

The Importance of Remembering Past Atrocities

When states with legacies of violence transition into or reestablish democracy, the question emerges of what to do with those who were both perpetrators and victims of the violence. On the one hand, in countries like Brazil or Uruguay, where torture occurred on a mass scale and institutional level, the new governments might look to educate citizens on the horrors that occurred under the previous regime and prosecute those responsible. On the other hand, the new governments might see forgetting the past as the best step they can take towards appeasing those previously in power and establishing a long-term democracy.

As we have discussed in class—and as I discovered while writing my essay—democratic backsliding often occurs when those in power place greater emphasis on their own interests than on the preservation of the democratic regime as a whole. In this case, it is important for competing parties to respect the peaceful transition of power and to let those who have lost an election live freely go on with their lives after the election is over. However, in the case of new democratic regimes dealing with legacies of violence, remembering and educating the public on the nation’s past mistakes and holding those involved accountable seem to be necessary steps in order to differentiate the new, democratic regime from the previous regime. How could the Chilean democracy be any different from the previous, oppressive regime when that regime’s leader, Augusto Pinochet, has been granted amnesty and named a senator for life? While it is obviously implausible to put every person responsible for the atrocities committed by the previous regime on trial, remembrance, I think, is the only way for a new government to create a distinction between themselves and the torturers they are succeeding.

Please Vote For Me

At a first glance, the elections depicted in Please Vote for Me seem to possess the necessary qualities of being democratic. A system is explained to the students to elect a class monitor where each class member’s vote will count the same and the candidate with the most votes will win. One might think that the implementation of this system will result in the best of the three candidates candidate being elected. However, as the documentary shows us, democratic elections cannot exist separately from a society’s history and culture and require the understanding of those voting in order to accurately reflect constituents’ preferences.

In order for a democratic elections to achieve what they set out to, voters need to be aware of their own ideologies or preferences, be able to identify differences between candidates who are running for election, and be able to then identify which candidate they prefer. However, Luo Lei is elected not because of his talent or his popularity with his classmates but because of the treats he hands out to his classmates after his speech. Additionally, all of the candidates’ (and their parents’) first reactions are to identify flaws in the other candidates rather than their own strengths. I think that the children’s inability to accurately select the best candidate is very much related to the point Tocqueville makes about why democracy is so successful in the US. Tocqueville observes the remarkable “equality of condition” in America, which had been achieved because America does not have a feudal history like Europe. Despite the teacher’s attempts to conduct a democratic election inside the classroom shown in the documentary, true democracy cannot coexist alongside the Maoist representations of discipline and order that are also present in the young students’ lives.

Lerner’s One Path to Modernity

In “The Grocer and the Chief,” Lerner assumes that development and modernity in Balgat are dependent on the abandonment of certain traditional Turkish values. Referencing how the village used to be, Lerner mentions, “To reveal a desire for money is —Allah defend us!—an impiety.” It seems that, according to Lerner, when villagers start to care about money—when they buy bus tickets, clothing, food, etc.— is when progress occurs. Additionally, Lerner remarks, “Obviously, this was to be on the house, following the paradoxical Turksih custom of giving gratis to those who can best afford to pay.”  Here, Lerner appears to be making fun of Turkish tradition, assuming that with modernity comes the acceptance of inherently Western values. Lerner fails to consider that even though their society has changed, villagers in Balgat may still place higher importance on tradition and showing respect than the Western value of doing anything you can to make a buck.

Similarly, Lerner shares that demand for “modern” clothing increased as “more and more men went into the labor market of Ankara, first discarding their shalvars (the billowing bloomers of traditional garb in which Western cartoon always still portray the (sultan in a harem scene).” Again, Lerner tastelessly associates modernity and development with the abandonment of tradition, assuming that the villagers would rather wear U.S. Army surplus-style clothes rather than their traditional shalvars now that they are “modern.”  While Lerner does present a clear and interesting depiction of how the village has changed in just a few years, I think his tendency to make fun of everything that doesn’t align with Western culture undermines any meaningful claims he may have made about the reasons behind “advancement” in Balgat.

The Ever-Expanding Scope of Gessen’s Analysis

In Masha Gessen’s “The Dying Russians,” she effectively synthesizes several researchers and statisticians’ claims about the situation, however she seems far too interested in identifying one overarching truth or theory that can apply to all Russian depopulation over the course of several decades. She starts with a reasonable question of why people were dying in 1993 in Russia, but as her essay continues, she expands the scope of her theorizing to several periods of Russian depopulation, even abruptly comparing Russia to other post-Soviet states in her last paragraph.

While there may be a “truth” that lies beyond the grasp of social science, as we have learned, it is unrealistic to try and discover this truth right away. While I think we should ultimately strive to understand these truths, to even get close, it takes a lot more research than Gessen references before we can even try to make a guess at a reason behind all the deaths in Russia. While essays we have read so far—Havel, Wedeen, Crick, etc.—have built off of each other, referencing others’ work and creating a conversation through their writing, the researchers Geffen references seem to exist entirely independently of each other. Perhaps this is because this is such a recent and contemporary issue, but it does not seem that Parsons, Eberstadt, and others are building off of each other’s work. I believe social science works best and is most effective when we can examining a problem from multiple perspectives, using interviews, statistics, and whatever information we may have to look a problem, while limiting the scope of our theorizing, as suggested by Ziblatt. By doing this, we can potentially figure out why Russians are dying or have died during a certain period of time, and then try to apply our discovers to other periods of time, rather than making silly generalizations that Russia is dying of a “broken heart.”

The Power of the System

In “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell claims that the Burmese people possess all the power. However, the Burmese people only have the power to control how they are dominated by the British. The real power lies in the system itself. The imperialist system is what forces Orwell to put on a mask to hide his real opinions and places him in a position of power as the only armed man in a large crowd of Burmese people. Because of the strength of the system it is never a question of whether or not the British have power over the Burmese; the only thing in question is how Orwell and the Burmese will act together to reinforce this power dynamic.

After shooting the elephant, Orwell remarks, “The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing.” Just as Orwell does not have the power to do anything but put on a show for the Burmese, the Burmese do not have the power to do anything but sit back and watch, both sides aware of and opposed to the system but forced to accept it. While Orwell’s day to day actions rely on him doing what the Burmese expect him to do, these habitual interactions demonstrate the prevalence of learned helplessness on both sides. The Burmese people expect to be dominated by the British, resulting in Orwell doing what his expected of him, further increasing the Burmese people’s expectation of being dominated and so on.

Public Education: Flawed, but our best option

While Gatto certainly points out some of the troubling aspects of our current schooling system, I do not believe that schools are as intellectually limiting as Gatto suggests. Gatto claims that our educational system is “deliberately designed to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens.” However, Gatto is mistaken in this claim because the public education system allows students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to become educated and get to institutions like Williams.

Although our current education system fosters inequality, Gatto’s proposed alternative would undoubtedly be far worse. Encouraging parents to take their children’s’ education into their own hands rather then send them to school, will only create further inequality and limit certain children’s ability to succeed later in life. Naturally, parents who are relatively secure financially and have jobs that enable them to spend a lot of time with their children will be able to encourage and educate their children, while parents who must work long hours or multiple jobs in order to support their families will, for good reason, be unable to prioritize the intellectual stimulation of their children. This proposal would only move us further away from a true meritocracy, where hard work is the only predictor of success.

I believe that Williams does not reinforce the claims being made in the piece because Williams strives to admit students from extremely diverse backgrounds who have strived to get the most out of the educational system, rather than be suppressed and limited by it.