Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Republic of Gilead vs. Ben Franklin, Part I: Basic Arithmetic

(jedmunds has a post up ripping on Markos, so I thought I'd join in the fun and throw something up that I wrote a few months ago after reading The Handmaid's Tale for the first time)

In "The Handmaid's Tale" it is explained to our narrator that women cannot do math, that to "them one and one and one and one don't make four." Our storyteller asks the man who tells her this what they do make, to women, "expecting five or three."

"Just one and one and one and one" is the answer she is given.

In essence, this is Markos' (and others) argument against special interest groups. Not with regard to feminist groups alone (although they do seem to warrant particular attention) but with any group that fits the nebulous description of a special interest. They seem to see such groups as not being able to add to four because they emphasize the "one and one and one and one."

Markos' arguments regarding special interests groups start to approach of Ben Franklin's astute advice that "we must all hang together, or separately we shall all hang." Markos and company are asking, as Franklin once did, that we all hang together, and that individuals put the needs of the whole before their own. There are times when this is a good strategy for meeting ones own needs, and times when it is not.

The problem with Markos' arguments is that he tends to ignore that if 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 4, then 4 = 1 + 1 + 1 + 1. He, and others, forget that it is important to be able to see both sides of the equation. Much of advanced math is about unmaking rather than making. Understanding the relationship between the whole and it's parts is also essential in political strategy. Franklin's famous words acknowledge, simply by their structure, that the whole is made up of distinct parts. One is not asked to give up one's identity to save oneself, but to simply acknowledge the strength we are capable of giving each other, and the dangers we face if we pretend to be islands.

Franklin asks both that Americans work together and that the colonies act as one county. Markos, on the other hand seems to view "special interest groups" only as petitioners; not only is it up the the party to decide if a particular group's cause will be adopted, but any group who tries to "petition" more than one party is seen as betraying the cause, as if 1 cannot exist separately from 4. He is not concerned, as Franklin was, with the dangers of blurring the distinctions between the parts and placing them eternally subservient to the whole. Anarchy has it's dangers, but so do aristocracies.

Markos seems exceedingly incapable of seeing the parts as something existing separate from the party itself, as if "1" can only exist in one equation at a time - shades of "you are either with us or against us." Perhaps this is why Markos has not used Ben Franklin's quote as his rallying cry, despite it seeming appropriate on the surface. It's possible that it did not even occur to him to view each "special interest" as a distinct and equal ally. Once examined, it's obvious that while Franklin's advice is the sentiment he is aiming for, his arguments do not match the structure such relationships should have in a democracy. Instead, he seems not merely resigned, but accepting, of the most tyrannical qualities of the modern American party system - not an especially progressive sentiment for someone whose goal is to reform the Democratic Party and not a particularly reassuring argument from someone who claims to have our best interests at heart.

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