Saturday, October 29, 2016

Democracy of the indigents #2

A previous blog proposed, borrowing Aristotle, that democracy is when the indigents rule and not the “landed class”. In the full knowledge and consciousness that such a piece of history seems unfathomable, it is nevertheless useful to speculate on the benefits of such a reversal, turning upside-down the history power-holding and operating of the rich, the people of property and the people of the upper class.

The first thing that springs to mind would be the shift in empathy from a hard-nosed, accountant driven, balance-sheet-justified perspective on public policy and debate to a real and grounded look at the needs of real people in the country. The current “politically correct” posture of appearances trumping reality in which the practicing politicians consider primarily the PR implications of their decisions on their individual and collective careers (in that seducing aphrodisiac, political power) serves neither the practitioners nor the public good. It does, however, help to justify, sustain, enrich and ennoble the Public Relations gurus who have, over the last three or four decades, come to power, supported and sustained by the corporate cheques whose agenda they serve through their lobbying tsunamis.

Just today, for example a drug company that has lobbied the Canadian Finance Department three different times is organizing a $1500-a-plate dinner for the Finance Minister, where they hope (and expect) to generate an even  more favourable hearing for their “for-profit” cause, supported by some nuanced and likely imperceptible change in tax provisions, that could conceivably be included in the next federal budget.  Of course, the Prime Minister has issued guidelines that require all ministers to operate in ways that no “influence” is purchased, and no appearance of the pay-to-play schemes that we all know abound gets played in the media. Keeping skirts clean, quite naturally, is rule one in contemporary politics. And we all know there are battalions of lawyers and accountants, paid for by both the wealthy individuals and the top corporations, and tendered to politicians of all stripes on a contract basis (full time employment for these “crisis-management ambulance drivers” would be in bad taste!) whose ‘consults’ are filled with the very pertinent points that will protect their “clients” and justify their invoices being paid.

There is a cliché among the political class that ideologues on the right are paranoid about how public money is spent, while ideologues on the left are paranoid about how the politicians’ sex life is portrayed publicly. Common to both ends of the spectrum is “paranoia” and the fear of being turfed out of office, (in the U.S. a provision exists for recall, by which, with the collection of various numbers of signatures, an elected office holder can be removed from office). And, as we all live in ‘glass houses’ with much of our lives exposed and thereby vulnerable to attack, much of it viscious and out there with impunity, every politician is especially wary of bruises or more permanent wound to his/her reputation, the “crisis management” gurus from the PR firms are making a killing plying their craft.

However, paranoia and political correctness are elevated in their importance in a world in which politicians pretend to a sophistication and an aura of the importance of their positions that defies reality, and also puts them in a space where the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. Of course, ridiculous blunders will generate blow back from the opposition and from the public through the media. In fact, this “game” of keeping the “brand” safe on the part of each politician and the party of his/her allegiance has seemed to have replaced the on-the-job performance of many in the political theatre of our times. And while it is important that the public trust those who make decisions on their behalf, the basics of governing, of compromise, of breaking new ground with new and well-rehearsed and tested legislation has to take precedence over the careers and the faux debates that dominate the headlines daily.

Inside the bubble of political theatre, with reputation governing, money and how it is spent, becomes a critical, observable and easily debated subject, available to the least informed, and the least interested and the most “super-ego” personalities around. Money, to buy a good “image” through the presentation of another piece of “good theatre” is no substitute for either governance or for the kind of grunt work that attends to the monitoring of the process, the scrutiny of how the money is mis-spent, and how the game is played on the public screens of our televisions and our laptops.

Just this week, we learned that at the recent Rio Olympics, for example, some 4000 athletes were never tested for illicit drug use, because the committee charged with that responsibility was unprepared and did not have the necessary structure or capacity to conduct the tests which are the cornerstone of the reputation of the games themselves. We will likely never know whether or not any of the medal winners would have tested positive for banned substances at the time of their “win” and the public confidence in the Olympic “brand” and process will again be tarnished. There is no guarantee that democracies ruled by indigents would have prevented such occurrences, but there is some truth to the proposition that their relationship to other people and the needs of those people not only for food, shelter and work with dignity, but also for the whole truth and nothing but the truth is more grounded in a contempt for bullshit, and for pretense and for dissembling and for self-aggrandizement than the evidence suggests the political class exhibits.

