Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,

On Democracy

The blog post to which I'm responding has a title of "To the Hugo Defenders: Check Your Financial Privilege at the Door" that is easily searchable. I won't link to it because it would appear that links are triggering malware detectors for reasons unclear to all concerned, but you can find it.

I'm also trying to avoid answering every single point raised over there because that's apparently "flood posting" and part of the "policing the discussion" and "discouraging participation" thing. But this is my LiveJournal, so me writing stuff here is not flooding someone else's site, only my own, for which I've paid. (I'm a Permanent Paid LJ account holder, which is why I'm reluctant to move.) I shall even put the bulk of the post behind a cut-tag, so if you're fed up with this annual discussion, you're welcome to scroll right past it.

The specific thing that I would have liked to discussed over there but which I decided to let slide in favor of other things was this comment from the host:

Not to mention that the entire argument flies in the face of the whole "this is a democracy" thing. If it were an actual democracy, people could petition for amendments and have them put on the ballot...and they wouldn't have to pay for the right to vote, either.

I want to give the writer the benefit of assuming he's speaking in good faith here. (And if you're him, you're welcome to comment here, whether you have an LJ account or not. I approve signed non-LJ-user posts.) But IMO, this statement fundamentally misunderstands what "democracy" means, or at least misapplies it.

As a citizen of the United States of America, I have the right to vote in my country's various elections, as long as I meet some not-terribly-stringent administrative requirements and as long as I don't have my franchise stripped for specified crimes. I don't have to pay a poll tax. I don't have to produce an income tax return to prove that I paid taxes, because voting doesn't require that you pay in this case. But I do have to be a citizen. In fact, I have to be a citizen of the specific jurisdiction in which I want to vote. Not just a resident, but a citizen, and these things are not the same.

Concrete example: For the rest of this month, I remain a citizen of (and registered voter in) the city of San Jose, county of Santa Clara, state of California, despite owning a home in and being a part time resident of the city of Fernley, county of Lyon, state of Nevada. I can and did in the last election vote on the various city, county, state, and national elections that were on the San Jose ballot for my district. Despite my interest in them, and despite my having posted on my LiveJournal about some of them, I did not and could not vote on any of the Fernley/Lyon/Nevada questions. But I expressed an opinion on local government, at a highly retail level over debates about what to do to pay off the bond issue taken out to pay for Fernley's gold-plated water-treatment plant. I have to help pay for it even though I'm not a citizen yet. That does not mean that I'm oppressed by the government of Nevada!

In a few weeks, I expect to be taking up citizenship of Nevada after the lease on the apartment in San Jose runs out. Among the things I'll be doing is registering to vote in Fernley. Then the polarity will change; even if I spent half my time in Santa Clara County working, I'll only be able to vote in the Fernley-based elections, not the Bay Area-based ones. In that case, I will not be being oppressed by the government of California.

Now even as a citizen of California, I can't amend the state's constitution by myself just because I think it needs it. (And oboy, does it.) I have to work within the state's governmental structure. One way is to vote for representatives who will do what I want. Another is to petition the existing elected officials asking them to do what I want. I could also try directly passing legislation up to and including amending the state's constitution through the initiative process, which is an expensive, complicated, and time-consuming procedure. I could even run for office, and if elected try to get my fellow legislators to vote for my proposals. None of these things are easy or pain-free. But I don't consider myself a silenced, oppressed person because I can't make California build high-speed rail overnight just because I want it, for instance.

WSFS is a voluntary organization. It's like a club; say your university science fiction club (which probably required you to be a student at the U in order to be a member if you wanted to use the U's facilities). It's a big club that used to be much smaller. Its governance structure grew up when the club had only a few hundred members and every member probably knew most of the others. Is it perfectly fit for purpose for what it's been asked to do now that Worldcon is 5000 members and lives up to the "World" in the name by being outside of the USA far more often in the past twenty years than in the previous 40-plus? Maybe not. The California state government is probably not perfectly fit-for-purpose either, for reasons I won't digress into right now. But in both cases, it's what we have, and aside from overturning the table and starting over (revolution), you have to play the cards you have been dealt.

I hope everyone reading this understands that I'm not justifying the known flaws of the WSFS governance structure. I'm explaining them as best I can, and working within them to do what I think is practical to accomplish. Complete revolution is not one of those things, so I don't waste my time on it. Incremental changes, OTOH, are possible. If they weren't, then we wouldn't have two Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award categories, or a category for graphic fiction, and there probably would be only two categories for written fiction.

So let's get back to that "democracy" statement. WSFS isn't a government in the sense that the US or British governments are. It's a voluntary organization. Its governance is through what is technically known as a "deliberative assembly." WSFS permits its members (what a mundane government would call "citizens") the right to participate directly in the governance of the society primarily through direct democracy (the Business Meeting) and also through remote participation in the Hugo Awards and Worldcon Site Selection process. There is nothing inherently un-democratic about this. "Democracy" doesn't mean "anyone who shows up at the meeting votes regardless of whether s/he is a member," any more than I can can go to the UK and demand to be given a ballot for the next parliamentary election. "Democracy" also doesn't automatically imply a representative system of government like a parliament, assembly, or congress, although most of us are only familiar with those systems and sometimes confuse them with actual direct democracy.

Is WSFS's direct democracy inherently unfair? Well, that's debatable. But every solution proposed has been unable to gain sufficient traction with the current active participants to get passed. Yes, I understand that this is due to an entrenched power group being unwilling to give up power. But such entrenched groups can be persuaded to do so short of complete revolution; otherwise the British House of Lords would still be mostly hereditary members and would have much more power to block legislation than it currently does. WSFS's "government" gave up a rather significant piece of its authority when it permitted Site Selection to be conducted by a ballot open to more than just the people who turned up at the meeting, for instance. (The original system is actually still there, to be deployed in case of emergency like what happened at Westercon two years ago; Westercon and Worldcon's systems are broadly comparable.)

WSFS doesn't have representative democracy, so you can't vote for a member of the WSFS Board to represent your views. WSFS doesn't have the initiative form of legislation, where if you could get a specified number of signatures from other members, legislation would be placed on a ballot for an up-or-down vote by the membership as a whole. You can propose legislation to the Business Meeting even if you aren't there (you do need at least one other member to second it; this is broadly comparable to "petition for redress of grievances"), although it's quite true that not being present to debate your own proposal makes it very unlikely that it will pass. But WSFS also doesn't say, "Anyone who is a science fiction fan can vote without doing anything else at all." You have to be a member to participate in the governance structure at a truly meaningful level.

In essence, being a resident of Science Fiction Fandom does not make you a citizen of the World Science Fiction Society, any more than my being a resident of Fernley made me a citizen of Nevada.
Tags: democracy, fandom, parliamentary procedure, politics, worldcon, wsfs
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