April 10, 2015

End-of-the-Week Anecdotes

Always appreciate items from PT readers.  Here are a few that came in this week.

From Peter Jacobsen in Sacramento, California: “I thought you might find this little USA history relevant to the current plebiscite… “
by Arthur Chu in Salon Magazine, April 6, 2015

My favorite story I learned in the trenches as a D.C. tour guide–equal parts hilarious and despair-inducing, as all good history is–was the story of why the Washington Monument remained unfinished for 40 years, from 1848 to 1888.In a nutshell, because the Washington Monument got freeped. The Washington National Monument Society, trying to raise funds, allowed contributors to have a stone carved with their name added to the monument in return for a donation (an 1800s “backer reward”).

They made the mistake of accepting a donation from Pope Pius IX, at a time when the cultural reactionaries weren’t riled up about the gays or the feminists but against Irish and Italian immigrants, back when they didn’t give themselves silly labels like “Gamergate” or “Tea Party” but helpfully called themselves “Know-Nothings.”

In response to the outrage of having a Catholic stone inside an American monument, the Know-Nothings stormed the monument grounds, stole the stone and threw it into the Potomac River. They then proceeded to game the system of membership in the Washington National Monument Society, buying themselves memberships en masse–again, membership dues aren’t much of a barrier when you’re striking back to save your country from degeneration–and electing themselves leaders of it.

They then demonstrated the key way Internet democracy failed: After the initial “viral” wave of donations from Know-Nothings themselves passed, funding for the Washington Monument dried up because normal people were freaked out by the Know-Nothings (for good reason). The Know-Nothings’ reactionary zeal proved to be of little use in actually getting a monument built, and they totally failed to do anything with the monument for the next few decades until finally after the Civil War the government had to take over and fix it. (Funny, how often the story ends that way.)

… We should have learned a long, long time ago that “Just let the public give their input” is a lazy, useless and above all dangerous way to make decisions. If you want democracy you have to put effort into designing a process that actually makes sure your voting population matches the relevant population and to keep the process from being captured by bad actors. If that’s too hard for you, then accept that democracy is too hard for you and find some other way to claim legitimacy for the decision you end up making.

From Ray Spaxman:
Glad hole isn't at our end

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