If, for example, we stripped the public relations machine from the process of governing, including the process of lobbying for the mega-corporations and the process of selling leaders, leadership and all forms of legislation, (a move that might be more likely with indigents as rulers), we just might offer a kind of reality check to the media, as well as an opposition among the wealthy that would reverse the power imbalance. Currently, the rich and the powerful have such influence on the ways things happen, the people who get elected, and the legislation that gets passed or rejected; if indigents governed the ‘hen house’ of the public business, those who are currently voiceless would be given a real voice, and the process of how they see the world would begin the debate on public issues.

It is the reversal of the starting point of public debate, of the framing of the public issues by people who owe nothing to anyone and who have not been contaminated by their tradition of “power and status” that seems to have some potential for value.
Starting with a perspective on global warming and climate change, for example, that is based on “survival” something with which the indigents have grappled for their whole lives, (and not whether or not the profits of multinational corporations are endangered) would radically transform the public debate on that issue, and the potential for legislation and for court appointments in support of the endangered planet.

Starting with a perspective of basic needs, for another example, would have the potential to “sentence” the prison system and indeed the law enforcement apparatus into a total make-over: eliminating  solitary confinement, focusing on remediation and the root causes of crime, rather than the primacy of deterrence (most of which is not support by the empirical evidence), offering alternative methods of prisoner reform and support, better transition supports for a return to the “outside” and a greater access to the “inside” by those seeking to teach and to support those confined ‘inside’.

Housing for all, access to food for all, access to quality health care for all, work with dignity for all, access to formal and quality education for all and truth-telling from all leaders without regard for the ultimate consequences on careers, could so transform the relationship between the “governors and the governed” and provide a window on how an alternative “power structure” operates that could provide an model for the time when the “power disease” infects the previously indigent rulers. And that time, as do all cycles, would inevitably evolve.

It is the purging of the power elite, not through violence, not through a military coup, and not through the interference of any foreign power that this proposition advocates. And this goal is only feasible in a situation that has devolved downward so far that governance, legitimacy of the instruments of governance, are in question. Chris Hedges (columnist in, for one, advocates for a “citizen revolt” as the only way to overturn the paralysis that currently freezes Washington.

 In Ottawa, too, without effective opposition, both major opposition parties currently searching for new leaders, and with a substantial majority, the Trudeau Liberal government is sailing in waters that do not provide the essential ingredients for an effective democracy, namely well-researched, well documented and effectively presented opposition arguments for public policy. In Great Britain, with the recent “Brexit” vote, the establishment preference was overturned, and Britain is designing and planning to execute their withdrawal from the European Union. The International Criminal Court has lost two members (African states of South Africa and Burundi), and the festering conflict(S) in the Middle East without any process of cessation of bombing, killing and mutilation of innocents continues undeterred, while terrorists threaten peace and security in Africa and elsewhere, and Putin blithely invades Crimea with little to no reprisals, and now is allegedly intervening in the American election, again with impunity….

Is it any wonder that some are giving active consideration to draining the swamp of those currently in power? The media have apparently swallowed the kool-aid of their masters, the executive suits who write the cheques of reporters, and thrown their weight onto the support of the ‘establishment’….the identity of which is less difficult to discern than the “good actors” from the “bad actors” in Syria and Iraq.

A recent revelation of an argument made  back in 1964 by a Yale professor, that the American demand for simplicity, slogans, bumper stickers and sell lines to comprise their election debates, threatens democracy spells out part of the problem. Thoroughly insulting of the “ordinary” people, based on the assumption that the complexity of most issues escapes the purview of the most engaged and committed voter, those who run elections create a swamp of drowning images that so reduce reality to another “prize fight”, as something the voter can “grasp”. By so conducting their “profession”  they are sabotaging the roots of the democratic process, public access to and grasp of significant information in a context of a ‘big picture’ on major public issues. In management theory and practice, warnings abound to all responsible leaders to avoid “personalizing” all conflict situations. When personalities clash, the school-yard fight is replicated by people now wearing suits and stiletto heels. And the issues at the root of those conflicts are rendered mute, and the responsibility of those making policy and for teaching and monitoring those policies is deflected and unaddressed. Similarly, in the pursuit of democracy, currently in too  many instances, complex issues that face all people on the planet are represented by the faces and the slogans and the bumper stickers of opposing candidates.

