by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
Okay. It’s hardly a perfect system. But it’s better than most alternatives and continues to have potential. I admit I’m a WWII baby who always fears fascists under the bed. I put things together and get the plot before it necessarily exists. So I like the idea of democracy, even if I don’t agree with the majority a lot of the time. The fact that they can’t secretly gang up on me and my ilk and have to go by the rule of law and are supposed to be transparent in decision-making and that we can change the government with sufficient collective will – I’d like this to
Is it under threat? One view is, Yes, always. We can each afford to be non-vigilant much of the time but different eras call for different measures and for me it’s time to stop ranting and wringing my hands and put more positive thinking into action. But the positive paths are still being defined.
The Everyday Scoffing of a Bad Law
I put forward that disrespect for the law moves us toward indifference about maintaining democracy. The Ken Burns Prohibition television series reveals layers of similarity to our times. One of the most obvious is that prohibiting the production, trade and use of alcohol had the same effect as prohibiting marijuana: development of criminal activity around distribution, gangs forming and staking territory, disrespect for police and politicians, and failure to actually enforce the law.
Through several generations we’ve breathed in a social environment of distrust and distain for the workings of the law because just about all of us know numbers of people who use weed and none of us think they should be jailed. Respect for democracy suffers. Lawmakers and politicians are suspect. Is low voter turnout linked to distain for marijuana laws? The disconnect between politicians and ordinary pot smokers is huge. The Prohibition of our era should be struck from the books.
The Street Breeds Survival Thinking – Not Democracy
The pillars of democracy include clarity about what has to be decided (i.e. laws under consideration), debate about goals and options, information sharing, means for allowing different opinions, open decision-making processes, absence of coercion, universal voter registration. There are many sub-cultures in our society where these are foreign concepts. Where people are very poor and feel powerless, the processes of democracy are rarely part of the social environment. True, a sense of community is strong. Mutual help can be open-handed. But there is a persistent absence of reaching common goals. For starters, even identifying what is a reasonable goal needs discussion. Discussion requires trust that your idea will be listened to. Lacking common exposure to how people (or groups) can work things out, meetings and decision-making fall into the hands of the forceful and loud, the ones able to intimidate. What matters is personal – not collective – power. The ‘Chair’ tells others what to do. A Committee is a one- or two-person show. Keeping Minutes (a simple record of decisions made) is distrusted – seen as a tool for outside interference. The basics of functioning as a group democratically aren’t embedded in the culture of poverty.
I suggest that someone trusted has to demonstrate, encourage, and stick with the effort. These folks used to be called Community Organizers. Are there many still working? (I’d like to know).
The democracy that’s most exciting emerged from the struggles of Latin America 30-40 years ago, called participatory democracy (also known now as ‘inclusive democracy’. Paolo Friere influenced many of us back then and some didn’t stop working with his approach.
“Participatory democracy strives to create opportunities for all members of a political group to make meaningful contributions to decision-making, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to such opportunities.” (Wikipedia, Oct 19.11)
There are social movements explicitly practicing participatory democracy: e.g. the Landless Workers’ Movement (Brazil), Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign (the poor in Cape Town) (from Wikipedia, Participatory Democracy). There is an international journal, available electronically: Takis Fotopoulos’ Inclusive Democracy Project & Journal of Inclusive Democracy.
Last week I referred to Naajid Nawaz: A global culture to fight extremism, a TED talk. I urge you to listen to him. (http://www.ted.com/speakers/maajid_nawaz.html). His vision, focused on Muslim cultures, engages anyone who gets excited about learning and community. Think grassroots, not top-down: not education as sit-in-your-seats learning but coming out of community, fusing action and reflection. It’s effectively participatory democracy.
An Important Link with Technology
Mike Gouthro in Comments on last week’s blog (To Fire Our Engines: Collective Hope?) fed into the topic of a vital democratic revival, addressing the uses of technology to build connective tissue between people who care about the maturing of a democratic society. He and like-minded cohorts all over the world are on to something that could make a real difference.
The Wikipedia piece addresses the need for information:
“So much information must be gathered for the overall decision-making process to succeed, technology may provide important forces leading to the type of empowerment needed for participatory models.” (Wikipedia)
The networks that Mike foresees are fundamental to ‘growing’ democracy:
“Effectively increasing the scale of participation, and translating small but effective participation groups into small world networks, are areas currently being studied.” (Wikipedia)
It’s a Risk
Democracy may not win. Some will decide that it isn’t the best system for them. Maybe a better one will emerge? But meanwhile, there’s work to do to maintain even this flawed model – the best we have. (I think it’s also theologically sound…)