Tag Archives: Democracy

[Video/Music] Words of freedom, words of hope

[Video/Music] Words of freedom, words of hope

Listen to this song. Kelmti Horra, ‘my word is free’, sung by Emel Mathlouthi at a mass sit-in.

What you hear is the sound of hope.

“I am those who are free and never fear,”1 she sang, as the Tunisian people rose up to topple the dictator. Yes, that revolution may have been followed by an electoral victory for Islamists, but few revolutions ever attain total liberation. No, make that none.

That is the way of the world. Some regime grows abusive; eventually the people rise up and topple it; a new regime comes instead, and before long it abuses the very people who put it in power. Perhaps it is not as cruel as that which it replaced; all the better for the new rulers, as they know the people will consider them better than their predecessors, and be hesitant to rise up again.

But the way of human freedom – of free thought – is the way of the constant revolution. The old king is dead, long live the new king – for a while, until he grows cruel and we again grow weary and it is, again, time to replace him.

No regime that is abusive towards its people can last forever. Eventually, someone will stand up and say, “I am the free people of the world. I am like a bullet.”

And then, the cycle begins again.

Know hope.

Footnotes

  1. I got the English translation of the lyrics from here. []

What are the ingredients of democratic culture?

Poster for my upcoming workshop and lecture, Greifswald, August 25th, (all in German.) Click to enlarge.

What are the main ingredients of a democratic culture?

On August 25th, I’ll be giving a workshop and lecture in Greifswald. At the EUDEC conference in Freiburg, my host and I grabbed two plastic chairs and sat down in a sunny spot for a short interview, some of which is now on the fine poster ad you see here; at one point he asked me a question I haven’t heard too often: what are the main characteristics of individuals who are part of a “democratic culture”?

A democratic culture, as I understand it, is a kind of culture that develops within a group that makes decisions democratically; democratic culture makes democracy more than just a decision-making process – instead it becomes a way of life, something you notice in all kinds of interactions between people.

I came up with four main points:

  • Communication at eye level (as opposed to talking up or down to someone) – regardless of age
  • Respect  for all other individuals
  • Willingness to listen, even when confronted with a view you disagree with
  • Willingness to reflect  on one’s actions, recognize mistakes, and learn from them

To me, these are the things that people have to have in order to keep a truly democratic culture alive.

Without equal communication, respect, and willingness to listen, the discussions that are the bread and butter of democracy are impossible. Without a willingness to reflect, they’re pointless.

What do you think are the most important ingredients of democratic culture? Leave a short comment below!

Thoughts about: the role of staff in Sudbury schools

The role of staff at Sudbury schools can be difficult to understand, and easy to misunderstand. I’ve heard that staff “aren’t allowed to offer classes” or even “aren’t allowed to express their own opinion.” But it’s not about being forbidden from doing this or doing that – what it comes down to is being authentic and respectful.

“Where do you work?”

“At Sudbury Valley School.”

“What do you do?”

“Nothing.”

-Hanna Greenberg, The Art of Doing Nothing

I was recently reminded of a discussion we had, more than a decade ago, when starting Sudbury Jerusalem.

The topic of the discussion was whether Sudbury staff are allowed to offer classes, and it’s one of the few discussions from the founding process which I still remember vividly today.

We were sitting in a co-founder’s airy living-room, spread out on several couches and stools, and we talked well into the night. It’s no wonder – the role of staff comes up again and again anywhere where people who went to more traditional schools are trying to wrap their heads around the Sudbury approach. Continue reading Thoughts about: the role of staff in Sudbury schools

Politics is not for everyone – even in a direct democracy

Democracy is about allowing people to participate – even if only a minority takes an active role most of the time.

I’m often asked how many people really participated in School Meetings at Sudbury Jerusalem – as if it’s less democratic when fewer people choose to participate. But actually, low participation at meetings can be a sign that democracy is working well.

 

When we started Sudbury Jerusalem, for a few weeks we had a School Meeting every day.

