More than disagreement

About forty minutes ago, I was sitting in DKIT’s canteen with my son, Jonathan, discussing an urgent issue – we meet there when we have to talk during his school’s lunch, as his school is adjacent to the campus. We were interrupted by a chap in a suit who offered me a pamphlet, one of the politicians running for the upcoming elections. I took it, glanced at it, then handed it back: “Sorry, I will never vote for you. I’m pro choice.” I thought I was matter-of-fact but not rude. This sadly was a short-lived state of affairs.

“Ah,” he replied, “yes, I believe in the sanctity of all life.” He half leaned over me to hand the pamphlet to my son. “Can I give one to you then?”

That’s where I kind of lost it. “No, you can’t, that’s my son, you can go away and leave us alone.”

“There now,” he said, “we may disagree but we can do so without mumble mumble (it was noisy, I missed his exact words).” He squeezed my upper arm as he left. (Really? I made it abundantly clear to you that I don’t like you, and you go and clutch my arm?)

So I sat there, battling to get my concentration back to the discussion my son and I were having, but I was shaking with anger. We don’t merely disagree, Mr Mullen. You view me as an inferior human being. To your mind, my rights are conditional. If I were to fall pregnant, my body, mind, organs, all become things over which others decide. A potential human being is more important to you than a human being who has lived, loved, built relationships, who carries responsibilities and on whom others rely. Over and above denying women the right to choose when they are ready to give birth, you also inflict the most unspeakable cruelty on heartbroken parents who have to end a much wanted pregnancy for medical reasons.

Frankly, Mr Mullen, fuck you. We “disagree” the way a neo-nazi and a Jew disagree. I have no obligation to be anything but rude to an arsehole who views me as inferior. You disgust me, the pain and sorrow you and your kind inflict on others should see you in hell, and what you experienced today was my version of being nice to someone as disgusting as you. Gods help us all if you do get elected. I’d be ashamed to have you represent my country.

Are we teaching our politicians not to listen?

One of the most fascinating books I’ve read is Sue Gerhardt’s The Selfish Society. The last few days, with political scandal on the front pages here, I’ve thought again of her description of politicians and their behaviour – a must-read, really. Yet another thought struck me:

We don’t hold back one inch when it comes to vilifying and condemning those who hold political office. I for one certainly don’t make any effort to consider their feelings when making comments about them in public, even though those politicians I’ve met in real life have been very decent people. Now, no human being can continuously absorb negative feedback about themselves. It’s a natural defence mechanism to, at some point, shut out those spewing mud at you. At some stage, if people keep throwing poop in your direction, you’re going to turn around and lock yourself away somewhere safe.

Should we be surprised then when we have a constant problem of politicians, especially those at the top, closing ranks and forming veritable echo-chambers, surrounding themselves only with those who agree with them? What would happen if those who disagreed were not no-holds-barred, vicious critics, but people you trust and with whom you can have honest, civil discourse? Would you want to discuss matters in a constructive way if you knew everyone around you was just waiting to pounce on any word which could possibly be twisted to make you look bad?

I just wonder if we don’t in this aspect again get the situation we deserve.

A different kind of democracy

Recently, I was quite impressed with the opinions Russell Brand expressed in an interview with Jeremy Paxman. Many people are ripping into him for the views he aired, and this is as it should be (though some criticise him because they find his manner irritating, and to those I say: grow up and say something about the thoughts, not the man). One great criticism levelled against him, is his encouragement to people to not vote. I at first agreed with him, because to my mind any election is an exercise in getting people to choose between either a mud pie or a mud sandwich for lunch. Choosing either is a kind of agreement to eating mud, so surely the right choice is to refuse both.

I’ve in the meantime come to other conclusions – we should go vote, but spoil our votes as an expression of our dissatisfaction with the choices we’re given. Yet there is much criticism directed at Brand over only highlighting problems, not offering solutions. I would argue that someone like Brand should do no more, he is an entertainer and as such (in my opinion) it is his duty to highlight things we should think about. In the meantime, I’ve wondered what my ideal government should look like. Am I a communist? A socialist? I don’t even have a proper understanding of all the -ists. Even so, I do have some thoughts, as an ordinary citizen with real concerns, over how I can be better represented in government.

We live in a world where advertising has evolved from an activity primarily aimed at spreading information, to one of manipulating people into buying things they probaby don’t need. Psychology has become a hard science, which will probably in the near future become a subdivision of neurology, and has found that people’s views can be manipulated in the most extraordinary ways. Yet our political systems are still fuelled by a method of gathering opinions which was invented two thousand years ago, and which became popular two hundred or so years ago. The world this system was designed for had limitations our modern reality laughs at, and challenges dwarfed by the societal needs we must cater for today.

So here’s a random thought (okay, not so random, it’s been brewing in my mind for a good while now): why not adapt democracy to the realities of today?

Why not give up on elections as we know them? It’s a fecking farce anyway, because politicians promise anything they have to for that coveted power seat, then basically do what they like once they have the fat salary and lifelong prestige. Either that, or they come into power with big ideas only to find that in practice, they are powerless to execute them. Or they realise in practice, executing their big ideas will cost them the next election, and in politics these days it certainly seems that the long-term wellbeing of a country is a very distant last on the list of politicians’ priorities, with winning the next election at the top. It’s also a process wide open to mass manipulation.

Why not gather individual opinions on the quality of various services and aspects of daily life? With modern technology, it is totally possible to continuously poll all citizens to get an idea of their experience of specific issues, to ascertain if their needs are being met. Why not base promotion through the ranks on performance rather than how white your teeth are and how convincingly you can lie?

Why not shape policy according to the massive body of research which gives us a pretty good idea of what makes us happy? For instance, why not look at the fact that everyone is worse off the bigger the rich/poor gap is, and limit top earnings to a multiple of the average, mandating investment into infrastructure with whatever you earn over that limit? Why not say that health should not be a commodity, it should be a right, and institute a mandatory state-run health insurance which consists of a contribution based on a percentage of your income (with minimum incomes exempt)? Why not make this universal health insurance comprehensive, so that nobody ever has to die or suffer because they can’t afford medical care? Why not look at the insane way hospitals are run at the moment and CHANGE THINGS because my god, surely lives are more important than money?

Why not? Because this would not suit those who are in power. Rich, privileged folk so far removed from reality they wouldn’t know it if it bit them in the arse would much rather keep passing the baton to and fro than ever turning to the audience and considering a system which would truly benefit the majority.

In the past, such radical change has always demanded bloody revolutions and uprisings. Why not change that, too, and find a way to restructure government without violence, without bloodshed, without death?

Why not?

Have things changed that much?

I wouldn’t want to live in the middle ages. As much as readers of romance novels might think the days of knights and royalty were amazing, I think modern life is better in many ways. I wouldn’t even like to have been born a hundred years ago. Life has changed for the better for many people, maybe even most people, since the end of World War 2. Even so, I wonder how much has really changed in the broad structures of society.

We might have adopted democracy as a ruling system instead of monarchies, but power is still inherited, with those not born into money extremely unlikely to ever rise above their beginnings. Elected leaders also seem to be powerless, toothless. Financial giants now call the shots, certainly in Europe and the USA. Those are the real rulers of the world: a small, powerful elite which most certainly don’t have the greater good in mind. The recent scandal of the Anglo tapes shows that bankers called the shots and laughed at the government, screwing Ireland over and walking away with enough money to keep a small town salaried at the average wage for decades. More, they either kept their jobs with the associated staggering salaries, or were given other, equally or more lucrative positions.

Industry still exploits those who work for them, and not only those in countries we perceive as distant geographically as well as culturally. Supermarkets often use “temporary” staff to avoid giving people the benefits due to them, and to keep employees on a short leash, with zero job security. This has been shown to be the case with WalMart in the USA, land of the free (that is one of the biggest jokes I have ever heard, I can never help but chuckle when people call it that). I know from back when I operated a till at Hypermarket in South Africa in 1990 that it was true then, in that country, and I know some supermarkets in Ireland do the same. That is one example, in one industry: there are many more, in many different areas.

Nations waged war with the fodder generals threw at each other paying the price for diplomatic squabbles often manufactured or important only to people living to all intents on a different planet from those dying for their causes. You need only look at the death toll from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to see this is still true. For those who automatically think of soldiers killed or maimed – tragedies, no doubt – I would also like to point out that Afghani and Iraqui people have paid a far heavier price in lives, sometimes being murdered with impunity.

Strong nations did more or less as they pleased, shrugging off the suffering of innocents as an unavoidable price for… um… that important thing, you know the one. You saw this clearly in the concentration camps of the Boer War. The same thing is evident in the USA’s handling of the Bradley Manning affair, Guantanamo Bay, and the most recent flabbergasting incident with the president of Bolivia.

Heroes were punished, people of conscience persecuted for doing what was right. And you had empires which called the shots, paid lip service to proper conduct but did what they liked in reality, with little if any consequence. Again, the situation with Edward Snowden comes to mind. His revelations reveal just how little the USA and UK walk the talk, the way he is being persecuted puts an underline and exclamation point to them.

So tell me, have things really changed that much? I’m not sure they have.