LETTER FROM AMERICA: Time to nurture democracy

After this election it would be wise to remember the words of the Book of Proverbs: “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.”

By
December 19, 2016 20:31
Anti-Trump protest

Anti-Trump protest. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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I heard about the US election results on the slopes of the Elah Valley, the valley where David defeated Goliath. I was participating in the annual Arava Institute- Hazon Israel Bike Ride from Jerusalem to Eilat. Being at the beginning of the six-day bike ride I had many hours riding across the ever-changing Israeli landscape to think about the extraordinary results.

The first thought was that we had forgotten to take care of our democracy.

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Democracy needs nurturing.

The playwright Sam Shepard said back in 2004, “Democracy’s a very fragile thing. You have to take care of democracy. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn into scare tactics, it’s no longer democracy, is it? It’s something else. It may be an inch away from totalitarianism.” We teach civics less than in the past; that is something we need to correct.

We all know Independence Day is July 4, but how many of us know that Constitution Day is September 17? That is to say we are more than happy to celebrate freedom but less so the important building blocks and work that is required for democracy to thrive. It is interesting to note that in the Jewish tradition we count the days from Passover to Shavuot by counting the Omer; we connect the freedom of the Exodus to the responsibilities given to us at Mount Sinai.

Perhaps in the United States we should count the days from July 4 to September 17 to remind ourselves of that connection? For democracy to work the citizens of a political union need to feel the system works; that there is a level playing field so that even if a decision goes against them they feel their opinion got a fair hearing. It has become clear to more and more Americans, particularly since 2008, that the Horatio Alger story is more myth than fact. Many Americans feel the structures of political and economic power are stacked against them. Those systems and structures need to be reformed in ways that create more equitable avenues for all of America’s citizens.

Underscoring all of this is today’s zeitgeist. In 1994 Vaclav Havel poignantly observed, “And thus today we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. We enjoy all the achievements of modern civilization that have made our physical existence on this earth easier so in many important ways. Yet we do not know exactly what to do with ourselves, where to turn. The world of our experiences seems chaotic, disconnected, confusing. There appear to be no integrating forces, no unified meaning, no true inner understanding of phenomena in our experience of the world. Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us, yet we understand our own lives less and less. In short, we live in the postmodern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.”



That challenge to certainty is closely related to the globalized world we inhabit that many experience as chipping away at their identity. Group identity is one of the most important anchors in our lives providing us with meaning, an existential sense of place, a way of life and a feeling of security. At its best we allow our group identities to be the windows where were we celebrate and learn from the different colors and voices of the world. At its worst we allow them literally and figuratively to build walls and divisions.

Many of the election results we see around the world, including in the United States, are a reaction to that sense of group identity being undermined.

Last month the Israeli poet and writer Haim Guri was awarded an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. In his acceptance speech he reminded us that one’s group identity is never lived in isolation. He said, “Some people see pluralism and human diversity as a threat to identity. But it is only through pluralism and diversity that we may breathe deeply.”

Feeding this sense of insecurity is the pace of change. The horse and buggy had a shelf life of some 250 years. Email, which revolutionized the world some 20 years ago, is already passé, being replaced by social media. As Pope Francis I has written, “The continued acceleration of changes affecting humanity and the planet is coupled today with a more intensified pace of life and work which might be called ‘rapidification.’ Although change is part of the working of complex systems, the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution.

Moreover, the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development. Change is something desirable, yet it becomes a source of anxiety when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity.”

That anxiety can often lead people to extremes. In his book How to Cure a Fanatic, Amos Oz succinctly reminds us of the choice we now face, “It is about the ancient struggle between fanaticism and pragmatism.

Between fanaticism and pluralism. Between fanaticism and tolerance.” We need to learn how to strengthen the latter of these equations.

Perhaps we need more philosophers to run for political office and not politicians and businesspeople.

Lost in much of the hysteria about the election of Donald Trump is the fact that only twice since the Second World War has a party won the presidency after holding the office for two terms. When it comes to politics we seem to like change.

But more than anything this election was about the failure to understand freedom. It was Janis Joplin who sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” when in fact freedom does not mean you should express your ideas in any way you want. The tenor of this campaign was ugly and crass, with all forms of expression considered acceptable. The unraveling of civility is also the unraveling of democracy.

After this election it would be wise to remember the words of the Book of Proverbs: “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.” It is time to nurture democracy.

The author, a rabbi, teaches conflict resolution at the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College.

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