Kakistocracy. Raubwirtschaft, and Whipping Machines

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June 8, 2017 by libroshombre


When my beloved Texas Rangers baseball team established a new American League record recently for striking out at least ten times in consecutive games, a friend down south suggested the team acquire machines to administer small electric shocks for each strikeout. That led to comments from yours truly about Patrick O’Brian mentioning Jeremy Bentham’s whipping machine. When my friend’s credulity required proof, Mr. Google provided it from the World Corporal Punishment Research (www.corpun.com) website which described whipping machines in fact and fiction.

Bentham was a judicial reformer in the 1800s who wanted to equalize the law for rich and poor. In “The Rationale of Punishment” Bentham recommended a device “which should put into motion certain elastic rods … the number and size of which might be determined by the law … the force and rapidity with which they should be applied might be prescribed by the Judge: thus everything which is arbitrary might be removed.” Bentham also suggested having a battery of these devices so the executioner’s “time might be saved, and the terror of the scene heightened, without increasing the actual suffering” by “subjecting all the offenders to punishment at the same time.”

This contrasted nicely with my wife meeting a Fish and Game biologist who’d recently discovered an ensnared, unharvested wolf. The biologist, though deeply disturbed, strove to make room in his heart for potential compassion for the missing trapper, saying the person might have had a medical or family emergency and couldn’t check his trapline. Compassion and tolerance both seem in short supply these days, and wondering about the difference between them led to the American Heritage Dictionary’s definitions of “compassion” as “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.” “Tolerance” is “the capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.”

Open, civil discourse, especially political, is mighty rare worldwide, so Christine Hauser’s NYTimes.com article from last November, “How to Argue Fairly and Without Rancor,” is worth considering. She defines “argue” as “communicate without rancor or faulty reasoning with someone who has an opposing viewpoint, with the hope of broadening one’s understanding of people and ideas.” To accomplish this she suggested things like “listen carefully,” not “proving who is right, but conveying that you care about the issue … show the person with whom you are speaking that you care about what he or she says.” Don’t “drop the anchor,” that is “not staking your position and refusing to budge … try to understand the other person’s point of view.” And “mind your body language … Try to avoid gestures that are patronizing or defensive, like crossing your arms or clenching your jaw. Maintain eye contact in a way that is not a stare-down. Lean forward slightly to show you are interested. And no eye-rolling.”

Consider the foregoing a preamble to peeking at a politically-charged word that’s new to me: “kakistocracy: a state or country run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens.” Thomas Love Peacock coined kakistocracy in his 1829 novel, “The Misfortunes of Elphin,” by combining the Greek terms “kakistos: worst” and “kakos: bad.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says he intended it to mean “government by the worst element of a society” analogical opposition to “aristocracy,” and adds that “the closest word in ancient Greek was ‘kakonomia: a bad system of laws and governments.”

“Kleptocracy: rule by a class of thieves,” appeared a bit earlier in 1819 in a reference to Spain, and meant “A government by the corrupt in which rulers use their official positions for personal gain. It’s most often associated with developing countries, but not always. In WW II Germany used “Raubwirtschaft” (German for “plunder economy”) to strip all manner of resources, including whole libraries, from occupied territories. Wikipedia says “Such states are either in constant warfare with their neighbors or they simply milk their subjects,” and were commonplace prior to capitalism’s rise.

Occasionally challenging your beliefs, testing their worth and viability, is a healthy exercise. Your public library’s an excellent place for that, even though, as Samuel (“Dictionary”) Johnson claimed, “No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library.”





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