Monday, December 27, 2010

Democracy is not for sissies

Frances Moore Lappé has written books that have arguably changed as many people as did Rachel Carson, though Carson's Silent Spring had a more immediate effect on national legislation and Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet had a more immediate effect on the personal behavior of millions. Writers who come to their craft hoping to make a difference in the world hold Carson up as a paradigmatic exemplar of the possible. I'd include Lappé in that grouping.

When Lappé (2006) writes about the problems facing us, she frames the underlying problem as far more basic, as sine qua non to addressing all our other problems:

“The crisis is our feeling of powerlessness to address them” (p. 5).

This is exactly the basic idea behind both real democracy and strategic nonviolence. Powerlessness is a perception problem first because it perpetuates a positive feedback loop of negative result. If I fail to act because I perceive myself as powerless, I ensure that I remain powerless. How can we overcome this mutually reinforcing dynamic that cedes power to those who arrogate it unto themselves?

Activating ourselves is always easier when we can also activate others. There are two reasons to involve as many others as possible.

One is biological. It is the selfish herd instinct. The same internalized behavior modification mechanism that keeps prey animals in large herds to increase the chances that the predator will choose some other individual is the reason we like to sign a petition that thousands of others have signed rather than be the only one to write a letter to the editor. We would rather come out for peace in the company of a few thousand others on the street than as a lone resister at the military base. We don't want to be the one who gets picked off and terminated.

The second reason is chance of success. When Mazin Qumsiyeh stands alone at the Separation Wall near his ancestral home of Beit Sahour in Palestine, he can get arrested alone and tossed into a cell alone and he can hope for very little change in the public policy that keeps him a third-class citizen in his own homeland. When he is arrested with others, and when he writes op-eds about it, and when he speaks at schools and churches across the US about it, and when he writes books about Palestinian nonviolence, his arrest begins to take on a power that feeds another result, a potential change in public policy.

This is why the arsenal of democracy has nothing to do with guns and everything to do with the empowerment of people. This is why guns and bombs erode, not enhance, democracy, if by democracy we do not mean the notion of might makes right but rather that public discourse and civic engagement can produce wiser decisions than public distraction and technocratic rule.

Mazin stayed in our Whitefeather Peace House for two stretches while he and Mike Miles were conducting their Wheels of Justice speaking tour in the US a few years ago. I will never forget his first few minutes in the house, as he asked fervently if we had wireless internet or wired where he could plug in. He set up his laptop in the dining room and quickly connected and brought up images of cancer cells and sent back instructions for treatment. He lives to serve, he lives to heal, and he lives for justice, which he defines as requiring nonviolence. He is profoundly sincere and has a Palestinian dark humor full of irony and almost a Serenity Prayer orientation, gracefully accepting what he cannot change and moving the mountains he believes he can move.

If Mazin Qumsiyeh can show such faith in democracy, who are we to sit on the sidelines? He is living his faith and we live ours. If we have faith in consumerism and entertaining television, we will get ruled by others and we will pay the prices. If we join Mazin in a faith in people of good heart we strengthen our own power and the power of democracy. The choice is ours. Dr. Qumsiyeh has made his choice. He is a far more powerful member of the democracy we still have left in the US, where he cannot vote, than are many US citizens who can. The power of civil discourse is on the table for all of us. If we don't engage, we leave our power on the table and the war system profiteers pick it up for themselves every time. We can do better.

2011: We still have choices. Every day we delay we narrow our range of choice. It's work, it's sacrifice, and it's a small price for our children, our grandchildren, and the future of our herd of humankind.

Lappé, Frances Moore (2006), Democracy’s edge: Choosing to save our country by bringing democracy to life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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