April 2007

Democracy 2.0

The articulate XMission CEO Pete Ashdown, who ran for US Senate in 2006 against Orrin Hatch, was March’s charismatic speaker. Without a political background, and as an introvert more comfortable behind a computer, the decision to run was quite a process, said Ashdown. Finding out that no democrat, again, was going to challenge Hatch, he soon learned to be an extrovert and organized a clear platform for his campaign.

One reason Ashdown ran for Senate was his concern whether our voice was truly heard by those representing us. Because even as a prominent businessman, Ashdown felt that he was not being heard by Hatch.

Another reason Ashdown ran is that he believes anyone with innovative ideas and determination, instead of just the very wealthy, should be able to run; after all, the common person more represents the majority.

In his business, Ashdown’s procedure is to ask if a certain business decision would be good for his customers, employees, and community. If not, and if the decision would only benefit him, he would choose the more humanitarian decision over the profitable one.

Using a similar philosophy to run his campaign, Ashdown generated Democracy 2.0; this originated from the ancient Greeks and philosophers like Aristotle who believed that “in a democracy, the poor had more power than the rich because there were more of them, and the will of the majority reigns supreme.” The Greeks had a rudimentary definition of democracy, not quite complete or refined because in no period of history did the poor ever reign supreme.

The next stage, said Ashdown, was Democracy 1.0; this is “a bunch of rich, aristocrat white guys at the beginning of our country getting together to write a document to say what Democracy 1.0 would be.”

“So what do we have today? Do we have Democracy 1.0?” he asked, “No, we have Democracy 1.090538 and on down the line.” In software terms, this would be “a hairball where small fixes and adjustments are applied to an original idea, but over time, the result is something large, bloated, and just almost unworkable.”

During his campaign, Ashdown met many people who were constitutional literalists, a group who believed in living in a republic and not in a democracy. Ashdown agrees with them. However, a republic should not be sending “someone to represent us who has the wisdom of a king” and to make decisions without the people. Instead, a republic should be a representative of democracy making decisions based upon the advice of the American people. “This is not happening,” Ashdown said.

But he has hope; like supporting revolutions. Quoting Thomas Jefferson: every generation needs a new revolution. But this does not necessarily mean guns and warfare and battling against the aristocracy. Instead, a revolution can be subtler, such as stripping away or breaking down certain barriers.


For example, an early barrier of the US was a barrier or tyranny that was dissolved by the Constitution. In the 19th century was a barrier of slavery whose abolition was initiated by one person who started a small revolution.

Ashdown related how his ancestors had crossed the plains to Utah in extreme hardship, many dying during the trek. Today, technology and people like Henry Ford and the Wright brothers have broken the barrier of mobility.

Years ago if one wanted to make a feature film, Ashdown said you would need 20 million dollars, a good script you would need to sell to the studio, and have access to a studio to break this barrier of entry. Today with technology and a few thousand dollars, someone with talent could make a film and give it to e.g. Sundance. Again, another barrier is stripped away.

The same with publishing when 100 years ago, a write would need a publisher and a printing press. Now with computer technology, the publishing barrier is dissolving.

The barrier of communication has taken a phenomenal, unsurpassed leap with technology. When he first used the Internet twenty years ago, Ashdown said he was stunned when he received a response from Australia in seconds. Right then and there, he realized that the Internet would change the world’s communication forever.

This new technology modifies the barriers of business too. For example, when his parents had an international importing business of kitchenware from Finland, business communication was laborious and took a long time. Now one can easily build an international business just by going to eBay.

The last barrier to fall is government, said Ashdown. How do we dissolve the barrier of money, communication, and representation? He sees this as Democracy 2.0.

Breaking the Barrier of Government

Much is coming together allowing us to break the barrier of government, said Ashdown. For instance, we have an “open source” movement from which has generated, for example, the free web browser Firefox and Daily Kos, a blog of political analysis from a liberal perspective.

Said Ashdown, “What we have [had] is a monolithic center where the author controls everything about their book, everything about their piece of software, and they dictate it to their users.” For instance, if you are a Stephen King fan and have a great idea for him, it would be solely up to him whether to use your idea. This procedure is the same with Microsoft about a Windows program. If there is a new Windows program out, and you didn’t like a feature about their last one, you could write a letter, petition them, and maybe they’ll listen and change, but it would be up to them to make the ultimate decision.

