The Day they Hung the Elephant

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It was sept 13thIt was 1916. Erwin, Tennessee. Apparently, a town full of bloodthirsty rednecks. Here is why I say that. They hung a fucking elephant. Killed it. Over 3000 people watched it. Look it up. Go ahead. I’ll wait till you get back. The elephants name was Mary.

A hobo (named “Red” – apparently for his neck) had joined the circus just the day before. He decided to beat the poor animal for no reason.  He apparently thought that was what ‘animal handling’ meant when he took the job. He did what we would today call ‘animal abuse’. The poor beast picked the fool up and threw him against a wall. Then she walked over and calmly stepped on his head. Most reasonable people would have applauded.

Mary got back in line (this happened during the circus parade) and marched with the other animals as if nothing had happened. The show went on that night. But the next day… the next day was another matter.

People started complaining. People wanted to see justice. People from one town started organizing to bring a cannon over and blow Mary the Elephant up. The governor apparently got involved. Everyone wanted to see Mary dead. Mary only had one friend. Her friends in the circus.

But the circus people did what they do. They let the show go on. The sheriff arrested Mary. The people of Erwin put her on trial. I am not sure if she had a public defendant or not. In any case – she was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. They brought out a 100-ton derrick car with a crane. They strung up Mary. The chain broke the first time – and Mary broke her hip. But that 2ndtime they had a winner. They buried her next to the tracks.


Could this happen today? Probably. Maybe not in Erwin Tennessee, but generally people are not radically smarter or more empathetic than they were 100 years ago. There certainly have been improvements in how we treat the other inhabitants of this planet, but we continue to push larger mammals to the brink of extinction with no plan in place on how to share an Earth that is increasingly smaller every day. While we have seen a radical reduction in the number of animals that are being used in the Circus, it’s not clear that’s a great thing. For many the only exposure they had to these types of animals was the circus. But in any case.. there are clearly parts of the world where this type of animal abuse is not rare. Sometimes it’s done for tourist, sometimes for other reasons. But humans continue to abuse animals. We are not that different from what we were in 1916 as a people.


But this is not a blog about animal rights or animal abuse. Those are topics that are important. Very important. But I want to talk instead about something else. We often hear people talk about the “Wisdom of the Crowds”. This is the idea that if we have a hundred people that all guess at how many jellybeans are in a jar, that the average guess is actually usually the most accurate. In other words – by averaging guesses about some topic you can actually come closer to the truth – over say – just listening to an expert. This technique has been proven to be effective a number of times in experiments. When it comes to quantitative estimations, whether of stocks, jellybeans, football scores or any of a number of things like this – the crowd often out performs the individual.

It’s often touted as what make a direct democracy so attractive. If the crowd has more wisdom than the expert politicians – then why can’t we just get rid of them. If the crowd has more wisdom that (say) the Electoral College – let’s just lose that historical appendix and move on smartly.


Humans can sometimes be pretty good. Humans can also be pretty damn evil. But when we find ourselves in mobs we tend to do the worse type of evil things. Things that are still remembered 100’s of years later as acts of extreme evil. Like hanging an elephant. This is the counter to the “Wisdom of the crowds” argument. We need checks and balances because we are human. We need the checks and balances to ensure that we don’t do really evil things. Like slavery (which was eventually eradicated). Like rushing into wars. Like Nazi Germany. Like “drinking the coolaid” literally or figuratively.


So what is the best form of government?

Mobs are known evil doers. Dictators are not an acceptable alternative. Some types of indirect democracy with serious checks and balances seems to be the current best choice for somewhat fair government oversite. But it’s not perfect. With the rise of populism we are seeing a form of the Mob that is effecting countries around the world doing things that are ultimately against the best interest of the majority of people in those states.

But what about Robots?

It has been suggested that robot overlords might do better that an indirect democracy, mob rule or any of another similar experiments in government that we have been executing over the last 1000 years.

The argument goes like this. In the near future, Robots will be smarter, more dispassionate and able to judicate differences both between their constituents as well as between countries.

Do you buy it? Do you want to end up like Mary someday?


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