My turn: When is it OK to oppress a minority?

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2007

I can't help but notice that whenever people talk about denying others' rights, they often send letters to the paper or talk on TV about how majority rule, or "democracy," is the ideal upon which our country is founded upon. I'm convinced that these are the same people who slept through or skipped American government class in high school.

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I don't expect everyone to read The Federalist Papers, a series of essays written by the founding fathers about how and why our government is supposed to work, but everyone should at least have a working knowledge of it. One of the most important features of our government is not that the majority is protected from the minority, but also that the minority is protected from the majority.

"Democracy" is a buzz word, and an inaccurate one at that; we live under a constitutional republic, and for good reason. There once was a wholly democratic state, and it had serious flaws.

During the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian Empire had control over a city called Mytilene. The Mytileneans decided to revolt one day because they felt the Athenians were treating them unfairly, and so they did. The Greeks put down the rebellion, secured the city, and voted on how to punish the Mytileneans. In their anger, they decided to kill every man and enslave every woman and child in the city, and they dispatched a ship with orders for the garrison commander to carry out. The next morning, the Athenians reconvened and had sort of an "oh, crap" moment and took back their earlier decision, sending another ship out to inform the previous ship that they were not to kill all the men and enslave the women and children. Fortunately for the Mytileneans, the second ship arrived just as the messenger from the first ship was delivering his message, and the city was saved.

That is democracy. Mob mentality. Our government, by contrast, is set up so that a smaller number of elected officials have all the power, which in theory is supposed to allow the decision makers of our government to keep their heads during times of crisis. It's obviously not perfect, but it's a whole lot better than what the Athenians had.

The next time you hear someone say, "the people of Alaska have spoken, we should deny them benefits as state employees," ask yourself when it's OK to oppress a minority. If the people of Alaska voted to deny left-handed people benefits, would that be just? How about people with green eyes? Birth marks on their faces? People with two "X" chromosomes? If you find yourself agreeing with denying homosexuals' rights but not any of these other groups of people, then you are basing that opinion on a prejudice or a belief that fosters prejudice, and neither of these belong in our government, regardless of who you are.

"Because the majority says so" is not a valid reason to oppress a minority.

• Josh Carter is a Juneau resident.

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