Most of the proposals, at first, came from those who had been in and around the founding process – mainly staff and children of staff. I was a student and a co-founder, and one of the most active participants.

It took months – dozens of Meetings – for the process to become so established in the school’s culture that many other students made proposals. In parallel, as time went by, fewer and fewer students regularly took part in School Meetings. Continue reading Politics is not for everyone – even in a direct democracy

Gideon Levy: “After 115 years, it’s time for Zionism to retire”

Gideon Levy suggests Zionism should be retired. (Ha’aretz)

After 115 years, it’s time for Zionism to retire

The national liberation movement’s time came and went. Now we have a state. Neither good citizenship nor misdeeds have anything to do with Zionism anymore.

[…]

Zionism’s way has been lost to us. That was inevitable, because it has completed its task. Once the State of Israel arose and became a national home nearly at the retirement age of the movement that engendered it, once it became established, strong and powerful, and brutal and impervious, its flag should have been folded, stored in the repositories of history as a souvenir, and Zionism should no longer have its name taken in vain. The old order of Zionism is over and the campaign over the character and appearance of the state should begin, as happens in every healthy state.

[…]

Read the whole thing on Ha’aretz.com »

( Original Hebrew » )

 

A modest proposal: debate arguments, not motives

Accusing the other side in a debate of a hidden agenda never gets us anywhere.  So let’s just not.

In the Israel/Palestine debate, there’s a trap that both sides fall into, repeatedly – and I’m no exception – which makes it more of a mud-slinging event than a discussion.  In a nutshell, the trap is claiming the other side has a hidden agenda.

I propose we all try to avoid this trap, for everyone’s sake.  To make that possible, let’s take a quick look at what it is, and how to avoid it. Continue reading A modest proposal: debate arguments, not motives

Anti-Germans as anti-Semites

United for global change!

I just got back from Leipzig’s #globalchange festival/demonstration. At one point, I noticed two guys holding up an Israeli flag, and went over to ask what that’s about. It was the only national flag present and I wasn’t sure what it was doing there. “We’re here to provoke,” said one of the guys. “This demonstration is structurally anti-Semitic.” The idea, of course, is that a demonstration with anti-elite, anti-banker sentiment is anti-Semitic, whether the demonstrators know it or not. I tried to argue against this odd rhetoric, but he quickly said he doesn’t want to discuss it.

These counter-demonstrators are, I gather, anti-Germans. This is a movement considered to be left-wing and anti-fascistic, with a commitment to unconditional solidarity with Israel. The paradox of the “provocation” I witnessed is that this was the only mention of the “banking=Jews” stereotype I could detect in today’s demonstration, or indeed in all of the Real Democracy Now activities that led up to it in the past half year. It seems to me like the anti-Germans were the only ones bringing anti-Semitism into the demonstration. It annoys me to no end that they weren’t open to discussion, and this post is my attempt to say what I would have told them if they were willing to listen.

I recently read a pamphlet titled “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere”, a fascinating guide to understanding and combatting anti-Semitism targeted at social change activists. It can be found online [PDF] and I highly recommend reading it, especially if you are involved in any kind of movement for social change. It makes the crucial point that anti-Semitism is:

“a divide-and-rule strategy that has served to maintain ruling classes, conceal who actually has power, and confuse us about the real systems of oppression that pit us against one another.”
(Chris Crass, Quoted on a now-defunct website hosting the pamphlet.)

Historically, rulers and ruling elites have used anti-Jewish sentiments to deflect the anger of the oppressed masses towards a relatively powerless group (Jews). In a way, it comes down to rulers explicitly or implicitly fostering the belief that the Jews, not the rulers themselves, are the problem.