With open source, that is reversed where everyone works on a project, and anyone is able to contribute. In other words, there are fewer or no barriers. If Ashdown was a software programmer who wanted to contribute or add a feature to Firefox, he could do so without permission.

In a broader sense, the same goes for the popular online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, where anyone can contribute. Admittedly, there can be problems. But Ashdown said that Wikipedia also has incredible strengths citing, e.g., that when hurricane Katrina attacked, one could get much more up-to-date factual information about what was happening on the ground because people on the ground were actually writing it rather than news organizations filtering everything. Wikipedia is a central project with no monolithic control.

In government where it is dictated to us what we need, like the school vouchers, Ashdown thinks this tradition can be turned around to be an open government where citizens are more empowered to be part of the decision making process. When he was running for Senate, part of his campaigning was expressing his belief that it was arrogant for anyone to go back to Washington and tell people that he or she is an expert in everything. For instance, Ashdown is knowledgeable in technology and balancing budgets and so on, but he needs help in everything else. Thus, Congress should be appealing to the American people for help rather than ignoring us.

Continuing on, Ashdown observes that government is going through a paradigm shift. Whereas in the past we used a model of competition to get ahead, a model of collaboration is becoming more prominent where the support of thousands of people is gaining strength rather than the usual interest groups.

These are the kind of ideas that Ashdown writes in his own blog.

He is encouraged that some conservatives are also blogging and welcoming commentary from the public. For instance, sponsor of the voucher bill Steve Urquhart has a blog. The Utah Senate puts information online and accepts public commentary, although when Mike Leavitt was visiting the Utah Senate, and Ashdown asked if he was flying here on a private jet, his question was deleted.

While blogging still has an overriding control, Ashdown is encouraged by the Wikis, which do not have an overriding control. Wikis are hyper-transparent where if he makes a comment and somebody takes it out, that audit trail is apparent to everyone. People could write in and ask why that comment was removed, and what the justification was for removing it. “Certainly there is vandalism that deserves to be removed,” said Ashdown, “but something that’s unbiased and straight-forward deserves to remain, and what we see on large sites like Wikipedia is that there are more people interested in seeing it work rather than tearing it down.”

For his campaign, Ashdown set up a Wiki of his own where he explained how he was going to craft his policy and campaign. Although he thinks he has some pretty good ideas on a number of topics, he wants to hear what people are interested in, get their questions, and hear their comments and criticisms on his ideas. To him, it’s not just a matter of the one side of the political spectrum hiding behind a door trying to come up with policy but it’s a matter of all Americans working together to come up with policy. In a book called “The Wisdom of Crowds,” the author’s thesis is that it not only takes a large group to come up with solutions but also a diverse group.

Because some people think that Wikipedia has a liberal bias, some conservatives have set up their own Wikipedia called Conservapedia. Their bias is apparent; if you look up Bill Clinton, the highlights of his career are his liaison with Monica Lewinsky, never winning 50%+ in an election, White Water and other tawdry information. It remains to be seen, Ashdown said, what would happen if additional information were suggested for Clinton.

Nonetheless, this dialogue encourages Ashdown who believes that liberals and conservatives–all Americans–should have a voice. On his own Wiki, he was surprised when he observed that not only were Americans writing in but also people from around the globe like Australia, Germany, and England. Ashdown discovered that people everywhere have similar frustrations with their own governments, who also feel locked out of the deacon making process. When they told Ashdown that they wished there was someone like him running for office in their state and in their country, he told them that they probably have someone just like that sitting right behind their keyboards, and that they should encourage that individual to run for office.

Thus, Ashdown is working toward breaking down government barriers with technology where public input is welcomed and by showing people that they could run for office too. You don’t have to have millions of dollars to run, he said. He, in fact, spent only about $300,000, minimal compared to other campaign races around the country, yet he received a higher percentage than about half of the losing Democrats.

Ashdown concluded with a quote from Thomas Jefferson found inside his memorial in Washington DC.

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

Said Ashdown, “That in my mind is progress. And that’s what we should be doing in our government.”

Side Note:

Ashdown said he is committed to running for US Senate again. He is committed to federal office and federal issues like education, energy policy, and access to government.

–Sarah Smith

Who’s A Nontheist?

The following article was submitted by a reader who is a member of the Humanist Fellowship of San Diego. Your thoughts and ideas are welcome! Please email them to webmaster@humanistsofutah.org or mail.

Who’s a ‘nontheist’? Not me.

