Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Democracy, power and listening

What is required to fix our democracy here in the US? Yes, it needs fixing. It is violent and unsustainable, polarized and broken into warring worldview cantons, where even a simple and clearly sensible thing like eliminating a few points in special hoggish tax cuts for the obscenely rich during a time of general impoverishment is fought against tooth and nail--fought against successfully. There is a great deal of posturing, pronouncing, proclaiming and pontificating, but when is it quiet on the right or left? When does the listening come in?

One of my favorite books of all time is Barbara Kingsolver's brilliant 1998 novel, The Poisonwood Bible, a novel about which many college courses and doctoral dissertations might be written. It is about Congo in the time of transition, just before and just after liberation, Lumumba, and how the cultures and the powers revealed themselves to each other in new ways as they found themselves and asserted deeper identities. It was a time when the imperious missionary was making his last doomed stand, about to be swallowed up by an indigenous populace weary and angry at the monumental arrogance of Euro and US cultures. Kingsolver chose the perfect time, the ultimate vehicle, to transmit timely and timeless lessons about respect, comparative government, and the real relational forces that make it all healthy or in their absence produce sickness.

At one point, more than 300 pages into the intricate, engaging story, the village headman, Tata Ndu, finally confronts the overweening hubris of the missionary, Nathan Price, who hasn't listened to anyone since arriving in Congo.

Tata Ndu seemed calm and unsurprised by anything that had happened. "A, Tata Price," he said, in his deep sighing voice. "You believe we are mwana, your children, who knew nothing until you came here. Tata Price, I am an old man who learned from other old men. I could tell you the name of the great chief who instructed my father, and all the ones before him, but you would have to know how to sit down and listen. There are one hundred twenty-two. Since the time of our mankula we have made our laws without help from white men."

He turned toward the congregation with the air of a preacher himself. Nobody was snoozing now, either. "Our way was to share a fire until it burned down,
ayi? To speak to each other until every person was satisfied. Younger men listened to older men. Now the Beelizi tell us the vote of a young, careless man counts the same as the vote of an elder."

In just two paragraphs, we can draw lessons about the care and nurturing of our collective autonomy, our own indigenous ways, our ability to be agile and nimble and work well with others, and our value, each of us, to the survival of the whole. When will we turn the corner?

We are too big. Humankind is now about seven billion. That has become too crowded, and when I can learn the quotidian affairs of far too many of them in our internetted, twittering world, I am overwhelmed by irrelevant minutia even as I strive to develop and maintain respect for all. The Poisonwood Bible tells most directly about one family in one village in the outback of the Congo basin, with countless lessons that flow like the great river through it all.

We cannot impose our way of life--something we presume is the best and for a long time seemed to be the most desired--on the world. We have lost it ourselves. We are no longer at the top of the snake pit with the rope, deciding which poor souls to save. We are now in the pit and we rely on everyone else, just as they rely on us. It is long past time to unburden ourselves and the world of our cultural superiority baggage that is so heavy and so useless.

Nonviolence is our hope; it requires listening skills beyond what most of us have, and there is one way to learn them: practice. When we give it we will get it.

(Kingsolver in her natural habitat)

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