The media, for its part, rushes to the “latest scandal” as the shortest path to the highest ratings, for a public addicted to the gossip generated by politicians, actors, athletes and public figures. Considering those in the public “eye” as the important characters in the planning and the leadership of any nation, however, is counterintuitive to the larger and more important process of the democracy on which the nation’s future depends. “Star” characters, from the entertainment world, from the tabloids, from the private lives of the most “exposed” facebook and twitter reports are not the stuff of what is needed, serious public education and public debate and discernment of important public issues. And reducing the relative value of candidates to their public “popularity” (when such popularity is based more on the number of “likes” than on their “ability, experience, and proven leadership) is not the stuff of either democracy or of good governance. It may well be that the elections that turn on such popularity are, themselves, an overt self-inflicted sabotage of the potential of the democratic process itself.

In Canada, Trudeau’s election, as the preferred “change” from Harper, for example, is obviously generated by the “name” of his father, and the persona he projected when compared with that of the other “non-Harper leader, Thomas Mulcair, a much less “sunny” persona than that offered by Trudeau. And public images, as we all know, are not the stuff demanded by difficult decisions that require a full grasp of the nuances of the issue, the relative positions of the competing interests in those decisions and a deep consciousness of the long-term prospects of the nation and its electors.

Indigents, by definition, lack the skills and the ingredients to generate a “glossy portfolio” of a resume. Nevertheless, such “lack” may well be the stuff that all nations lead: humility, insignificance, powerlessness, the need to know how to receive before how to “give”. It is the former, the need to know how to receive, and not the need to know how to give, that separates the people who know all there is to know about human weakness, vulnerability, humility and all of the truths that accompany those lives.

In literature, for example, Shakespeare puts the words of the most troubling truths in the mouths of his clowns. How ironic! Sometimes, too, the disclosure of important truths comes from the mouths of “nobodies” who carry no public approbation. Other writers have put the truth in the mouths of the most debased youths, often the orphans and the disregarded and the disposed humans. “Out of the mouths of babes and drunks,” (comes the truth) is another aphorism that scampers around at the heels of our culture, like a slinking cat in the shadows of the early morning fog. And it is the refusal of the “respectable” class(es) to listen to the voices of these “rejects” that defines the seeds of the disintegration of the foundation of democracy, like the eroding rains and winds and temperature variants that erode the concrete that keeps the building foundations secure.

It is obviously both delusional and impractical to suggest that indigents will become our rulers, in the near or mid-term of even long-term future. It is not delusional or impractical, however, to point to the failure of the establishment to offer and to provide the quality of governance that democracy purports to be able to offer. And it is not only those ‘without post-secondary education” who are rattled by the current global political, cultural, environmental, military, ethical and basic effectiveness failures of those in power. And the one human resource missing from the corridors of power, in all institutions, is the resource available among the indigents.

We have evolved to the stage where we are witnessing slogans on garbage disposal trucks that read: “What if your garbage was powering this truck?” We are actually harnessing the sewer water and transforming it into safe drinking water in areas where water shortages threaten both human direct needs and the needs of the farming sector. Surely, it is not beyond our human imaginations to conceive, and to begin to think of how to implement the kind of changes that would bring the voices of the most indigent in all of our cultures, in all of our countries, into our political debates, on all important public issues. Their perspective can only enhance our potential for not only literal survival, but also for a transformed society and culture from which new policies, practices and attitudes can be mined.

In a public affairs call-in radio broadcast about adult literacy in another life, while interviewing a college president and an indigent student who had learned to read from the president’ spouse, I mentioned the need for the audience to learn the mailing address of the college, should they wish to access its programs. Immediately, the phone lights glittered with activity: “We need to know the phone number; we can’t read or write!” came the voice on the phone.

Filling that gap in our collective consciousness, the same gap that blurted from my mouth in that radio program, is what this argument seeks to fill.  


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