There’s a saying that if you let your adversary define the language of debate, you have already lost.

When the Church of England was established as the official religion of England, those who did not belong to it were called ‘nonconformists’ and ‘dissenters’. The implication is that the official church is the standard position, the default. Thus the Methodists etc. were outsiders, marginalized, and categorized with a negative label.

For years the fundies have been trying to establish their peculiar version of Christianity as the standard position in American society. They have worked hard to marginalize Humanism. Defining ourselves as mere dissenters from their theist position walks us right into their trap.

I do not concede to the fundies or to any other theists the right to marginalize me. Humanism, as the late Konnie Kolenda taught us, is not marginal but is the mainstream of Western Civilization.

Is the word ‘nontheist’ used anywhere in the Manifestoes? Are we defined as ‘atheist’ in the Manifestoes? Oh. I didn’t think so. Are we now to docilely allow the fundies to place us on the fringes of society? Are we going to help them do so by defining ourselves as exceptions to their standard?

Solar system astronomy is not called nongeocentrism. Evolutionary biology is not called noncreationism. I am not a nonflatearthist. You do not describe a correct position by accepting for yourself the status of a deviant from a false one.

Ludwig Wittgenstein says: Skepticism is nonsense if it raises doubts where asking questions makes no sense. Joe Engelsman’s take on that is: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it makes no sense to talk about it. He adds: ‘The atheist and the agnostic and the theist consider God to be a logical possibility. I do not.’

Call me a freethinker and a skeptic. A Humanist with a capital H and with no limiting adjective attached. Free from supernaturalist superstition. Not a mere ‘non’-anything. No more self-definition by denial, please. Assertive, positive, Humanist identity.

–Francis Mortyn

Petersburg Declaration

Released by the delegates to the Secular Islam Summit, St. Petersburg, Florida on March 5, 2007

We are secular Muslims, and secular persons of Muslim societies. We are believers, doubters, and unbelievers, brought together by a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree. We affirm the inviolable freedom of the individual conscience. We believe in the equality of all human persons. We insist upon the separation of religion from state and the observance of universal human rights. We find traditions of liberty, rationality, and tolerance in the rich histories of pre-Islamic and Islamic societies. These values do not belong to the West or the East; they are the common moral heritage of humankind. We see no colonialism, racism, or so-called “Islamaphobia” in submitting Islamic practices to criticism or condemnation when they violate human reason or rights.

We call on the governments of the world to reject Sharia law, fatwa courts, clerical rule, and state-sanctioned religion in all their forms; oppose all penalties for blasphemy and apostasy, in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights; eliminate practices, such as female circumcision, honor killing, forced veiling, and forced marriage, that further the oppression of women; protect sexual and gender minorities from persecution and violence; reform sectarian education that teaches intolerance and bigotry towards non-Muslims; and foster an open public sphere in which all matters may be discussed without coercion or intimidation.

We demand the release of Islam from its captivity to the totalitarian ambitions of power-hungry men and the rigid strictures of orthodoxy. We enjoin academics and thinkers everywhere to embark on a fearless examination of the origins and sources of Islam, and to promulgate the ideals of free scientific and spiritual inquiry through cross-cultural translation, publishing, and the mass media.

We say to Muslim believers: there is a noble future for Islam as a personal faith, not a political doctrine; to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, and all members of non-Muslim faith communities: we stand with you as free and equal citizens; and to nonbelievers: we defend your unqualified liberty to question and dissent.

Before any of us is a member of the Umma, the Body of Christ, or the Chosen People, we are all members of the community of conscience, the people who must choose for themselves.


~Book Review~

Charles C. Mann, the author of 1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, is a writer not a scientist. This book is a compilation of ideas, theories, and research primarily from archeologists and anthropologists on what the American Continents were like after Pangaea split to form North and South America and Europe. The results are very different from what I learned in high school, and what is still being taught in our school systems.

According to the best information available Mesoamerica and South America were some of the most populous places on earth for many centuries dating back to before the Common Era. The pristine wildernesses of our own homeland that is the United States came into being after European civilization as a result of the deaths of most of the indigenous peoples that were here.