What those anti-Germans were trying to do today was the same in reverse – delegitimizing an expression of legitimate grievance against the ruling class by claiming it’s an illegitimate expression of intolerance against Jews. This makes me pretty angry, I have to say. If I had detected any anti-Semitic sentiment or rhetoric from the demonstrators, I would go berserk. But I felt very comfortable at the demonstration, felt it was a matter of global solidarity, explicitly inclusive to me (with my irrelevant Jewish background) and to anyone else. The first thing that made me uncomfortable there was the anti-Germans with that big Israeli flag. How dare they insinuate that the German banking system is controlled by Jews? Where the heck did they get that idea?

You know what, I don’t actually know the names and backgrounds of any major German bankers. And I don’t need to. We were demonstrating against the absurd situation in which Europe and the world are in crisis yet the number of millionaires in Germany has only increased. We were demonstrating because we’re told things are going to get hard and we have to live in fear of economic collapse while those who were involved in creating this mess have nothing to fear and they continue to control much more wealth than the rest of us. Even if it so happened that 99% of German bank owners are Jewish, this wouldn’t have been an anti-Semitic demonstration.

Speaking out against someone who happens to be a Jew is not anti-Semitism. Speaking out against “the Jews” or attacking someone because they’re a Jew is anti-Semitism. Is those anti-Germans’ approach supposed to somehow protect Germany from a resurgence of anti-Semitism? Seems to me like at the very least, it muddies the waters and creates confusion about what is or isn’t anti-Semitic, making it easier for real intolerance to fly in under the radar. Even worse, it can actually re-enforce anti-Semitism by suggesting that speaking out against the powers that be is speaking out against Jews – supporting the false equation that “(the) Jews” are responsible for the power structures we live within.

There. I think I got it out of my system now. Has anyone else encountered similar situations, where people meaning to fight intolerance end up implicitly encouraging it?

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Guest post: Give freedom a chance (Mattan Mamane)

As part of my trying to figure out the whole economics thing, I’ll be asking some friends (of different ideological persuasions) to guest-post on the subject, and I’ll try to follow up with some kind of thoughtful response that doesn’t reveal quite how little I know about these things. First up is Mattan Mamane (who has a new blog in Hebrew), whom some may call a libertarian. Your thoughtful responses are most welcome, of course.

While writing this guest post, I tried to summarize for myself what stood behind my political ideology, what holds it all together. It wasn’t hard to come to the conclusion that the single foundation for almost everything I believe in is my freedom. Living through my own resolve and conviction is the thing I hold dearest and is actually the only thing I care about in the political field.  As long as I don’t cause harm to others, no one should care who I have sex with or how, no one should be able to control what I think or read – as no one makes better choices for me than myself. This is the liberal creed, and I believe most people today agree with it, most political beliefs just claim different ways to achieve this. We all realize, though, that freedom can fail; one’s freedom may conflict with another, and most of us agree that some safeguards are needed for everyone to receive the most freedom. Some of us think freedom fails at more places (for example, some will argue that saying certain words hurts people or causes people to hurt other people, depriving them of their freedom) and as a result support more control over people and actions (like taking away someone’s freedom of speech). Others are more permissive and agree to give freedom more of the benefit of the doubt: they first see where freedom fails, and only then see where we should limit it. Today, most people associate the right with the former, as they’re more skeptical towards where freedom works and think a more organized society is better suited to give everyone the most of their freedom, while the left is associated with the latter.

Socialism is seen by many on the left today to be inspiring as a way to achieve better personal freedom and liberty.  Socialist ideas first began appearing around the 18th century in reaction to “liberal” thinkers of the French Revolution. Early socialist thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon argued for a controlled society to combat the destructive ideas of the revolutionary “Liberals”, but instead of an aristocratically ruled society he argued for a meritocratic rule. Before the Second World War, Socialism was adopted by the liberal-minded in countries such as England and Germany, who contended that a more organized economy will result in more liberty, with parties such as Labour suggesting reformist adaptation of Socialism, in contrast to the revolutionist adaptation that occurred in Russia.

There is something alluring about a Socialist economy: with so many people acting against each other as they please for no clear goal, how much must go to waste! How much more efficient and productive could we be if we organized the economy under one central plan for the benefit of all of us?

