Of Blazing Saddles and Rousseau

On one of the many snowy nights this spring break, I decided to sit down with a friend and watch one of my all-time favorite movies from my childhood, Blazing Saddles. At first, the opening theme and credits took me on a blissful trip down memory lane, but soon, I couldn’t help but notice all of the similarities the film shared with the philosophies of Rousseau as outlined in his Social Contract. The two most apparent similarities were that of the Foreign Founder, and the general will.

First, here’s a quick synopsis for those who have not seen the film. A small town, Rock Ridge, happens to be in the way of a railroad line being constructed and backed by a corrupt governor, attorney general, and railroad boss. The three decide they will do whatever is necessary to convince the people of Rock Ridge to forfeit their town so that construction of the railroad can proceed. Soon, Hedley Lamarr, the attorney general, devises an evil plan to rout the people out of the town by sending in a mob of his less-than-desireable cronies. Soon, Rock Ridge’s sheriff is shot and killed, and the town seems on the verge of defeat. They hold a town meeting and decide that rather than admitting defeat to this mob, they will kindly ask the Governor for a new sheriff. The Governor decides to send a convicted black man as the new Sheriff in hopes of discouraging the townspeople, and he sends in our foreign founder, Bart.

Bart is a quintessential foreign founder as described by Rousseau. The townspeople actually despise him at first (mainly because he is black and this is a very racist time). But little do they realize, Bart can see what the people of Rock Ridge need better than the people themselves can see. Bart helps the people realize that in order for them to be able to defeat their common enemy, the evil gang of railroad cronies, they must outwit as opposed to outmuscle the gang. This is an example of Bart helping the townspeople find their general will. In the end, the townspeople prevail, and oust the gang. Bart then does what any good Rousseauean foreign founder would do, and packs up and heads out of town to let the people rule themselves once again.

It was rather shocking for me to recognize the differences in how I viewed Blazing Saddles after studying Rousseau. A film that I have seen countless times, seemed like I was watching it for the first time all over again. But this all brings me to a final question, are most writers, weather it be for film, novels, theater etc… well-read on Rousseau, or are we just so accustomed to Rousseau’s philosophies through other media we have absorbed, that it becomes second nature to us all to include different elements of Rousseau’s thinking?

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What Would Benhabib Do?

For the past few weeks, the one thing that every undergrad at Eastman knows about is an article that was published by a fellow student about the student housing situation; if you’re are one who hasn’t read the article yet, you can read it here.

In my personal opinion, I believe that the article is well written, and doesn’t aim to make a statement about Eastman. I think the purpose is to simply educate different housing systems in colleges. We are required to live on campus, in the Student Living Center (SLC), until junior year. Freshman year, undergrads live with a roommate and are required to have the most expensive meal plan. For sophomore and junior year, the students get singles, however, they still must share the bathroom with the entire hall, and are required to pay for a meal plan.

Like most things in the world, the main cause of this problem is money. Everyone needs money to live the life they want. Money has a huge effect on people and the life they choose to have. Eastman wants to keep students in the SLC because it creates a bond with the students, which is true. Living in close proximity of other people, creates and requires communication.

Say what you will with the political side of things. I am not writing this blog post to tell others what I feel about the living situation. This is a blog post to describe how this relates to the idea of deliberative democracy.

My point in writing this blog post is to talk about Benhabib. Benhabib often agrees with Carl Schmitt in that the best way of running a democracy is to create a community with free and open discussion. Benhabib adds that, as well as having free and open discussion, it is equally important to have deliberative debate. In her opinion, it is important to allow the people to communicate with the higher ups about how they feel with certain laws or requirements in their society.

Since the article has circulated, I’ve wondered what Benhabib would do in this situation? Would she call for immediate action? Would she research the problem and dig deep? What would she say to the students who want to change something at their college? I definitely believe that this situation, students vs. people who are in charge of the housing system at Eastman, should host a discussion directly.  There should be a direct link between the students and the higher ups. This problem has been created because lack of communication. I feel if we create a scenario where the higher ups had a chance to listen to the students, the end result would be a positive one. I also think this idea works in the other way.  If the students had the chance to listen what the higher ups believe,   There would be a better understanding on where the problem is arising from. Even though Benhabib writes about a government, we can trace her argument to this situation at Eastman.  Imagine the outcome if both sides took sometime to understand where each other is coming from.


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One of the main topics of discussion with both democrats and republicans the past few years has been about “Obamacare”. A big topic for the past presidential debates, Obamacare has not been a favorite among the republicans. Although the name “Obamacare” is dab at the law called “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”, which aims at increasing the quality and affordability of health insurance, thus allowing health care to be expanded.

Last week, congress voted on a new healthcare law that would appeal to mostly Republicans and those who are moderates. This law was called the “American Health Care Act”. This prospective health care bill would allow states to have more control of medicaid. The states would be given a “block grant” for medicaid and not receive money based on each individual person who has enrolled. Another change would be that if states wanted to, they could require employment in order to get medicaid. All there are definitely more changes, the one other rule would be for people fifty and older. For people fifty and older who have medicaid, their healthcare taxes would increase.

As one can imagine, this health care bill was not very popular with the democrats. What was even more surprising to me was how this bill was also not very popular with the republicans. You would think that the political party shared with the majority of congress and the president would result in agreements with new laws.  Trumpcare would appeal mostly to the conservative republicans as it would give states more rights on choosing what they do with the health care money. Conservatives are all for reduced federal regulations.

I remember getting a notification on my phone from the BBC app, discussing how this healthcare bill was so bad that the republicans decided to take it back as they realized the law was not appealing to anyone. With all this, the biggest thing on my mind is if Paul Ryan or Donald Trump realize how bad their platforms and ideas are. They don’t do anything to benefit society. Denying health care for people results in a weaker society. Do they really believe it’s fair if half of the population does not have health care? Do they feel that it’s their own fault for not being able to have their own health care? I hope they realized that this big downfall really should make them think about their health care views, as well as there other political views.

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“A government by free and open discussion”

Let us recall one of Schmitt’s main claims: Parliamentarism is rooted in the principle that government should proceed through free and open discussion. This is the reason, for instance, why parliamentary systems have instituted things like checks and balances, principles regarding the independence of representatives (i.e., the idea that the representative should be free of external influence/control), and the openness of parliamentary sessions. All of these practices, Schmitt tells us, are designed to ensure that decisions are the result of free and open discussion, not mere force.

In this context, I present to you this discussion of the health care bill (the American Health Care Act, or AHCA) that is going to be voted on today. For our purposes the key part is the second section of this article, entitled “Shock and Awe as Legislative Strategy.” As the article makes clear, the Republican strategy in passing this bill has been to keep most of its details secret. The bill was drafted (we don’t know by whom) and made public only two weeks ago. There has been no effort to persuade Democrats to support this legislation, and rather little effort to persuade the public it is a good idea. A new major set of amendments were added to it last night (they were the result of negotiations between the House leadership and the “Freedom Caucus,” which is a group of conservative Republicans). The bill has been scored by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. However, these amendments have not been. The content and their effects remain unknown. Which is to say, the U.S. Congress is literally about to vote on a piece of legislation that affects the health care of millions of Americans (probably all Americans, in one way or another) without making any effort to persuade anyone that the legislation is good, and without having any real idea what the legislation is actually going to do.

Lanhee Chen, who is a member of the Hoover Institute (a conservative think tank) and the former policy director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, explicitly acknowledges this, but also doesn’t see it as a problem. From the linked article:

The Republican leadership has made a decision that time is of the essence here. Now, would it be great to have all the information we need in place while or before we have these discussions? In an ideal world, yes. But I also think that runs up against the reality that the deeper we go into this process, the harder it will be to achieve certain policy and political goals.

Such a statement is frankly astonishing, at least if one believes in the principle of parliamentary government. If you are a believer in parliamentarism, having “all the information we need” isn’t a luxury in a situation like this. It’s the essential thing necessary for this system of government to work.

The author of the article is concerned that this preoccupation with speed and the fact that no one really knows what the bill is going to do means that the legislation will likely be ineffective; if it passes, it will likely not have much support. But I want to flag a different problem: we now have members of our representative body, including the leadership of that body, who don’t think it’s actually necessary to argue the legislation on the merits and who do not even think it’s necessary to understand it. That, it seems to me, is symptomatic of the kind of crisis Schmitt is trying to diagnose.

Posted in Political theory and the news, Schmitt | 2 Comments

Link for Considerations on Representative Government


For Tuesday’s class (2/21), we will be finishing up our discussions of Mill’s “On Liberty.” On Thursday, we’ll start discussing his text, Considerations on Representative Government,” which explains why representative government is so awesome (for most people, anyway), and how it should be organized. You can find links to various versions of the text here.


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Public Things

I have been mulling over writing this post for a while now, but I hadn’t figured out how I wanted to frame it until now.