Mann raises the possibility that the US Revolution was influenced in a very large way by the native people known as the Five Nations and their “Great Law of Peace.” This group of tribes dates back to somewhere between the 11th and 12th centuries. In the first two centuries of European colonization, “the border between natives and newcomers was porous, almost nonexistent.” Both John Adams and Ben Franklin refer to them and were heavily influenced by their egalitarian life styles. The Indians were amazed and perplexed over the social class system that the new people lived under. The natives were living models of human liberty. It seems apparent that many of the seminal thinkers of the American Experiment of 1776 were greatly influenced by the local Indians.

This book is an interesting read that may well challenge many ideas that you have held as fact since childhood.

–Wayne Wilson

President’s Message

Lack of Information, Misconceptions, and Bad Definitions

Last month I mentioned that I would be offering some science facts. To do so I will use the topic of glaciers as an example of how misconceptions can occur and be perpetuated.

In the many discussions about global warming, simplistic statements about glaciers have been made which show a lack of understanding of how natural processes and geographical location influence the nature of glaciers.

Googling “glacier” is quicker than hauling out one of my old textbooks. However, as I began compiling information, I was disappointed and somewhat surprised at the poor and at times incorrect definitions I found. One of the worst is a definition for glacier from MSN Encarta: Glacier, Noun, Definition, ice mass: a large body of continuously accumulating ice and compacted snow, formed in mountain valleys or at the poles, that deform under its own weight and slowly moves.

At first glance this definition may seem OK, but if we look a little longer at it, we can find some errors that render it a poor definition. First is the use of the word “continuously.” Accumulation of ice and snow, which form glaciers, is not continuous, accumulation is intermittent, and in the long term, accumulation occurs much the same way that precipitation occurs in the rest of the world, with seasonal highs and lows. And the overall mass of a glacier may fluctuate up and down over the span of a few to thousands of years. A glacier could also stay relatively stable for variable periods of time.

Another problem with this definition is the use of the plural “poles.” It is true that the largest glacial mass is situated on the Antarctic continent located at the South Pole; however there is no landmass at the North Pole and thus there are no glaciers there. There is plenty of ice, but ice in the seas is not considered glacial. Glaciers occur only on land where gravity can cause accumulations to deform and flow.

I use the preceding poor definition as an example of how people can become misinformed when something as basic as an Internet dictionary is inaccurate.

This reminds me of an interesting and sadly humorous story showing one of Rush Limbaugh’s stupid and misinformed statements. He is quoted as having said, “Even if the polar ice caps melted, there would be no rise in ocean levels. …After all, if you have a glass of water with ice cubes in it, as the ice melts, it simply turns to liquid and the water level in the glass remains the same.” The problem with this idiotic statement is that the vast majority of ice on this planet is on land, above sea level, which means that if it all melted, it would add quite a bit to sea levels.

Glaciology is one of those “geo” sciences that I find very intriguing and enjoyable to study. Glaciers are one of the most powerful phenomena on the planet and glaciers are affected by many environmental factors: how far north or south of the equator they are they? Are they near the oceans or are they inland? How far above sea level is the glacier. What is the amount of heat in the underlying rocks and the angle of slope where the glacier is situated. But the force of gravity is what creates a glacier by forcing the ice mass to flow. And of course the glacier’s own size also plays a role in how much solar energy is reflected from its surface.

Glaciers tend to straighten out curves in canyons and leaves behind U-shaped channels by way of their erosional processes. They carry and deposit huge loads of debris, and their melt waters cause further erosion and deposition. There are many more interesting aspects to glaciers, but that is enough for now.

Getting back to the question of global warming, I would like to conclude with a few comments.

I am convinced that six billion humans affect the environment in a number of ways. The degree to which human activity contributes to climate change is still being argued and studied, but human effect is not zero, as some would contend.

While global warming is a significant problem, I feel we are spending too much time simply arguing over it, rather than working on solutions. We should be working on reducing pollution of all types because it is the right thing to do. Polluting is not some sort of “first right” granted to a would-be polluter, a “right” that often becomes a mess the rest of us has to contend with, by cleaning up the mess left behind or by attempting to force the polluter to deal with the mess themselves.

Being responsible for the “waste products” that we produce and making their disposition a part of the cost of doing business is the right thing to do. If somehow we could convince our collective selves of that, many of the problems of environmental degradation would obviously go away or at least be manageable.

But if we are to argue any of these environmental issues as we will and as we should, it will do no good for either side of the debate to proceed with bad information and misconceptions. We should always endeavor to be factually informed.

Next month’s message will not have such a heavy scientific theme. I look forward to seeing you at the upcoming debate, as well as the next general meeting.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU