Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why I Am Writing People Without Borders

Democracy as Talent Mixup


I have always been fascinated with the universality of human talent, perhaps because living under constant threat of a migraine attack circumscribes my own talent in such a strange, invisible way. 
To me it is a tremendous, fascinating mystery why things are the way they are in the human condition. No, that is not what I mean. What I want to say, what mystifies me is that, as Shakespeare said, "We all have our entrances and our exits," but what if we switched the actors around, so that we had different entrances and exits with every performance? What if "all the world is a stage," but the actor playing Hamlet had to play Polonius, Polonius played Gildenstern, and so forth? Okay some actors would be the wrong age or sex, but assume an audience that did not care about that. Would some casting arrangements work better than the original one? Or perhaps a play could be written designed so that the roles can be switched around randomly with every performance... I also wonder if such experiments could be made in the real world, with actual people. Take twenty or thirty people from your community. One may be a postal delivery person, another a cook, another an electrician, and so forth. They are all fairly successful and happy with the way things turned out for them. But imagine you could run their lives over again ... no, you do not even have to do that, just throw them all on into an empty city block and mix up their jobs randomly. Give the postal delivery person the job of cooking, the cook the job of wiring buildings, the electrician the delivery job, and so forth. Make sure they get good training, of course, so that the new cook or electrician would not burn the place down, or that letters get to their destination. Would the city work better or worse than before? I am sure that, given how universal human talent is, there would be some randomly determined mix-ups of workers that would operate more efficiently than before. Even those arrangements that did not work out, I think that most participants would learn from the experience and glad of the attempt. Of course, in the real world, most people are not all that happy with their lives and many would be more than pleased to have a reset button they could push. 
Probably this is one reason I am so fascinated with democracy, and how to improve it. What I just described, a switch in roles, is essentially what happens every time you have an election. One candidate is working at one job before and if elected she suddenly is doing another job. A reset button has been hit in her life, and she may do better or worse. Nobody can say if a person will thrive in another job, not even the candidate herself. So what does democracy do? It leaves the decision up to, well, everybody, all at once. If it is a Baha'i election God comes into the mix. If you are elected, God was the one who hit the reset button. This is democracy sacralized, made into a divine mystery, like the Oracle of Delphi for the Hellenes. And talking about ancient times, in Athens the democratic reset button was in some ways better than democracy today. A public service position, such as judge, was rotated among citizens, the decision as to who served next being determined by lot. Everybody served, if only temporarily. By the way, the job of judge I mentioned combined judge and jury with a genre of television show that we now call court TV. Hundreds of citizens would gather together in a large group, hear the evidence and finally vote on whether the accused was guilty or innocent. When Socrates gave his famous speech in the Apology, he was making his case for hundreds of judges. I suppose you could say that they also were the victims of his supposed crime, since the accusation was of corrupting their youth. Lately I read the Apology to our kids for our daily study session and I noticed something else about Socrates' defence. Every learned commentator talks about how Plato never forgave the democracy of Athens for condemning his beloved teacher, but all through the speech you can see how much Socrates learned from his hands-on experience as a member of a democratic city. It tested his metal. He made a decision as judge that almost cost him his life, but he refused to bend his integrity as amateur judge to outside pressure. In what democracy today would an ordinary potter's son get the chance to have his integrity tested in this way? Certainly no so-called democracy of our day. Maybe hundreds or thousands other citizens of Athens failed these tests -- they certainly did when they condemned Socrates -- but even a failure as judge shows one's lack of worth, and such self-knowledge, bitter as it is, can be useful for self-improvement. The fact that Socrates shone his day as judge no doubt led on to greater things, and helped make him one of history's greatest teachers. His trial, like the trial of Jesus, judged the judges more than the accused. Our present democracies took up one of the worst features of Athenian democracy, voting, and left aside its greatest features, universal participation and random choice. The vile representative democracy that we have now should be thrown onto the toxic dump of history, along with other failed experiments like Nazism and Communism. After all, it is not Mao or Hitler who are turning the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone. Stalin did not push over a billion poor into slums and favelas, or initiate the massive disaster of global warming. No, representative democracies did all that. One reason I am writing People Without Borders is that I think that it is urgent that we start experimenting with participatory democracy, working out something closer to what was briefly tried in Athens. And when I say experimenting, I do not mean superficial switching of data streams. Cell phones and hand held computers are endemic and offer a sham, an appearance of change that changes nothing. "For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows." Instead, we need substantive, controlled, ongoing experiments in democracy in every neighbourhood and locality. The big reason for coming together now is to pool our resources as neighbours in order to put a solar panel on every roof, and a wind turbine on every home's antenna tower. But beyond any specific purpose, I mean the amateurism of Athens. We should be habitually mixing up jobs and roles, making waves on the talent pool. Who knows who, given a chance, might, like Socrates, prove to be a better judge than those trained professionally. Put amateurs alongside trained professionals, and watch how they interact -- and not just how they perform but what each can learn from the another. We should rotate the actors on life's stage. We should give those in a rut a shot at jumping into new situations. Socrates learned from his democratic city that we are here to enquire and seek the truth, not just to "perform," or even to innovate. He looked forward to doing the same thing in the next world too, "What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not. For besides being happier in that world than in this, they will be immortal, if what is said is true." (Apology) Socrates became the greatest teacher precisely because he was an inquisitive amateur, not a specialist, and had the chance to try many careers, judge, soldier, manual worker. He was the reverse of the overspecialized teachers of today, jealously fencing off their own territory. Today's experts are weighed down, like Marley's ghost, with chains, deeds locks and torts of their degrees and qualifications. We need to train inquisitive, generalist citizens, universalistic thinkers, who are not afraid to get their hands dirty making things better. The hillside housing design described in People Without Borders will offer living spaces that move around themselves, specifically designed to make such experiments in amateur, participatory democracy easy and natural.


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