Making Democracy to Work

I have enjoyed the luxury to travel to many places in the world. While not an expert on any of the places, I always try to appreciate the similarities and the differences in each place that I have visited. My natural curiosity has opened up an understanding of human nature that really does make us more alike than many individual often imagine. One of the similarities though is the human capacity to seek personal gain at the expense of another. Around the world people understand the concept of fairness; they want it applied to them by others through out their daily lives. Unfortunately, it is far too rare that individuals acknowledge their own capacity for unfairness.

This feeling will forever be embodied in my memory of a dinner one night in Bremen, a lovely city in northwest Germany. At this particular dinner in the early 90’s, Fredric, the name I will use for my host that evening, and I discussed the unification of East Germany and West Germany. What struck me during the conversation, and has been with me every sense, was the relevance of the conversation to the United States. For all the adjectives and analogies I heard that evening describing the East Germans; their habits; their work ethic; their values; their commitment to learning the new ways of getting things done, there was a sense of déjà vu. I had heard all of this before with Blacks in the US. Change the nouns and the rest remains the same. The similarity was quite surreal.

The lesson confirmed on that night, is an eerily consistent one: When it comes to negative stereotypes and biases, both sides know the same script, the master script – one that transcends culture and ethnicity in its depiction of success and failure in obtaining scarce resources. During this same period of the early 90’s I found myself again confirming this notion inside a car driving on my way to Sandusky in Ohio. There were four of us in the car two Americans, and two Australians. We discussed evolution of race relations from childhood to adulthood. One of the Australians, Steve I will call him, asked my perspective on what he felt was a common Australian reality. As kids’ white and aboriginal children generally have a positive relationship, the play with each other, they enjoy each other’s company. Yet somewhere along the way as adults the relationships fall apart, distrust broadens, and race relations generally turn to the worse.

The consensus in the car that evening was that the teenage years, wrought with the natural changes of hormones and the entry into adult hood, bring to individuals their first serious brushes with powerful forces such as rejection, failure, broken hearts, love, and responsibility for others. When we combine the need to address these forces with poor coping skills at this age, we set the scene for people to achieve self-esteem through the derogation of others. The derogation of others is the precursor to so many horrible human actions. Following the derogation of others is the rationalization of personal accomplishments as hard work and opportunism, and the shortfalls of others as lazy, unresourceful free loaders who want something for nothing. Not the type of people any of us want for friends. As an economy worsens, more and more people feel worse as they face the reality and uncertainty of meeting their family unit’s needs. As despair rises, the value of outsiders falls. In desperate times (as history throughout the world confirms repeatedly) humans treat those they despise horribly.

There is hope for human beings. On the one hand, growing economies do facilitate the development of individual self-esteem. In this sense, the supporters of the World Trade Organization, have the fundamentals correct: addressing poverty through greater economic distribution addresses many of humanity’s ills. However, economic growth and global integration are insufficient on their own. What is needed in addition to economic growth is the comprehension of how people in subordinate and dominate positions interact in a society.

The book “A Male/Female Continuum: Paths to Colleagueship” by Carol Pierce and Bill Page applies a model of subordinate/dominate relationships in describing how people can move to colleagueship. While their book focuses on male female as the example of dominant/subordinate relationships, the model has much broader implications. The important lessons for me concerns what are the requirements for the subordinate/dominate relationship to move in a more respectful direction. Only through more respect can humanity expect to lessen the potential for individuals to degrade others and act out on the derogation of others. For me there are three requirements at the core of establishing governance systems in the context of subordinate/dominant relationships:

  1. the people in the subordinate position must initiate changes in the relationship
  2. the people in the subordinate position must have a sense of security for their well-being (addressing the basic human needs of food, shelter, protection)
  3. The people who are out numbered (whether they are dominate or subordinate in the relationship) must believe there is an avenue to have their voice heard, and initiate change in the governing systems.

The context of the civil rights movement for Blacks in the United States brings these requirements to life.

Subordinate people initiate change – Blacks, the subordinate members of US society, initiated the demand for more civil rights in the 1950’s. The country had instituted the core laws in the 1870’s and had settled into an existence in the seventy or so years after American civil war. Until Blacks themselves had enough fortitude (see next requirement) to demand a different interpretation of the laws of the land, to gather the allies and persuade change the members of the society in dominate roles saw no reason to change and were able to resist calls for change from other members of the white population.

Subordinate people have sense of security – The sense of security for Blacks manifested itself in the ability of a broad base of people to preserve their basic well-being while smaller but significant segments fought the key fights. One important segment was the sizable number of college students who lead the movements, marches, sit-ins and other actions. College students were perfectly positioned because they provided cover for those who worked (parents and others) thus allowing money and infrastructure for the movement. For example, throughout the Montgomery bus boycotts, dominate society members detested the protest, and harassed participants by stopping cars with groups of people or jailing drivers of unlicensed taxis but they never took away work for the mass of blacks who paid the drivers, or helped those who sacrificed by walking. This in effect strengthened the perception that the protest could achieve results without too high a cost. Other important institutions providing a sense of security were the federal troops brought into contentious states and young white students who ensured news coverage, and federal troops where there to stay.

Minority people have trust in an avenue of change for the governing system – Blacks the minority and subordinates in the US had to have faith that change could happen from within the governing system. Legal wins by the NAACP, prior to the civil rights movement certainly played a critical role in establishing in the minds of the “elite” blacks that the governing system could be used to the advantage of the masses. Many people (Black Panthers, Malcolm X and others) advocated an approach to earn respect through physical force yet the majority of people sided with peaceful protest as the best mechanism for success. This phenomenon is only conceivable because of the inherent belief that the voices would be heard and change could be achieved.

When I compare the three core requirements with today’s reality in Iraq, I feel sad for the people caught in the middle

Subordinate people initiate change – The subordinate people (the Kurds and Shiite) of the former Iraq initiated the change through their appeals to outside governments, because they had no faith of change through the existing regime. Conspiracy theorist will debate for years whether the “intelligence flaws” in the US were really of goading of an administration by subordinate people who saw no other route to personal success.

Subordinate people have sense of security – After the Iraq-Kuwait, war and the intervention by the US enforced a no-fly zone inside Iraq borders. Positioned after the defeat of the Iraqi army, the defacto interpretation was protection for the subordinate populations. In this sense, Saddam was a dictator without full military control of the land. With this security sense addressed, the Shiite and Kurdish populations were free to encourage their demands in external governments while sustaining normalcy of day-to-day life.

Minority people have trust in an avenue of change for the governing system – Within the borders of Iraq, the Sunnis are the minority in number and in my assessment have no faith that their voice will be heard. This is the most troublesome aspect of the Bush Administration policy and the situation today. For the first 6 years of the Bush presidency, they behaved as if “we won the vote, now do what we tell you; majority rules” was the privilege of an election win. The premature enthusiasm to the mere presence of 12 million Iraqi people voting explains the administration mindset all too clearly: Democracy is in place, majority rules. Sadly, the world is watching the reality unfold. Without a faith in the governing system by the Sunni minority population one of three outcomes seem apparent

  1. forced control, another dictatorship;
  2. split borders after ethnic cleansing; or
  3. periods of civil war interspersed with killings, discrimination and regime changes on a frequent basis.

There are historic examples of each of these three playing out in history. What we do not have in history, is an example of the Bush Administration vision, peaceful country, friendly to US interest, democratically elected government, in a land of diverse ethnic groups built on religious tensions.

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