The title I’ve chosen is “public things.” This is, I hope, a phrase that is of some importance to us. “Public thing” is the literal translation of the word “republic” (the word comes from the Latin, res publica). It was the name that the Romans gave their form of government. Their government was a public thing, as opposed to the private domain of this or that aristocrat or strong man.

This concept is central to Rousseau’s thinking too. Throughout the first few chapters of Book I, he is keen to illustrate that a political community is different from a private relation of domination (for instance, the relation between master and slave, but also between CEO and employee, or between CEO and customer). That’s why Rousseau would have no patience whatever for anyone who argues that our government should be run like a business. Business and political leadership are, as far as he’s concerned, entirely different things. The former is a hierarchical organization (someone must be the owner who decides who to hire, etc.) that is oriented toward the profit of the participants; the latter is geared toward the  public and its good.

The drinking fountain is also a public thing, which is partly why our culture currently finds it so offensive that earlier eras had segregated drinking fountains.

The drinking fountain is also a public thing, which is partly why our culture currently finds it so offensive that earlier eras had segregated drinking fountains.


This leads me to the reason why I wanted to write this post. A few weeks ago, Bonnie Honig (we’ll be reading one of her books at the end of the semester), wrote an interesting critique of President Trump’s decision not to have his family live at the White House. As we noted earlier this semester, this decision has important consequences for the the public (or, as we call them in the present, the “taxpayers.” Pay attention to the rhetorical difference between the two terms!). Since the President’s wife and child remain in New York, and since he will also be spending a lot of time there, the U.S. government must pay for a lot of extra security to protect them. They must, for instance, rent out space in Trump Tower (where Melania Trump and her son will live), which means that public money is being paid directly to Trump’s business.

The President's house, provided for his use by the public.

The President’s house, provided for his use by the public.

Honig’s point about this is simple: this situation amounts to the abandonment of public things. The public has already established a public residence for the President and his family, the White House. The President’s decision not to use it means that he is “opting out” of a publicly provided service, and then making the public pay for his decision. This situation, Honig argues, is indefensible:

The public thing, the White House, enables certain efficiencies in the provision of security and administrative support but these are lost when the private option is preferred. It seems obvious that, if those efficiencies are foregone, the resulting costs should be borne by the one who opts out and not by the very public whose public thing has been spurned. That is, Trump’s family members are free to not use the residence provided by the public, but they are personally responsible for assuming the costs of that choice. They should not be passing them on to us.

This gets to something rather important about our current political moment. We are seeing a wholesale abandonment of the very notion of our government as a public thing. Journalist Josh Marshall’s recent critique of Trump’s so-called “conflicts of interest” gets at this quite well. It actually makes no sense, Marshall argues, to argue that Trump has conflicts of interest. That notion requires there to multiple interests that are in conflict (e.g., his private interest in making money and his public duty as President). The issue, however, is that the President does not seem to acknowledge that there is a clash of interests here at all.

Consider the President’s recent response to the retail chain Nordstrom’s decision to pull Ivanka Trump’s (the President’s daughter) clothing line from their stores. The President’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, stated that this decision was a political attack on the President, and so the President was well within his rights to attack Nordstrom in response. It is right, Spicer argued, for the President to use the power of the Presidency to defend  his and his family’s economic interests. Marshall spells out the consequences of this thinking quite well. President Trump does not acknowledge any conflict of interests, he “sees the United States and his family businesses as a fully integrated entity.” That is, he quite literally rejects the very notion that the Presidency is a public thing; it is rather a form of private property that he should be able to profit from.*

The most important part of Honig’s argument, in my view, is not that this position costs the taxpayers money. It’s that it also produces “symbolic costs.” This would be Rousseau’s concern too. What happens is that the public (the folks we keep calling “the taxpayers,” as if we are not a public but a group of customers paying for services) loses the taste and habit for paying for public things. Democracy, Honig tells us, is not just a practice of paying for stuff together, but of living together–“of living cheek by jowl with others, sharing classrooms, roads, and buses, paying for them together, complaining about them together, and sometimes even praising and enjoying them together, as picnickers will do on a sunny afternoon in Central Park.”


President Trump (and many others) have decided that they want to opt out of this. They no longer want to share classrooms, roads, buses, and parks with others (with “those people”), we stop being willing to provide services for those most vulnerable; we give everyone the “choice” to attend whichever school they’d like. But the choice has a cost; it’s linked to the refusal to provide the resources to ensure that everyone–the poor, the disabled, the recent immigrant–can get access to a good education. And that refusal, in turn, is linked to the degradation of the fragile bonds of solidarity on which democratic governance is based. We lose sight of the fact that we are a “public,” that we are a group that shares a common world that we must care for together. We lose sight, in short, of the very notion that public things exist. Instead of having a public thing (a republic, in the literal sense of the term), we have a collection of private dominions and dominations.

*Melania Trump in fact made this argument explicitly in a recent lawsuit against an news article that had libeled her. The article falsely claimed that she had worked in an escort service, and so she sued them for libel. Libel lawsuits require not just that one prove that the published report is a lie, but also that the lie caused some identifiable harm. The harm Ms. Trump identified, however, is  that the article undermined her ability to take financial advantage of her status as First Lady. Thus, it seems clear that she does not view the role of the First Lady as a public office, but as a form of private property.

Posted in Honig, Political theory and the news, Rousseau | 3 Comments

Reading questions on More, Burke, and Madison

For Tuesday, we are reading Burke and More. The discussion of Madison will occur on Thursday. However, this post will cover both readings.

First, a little bit of background. Hannah More (1745-1833) was a British writer and philanthropist. Throughout much of her writing career, her primary goal was to defend traditional religious beliefs against what she saw as radical and atheistic political beliefs. The pamphlet we’re reading was written during the French Revolution, and it was clearly aimed at convincing the masses to reject the core revolutionary principles being espoused at the time. Specifically, it took aim at Thomas Paine’s famous text, The Right of Man. Just as he was of the American Revolution, Paine was an enthusiastic supporter of the uprising in France (indeed, he went to France early in the Revolution and was elected to the French national legislature). His ideas were quite similar to those of the American revolutionaries—the idea that we are all equal, that we have inalienable rights, and that government must be selected by the governed. So, he proposed things like banning the aristocracy and the monarchy, progressive taxation, national education, and so forth. He was also an atheist, and his radicalism proved widely popular among certain aspects of the British commoners. So More’s pamphlet aims to counter his position; she aims to develop an equally popular treatise that defends the existing order. As you’re reading her text, think about the following questions:

(1) The text is in the form of a dialogue between Tom and Jack. It purports to be a debate, but is it? Does Tom, the defender of Paine, have anything interesting or intelligent to say? What is More trying to do when she has Tom’s position appear to be nothing more than a bunch of poorly thought out slogans and cliches?

(2)One of the primary targets of More’s critique is the idea of equality. What are some of the criticisms of equality that she develops in her text?

(3) According to More, what is the only valid source of political knowledge (or knowledge about how we should organize our society)?

(4) More accuses the ideas of democracy and the rights of man of being “atheistic.” Do you agree? Why might someone think that these ideas are ultimately anti-Christian?

(5) Though More’s critique is targeted primarily at Thomas Paine, do you think it also would apply to Rousseau? Why or why not?

Questions regarding Burke:

(1) In his critique of representation, Rousseau says that someone elected by the people is at best a deputy or agent of the people; he cannot possibly be their “representative.” Do you think Burke agrees?

(2) Burke says that it is true that the member of Parliament should subordinate himself to the interests of his constituents, but he also insists that the representative is the best judge of the constituents’ interests. What do you suppose he means?

(3) What is Burke’s opinion of the idea of “campaigning,” or of going among the voters to ask for their votes?

(4) Burke insists that Parliament is not a “congress” or collection of competing interests, but a deliberative body that aims to legislate in a way that produces the common good for the whole nation. What is the difference between a “congress of competing interests” and a “deliberative body”?

Finally, some questions regarding Madison’s Federalist 10 and 51

(1) How does Madison define a faction? How and why do they form?

(2) What problems do factions produce in a political system? What are some of the means by which a political system can deal with factions?

(3) As we discussed earlier, Rousseau seems to think that we have a better chance to maintain a free and republican government in a small society. Madison, by contrast, reverses this: he argues that a larger republic, in which a large number of voters choose a fairly small number of representatives, creates a much better chance to maintain freedom and to counter the pernicious effects of factions. Why does he think this? Do you think he’s right?

(4) In Federalist 51, Madison outlines the core problem of maintaining a free society. We need government to preserve our liberties vis-a-vis one another, but at the same time, government can also interfere with our liberties. What is Madison’s basic solution to this problem?

(5) Notice that in this text Madison discusses the idea of “checks and balances” but not the notion of a “separation of powers.” What is the difference between these two ideas?

(6) Broadly speaking, Rousseau seems to suggest that a good political system fundamentally depends on having a good and properly organized people in it. Does Madison agree? How does he think that we should try to achieve a good political system?

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