A dozen or so islanders got out of the rain on Sunday, April 22 to meet in the hall of St. Mary's Church (Castleton & Forest.) The banner in the room said simply "COMMUNITY DEMOCRACY," and that was what was discussed, in a very lively way, for nearly three hours - well over the advertised time.
The meeting was structured in a very open and democratic way. There was a table at the head of the room, but none of the usual rows of chairs facing the front. Instead there were four folding tables set up for discussion groups. No "being recognized by the chair" either. In fact, after a short introduction on the origin of democracy in Greece, and an exercise in choosing topics, the table at the front was abandoned, and everyone joined in the discussions of chosen topics at the four tables.
I came to the meeting primarily to provide music (Curtis Mayfield's People, Get Ready) but was very glad I stayed to take part in the discussion. My table focused mainly on dealing with the difficulty of doing anything effective at all in the current context. Some of the observations that stayed with me:
- We haven't really had a democracy in the U.S. for some time. It's a plutocracy - the rich control almost everything.
- The truly ignorant people aren't the ones who don't have immediate answers to every question, but the ones who believe (and even announce) that they have answers will fix everything.
- Workable solutions come mainly from small groups. One of the reason why Vermont Senators are more answerable to their constituents, for example, is that there are fewer of them in the state, so that there's more access.
- It's become more and more difficult to get people involved at all. (Have to wonder: would democracy have ever evolved if the ancient Greeks had TV?)
- Political power no longer depends merely on owning the means of production (the classical Marxist analysis.) Today, the powerful also own the means of communication. In order to get more democratic power relationships, we must now first find effective ways of making the political conversation more democratic. (There is a lot of democratic communication on the internet, but the mainstream media still exert tremendous control over elections.)
- See Benjamin Franklin's "junto" club for an early and very successful example of this kind of workable democratic effort. Today, technology is a big part of such efforts. E.g., this web site. But direct personal contact through meetings like this one will always be important.
- A big part of the problem is that in our culture, political discussion has devolved to a phony game of politicians as having all the answers. Political "leaders" sling so much of this kind of BS that no one with an ounce of common sense takes anything they say at face value, and everyone, including the media, spends most of their time poking holes in each others' pretense.
- Effective attempts to create a more realistic and workable democracy would start from a more honest, genuine place where the first step is admitting to each other that we're in a very confusing if not entirely hopeless mess, and trying to create an atmosphere where we can have honest and realistic discussions about it and maybe come up with some good ideas.
Editor's note: This article was written by Billy Pilgrim and originally posted to OSI's newly created Staten Island General Assembly website, where you can browse existing blogs and sign up to post your own blog entries, community events, and more.