But I would like to refute the claim that Socialism leads to more personal liberty. Actually, I would even go further to suggest that Socialism in its very essence must lead to an authoritarian society.

An economy is always changing; it depends on many factors. It’s the combined preferences, needs and wants of millions of people and their ways of interaction. A planned economy must always look all around in order to receive these inputs and output appropriate measures. The problem is that there is no “right” plan to direct the economy; each field will probably see its own plan as the best – I’m sure the scientists would love to see the bulk of the money going toward scientific achievement, but how much should be given to the farmers, who argue that the bulk of the money should go to them, as they produce the food? Each member of the society has his own plan that is based on his own skills, needs and wants.

It’s clear no democratic institution could establish such a plan by voting, it would take years and by the time any choice is made the economy would crumble through lack of action – so they must outsource the economy to “committees” and “experts”. Like a military operation, leading an economy requires efficiency, quick action and quick decisions – privileges only available to someone who is not under the restrictions of democracy. Each person must have his plan overridden by the central planner. This is the reason every Communist and Socialist regime fell into authoritarian rule: a centrally planned economy is the enemy of liberty and freedom, and history has proven this again and again.

Of course I realize that today most people, even the ones on the further reaches of the left, do not want a Socialist republic or a Communist rule; all talk of economics today stays within the realms of a liberal economy. We are all capitalists: we all agree that where the market works, it should remain, because we realize that free enterprise is a necessity for our freedom and that the free market, where it works, is the only moral way for people to interact in their skills, abilities, time, needs and wants.

But some people are more skeptical of economic freedom, and thus are usually more easily persuaded into giving up this freedom to the controlled alternative: such features of planned economies like welfare, nationalization of companies or assets, etc. I find it curious that they seem to see fighting against privatization and the free market, and for welfare and regulations as the means in themselves. Shouldn’t we let freedom work? We should see how permissive we can get, how much we can let people run their own life – and then see where and if it fails and how can we fix it in the least disruptive way.

Regulations, welfare, nationalization and such are tools to be used where freedom fails, they are used when we must control people for what we assume is the benefit of all of us. This should be the very last resort, the extreme alternative – like taking someone’s freedom of speech.

I think we should always look for the option that involves more freedom and more liberty, and I always try to give freedom the benefit of the doubt as much as I can. Whenever I’m dealing with a problem – like Israel’s housing prices, so high that they resulted in mass demonstration across the country – I try and look for the way to fix it that involves the most freedom, only when I can’t find it I consider the alternatives.

I will leave with a plea: Please, try and give freedom the benefit of the doubt.

Money, politics, and the ideologies I’ve gone through

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about economics. Now, with tent camp protests across Israel and a 40,000-person march over the price of housing just a few days past, I find myself getting involved in discussions of free market vs. socialism on a very concrete level, and I’m guessing there will only be more of these. I’d like to tell you a little about the different positions I’ve held on these matters, and to try to figure out where I stand now. I haven’t read all that much, I could be much more knowledgeable than I am, and wish I were, but somehow I’ve managed to go through quite a lot of ideologies since middle school.

The first time I recall taking a stance on free market vs. socialism was in the eighth grade, when I made friends with a ninth-grader who was in the Israeli Communist Youth Alliance. I went to their meetings for a while and remember arguing for the ideal of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, which seemed like a very nice idea. Then at some point I had an epiphany that in practice, this would require going against human nature, as it takes away the fruit of people’s labor.

I don’t really know what my point of view was after that happend; these matters probably weren’t very central to me at the time, but I just don’t really remember. I do remember that I started getting a more libertarian perspective as I got involved with democratic education. I suppose I could have been described as a left libertarian, but I thought of myself as a social democrat.

Then, at eighteen, I read a book arguing for libertarianism, and became a libertarian. And a few months later, I read a couple of texts leaning towards anarchism, in particular T. A. Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, and became a sort of anarchist. Very quickly, however, I acknowledged the limited applicability of anarchism in the reality around us today, and became what might be called a realistic anarchist, which is basically someone who is an anarchist at heart but doesn’t do much about it.

