Sonoma County Town Hall Pulls in the People

Sonoma County Town Hall

This morning, we had a town hall on healthcare with Congressional Representative Mike Thompson and State Senator Mike McGuire. It was at the local high school, which is roughly a half mile away from me, so I walked down to it.

The first thing that struck me was that there were other people out walking and it was pretty clear they were on their way to the Town Hall as well. I had noticed when I left that two unfamiliar cars were parked in front of my house (I live is pretty rural area). It was only on getting to the high school that I realized they must have been people who went to the town hall. The very large Pine High School parking lot was packed.

As you can see in the photo above, it was standing room only. There are about 400 people in that photo, and that is about one-third of the gymnasium. So there were roughly a thousand people there. And note that it wasn’t constant: people came and people went. It wouldn’t surprise me if two thousand people took part in the whole thing.

It’s About Engagement

I wasn’t that interested in what the politicians had to say. And while I was there, they didn’t say much. Mostly, people spoke — generally with some eloquence. But there was anger and fear in the air.

There was also a sense of the ridiculousness of the whole thing: we have a system, it works, and now we stand to lose it just because the Republicans made political hay out of it over the last eight years? We know that despite everything, less than 20 percent of Americans want Obamacare repealed outright — at least not without Trump’s facile promise of some better and “great.”

I didn’t stick around long. I just wanted to get some pictures and see what the turn-out would look like. Crowds are not my thing (unless I am on a stage and they are watching me). And this is northern California. My Representative (Thompson) is a good deal more conservative than I would like. But there’s no question that he’s a solid, mainstream Democrat who votes as I want him to the vast majority of the time (given our limited options).

My take-away from the whole thing was that this is the kind of political engagement that is necessary if we are to survive. As Benjamin Franklin probably didn’t say, but should have, when (probably not) asked what form of government the USA would have, “A republic, if you can keep it.” If citizens don’t participate in a democracy (Okay Glenn Beck fans, Democratic Republic!), if they don’t vote, if they don’t communicate with their representatives, if they don’t pay attention to what’s going on — they lose everything.

Systemic Problems

Of course, as many of you know, over the last five years, I’ve come to believe that the problem is systemic: capitalism itself. It naturally leads to plutocracy. And that is what we effectively have. But we do still technically have a vaguely democratic system. (Consider that Wyoming with a population of 600,000 people — roughly the population of my county — has two Senators, as does California with a population 65 times greater.)

My point is that seeing people engaged in the political process is not just heartening; it is essential if we are to survive.

Chinese Room Argument

John Searle - Chinese Room ArgumentThe argument and thought-experiment now generally known as the Chinese Room Argument was first published in a paper in 1980 by American philosopher John Searle. It has become one of the best-known arguments in recent philosophy. Searle imagines himself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. Searle understands nothing of Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, he produces appropriate strings of Chinese characters that fool those outside into thinking there is a Chinese speaker in the room. The narrow conclusion of the argument is that programming a digital computer may make it appear to understand language but does not produce real understanding. Hence the “Turing Test” is inadequate. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. The broader conclusion of the argument is that the theory that human minds are computer-like computational or information processing systems is refuted. Instead minds must result from biological processes; computers can at best simulate these biological processes. Thus the argument has large implications for semantics, philosophy of language and mind, theories of consciousness, computer science, and cognitive science generally.

–David Cole
The Chinese Room Argument