That must have been the point where I stopped paying attention to the economic side of things, which is unfortunate because it was also the time when I was probably first able to grasp the way that side of things works. I quickly slid into a kind of apathetic agnosticism about the whole thing, no longer calling myself an anarchist. I always stayed committed to personal freedom when it came to opinion and behavior, but for years now I have been unable to truly pick a side on the free market vs. socialism debate. I do believe that free-market capitalism is a highly effective and “smart” method of allocating resources. But there are two principal problems: that we never start with a flat playing-field, and that money brings along political influence.

It’s worth noting that every single socio-economical or political ideology seems to commit itself to some kind of idealized concept of the citizenry. Libertarianism assumes people are empowered, independent, and generally rational. Capitalism tends to assume the same. Communism assumes the people are committed to the joint effort. I think each of these systems does work well when the assumption is met. It’s just very unusual that it is.

In the case of free-market capitalism, I can imagine it being quite perfect if the playing-field were flat; if everyone were more-or-less equally rich, equally empowered, equally able to make an informed decision, obviously there would be no need for a welfare state. Everyone would be free to do what they want, with money just as with anything else. Nobody would have to be a loser. But this is an imaginary scenario we are never likely to encounter in real life.

When you combine this with the second problem, you have a real problem for libertarianism or free-market capitalism. In every present or past polity I can think of, money has been able to influence politics.

Sticking just to democracies for now, the influence of money on politics seems almost inevitable. Donations are only the most obvious part. The media is a more tricky aspect – those with big money can directly influence public opinion, and there’s no reason to expect this would always be done in an equal and balanced way, under any system. The result is quite simply that my opinion is less influential than that of a multi-millionaire, because my opinion can only reach people I know and people who read my blog, but I cannot easily get it into print media, onto large mainstream websites, or onto physical advertising of any kind. (Yes, I could afford a small print ad, but nothing major that’s likely to reach a whole lot of people, and not in a sustained campaign of any sort.)

So since we start with a tilted playing-field, our free-market economy ensures that the democracy is tilted towards those who start off with more resources. It seems to me that while laws might limit the tilt to a degree, they cannot eliminate it. Money is needed for effective political action, so political interests with moneyed supporters inevitably have an edge on the competition.

That’s more or less where my thoughts are now. I hate the idea of limiting people’s right to do what they want with what they work for and what they own, but I hate even more the idea of politics helping those who need help least urgently. Moreover, any system that creates and maintains social classes full of people who are essentially condemned to be losers is not the kind of system I want to be in.1 And when we look at Israel, we see a place where there are remarkably many people who are extremely rich, but far more people who are incredibly poor. And public policy does not seem to be able to alleviate their hardship, nor even make a reasonable standard of living and independence accessible for middle-class twenty-somethings.

Like it or not, the government is deeply involved in directing the flow of money in Israeli society, as in most if not all modern democracies. Whether or not this is ideal, it seems clear to me that we should be demanding that the government tilt the economy towards those who need most help, not those who need the least. In recent years, especially under Netanyahu, it seems to be doing its best to allow the rich to get yet richer, while the poor grow poorer and more numerous. (And those who think the income gap is only a problem for the poor, maybe inform yourself about effects it has on crime rates and the spread of epidemics.)

Footnotes

  1. Before someone comes and tells me that even the poor can work their way out of poverty, let me preempt: yes, individually they can, but in practice being born into poverty makes it very likely you will never feel you have the power to change the situation you live in for the better. You will also likely have neither the connections, nor the education or the background to climb the social ladder. While some individuals do manage to do it, it’s quite telling that those born into poverty tend to stay in it, and this tells me it’s a systemic problem, not the individuals’ own fault. []

Give democracy time, and it will deliver

 

The first of many extra-plenary discussions (July 4)

Democracy can be excruciating. It takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of discussion. A lot of repetitive discussion, as you have to convince a majority of your point of view. But democracy can deliver.

A strong reminder came at EUDEC’s Assembly meetings, three weeks ago, right before and during the IDEC@EUDEC conference. The difficult, divisive issue was, as always, membership: who’s in, and who’s out. This particular story starts a year earlier, at the previous meeting of Assembly, in Roskilde, Denmark.

In Roskilde, Assembly decided, based on my proposal, that in order for a school to become a full member of EUDEC, it would have to declare that it is a democratic school (under EUDEC’s definition) and intends to stay one. This decision was made at the very end of the very last plenary, when everyone was exhausted and very few people were really paying attention. Many people were confused and angry about the decision afterwards. But the decision also established a committee to discuss membership issues and work towards a comprehensive solution.

The committee was less active than I had hoped, but eventually the discussions started there brought me to make a new proposal. For this year, I proposed to get rid of the Roskilde restriction, and even open up school membership more, while adding tools for (self-)evaluation and transparency regarding how each member school works.

I thought the proposal would be an easy sell – boy, was I wrong! Membership discussions bring out a lot of emotions, and they very quickly come down to discussions about the core vision of the organization; as a democratic organization, EUDEC’s nature and course of action depend quite directly on the makeup of its membership.

By the second day of discussions, there appeared to be two separate camps, for and against our proposal. Each side talked amongst itself more than with the other side. When the sides met, the debate was heated and people came away feeling sick. At some point there was an (Extended) Council meeting in which we talked about it, and some of us were in tears, others close to it. A few of us who had been involved since founding EUDEC – myself included – had a sense of doom; it seemed our organization was about to splinter, sputter and die. The difficulties seemed truly insurmountable.

But then, maybe an hour or two after that meeting, everything changed. Some of us had talked with “the other side” in the café and came out feeling our differences were minor, both in principal and in practice. It was as if we were standing on a cliff, about to fall, only to be suddenly yanked back onto solid ground. That feeling opened us up – all of us, on both sides, I think – to what other people were saying. And then my friend Or Levi came by and took advantage of my openness to tell me that we’re all being idiots (loudly, but in Hebrew). As has become typical in our friendship, he came at me with criticism that at first seemed ignorant, insensitive, and arrogant, but quickly turned out to be useful in that it questioned things I took for granted.

New ideas came up that evening, ideas that it was too late at that point to introduce into the debate. But that evening calmed everyone down and left us with the knowledge that we’re in this together and everyone is determined to resolve the differences and find the right way to go. It also taught us (or me, at least) that given enough time, new solutions may come up that weren’t even on anybody’s mind. Many were now content with finding a compromise we can live with for a while and continuing to look for the best solution.

The truly amazing thing happened during the next session of Assembly. By the time we got to finally voting on the membership proposals, there were some six or seven different proposals on the table, some divided into 3, 4, 5 sub-proposals. We voted, and voted, and voted, and voted, well into lunch-time. Due to the system we use, members of the Assembly were instructed to vote on each sub-proposal independently of all others; that is, the question was only if that part is something you’re in favor of, regardless of whether or not other parts you want together with it should pass.

As the voting went on, an odd pattern emerged – Assembly passed no more than one sub-proposal of any proposal. We ended up with six different bits and pieces, not all of which were intended to work together, few of which were intended to work alone. Council took the day to check if there was any contradiction between them, but when we left the meeting, everyone – both sides – seemed okay. Nobody left in anger or tears. Nobody said they’d leave the organization (as some had threatened to do). And when Council went over the decisions, it found no contradiction whatsoever. The full package of decisions had to be ratified in the next plenary, and it was carried unanimously.

Give democracy time and attention, and it will deliver.

Photo by Monika Wernz.

 

One more thing: Or is working on spiffing up EUDEC’s semi-official YouTube channel, EUDECmovies. Subscribe now, there’s going to be a lot of material from the conference over there pretty soon!